Saturday, September 29, 2012

September 29, 2012

The day started out with the sun hiding behind clouds to give way to the showers expected for tomorrow. I tidied up the apartment in preparation for Zarina coming over for breakfast before going to the Osh Bazaar for our shopping expedition.

 I like the fact that from my fourth floor perch I have an encompassing view of the entire courtyard as my complex consists of four buildings set at angles to produce a perfect quadrangle. It is obvious, from what remains of it, that when the Soviets built the complex, it was intended as the place where families would gathered to watch the young play while chitchatting with neighbors. The playground equipment is now rusted, the shrubs overgrown and a thick coat of dust weighs over everything, but the young people can still be seeing smoking and talking into their mobile phones while young mothers watch their toddlers awkwardly take their first steps.

I cooked an omelet with a salami filling and served it with flat bread, coffee and juice. Zarina found the filling too spicy for her taste, but ate the entire omelet nonetheless. She just got engaged a week ago and plans to get married at the end of October and wants to take cooking lessons with me to impress her fiancé. She related that the engagement ceremony consisted of her future in-laws coming to her house to enjoy a lavish meal, for which she and mother cooked all day, at the end of which her fiancé’s family pinned a pair of gold hoops in her ears to symbolize that she now belonged to their family. It was that simple. She now needs to set up appointments to get her wedding gown, make-up, hair and nail done on very short notice. She’ll be moving into her in-laws’ house as expected in her culture at least until they can save enough money to move out on their own.

We walked to the bazaar and were able to get about fifty percent of the items I had placed on my list. The bazaar was very similar to the one in Dushanbe in its set up, but the merchandise being sold was quite different. I was delighted with the blue and gold set of pitcher and glasses we found along with a set of stainless-steel cooking utensils I desperately needed while also adding a cutting board and plastic containers for the refrigerator. We had to stop our shopping short as I had my first conversation class scheduled to begin at 1:00pm.

I had a total of eight students present although some of them straggled in almost a half hour after we officially began. After an introductory game, we proceeded to talk about food for which I gave them a handout to complete so we could discuss it. Most of the dishes the students mentioned as being typical of Kyrgyzstan turned out to be the same ones in Tajikistan or Kazakhstan including the horse meat dish called beshbarmak, which is intended to be eaten with the fingers.

                                Beshbarmak with the head of a sheep added to it.

When the class was over, Zarina and I went downstairs to have a bite to eat. She recommended I order the fried lagman while she had a salad. The noodle dish, while tasty, was way too salty for me and it lacked the usual greens I associate with having lagman. I rode the marshrutka back to my place and spent the rest of the evening putting together several documents to begin my work at Lingua and the Forum organization next week.

Friday, September 28, 2012

September 28, 2012

I spent a lazy morning lounging around the flat until the gorgeous day called out for some exploring of my immediate surroundings. I ventured to Chuy Avenue, the main drag of Bishkek, but forgot to bring the map Natalia so graciously provided and couldn’t identify any of the landmarks I was looking at. I took some photos nonetheless hoping that Zarina will be able to label them for me tomorrow. I had promised to cook breakfast for her on Saturday before we head out to the Osh Bazaar to buy housewares to complete the look of my apartment.

I had one more delightful day to enjoy with brilliant sunshine, soft breezes and nary a touch of humidity. I found the sign for a Mexican cantina and karaoke bar first followed by some government buildings where a lot of activity seemed to be taking place. About three blocks later, I finally came upon the Beta Center Natalia had recommended that I check out before purchasing anything at the bazaar as she felt their prices are quite competitive. This is a Turkish store offering a variety of housewares, groceries and takeout food of pretty good quality.

I made sure to bring a crisp $100.00 dollar bill to exchange this time and had no problem when I approached the currency exchange counter on the first floor. I looked at glasses, pitchers, butter dishes, salad bowls, kitchen utensils, small appliances and so on until I came to the electric oven I was hoping to buy to allow me to bake all the things I like to eat. It’ll cost me over a hundred dollars to buy one and they are quite bulky in fact. I’ll have to think about how much I’d really use this oven as I ended up not baking much in Dushanbe last year. It could have been, partly, because the kitchen lacked heating and I fled from it during the cold months.

I overheard a young couple speak English nearby and introduced myself to Douglas and Sunshine who are enrolled at the London School of Languages while learning Russian and have been here for just over a month. We exchanged numbers and promised to stay in touch especially if I get to enroll in the classes this coming week. I was starving at that point, and they recommended a buffet-type of restaurant located on the second floor. I made my way there and just pointed to three different items and ordered a bottle of iced tea. I was shocked to be presented with a bill for 517.00 som or about $11.00. I knew I had no choice but to  pay since I lacked the language skills to argue about the bill since no prices were posted, but swore never to set foot in that restaurant again. That’s unless a local accompanies me. What a rip off!

I perused the other shops on the second floor, mostly a lackluster collection of clothing and jewelry stores in tiny, ill-lit spaces. The third floor fared even worse with even less lighting and just three stores to look at. From there, I went to the Narodi supermarket, a Russian chain that seems to be everywhere, and bought the things I’d need to make breakfast in the morning but managed not to find any onions. I noticed that both Beta and this chain offer a very small section of fruit and vegetables to the public. I need to find out where people get most of their greens.

My landlady called to say she’d be coming around with the coffee table and night table she’d promised. When she got here, I thought it was funny that the coffee table was the same kind I had in my dining room in Dushanbe, only shorter and in black instead of blue. She told me she had decided not to buy the reading lamp since she wasn’t sure what kind of lamp I wanted and hoped I could find what I wanted at the bazaar tomorrow. Zarina called me about the same thing and told me I should expect to pay about 300.00 som or around 7.00 dollars. I offered her coffee while her husband brought up the furniture, and Nadya confirmed she’d been born in Russia and brought to Kyrgyzstan when she was five. She feels very comfortable here because she has a business and owns two apartments she rents while living in a big house with her mother.

When she was gone, I turned my attention to my first professional task: updating the professional development survey the Forum organization provides its teachers with at the beginning of the school year. Theirs contained only four questions, two of which asked how the Forum could help them become better teachers. I found a survey online and extended the survey to contain twelve questions altogether. I’ll submit it to the committee and wait for their answer. I have my first presentation there on October 13, so I need to start thinking of what I’ll say to them.

I watched a disturbing video, Kyrgyzstan: The Interim Country, about the fractious relationship between the different ethnic groups inhabiting the country: Russians, Germans, Turkish, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Uigers, Dungans, Tatars and others. I had no inkling about the 2010 attacks by Uzbeks on Kyrgyz in the city of Osh, the southern part of the country. Prior to that, the Kyrgyz had attacked the Turkish population in another region. Very sad, indeed.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

September 27, 2012

Another glorious day in Bishkek with temperatures ranging from 50 to 77 degrees and the sun shining endlessly. I was delighted to have the morning to myself while waiting for the technician to come and connect me to the Internet. It only took him about fifteen minutes to have the connection up and running.

Zarina called me to remind me to be ready by 12:30pm so their driver could pick me up to take me to the embassy for my security briefing. I had to dash across the street to buy another meal of noodles and salad for a quick lunch before he arrived. The highlight of the security briefing was the officer’s remarks that we should not use marshrutkas for our transportation because they were crowded and thus unsafe. I asked him what his recommendation was for someone like me who needed to ride one to work. He stated that the buses or trolleys were safer, which I disagreed with, or even better, their recommended taxi companies. The mini-buses are the most efficient way of getting anywhere around here and I’ll continue to use them while observing some caution.

I snapped some photos of the fancy apartment building complexes surrounding the embassy. These are newer buildings and the rent starts at upwards of $1000.00 per month. Given the fact that these are located in the suburbs, a car would be a must.

Natalia loaded me with books that I could possibly use during my presentations and promised to get me a box of books from the English publication department. I forgot to bring my debit card to withdraw money from their ATM as I suspect it’d make for a much safer operation.

I was informed that the Ministry of Education had refused to accept the wallet-sized photos I’d brought from the States because they were too large and lacked the white background they required. Zarina took me to the place recommended by the embassy and they produced nine miniature photos for them. You can barely tell it’s me in the little square.

At the currency exchange place, they refused to take my four $20.00 bills because each one exhibited some kind of mark or lettering and they claimed the bank would reject these bills. We went to two other banks with the same results. I have no idea how many of these bills I might have with me, but it seems crazy to have them rejected on that basis. I wonder if the embassy would be willing to exchange them for som?
Zarina and the driver dropped off where I could take the mini-bus and I managed to buy the first of their samsas, or samosas, the tasty meat patty so favored as street food here. I have to say that the one I ate was infinitely tastier than the ones I used to buy in Dushanbe only when I was starving and unable to get to a restaurant. This one was piping hot, moist and flavorful.

I spent the rest of the evening catching up with my emails, updating my Facebook page and delighting on the images found in my newest online find: Pinterest. In addition, I uploaded the photos of my apartment to my FB page and got tons of interior decorating ideas from my friends. Invaluable, indeed.

All in all, I had another fabulous day.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

September 26, 2012

Did I mention that I have fairly good view of the Tian-Shan Mountains from my kitchen? I was delighted to see them come into view as the sun rose in the east. I wish then I had a good cup of coffee to sip while looking at them adoringly, but in fact all I had was an envelope of instant coffee already mixed in with powdered milk and sugar that the landlady had left behind.

                            A view of the Tian-Shan Mountains in the late afternoon.

I decided to have a productive morning by unpacking my bags before the Internet guys came in at 11:00am so they wouldn’t trip over the suitcases still blocking most of the foyer. I also made an attempt to organize the few kitchen cabinets I have so I could properly display all the seasonings I’ve brought with me, but had little luck as there isn’t enough room in the four little cubbyholes to hold much. I found some opened packages left behind including salt, noodles, sugar, something I could not identify and a small bottle of white vinegar along with some baking soda I promptly placed in the fridge to keep it free of odors.

I was foolish enough, for the second time, to plug the extension cord I’ve brought from home into the currency converter and apparently tripped the electric switch with the result that the power went out completely. When the Internet guys showed up, there was no electricity to work with and they promised to come back tomorrow. I felt pretty silly after that.

I had to meet with Natalia at the American Corner and she had offered to pick me up at 12:15pm, at just about the same time that the landlady’s husband showed up with the cooktop burners, supposedly repaired, to install them. I apologized to him and agreed to call him through Zarina to let him know when I was back in the apartment. The American Corner operates out of a really old building previously built as a children’s library and where we met Gulnara, from the Forum organization that represents all English teachers in Kyrgyzstan. She had very ambitious plans for making use of my time almost to the exclusion of the Lingua School and other projects the embassy has already assigned to me. Natalia was firm in reminding her that I was to help out, but not carry the majority of the work on my shoulders. She seemed put off by the rebuke, but agreed to have me every other Saturday for two hours followed by a working lunch to discuss the design of the Facebook page and newsletter and conference planning for next year.

The public had paid homage to this famous dancer the day before, but Natalia didn't know his name.

I walked to Lingua from there and met with the other Gulnara to outline my obligations there, but she appeared quite vague even though I was pressing her for a specific numbers of hours and days so I could finalize my schedule and decide when I could sign up for my Russian language lessons. It appears as if I’ll be doing a lot of observation and giving feedback to the newer teachers at the school while also collaborating with the more experience trainers who are just starting a new course of ESP/EAP for which they haven’t had much exposure to. Gulnara walked me to the restaurant next door where I could order a lagman plate, as I was starving by then, and I was able to enjoy a relatively tasty meal while reflecting on the fact that I had only eaten noodles for my last three meals. It cost 120.00 som or about three dollars.

I managed to catch the minibus back to my place, but got off at the wrong bus stop and only realized after I had walked three longs block and couldn’t recognize any of the buildings. I retraced my steps and I was glad the weather was so cool and pleasant while sun shone a bit weakly. I placed a call to Zarina so she could tell the landlord I was back in and took a quick nap before he arrived. He busied himself replacing missing light bulbs and the cooktop, I couldn’t see much difference between the way they look yesterday and today, but I had nothing to cook to try them at that point.

Ceci, whom I had met in Dushanbe, had given me a list of her former contacts in this area and one of them replied. I noticed that his wife wrote a blog and that they happened to be the same couple I had seen on an episode of “House Hunters International” searching for an apartment in the city. Her blog led me to four other English teachers or Fulbright scholars who had also written blogs while living here only to find that most of them related only their parties, events they attended or trips out of town, but not much about the local education system or how their classes fared. I wonder if the language institute have them signed an affidavit not to do so.

I have a pounding headache now and it’s too late to make myself a pot of coffee. I’ll have a bite to eat and call it a night.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

September 25, 2012

The sleeping pill I took must have done the trick for I was able to sleep until eight and felt quite refreshed. I noticed that the coffee was taking forever to percolate and looking closely at the stove, it was obvious that the surface had been damaged in the past and only the center portion was putting out any heat. Zarina was scheduled to come by in the morning to show me how to ride the marshruska to the school on my own and I made a mental note to ask her to notify Nadia of the problem.

I perused the television channels and found, to my horror, that the only channel available in English was CNN, the one channel I never had in Tajikistan and which I don’t particularly care for. There was no BBC, Al Jazeera, TVe, TeleSur, or RTD available. It might be a signal for me to get real about learning Russian instead of getting all of my entertainment and news in English. I had a bowl of muesli and ironed my clothes while waiting for Zarina who arrived to inform me that the rental agreement had been emailed to both of us and I needed to get to the school to review the language and add any changes I deemed necessary.

It was great to realize that I only need to turn the corner around my building to be able to get into the right mini-van, #227 or #129. It costs ten som each way or about 25 cents. The mini vans here are different with seats on the left side only and bars on the right for people to stand. It’s not possible to look out the window if you’re riding standing up and thus easy to miss your stop. Gulnara was in a meeting when we got in, so proceeded to print the lease agreement and Zarina translated it into English with the modifications I had suggested. I was able to get online using one of their computers and chitchatted with Mat, the Peace Corps volunteer from Amelia Island, of all places, with whom I’ll be sharing a conversation club on Saturdays.

Contract in hand, it was back to the apartment where Nadia was already waiting to sign it and collect the remaining sum for the three month advanced payment. She is a beautiful woman of typical Russian physique: blonde, blue-eye, bosomy, with sharp cheek bones and a sensual mouth. As she didn’t need to do any cleaning today, she was decked out in stylish black pants, a white tank top and black jacket while sporting five-inch stiletto heels. Once inside the apartment, she quickly got on the telephone with the cable people only to tell me that I’d need to pay something like twenty dollars every month to upgrade her package so I’d have access to another ten channels in English. I told I’d need to think about it first.

I next showed her the stove and she acknowledged she knew it wasn’t working right and promised to take it to the technician to see if it could be repaired. If not, she’d buy another one hopefully tomorrow. When I pointed out that the other burner could not be plugged in because the outlet was too far away, she couldn’t believe it. Her husband came in at that point and used an extension cord, but to no avail as the burner just didn’t work. So tonight, I have no stove whatsoever. They arranged to get the Internet people here tomorrow to install the Wi-Fi set up. We signed the respective copies of the contract, I paid the remaining $1500.00 and they promised to follow through on the myriad of repairs and missing things we agreed on.

Nadia’s husband offered Zarina a ride while Nadia accompanied me to a restaurant nearby to consider for dinner. What I found, instead, is that I’ll be living in quite a lively neighborhood full of restaurants, shops, bazaars and cafes. We walked along one of the busy streets going in and out of different places so I could become acquainted with them and by that time, I was so hungry I could stand it no more. Since I had stove to cook on, I once again bought some already cooked noodles with the sauce in a plastic bag,  marinated eggplant, and two other dishes that looked interesting, along with a piece of pastry for dessert. I then bought a kilo of the most luscious grapes from a street vendor while declining the puny pears her neighbor was trying to sell me. Nadia said goodbye and I walked back to my flat to have a delicious repast as the noodle sauce was very spicy and the pastry was to die for. I tried not to think about the fact that I had no way of making coffee tomorrow morning.

September 24, 2012

There was no way of getting a full night of sleep, so I got up at 4:00am and drank the vile instant coffee the guest house staff had set out along with tea and sugar. I waited until seven to make my way to the kitchen and found the dining area completely empty. The guy at the reception desk followed me in and wanted to know how my coffeemaker operated. I had some muesli, with plenty of dried fruit and nuts, and a piece of toast along with a glass of orange juice.

Gulnara was picking me up at 9:30, so I returned to my room and finished packing my bags. My bill was ready and I asked the front desk clerk if they could hold my bags there until I found a place to live sometime that day. They cheerfully agreed and even helped me get all three bags up the steps. During my last trip to the office, I found Gulnara waiting for me. Her driver delivered us to the school where she entrusted me to Zarina who would be taking me around to look at several apartments she’d found listed on the local paper. Off we went to look at one unit in the same building where Sally has stayed during her ELF service. I didn’t like the look of the building, the dark approach to the front door or the cage-like iron gate at the entrance to the apartment. The fact that it was on the sixth floor and I had to ride a rickety, dark, claustrophobic tin can to get there was the deal breaker. The woman wanted $700.00 for a disjointed place with no wallpaper, carpets or even nice furniture. There was no dining area, but a small table in the kitchen that could seat three.
Next we went to a flat where a woman and a small child lived in tiny rooms with hideous furniture and only a window A/C. There was no counter space at all and the TV set seemed ancient. This one was going for $600.00, but I’d not want to live there even for free. We looked at one, on the ninth floor, that was slightly larger but once again sported ugly, old furniture, linoleum floors and a stove out in what used to be the balcony while the sink was in another room. I was beginning to despair at the prospect of finding something appealing with a deadline of about 6:00pm.

Gulnara was waiting to have lunch with me, so I could then be transported to the embassy for a meeting with Natalia. She had ordered plov ordered at a busy restaurant next to the school and it took a while a get our food and even longer for drinks. The waiters were all women dressed in the national dress. I wanted to take their picture, but they appeared harried and humorless. The plov was just as greasy as the one in Tajikistan, but the sliced beef placed on the side was flavorless and tough. I hurried to make my appointment and the driver took me out in the boonies where the U. S. embassy is operating out of big trailer while a more permanent building goes up in the back. Their security procedures at the gate are just the same as going through the airport one as I had to hand in all of my electronic equipment, go through an X-ray machine and then be pat-searched by a woman. Once inside the building, I had to go through another X-ray machine before been given the visitor’s pass. I was then informed that I would never get a badge, as I did in Dushanbe, that would exempt me from that procedure.

 I told Natalia that the embassy staff would never see me again. I was introduced to Chris, of Brazilian heritage, and current PAO, who told me there are quite a few other Latinos at the embassy and promised to put me in touch with them. I forgot my photos to get the credentialing process started, but will give them to Natalia on Wednesday when we meet at the American Corner.

It was back to Zarina to look at other apartments once she visited the website I had seen in the States. I found one unit I really loved, but it was located on the ninth floor and I just can’t imagine having to deal with that many stairs when the power goes out, which is quite likely to do here. The real estate agent that had helped us in the morning had lined up three more properties for us to look and the second one did the trick. It had been renovated by the owner, Nadia, who’s an architect and a designer and who was hard at work removing stains from the carpet and cleaning the kitchen. The flat had hardwood floors in the foyer, two carpeted bedrooms, a separate kitchen, dining room and living room with decent-looking furniture and a flat-screen TV set. I had to give up my dream of having a gas stove or even an oven as the unit only had a flattop cooking surface. When asked where the cooking utensil and glassware were, Nadia answered that she normally rents to businesspeople and they don’t cook.

I figured that since she was only asking for $600.00, it was relatively close to the school and near shops and supermarkets, that I should just go ahead and buy the cooking items I needed myself including some glasses. After much haggling, we were able to leave so Gulnara could take me back to the guest house for my bags and have her driver take me to the apartment. Larissa, an older woman who works at the school, volunteered to join us to help out too. Traffic was a monster and the smell of carbon monoxide was getting to me as we made our way through the city. The driver, Larissa and I somehow made it up the four floors with my baggage and she then accompanied me across the street to a small shop where I was able to buy already prepared lagman noodles, potatoes and a carrot salad along with muesli, milk and yogurt for my breakfast.

I could not make the microwave work and in desperation, dumped the noodles in the only saucepan available and heated them over the stove. I took a long shower and promptly went to bed after making sure I lined my side of the bed with a brand-new korpacha Nadia had left in the cupboard. Hopefully, no bedbugs would bother me this time. I was so grateful to have found such great people to help me out this day.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

September 23, 2012

My jet lagged state caused me to stay up until 3:00am when I finally gave in and took a Tylenol PM to be able to fall asleep. As a result, I didn’t get up until 9:30am and missed the breakfast offered by the guest house once again. When I walked in to make my coffee, two men, obviously foreigners, were finishing their breakfast. I perused the buffet offerings and noticed they had cereal, muesli, olives, broiled eggplant with tomato slices on top, cucumbers, and lots of fresh fruit. I asked the clerk if I could take some fruit to my room and she assented. I ended up with fresh slices of melon, a banana, plum, apple and pear.

I checked my email and got ready to explore the city on my own even though I didn’t even have a map with me. I figured the distance covered by the taxi yesterday, from the building housing the Lingua School to the guest house, wasn’t that far and that I could possibly walk there and back in a couple of hours. My first stop was to peruse the menu at a Japanese restaurant, Wasabi, practically next door. I wasn’t hungry enough yet to eat sushi, but reassured the young manager, who spoke English quite fluently, that I’d be returning for dinner. I walked to the corner where a large park stood and figured that would be a good landmark to return to and proceeded until I got to a supermarket where I, naturally, had to stop and peruse every isle. I found they carried fettuccini, a big improvement over Dushanbe, ground coffee at a reasonable price and ready-made sandwiches. The produce section left much to be desired.

At the VEFA Center, I found the exact type of winter boots I'd like to buy before winter arrives in earnest, but their prices were equivalent to the ones in the States running between $294.00-315.00. Who can afford to buy those shoes here?

It was time to eat lunch and after much searching for something that looked open, I walked into the Aria Restaurant where a young woman understood enough English to bring me a Russian salad containing herring, cubes of potatoes and cucumber ladled with enough mayonnaise to disguise all flavor in it, A Solyanka soup and flat bread.  There was hookah lounge at the entrance and a dozen young people listened to loud American music while puffing on the pipes. The soup was just ok, not as good as the one I had had in Almaty while visiting with Valerie. 

More walking brought me to the intersection where the underpass could take me to the Lingua School building and then I knew exactly where I was. I confidently strolled to the front of the building to take a photo of it while realizing that several wedding parties were getting their photos taken across the street where the Hyatt Regency Hotel maintains a meticulous patch of grass, fountain and sculpture.

I was unabashed in asking people to pose for me and even took a surreptitious image of a group waiting for the wedding ceremony to be over while having a little party of their own. More walking brought me face to face with extremely dilapidated Soviet-era type of apartment complexes and made me puzzle as to what I might be able to find tomorrow in my search for a “pie de Terre” . Deciding that I’d be tired to return to the Japanese restaurant for dinner on my own, I stopped at the same supermarket on the way back and bought sparkling water, cold, apple cider vinegar and a sandwich to eat in my room. Low and behold, as I was just getting to the guest house, I ran into the manager of the sushi place and he walked alongside while telling he was only 23 and already made manager for this place that only opened three days ago. He reassured me I could find an elegant apartment right in town with no problem whatsoever. I promised to have lunch or dinner at his place tomorrow at the latest.

                The Lingua School occupies the third floor of this office building.

Back at the guest house, Gulnora called me to find out how my day had gone. She had tried reaching me at my new number, but couldn’t get an answer. I tried calling her right then and there, but only got a recorded message in Russian indicating something or other was wrong with my account. She’ll look into it tomorrow. Gulnora wanted to know if had decided to check out of the guest house tomorrow morning and bring my luggage to her office while searching for a flat. That sounded like a good idea and I only hope I don’t have to come back here with my bags again because I couldn’t find a suitable apartment.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

September 22, 2012

Our flight arrived on time, 3:20am local time, and I was delighted to be able to skip the usual ride from the plane to terminal in a bus which is so prevalent in Central Asia. We walked directly into a pleasant building, the floors covered in tiles, and I headed to the visa section where the immigration officer, who spoke fluent English, informed me I had downloaded the wrong form and didn’t need any photos. He had me complete a simple form and pay $70.00 which took about five minutes. Bags were coming into the carrousel by the time I got there and after some difficulty loading them into the cart, I proceeded to the X-ray section of the building where after a cursory inspection I was able to reload the bags and proceed to the next room. About a dozen people were standing around holding welcome signs and among them there was one for me. I was so relieved to find Natalia, the embassy’s English Language Programs coordinator, waiting for me that all the tiredness, sleeplessness and even hunger went away immediately. She hugged and kissed me on the cheek gladly sharing her mutual relief to see me there.

Her driver helped with my bags and I asked Natalia if we could stop along the way to my hotel so I could pick up something to eat. The first impression of the city was that it seemed less grand, leafy or bright than Dushanbe. The road from the airport to the city was uneven and poorly lit. There were few trees and many of them seemed to have been planted recently. Houses consisted of single family affairs with little or no paint and worse yet, no signs of any landscaping around. We stopped at a supermarket where I was able to buy a cold sandwich and a carton of juice having already being provided with water by Natalia. We drove through a couple of streets lacking in lighting, Natalia confirmed this was not unusual at all, until we got to a guest house and I was asked to complete just two lines of the registration form.

I was led to single-story room featuring hardwood floors, a king-size bed, three-piece bathroom (all tiled) and containing a table, TV set and a chair in addition to an ample wardrobe. I was told breakfast was included in the price, which I forgot to inquire what it was, and coffee would the instant kind. Natalia told me Gulnora would be picking me up in the afternoon to show me where my post would be located. I went to bed immediately and got up around noon to make some coffee in the kitchen. Leyla, an instructor at the Lingua School, came by with a driver and took me to visit my post saying that Gulnora would be waiting for me there to take me out to eat later on.

Welcoming sitting area outside my room at the Demi Guest House

                    Outdoor area of the guest house

                          My spacious yet spare room

                             The rest of the room

The city is definitely dowdy in comparison to Dushanbe as there are no skyscrapers, brightly-colored shops or even the profusion of landscaping in front of all government buildings that seemed mandatory there. My post will be located inside an office building, on the third floor, in the middle of downtown. I was heartened by the fact that all classrooms had whiteboards and the staff had access to lounge with a fridge, microwave and bathroom. Gulnora mentioned that pirated textbooks have just been outlawed in the country and they had had to buy an entire new series for all students. We went back outside to have lunch at an Indian restaurant where I was able to eat a reasonable rendition of lamb biryani, but the garlic nam bread had no flavor or texture whatsoever. Gulnora was very cautious in her choices and only ordered tomato soup and bread.

                                A wedding party at park. 

                          The requisite decorated limousine stood nearby.

We then walked to the Tsum Department store so I could obtain my new cell phone number.  Using the Nokia phone Peter gave me last year, the process was a snap. Gulnora loaned me the local money needed and then we went to exchange money at a rate of 47.00 som for every dollar.  We hopped in a taxi and then I noticed that the driver sat on the right side of the car. Gulnora confirmed that there are tons of these cars in the city that made you think you were in Japan or England.

While I was hoping to get into the apartment search immediately, I was told that no real estate agent is involved in the process here and instead, I have to rely on one of the post’s employees who has pulled ads for flats near nearby for me to go and see next Monday. I was disappointed as I had imagined doing one of those “My First Place” type of scenario by supplying the real estate agent with my list of “Must Haves”. So, I have tomorrow totally off to get myself entirely lost in this new city.

September 20, 2012

My eagerness to leave for my new post kept me up most of the night as I tried to imagine what the new city would be like, what kind of a reception my colleagues would offer me and how the search for a new place to live would go this time. I had been up until two o’clock in the morning arranging and rearranging my three suitcases to make sure the two I would be checking in would not exceed the 50 pound limit imposed by United Airlines.  At five, I got out of bed and started making enough coffee for me and my mother, who insisted on getting up earlier than usual to send me off, and to take some with me to the airport.

James, my brother-in-law, showed up an hour later in his usual cheerful mood,  and we left for Palm Beach. I was hoping to catch a view of the sunrise on our way there, but the sky remained inky black the whole time. I had a feeling of déjà vu during the check-in process as the airline employee had never heard of Bishkek or Kyrgyzstan for that matter and had to confer with another employee before issuing me a boarding pass. Since my flight didn’t leave until seven hours later, he refused to check in my bags as the company’s regulations stipulate that they can only be checked in four hours prior to the flight. I was forced to sit in the desolate alcove facing the check-in counters for another three and half hours without even having the benefit of the Wi-Fi service available in the rest of the airport.

My flight departed on time, but I was disappointed to find no Wi-Fi access at the Newark airport whatsoever. It was difficult to even find an outlet to charge my laptop as most of them were torn from the walls. It was another letdown to learn that I’d flying with United again to Istanbul as I had been under the impression that Turkish Airlines would be doing that leg of the trip. It was certainly a downgrade from the experience of flying in Lufthansa from Newark to Frankfurt, Germany last year where we were served fish for dinner and even wine for free. Since my ticket had been purchased at the last minute, all my seat assignments were located on the aisle. I felt sorry for the lanky guy sitting by the window trying to wrap his long legs around the narrow and short seat assigned to him. I looked around to see if there were any window seats available, but the flight attendant discouraged me from switching seats as they still had lots passengers arriving late. Needless to say, it was one of the most uncomfortable flights I’d ever taken: hard seat, tasteless food and impersonal service from the harried flight attendants.

Arriving in Istanbul at 12:00pm their time, 5:00am by my clock, proved daunting as it was the usual beehive of passengers from all over the world who needed to squeeze past each other to get to the duty free shops, cafes and restaurants available. Contrary to last year, not even Starbucks was offering free Wi-Fi access, something I discovered too late after having spent $6.00 on a latte. I dragged myself through the crowd and headed to the food court where I had been able to connect last year only to be informed that Internet access was being sold for $15.00 a day, which I could have entertained paying if only the company selling it had offered tables and chairs for me to sit and work from.

Dejected, I slumped into an empty seat in one of the benches lining the corridor and caught a few winks despite the thumping music coming from the duty free store, the conversations going on around me and my need to stay alert to watch my belongings. Hunger woke me up and I had to join the procession of travelers heading to the food court where I ordered a bowl of lentil soup and a roll from a Turkish restaurant. After another nap, it was time to head to my gate and the desultory manner in which Turkish employees sit at their desk perusing the screen of their cell phones while ignoring the cue of passengers eagerly waiting to board their plane. I looked around and noticed that most of my fellow passengers appeared to be Westerners with just a smattering of Asian people, with none of the women wearing a traditional dress.

We rode the bus to where the plane sat and after about an hour food service started. At this point I was ravenously hungry and was disappointed to be offer the “chicken or pasta” choice knowing that without some protein in the dish, I’d be just as hungry a  couple of hours later. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I will be blogging about my experience as an English Language Fellow conducting teacher training at the Lingua School in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where I will be posted for the next ten months.

The following is a short video that gives an overview of the city of Bishkek.