I spent the second half of February on an epic roadtrip around Jalal-Abad oblast; the official objective of the trip was to follow up with teachers who participated in my summer methodology camp, but the unofficial objective of the trip was to hang out with the teachers who came to my camp, meet their families, and eat great food.
After landing at the Osh International Airport and being shuffled into a taxi, the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap held up her hands to pray – her gesture prompted everyone else in the car, myself included, to fold their hands over their face and whisper “oomin” before setting out for Jalal-Abad.
10 months have passed since I last saw my host family in Jalal-Abad, and I was nervous that time had worn away at the goofiness I shared with my siblings or the stories I could share with my host mom. It felt like I had been gone for a few weeks, not a few months, when I stepped through the gate. Nazgul and I talked for hours over pomegranate candies and green tea while Barsbek showed off his new math skills (he can add and subtract, as long as there are plenty of zeros) and Aliya danced around and pointed to her nose on command.
The drive from Jalal-Abad to Kochkor-Ata was generally familiar to me, and the stretch from Kochkor-Ata to Kerben recalled vague memories from my trip last summer, but from Kerben to Ala-Buka was entirely new terrain for me. I had the front seat of the taxi, which is my favorite place to be on trips to new places, because it affords the best view. I watched as our car hugged the Uzbek border, which wasn’t identifiable as such by a wall or a fence, but by a deep trench and the occasional sign warning that someone (from which side?) will shoot upon crossing.
When I first got to Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t have the classic “what the heck are these people saying” moment, since my host family spoke Russian and preferred to speak to me in Russian until my Kyrgyz was good enough to say anything of real interest. So it was a very bizarre experience, almost two years in to Peace Corps, to stay with a family that spoke no Kyrgyz and no Russian – only Uzbek. Granted, Kyrgyz and Uzbek are pretty similar (yakhsy v. jakshy for “good”), but most of the time when my host’s kids were talking to me (read: at me) I could decipher maybe only 10% of what they were saying. It felt totally normal to fall asleep next to 8-year old Mahlie while she cut up an apple and laughed at an Uzbek soap opera, though.
My host in Ala-Buka, Farhad, sat with me for hours drinking cup after cup of green tea. He asked me some of the most thoughtful questions I’ve heard since coming to Kyrgyzstan, and his enthusiasm for teaching, bringing together his community, and public service (he’s one of the rare men in his profession, teaching at a public secondary school, and he works for free as a deputy to his town council) was inspiring.
Also a joy to spend time with was Farhad’s wife, Moxidil, who used to be a teacher but now works at a café in downtown Ala-Buka to make more money. Both days I spent in Ala-Buka, Farhad took me to his wife’s café for some of the tastiest (and cheapest) shashlyk I’ve eaten in Kyrgyzstan.
A man named Erkin (the fifth Erkin I met in the Ala-Buka area) joined us for lunch one afternoon. Erkin fought in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s; and though he was injured twice, he had only positive things to say about his experience. He talked at me in Tajik for a few sentences, proud to show what he learned on the battlefield (it wasn’t clear to me whether he picked the Tajik up from his Soviet comrades or the men he was fighting). Erkin serves on the town council with Farhad, and he also had some really beautiful observations about world peace and international friendship. It’s connections like these that make the stress of Peace Corps worth it, really.