Thursday, July 18, 2013

Farewell, Kyrgyzstan

July 12, 2013

It was my last day in Bishkek and I decided it was time for some kind of reflection on the successes and travails my ten-month fellowship had brought me. I thought of a way I could list the positive and the negative aspects and Dave Letterman’s list of the “Top Ten Things” came to my mind.

So, I’ll start with the top ten things I’ll miss about Bishkek.

1.   The imposing views of the mountains
2.   The leafy streets and tree-lined promenades running for miles
3.   The ability to walk practically everywhere
4.   The fact that one can find almost anything needed within a block or two of one’s apartment
5.   The profusion of coffee houses and the fact that most of them offer some kind of outdoor sitting
6.   The inexpensive transportation system
7.   My very bright, airy and so well-positioned apartment
8.   The jungle-like courtyard in my apartment complex
9.   The freshly-baked flat bread, especially when baked with sesame seeds on top as the Uzbek people do
10.  Willoughby, Damira, Kate, Zarina and others who took the time to get to know me, and spent time showing me around the city

On the downside, here’s my list of the things I won’t miss at all:

1.   Encountering loogies (a large slimy glob of spit) on the steps to my building, the sidewalks and streets.
2.   Being unable to avoid the ever present smokers on the streets, restaurants, shops, and marshrutkas ad infinitum.
3.   Having to keep my eyes on the broken up sidewalks for fear of stumbling and falling.
4.   Feeling that as a pedestrian I’m worth as much as some mongrel dog and that Bishkek drivers actually enjoy trying to run me down even on the city’s sidewalks.
5.   Trying to maneuver the icy sidewalks and streets during the winter months.
6.   Running out of options at my most restaurants where meat reigns supreme and even a salad comes with meat in it.
7.   Having to ask for a knife at every restaurant.
8.   Repeatedly asking my server to make sure my latte is actually hot when it gets to my table.
9.   Finding out that my food has no seasonings of any kind, many times not even salt.
10.  Having to ask for coffee for breakfast when the hotel/guest house simply assumes all their guest will drink tea
As I wrote for final report for Georgetown University, I know I’ve grown professionally from all the different activities my position has required me to perform. I feel much more comfortable as a speaker addressing a large audience and know more intimately the challenges teachers here face when in the classroom.

Even when racism has reared its ugly head, I have been able to put aside my own feelings of frustration and rage to proceed with what was expected of me in a professional manner. I do not forgive those who engage in this practice, but have vowed to behave in a civil manner whenever possible.

Many people have asked me if I would want to return to Central Asia in any other capacity, perhaps as a college professor enjoying a pretty good salary here. I don’t believe so as the climate is quite harsh and the food simply not up to my standards. There were days when I simply didn’t want to cook and found very few options, if any, of places I wanted to go out to for a meal.

I found Kyrgyz people in general to be rather reticent about their lives. In the many months I was here, no one ever invited me to a family celebration except for Zarina’s wedding last October. Despite many promises of future invitations to dinners and summer homes, these invitations never materialized. I really feel that I didn’t get to know any of them really well.

The reverse side of that was that I also felt that they were not curious about me at all. While living in Tajikistan, people wanted to know everything about my life in the States and insisted on seeing photos of my house, my car, and my family. No one here has ever asked about my family photos.

I have to say that Kyrgyzstan is not a place I would ever consider returning to because I have left such great friends behind. End of story.

July 11

July 11, 2013

Sleeping late wasn’t an option on the big day. I got up as soon as light crept over the sky and then a feeling of emptiness overtook me when I contemplated the fact that I had no laptop to sit at or Internet access to keep in touch with anyone.

I made coffee for the last time and after drinking it, cleaned the coffeemaker since it’d be going to Willoughby that same day. I had set aside the suitcase that would be going to the Peace Corps office with most of my winter clothes and other things. Luann had given me a great idea for the remaining spices and staples on my cabinets as she’d suggested I put them in a bag and take them to the volunteers for them to choose whatever they wanted.

Willoughby showed up at noon and we proceeded to bring all the packages and the suitcase downstairs and then I went in search of a taxi driver. I saw a newish mini-van parked in front and got the driver to come around to the front of the building where we loaded the suitcase and bags immediately.

We made it to the Peace Corps offices where we dropped the suitcase in one place and the collection of book club books in another. Their resource room was definitely minuscule compared to what we used to have at the Peace Corps compound in Kathmandu.

The taxi driver had waited for us and then took us to Willoughby’s flat where I brought in the printer and the other bags before we went to the store to buy a beer and drink it in her kitchen. We agreed to meet at six to have dinner at the French restaurant Ratatouille which had been highly recommended.

Damira had called before to pinpoint the time I’d be returning home for she wanted to see me before my departure. She was downstairs waiting when I got in and we sat in the living room talking for a bit. She was observing Ramadan and thus turned down my offer for something to drink or eat. She even told me that hugging or kissing between sunrise and sunset was forbidden.

I had forgotten to charge my cell phone the day before and now found myself with no charger of any kind and only a bar or two. Damira offered to ask one of my neighbors for a charger since Nokia was such a popular brand in the country. She went out and returned with one letting me know I needed to return it to its rightful owner by 9:00 pm.

Damira said goodbye admonishing me one more time to find god in any religion of my choice. I tried to hug her, but she reminded me about Ramadan once again. I walked downstairs with her so she could pinpoint the apartment where I needed to return the charger and then bid her goodbye as her brother-in-law was giving her a ride home.

I took a quick shower, ironed one of my Tajik outfits and got ready for Willoughby’s arrival. We rode the #13 marshrutka and then walked three blocks to the restaurant which was located on the first floor of the Europa Hotel on a street I’d never walked on. We chose to sit out on the terrace facing the main drag.

Prices were outrageous and I wasn’t really hungry, so I settled for a portion of a salmon quiche and a green salad. Willoughby ordered roasted duck and mashed potatoes. Portions were minuscule and my quiche was evidently not something made locally, but had been heated in the microwave for too long. It had no flavor or seasonings of any kind, so I had to leave it on the side and only ate my salad. I paid over $10.00 for this privilege while watching lots of other ex-pats stroll in and out of the place.

We walked together to where Willoughby would catch her marshrutka and we hugged tightly as we said goodbye. I walked two more blocks and got into another one to take me home. I had arranged to have the same taxi driver pick me up at 10:00 pm to take me to the airport since Diana had arranged to pick up the key to the flat at that time instead of 11:00. I walked the flat from one end to another one more time making sure everything was clean, in its place and presentable.

At nine, I went downstairs to take the garbage out one last time and to return the charger to my neighbors, but no one answered the door. When I went back a second time, I found the neighbors still absent, but the taxi driver already parked at the door waiting for me.

I started to bring down my bags, which made quite a racket on the stairs, thus prompting the cleaning lady to come out of her flat to snoop on the matter. She came downstairs asking me questions about my landlady when she knew full well that I didn’t speak Russian and couldn’t answer any of them.

I waited for Diana from 10:00 to 10:30 pm and she didn’t show up. I couldn’t locate my cell phone and was thus unable to call her. I didn’t occur to me to have the taxi driver call me to see if I could hear my phone then. When half an hour elapsed and there was no sign of her, I gave the taxi driver the signal to leave and left the key with the cleaning woman along with the charger.

We were already on the highway to the airport when Diana called. I now realized my cell phone had been on the outside pocket of my handbag and I answered it to let her know that the key had been left with the woman in unit #29. Diana didn’t apologize for being late, on the contrary, she argued I had mentioned I wanted to leave for the airport as late as possible.

I countered by saying she had given me a specific time and I needed to arrange for a taxi to get me to the airport. She wanted to know where the money was for the utility bills was, which I had had at hand while waiting for her, about $35.00, but didn’t feel comfortable leaving the money with someone I didn’t know at all.

I told her I’d try to get a friend to get the money to her, but then realized Willoughby would be too busy with her own trip to take out time to deal with this issue. I’d have no way of reimbursing anybody else who could pay the debt for me either. After giving it some thought, I decided that I had fulfilled my side of the bargain and shouldn’t feel guilty if the landlady and her friend hadn’t done their part.

When I got to the airport, there was no one outside that could carry my bags for me. In fact, there was nobody around at all. The taxi driver was gracious enough to go and find me a cart and I had to pile the suitcases on it myself. There was a stupid grate before reaching the building and the wheels got stuck in it causing my smaller bag to go flying in air I and then falling to the ground.

Some spectators on the second floor had seen my struggle and motioned for me to move the cart sideways to be able to maneuver around the grate. I made it through security and asked if there was an elevator to the second floor where the Turkish Airlines counter was. They said yes, but my question must not have been understood as there were no elevators, just  an escalator. Thankfully, two young guys came by and offered to help me get my bags upstairs cart and all.

It was only 11:00 pm when I settled down in front of gate #3 and started the long wait for my 3:55 am flight. I ate the half shawarma sandwich I had left before it got entirely cold and got engrossed in the reading of my latest book pick, “The Book Thief”. 

July 10

July 10, 2013

As I had suspected, my Internet funds had run out in the middle of the night, and the available connections in the area featured a security code. Luann had called twice after I’d gone to bed to say she wanted to meet later than we’d previously agreed. That was fine with me and I sent her a SMS to confirm.

Willoughby called very early in the morning to ascertain what my plans were for my two remaining days in Bishkek. I had thought about suggesting dinner on Thursday night to cap my experience here and was willing to pull out all the stops and go that fancy French restaurant, Ratatouille. Willoughby agreed wholeheartedly.

I had some flat bread, cubes of cheese and hot chocolate for breakfast while watching a documentary on the history of Ireland. What a bloody mess that place has been with thousands of lives being lost just because a group belonging to one religion, Catholic, Anglican, or Protestant, wanted to dominate the other.

I then sent a text message to Rasur to determine the most convenient time for him to pick up the laptop, and another to Gulnara for her to come by with the Forum stamp for the two documents she’d signed for me. Neither one answered right away.

I still had a mountain of scrap paper that I had accumulated from all my presentations and conferences attended. I decided on the spur of the moment to jump on a marshrutka and take it to the Osh bazaar so that the spice vendors could use them to make their paper cones to dispense their wares. It was tricky to hang on to the papers while maneuvering the mini-van, but I made it and offered it to first vendor I encountered.

He turned it down as apparently he thought I wanted money for it. I walked a few steps away and an older Russian-looking woman asked to see the pile of papers. I made it clear I just wanted to give it away and when she agreed to the deal, I placed the entire pile on the floor next to her stall.

I rode the marshrutka up to where the Carlson Wagonlit travel agency was located to ask them for information on how to pay for the excess baggage. Larissa confirmed I’d be asked to pay $6.00 per kilo and would have to pay cash only.

I rode another marshrutka back to the flat, but got off at the corner of Manas and Bokumkaiva so I could buy a shawarma sandwich, a plate of plov and some salad for lunch. Gulnara from Forum called as I was about to get off to let me know she was already waiting at the flat to place the stamp on the documents and pick up some things for Forum.

I asked her to give ten minutes, picked up my food and then hustled to meet Gulnara. I brought out the two documents in need of the Forum’s stamp and then gave her the green and black tea, sugar, and napkins I had left over from the open house party. She saw the bottle of sunflower oil, barely used, and asked me for it. I prepared a bag and gave it all to her.

Once she was gone, I had the plov and a salad of marinated mushrooms before preparing to meet Luann for coffee. I had suggested we visit the Manas Village that Elvira had mentioned to me and which we had passed on the way back from the Ala Archa State Park, and Luann readily agreed to do so. I walked to the 135 Coffee House and waited in the open terrace for her.

Fortunately, they offered Wi-Fi and I was able to get access to my mail. I had a message from the ELF program indicating my application was incomplete and I needed to contact them to set up a time for an interview since the one on file was already too old.

The skies had turned black and the wind was beginning to pick up. I hated the idea of missing out on visiting the village since I’d not have another chance to do so. Luann recommended ordering the hot chocolate that looked and tasted more like a chocolate pudding. At 220 som, or almost $5.00, I was hoping for something delicious and it was worth every som

Natalia called while I was having my chocolate and inquired as to my schedule for the next day as she still wanted to meet with me before my departure. I mentioned my commitment to Willoughby, both morning and evening, and she said she’d try to squeeze in sometime to see me. It had started to sprinkle as we left the cafĂ©.

Luann and I got on the #266 marshrutka and the driver signaled to us when we got to the village. Except for the sign at the corner of Manas, we found no directions for the place and had to ask two other people before confirming that we just needed to walk down a bit to get to it. The cashier’s booth was empty, but two security guards sat to the right and asked for 20 som for us to get in.

The village in question was supposed to recreate the Manas epic so revered in Kyrgyzstan, but I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the many different structures. If there was some symbolism attached to each one, we couldn’t tell since there were no signs of any kind in any language whatsoever. We took tons of photos and even got into the yurt at the end where every day items were on display.

The woman tending to the yurt beckoned us to put on the traditional velvet coat and headdress and to have our picture taken at different angles inside the yurt. Although I normally shrink from doing the “touristy” thing, I caved in this one time and had my photo taken several times.

Back outside, the rain had subsided and we took some more photos before proceeding next door to the other attraction I’d seen from the road: Flamingo Park, but not before walking in front of the Issyk-Kul Hotel, which appeared to be completely abandoned as weed had invaded the front entrance completely.

Flamingo Park was a kitschy take on Disneyland or Disney World that had fallen in disrepair with concrete chunks missing, rusting sculptures and green areas full of weeds. We immediately labeled it “The Poor Man’s Disney” and marveled at the many knockoffs of familiar Disney characters adorning the place. We paid 40 som just for the privilege of getting in and taking photos.

I had to plead with Luann to leave by 7:00 as Rasur was coming by to pick up the laptop he’d bought from me. We had to wait for a long while before getting into a marshrutka and got home at exactly five minutes to eight. Rasur was waiting downstairs, so I proceeded to pack up the laptop for him.

Luann had begged me to accompany her to a pop quiz, or trivial pursuit game, that night where Rebecca, David and Amada would be present. I was very hungry and wanted to do one more load of laundry before finishing my packing, so staying home was the logical thing to do.

Luann had been such a pleasure to spend the afternoon with that I decided to cave in and accompany her after I had finished the leftovers from my lunch. We walked to the Dragon’s Pub off Frunze Avenue and found the group sitting outside and already in the middle of the quiz. I was able to contribute to the answers on at least four occasions and our group ended up winning the contest, the first time ever they’d done so.

At ten o’clock, I was falling asleep and bid everyone goodbye for good after Luann took a couple of photos for the record. I walked back to my place feeling the pain on my legs from the walking I’d done Sunday at the park and all day today.

July 9

July 9, 2013

I had a pretty good night of sleep before getting up close to six. The sun was still hiding behind one of the high rises beyond my window thus giving me a chance to make my coffee without contending with its scorching rays.

Zarina had replied confirming that Turkish Airlines would only allow me 38 kilos and any excess would be charged at $6.00 a kilo. It was time to reevaluate my cargo for sure. I went through the collection of laminated pictures I’ve accumulated between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and which Willoughby had offered to relieve of, and discarded several that were not exactly scintillating. The remaining ones still weigh a ton.

I also decided to get of my T-shirts since they could be easily replaced in the States along with the small travel towel Caroline had given me when leaving Tajikistan. I went through my toiletries and let go of some other items, sun block among them, to lighten my load. I tested my shoulder bag to see if I could carry the pictures there and it seemed to hold firm. I’ll have to wait and see how it feels once I have the tablet in there, my drinking cup and other essentials.

I walked to the dental clinic and had no trouble finding it this time. In fact, I was too early and the staff could be seeing finishing their lunch in an adjacent room. One of the employees handed me a clipboard with a two-page form to complete, just like we do in the States. The waiting room was spacious, very clean and even had magazines in English to read.

The young dental hygienist spoke very little English, so the actual dentist, Gulzat, came by to introduce herself and to take a look before the cleaning started. I guessed she must not have found anything horrifying as she wanted to proceed with the cleaning right away. I asked for some anesthesia due to my extremely high sensitivity to the scaler.

I barely felt a pinch when she proceeded to do so and had no discomfort whatsoever during the entire procedure. The hygienist would ask me often if I was all right and I would nod yes. In less than an hour’s time, I was done polishing and all. The clinic charged an extra $10.00 for the anesthetic and I happily paid the $90.00 bill.

Pollen, construction dust, cigarette smoke or whatever was in the air just got to me and I went home sneezing all the way. I stopped at the convenience store for water, milk, and take-out for dinner. I’m going to miss that place, for sure.

Although today was the beginning of the Ramadan holiday, I could see no evidence of it anywhere. Some people had said that since the majority of Kyrgyz are non-observant Muslims, there might not be much fasting taking place here. By the look of the men smoking around me, I’d have to say none.

Monday, July 8, 2013

July 8

July 8, 2013

It was a rather uneventful day except for the fact that my landlady’s brother knocked on my door around 9:00 am, and I refused to open it since I didn’t really remember what he looked like and he doesn’t speak English at all. I had received no notice that he needed access to the apartment.

Later on, Diana called me to let me you there was a potential renter interested in seeing the flat in the early afternoon, so I told her it would be no problem at all as I planned to be at home all day.

I then had no choice, but to set out to clean the place so it would look spotless. The kitchen and the bathroom took forever and I tidied up the furniture so that this burly African-American guy could blow into the space and be gone in less than five minutes.

He was from Atlanta, GA, and I knew immediately he’d be one of those guys with little education who’d gotten a job with one of those subcontractors at the Manas Transit Center which are making millions while supplying the troops in Afghanistan with everything they need to continue that futile war.

He was accompanied by a striking Kyrgyz woman who didn’t bother looking at the place but sat in the living room fanning herself with a look of exasperation on her face. She claimed to be a friend of the guy and was only helping him find a suitable place to live. She wanted to know how much I paid and if there was an A/C unit.

The guy took some notes, made no comments on the place whatsoever and left saying he had another four places to look at that afternoon before making a decision. I got the impression he wasn’t really interested in the apartment.

I called the dental clinic and rescheduled my cleaning for Tuesday at 2:30 pm. Luann confirmed we would be having coffee on Wednesday at 12:15 at the 135 Coffee place near my flat.

I sent the last highlight report to the embassy and got a note back from Natalia thanking me for the great job I had done in Kyrgyzstan. Johanna wrote approving the final expense report, which I promptly forwarded to Gen at Georgetown.

I uploaded the photos taken at the Ala Archa State Park and finished my final report for Georgetown. I think I did get everything in this time around. I only need to attach some photos, and voila, I’ll be done.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

July 7

July 7, 2013

I had set the alarm just in case as I needed to be at the agreed-on spot for the trek at 8:30 am. I was up before six anyway and busied myself right away getting to the intersection at exactly 8:15. Willoughby was sitting at the bus stop knitting away.

After greeting her, I went into the Narodni nearby and bought some staples to take with me for what was expected to be a picnic and for which , we were going to share our purchases. Amanda came by next and we went in search of fresh flat bread to bring along, which we found after walking here and there.

Rebecca and Daniel rounded out the group since Luann had bailed out after learning that the entire cost of the outing would be around 600 soms. When a newish SUV taxi pulled up in front of us to discharge some passengers, Amanda and I agreed we should approach the driver to see if he was interested in taking us to the Alar Cha Park and then returning to pick us up.

The driver was game, so we piled up inside and drove past the cemetery I had visited last Sunday with Kate and then into a beautiful part of the city where the mountains started their steep climb and a river ran furiously down the hill. We started to see families out picnicking by the side of the river and lots of cars heading in the same direction as we were.

We had to paid an admission fee of 650 soms, for the whole group, so the driver could continue beyond the entrance gate. He dropped us off in front of hotel/tea house and we agreed to call him two hours before we wanted to be picked up. Rebecca, Amanda and David wanted to attempt one of the longer trails while Willoughby and I just wanted to wander around for a bit.

                                 Clouds gathering at the entrance to the Alar Cha Park

We only had about half hour of sunshine before the clouds came, the temperatures dropped precipitously and then the drizzle started. Willoughby and I took refuge at a nearby tea house, somebody’s house with a couple of tables with an umbrella on their dirt front yard. We ordered tea and had some of our cheese, bread and crackers while listening to the thunder in the distance.

                              The rudimentary tea house where we stopped for a rest

Rebecca called about hour an later to inform us it had started to rain very hard where they were, so they wanted to call the driver and head back out. I was delighted by the news since I never wanted to spend the entire day there anyway. I had worn no socks and the frilly shawl I’d taken with me provided no heat whatsoever, so my hands were freezing as well.

                                       This cutie appeared to be the owner's granddaughter

Willoughby and I managed to make it down to the guesthouse by the entrance before the rain started again in earnest. We ordered another pot of tea and inquired about the room prices which ranged from $100.00 to 200.00. She has a girlfriend coming to visit from Germany and thought this might be a good place to stay at during a visit to the park.

Once the group reunited, Amanda notified us the driver was already outside waiting. I fell asleep at some point during the ride but woke up before getting to the main road just as we were passing the president’s house, a structure that took up about two city books and was surrounded by a formidable fence and a small army of soldiers.

We each ended up paying 550 soms, or $12.00, for the outing. Luann was right in considering the cost of the trip prohibitively expense for the local population and that was why we saw mostly foreigners coming and going.  I said goodbye to everyone and hopped on the trolley to get home where I took a long nap on the sofa.

Willoughby called to let me know she’d taken a look at my final report and didn’t consider its tone to be too harsh or whinny. On the other hand, she felt I was being too modest in listing my achievements and made some specific recommendations to remedy that. How gracious of her!

Damira called to say she’d come by at 5:30 to take me to her house for dinner. I had prepared a gift bag with a few things to take to her family, but when she showed up, she made it clear we were going to a restaurant, a classy one, but a restaurant nonetheless. I protested vehemently, as I knew her salary is very low, and caved in only when I insisted on paying for my own meal.

We walked to the same Kyrgyz restaurant, Tubeteika,  I’d had lunch with Jennifer and Natalia the last time Jennifer came for a visit and stayed at my flat. We had sat outside, so I hadn’t seen the inside of it. The place looked almost palatial with an open air feeling, lots of glittering lamps, sofas and artwork.

Two men were playing music in front of what looked like a dancing floor. We occupied a booth nearby, and I found the music to be too loud to be able to hold a conversation, but the waiter wouldn’t hear of asking for the volume to be turned down a bit. He argued that diners at the far end wouldn’t be able to hear the music then.

The food was unremarkable: a tiny green salad with only two pieces of lettuce, so just tomatoes and cucumbers, salmon for me with an insipid caper sauce and fried goat meat and potatoes for Damira.

When it came time to pay, she refused accept my 500 som note arguing she’d invited me this time. She’d left her cell phone at my house and had to walk back with me to get it. Evidently, she was on her way to a date as she had ten missed calls when she got her hands on it and then told he was already outside waiting for her.

At the end, I found out that Damira, her sister, brother-in-law and her niece are not living in a flat as she’d said before, but are building what will eventually be a three bedroom house in the outskirts of town. Just as in Zarina’s case, right now they only have one bedroom that doubles as a living room, a bathroom, hallway and kitchen.

She’d felt too embarrassed to take me to this place because they are basically piled one on top of another. I protested telling her I really wanted to see how Kyrgyz people lived, but she wasn’t persuaded. Oh, that Asian face-saving characteristic reared its ugly head once again.

July 6

July 6, 2013

I had quite a hectic day starting with my attempt to finish packing the second suitcase to see how much room I’d have in my carrying-on bag. It was all bad news for I couldn’t fit in everything I had accumulated plus present I’ve received and the ones I’ve bought.

It then occurred to me to find out how much the Turkish Airlines might charge for excess baggage, but what I found through Google was a complicated table that required I specify the zone and airport I was flying to and from so that the site could give me the appropriate amount. It didn’t make any sense since I’ll be flying into four different airports anyway.

Zarina called early on to say she wanted to come by to have a chance for a proper goodbye. Since I was expecting Gulnara from Forum to come by as well to finally pick up the boxes of materials, I told her to drop by whenever she could and then I could have her call the Turkish Airlines for specific guidelines on my luggage.

Rebecca sent a text message indicating we were to meet her at a German-style restaurant near her house, we agreed to meet in front of her apartment at 6:30 and walk from there. I forwarded the message to both Willoughby and Luann, who both confirmed their attendance.

Zarina came bearing two pieces of pastry from Vanilla Sky and another present, a wall clock with images of Kyrgyzstan in the background. She indicated she wanted to give me something I could look at all the time and think of her. I have no idea how I’m going to pack this gift.

We were able to sit down to a cup of coffee and the pastries, talk about many topics and for me to give her some additional teaching materials as well. She took the two dozen hangers I’d bought for the apartment, the calendar I’d no longer use and some fridge magnets, too.

Willoughby came along and after chitchatting with Zarina, the three of us left the flat so we could proceed to our respective destinations. Zarina indicated a desire to see me one more time before my departure, but I wasn’t so sure there’d be a chance for that.

The marshrutka dropped us off near Rebecca’s place and we waited at the corner for Luann and the birthday girl to meet us. Rebecca came accompanied by her boyfriend, Sasha, whom I hadn’t met before, and she was wearing the pair of earrings I’d brought her from Kathmandu last year.

We then walked to a German/Russian restaurant where we sat in a courtyard at what looked like picnic tables. I ordered a pair of German sausages, grilled, and a salad along with carbonated water. When they came, the sausages hadn’t been grilled, but fried and the salad contain bits of tough beef pieces in it. No flat bread was available.

I learned that to make a toast, Russians first have to order what they call a “chaser”, in this case, salted fish with sliced onions and boiled potatoes. David and Daniel had joined us by then and the round of toasts started getting a bit old as everyone of us had to offer a toast to Rebecca that would sound somewhat different.

There were no mosquitoes out, that was quite a relief, and the conversation was animated. Most of the group members were planning on going to the Alar Cha trek the next morning, so we discussed the logistics and agreed on a place and time to meet. I shared a taxi with David to go back to my flat.