Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Orozo Ait

On Thursday, October 11th Ramadan, or Orozo as it is called in Kyrgyz, officially ended. The following day, in this case Friday, October 12th, is called Orozo Ait. On Orozo Ait people celebrate the end of Ramadan with friends, family and lots of food. According to the Kyrgyz, on Orozo Ait you are supposed to go to seven different homes to celebrate (it’s like Thanksgiving times seven!). We were able to reach the requisite number of homes largely because Martin’s co-workers were kind enough to invite us to each of their homes for Orozo Ait. We started our “guest-ing” at noon.

We met Martin’s co-workers and walked to one woman’s mother’s house. Upon entering the dining room we started to get an idea of what we were in for that day. The table was covered with food. There were dishes of fruit (apples, pears, pomegranates, grapes), candy, salads and lots of bread. When we sat down we were served tea and salad. Knowing that we had to be at our next guesting in about an hour, we hoped we could just have some salad, bread and a little bit of the entrĂ©e and move on. Of course, that’s not what happened. As soon as we finished our salads a soup came out, followed by plov (a traditional Kyrgyz dish with rice, carrots and sheep meat). Our host played the komuz (a traditional Kyrgyz instrument—similar to the guitar, but much smaller) and we sang songs in Kyrgyz and English. Before heading off to our second guesting of the day our host insisted that every guest take a doggy bag of food—bread and plov in this case.

The next 6 guestings proceeded in similar fashion. We traveled from home to home with 4 of Martin’s co-workers. At each home we found ourselves sitting in front of a table covered with food. The main dishes varied a little bit from home to home (one of Martin’s colleagues prepared pizza for us!), but we definitely had more than our fair share of plov and tea that day. We also received a doggy bay of food from each home. It was like trick or treating, except no costumes were involved and we received more substantial treats. Our host mother was quite proud of us when she saw all of the food that we came home with that evening in our doggy bags.

At some homes the eldest man in the room recited an excerpt from the Koran before the meal was officially concluded. Once we left each house we can only imagine the work that those at the house went through to prepare for their next round of visitors.

We had a wonderful time participating in Orozo Ait. We were completely overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. They invited us into their homes, shared their traditions with us and made us feel like part of their family. We look forward to participating in Orozo Ait next year. Maybe this time we’ll do a little fasting of our own beforehand to prepare for the festivities.

At the bazaar…

There are many ways in which Naryn is different from home. One way is how we go about shopping for food. There are no supermarkets here. There are many small stores, but they don’t sell produce. So, we go to the bazaar for most of what we need. The bazaar is conveniently located near our home (about an 8-10 minute walk).

The bazaar is comprised of many small, individually operated stands. It is quite a large bazaar, taking up more than a full street block. Some stands at the bazaar sell clothing (slippers, undergarments, socks, shirts, pants, dresses, etc.). Other stands sell footwear (slippers, boots, sneakers). The women who sell bread bring it to the bazaar in old baby carriages and sell it out of them. There is a large indoor area in which people sell produce, meat and dairy products. Other outdoor stands sell a variety of odds and ends including toilet paper, matches, light bulbs, kitchen appliances, toiletries, ping-pong balls, cookies, candy, alcohol etc.

The bazaar is also unlike stores at home in that most places don’t post prices. The prices of some items, such as bread, fluctuate 1 or 2 com from day to day. Prices of produce fluctuate due to the season and availability of particular items. Prices of other items fluctuate for various reasons, including how well you speak Kyrgyz and how much someone thinks they can get you to pay. That is why we shop around before we purchase anything. Now that we have been here a month we do have some stands that we visit regularly, we know the people that run them and trust their prices.

Shopping at the bazaar is also an ongoing language exam—not only when it comes to getting items at the going rate. Items are not always clearly visible at every stand so we sometimes need to ask for them by name. Buying matches to light the gas stove was a lot of fun when we forgot to look up the word for matches beforehand.

While we can purchase many items at our local bazaar there are some things that are not available. These are mostly items that either are not available in Kyrgyzstan (Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a good bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, mahi mahi) or items that are difficult to come by outside of Bishkek (oregano, basil, peanut butter).

All in all, we enjoy shopping at the bazaar. Of course, we wouldn’t mind if Whole Foods decided to expand and open a branch in Naryn City.

Welcome to Naryn City

With our 1-month anniversary in Naryn quickly approaching we thought we’d take some time to describe our new home in greater detail. Naryn City is the capital of the Naryn Oblast. There are about 45,000 residents living in Naryn City, primarily Kyrgyz (the part of the country that we were in before had a mix of Kyrgyz, Russian and Turkish families). The residents of Naryn City and Naryn Oblast are thought to speak the purest version of Kyrygz in the country.

Naryn City is located about 1 ½ miles above sea level. It is a narrow city (pretty much three streets wide throughout) surrounded by mountains. The mountains on one side of the city remind us of Arizona—mostly red/orange rock. The mountains on the other side of the city are greener, with many trees.

We feel very fortunate to have access to many amenities in Naryn City. There are a few internet cafes (got to love dial-up), some places to make IP phone calls, several restaurants/cafes, a great bazaar, a bank, post office and a really nice banya. There are also other volunteers in the area so we do not feel isolated.

The people in Naryn City are some of the nicest we’ve met. They are very hospitable and ready to host guests at a moments notice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Gastronomical Trip in Kyrgyzstan

After being in Kyrgyzstan for over ten weeks, one of the most interesting things to discover is how people eat differently than we do in the United States. To be clear, the food culture is different here and vegetarianism is just another way of saying that you aren’t going to get eat much. In describing some parts of the culture, we wanted to describe what people eat on a daily basis for meals.

Before describing the courses, we need to say a few things about how food is prepared here. First, fatty meat is preferred. In fact, mutton fat is considered to be one of the best and most important delicacies. A delicacy served at most celebrations is called, Mai, which is just pure fat. As foreigners, we offered quite a bit of mai. Second, most food is cooked in a lot of cooking oil, enough to put most American deep-fryers to shame. Needless to say, heart disease is the number one health problem. Third, all food comes with tea and bread. Finally, almost all food is homemade. There are some packaged foods, but they are generally expensive and not as good as the really thing.

Beshbarmok- The name of this food literally means “five thumbs” and is meant to be eaten with the hand acting as ladle, scooping the food into your mouth. In the northern part of the country, it is served at every celebration, usually at the end. (When trying to figure out how much longer a party is going to last, we can always count on the party breaking up about twenty minutes after beshbarmok is served.) Beshbarmok is also the only purely Kyrgyz dish. Beshbarmok is fairly simple in what it contains: thick homemade noodles comprise the base of the dish and it is topped with an assortment of meat, generally mutton (but sometimes cow or horse meat). When the noodles are made, they are cooked with the juices of the meat, which creates a salty, meat broth covering the noodles for flavor. Onions are often cut up to add flavor. The meat is placed on top of the noodles and is served in a large, communal serving dish. Being foreigners, we usually get plates and forks. Kyrgyz people consider the eyes, the brain, and the fat to be the tastiest parts of the meat. We have so far avoided the eyes and the brains.

Plov- Plov is an Uzbek rice-based dish that is one of our favorites. The primary ingredient is a flavorful and dense form of rice that is flavored with onion and carrots and topped with the meat of choice. It is cooked on a large wok-like pan over a fire pit. Usually the rice is fairly oily from the juice of the meats and cooking oil. The meat is served on top of large mound of rice in a communal serving dish. A lot of people eat it with a tomato and onion salad on top. Plov is the second most important dish in the north and the most important dish in the south of the country. Most families in our village ate it the night before Ramadan began.

Logman- This is Martin’s favorite Kyrgyz dish (even if it is actually Uzbek) and one of the few that can be made vegetarian. Logman is made of thick noodles, called kecme, served in a bowl with a medley of cooked, chopped vegetables over it (tomatoes, onions, eggplant, garlic, garlic, and a few other Kyrgyz vegetables). Usually, logman also has small pieces of lean meat. What really adds to the taste is that the broth from the cooked vegetables is usually added as a stock to the bottom of the bowl.

Shorpo- This is basically a stew made from seasonal vegetables (there is almost always some carrots, potatoes, onions, and cabbage that are available), a meat broth, and strips of meat. This will probably be a staple in the winter, but is also served regularly in the summer.

Manti- Lauren is becoming an expert at making manti, so hopefully she will be able to make it for whoever wants it when we get back to the US. Manti is a steamed dumpling containing finely diced potatoes, onions, and meat. The real difficulty in making it is making the dumpling.

Virenik- Another steamed dumpling meal made with mashed potatoes on the inside.

Pelmen- A Russian dumpling meal with ground meat on the inside. In Russia, it is served with ketchup. In Kyrgyzstan, the dumplings are boiled and it is served a soup.

Besides these complex foods, there are plenty of simple foods made for quick meals, such as fried potatoes, boiled eggs, buckwheat with vegetables and meat, and peanut butter and jelly (just kidding about the pb & j, but we can always dream). One of the best dinners that we have in this country was an extremely simple meal of fresh onion bread and sliced tomatoes. May sound basic, but are mouths still water thinking about it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Free Time Activities

While it sometimes feels like we have very little free time (classes 6 days a week can do that to you), we have been able to find time for some entertainment. Most of the things we do here are similar to free time activities we did in the US, just with a twist.

As in the US, we enjoy spending some of our free time reading. Unlike in the US, books are in short supply due to the fact that we’re not in an English speaking country and we had very specific weight restrictions on our luggage. (We were tempted to pack books instead of socks, but opted for the socks at the last minute). Due to our limited supply we find ourselves trading books with other PC trainees and, therefore, reading some books that we probably wouldn’t have read in the US. So far this has turned out to be a good thing as we have read many interesting and entertaining books.

As in the US we enjoy spending time outdoors. This most frequently means walking. We walk each morning and sometimes take a stroll around the neighborhood in the evening. Unlike in the US, we have to be on the look out for…

Watching DVDs is also a favorite free time activity. Similar to the book situation, we are in short supply of DVDs so we borrow those as well. We view DVDs on our computer screen, either just the two of us or with friends.

Traveling is also something that we like to do when we can. Two weeks ago we took a bus ride to a nearby city and walked through the animal bizarre (cows, goats, sheep, horses, ducks, rabbits, turkeys, dogs, chickens—all on sale) and a clothing bizarre. This past weekend we walked to some Buddhist ruins in a neighboring village. Archeologists are currently excavating the ruins.

Hanging out with other PC trainees is always fun. We recently had a pizza and card night at another trainee’s home. The pizza didn’t turn out too badly. We were able to make it with the bread that people commonly eat here (it’s round and has a thick crust, just like pizza dough). We bought tomato sauce, tomatoes, olives, onions and cheese and we were all set! Instead of cooking the pizzas in an oven we put them in a covered frying pan. Playing cards was fun, too, because we learned a few Kyrgyz games from our language teacher.

Playing sports is another way we like to spend our free time. While the soccer/basketball/volleyball that Martin bought has long since deflated, we have been able to play basketball with the village PE teacher using his sports equipment. Basketball games are quite entertaining. Our most recent basketball game included a few trainees, our language teacher, the village PE teacher and a few neighborhood children. The village

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


August 19, 2007

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kyrgyz societies is the tradition of konok, or guesting. Konok (gosti in Russian) is the process in which you go over and visit a neighbor. It generally involves tea and a lot of food. Usually, the person hosting offers their best food and sits the guests in the seat of honor, which is usually a raised seat at the end of the table. For Lauren, it is a little similar to the once tradition in Chile, except there is a lot more pressure to eat. Families invite others for konok for special occasions or just to make someone feel welcome in the neighborhood. So far, Lauren and I have gone on konok three times each and they are the times that we feel most welcome within our neighberhood.

The first time we went on konok was part of our Kyrgyz language class. We had just learned directions and we, in partners, were supposed to find particular family’s houses by asking locals where people lived. One of the catches was that we were only given the first names of the husband and the wife. In a community in the US this task would have been impossible, but in the community we are in everybody knows everybody by name and knows who everyone’s husband or wife is. During this experience, we may have learned more Kyrgyz than any other class. More than that, we were shocked by how people were willing to stop their day to have tea with a new member of the community. Martin and his partner went to the house of a woman who ran a store out of her house. She closed the store for over an hour and fed him all of the best treats from her store: her best bread, fruits, tomatoes, coffee, tea, cookies, and chocolates. Lauren’s hosts similarly made the most of everything

Monday, August 13, 2007

Since we’re at the point when all that was atypical is beginning to feel typical, I thought it might be interesting to share with you our typical day in Kyrgyzstan. We have started to go for walks in the morning since walking is the easiest and most accepted form of exercise here (not that we see any Kyrgyz people walking just for fun). So, we wake up at around 6:15 am and head out of the house just about the time that all the cows are leaving for their day in the fields. Walks here require a bit more concentration than walks at home since we are regularly dodging the presents that the cows leave for us along the road. On our walks we get more than our fair share of second glances, but everyone is very friendly. On occasion we are even stopped and asked if we will bring a package or a letter back with us to the states for someone’s relative that moved there. Usually when they hear that we’re going to be in the country for two years they decide to take their chances with the postal service.

When we return from our walk we prepare for our day. Like going for a walk, it is a little bit different getting ready in the morning. The primary difference is that there is no running water. Our host family has running water a few hours every day. During that time they collect water in large tanks and use it throughout the day. Unfortunately, because of the source of the water, we can’t use it on our toothbrushes. Therefore, we usually brush our teeth using our filtered water at the sink outside. It is also customary in Kyrgyzstan to wash your hands and face before breakfast, because cleanliness at meals is very important. Right before we sit down for breakfast we usually change into our clothes for the day, business casual according to PC dress code, and fill our water bottles with water from our water filter. Usually, at about 7:30 we sit down for breakfast.

Breakfast in Kyrgyzstan, at least for us, is a lot hardier than American fare. We generally have bread, a vegetable salad, some tea, and some sort of main course. As it is summer, we usually eat outside at table that is at ground level, so we must sit on the ground to eat our meals. By 7:50, we are up from the table and on our way to language class in the village or to the marshrootka (private bus) stop to head into Kant for Peace Corps training.

On days that we remain in our village for language training, we travel to our teacher’s house, which only about 10 minutes away. There we gather with 3 other PC trainees and learn the ins and outs of the Kyrgyz language. Each day, we usually have one or two grammar lessons and we learn a set of vocabulary words. To reduce the monotony of drills, our teacher (mugalim), usually has us play games to perfect our word command. For example, today we led someone blindfolded around the neighborhood looking for a bottle using only Kyrgyz directional phrases.

At around 12:15 we break for lunch. Our village host mothers decided that it was convenient for them if we all rotated from home to home for lunches so that they don’t each have to prepare lunch everyday. We enjoy rotating homes in which we have lunch because we get to see the different ways each family prepares things. We also get to know each of the host families a bit better.

On days that we’re in the village, Lauren usually has English Club after lunch. English Club is an hour-long club held at the local school for children in the village. It serves several purposes, the main ones being: to give students practice with English, to get trainees more integrated into the community and to give TEFL trainees an opportunity to practice teaching English. During this time, Martin has technical language self-study, which is known in the US as naptime.

On Peace Corps Days we board a marshrootka and take a ride to Kant. These are especially exciting days as we have access to a flush toilet (albeit one with a shower curtain as a door) and to the internet. The mornings on Peace Corps Days are usually reserved for medical and safety lessons and the afternoons are primarily cultural adaptation discussions.

In the late afternoon/evening, before dinner, we usually spend some time studying Kyrgyz, interacting with our host family and reading or writing. Opportunities to interact with our host family include: getting help with our Kyrgyz homework, watching TV or movies together (usually programs are dubbed in Russian), helping prepare food, walking to the store together for bread or tomatoes or just regular conversation. And of course, we try to get a little bit of self-study in then, too.

Dinner is much like lunch, there is a lot of food served. Dinner (and lunch) also seem to last a bit longer here than in the US. When we finally do sit down for one of these meals they usually last at least an hour.

After dinner we get ready to settle in for the night and make what we hope will be our last trip to the outhouse until morning. Unfortunately, on occasion it is necessary to venture into the darkness and brave the outhouse at night. Luckily we have a headlamp to assist us. While the light is pretty strong, we still have to tread carefully because the headlamp doesn’t always illuminate the safest path around the “gifts” the cows leave in the backyard.