February involved a lot of travel around Kyrgyzstan, not an easy transition back to work and life after a month of traveling in Thailand and Malaysia. Almost immediately after getting back to Jalal-Abad, I was back in the capital for a week of training for English teaching volunteers and a few days of committee meetings. I got two weeks to settle and plan for the semester before making another long journey to the north, this time to Issyk-Kul (remember, Hot Lake?) for a training on grant-writing and project design.
Since I was already so far from Jalal-Abad, I decided to extend my stay in Issyk-Kul a few extra days. My trusty travel companion Ethan (with whom I’ve logged the most hours on marshrutkas and planes in K-stan) and I made our way to Karakol, Issyk-Kul’s oblast capital and a pretty dense hub of volunteers. It’s always a treat to visit other volunteers on their home turf, to have an opportunity to see their homes, how they spend their time, and with whom.
We wandered the bazaars in search of plastic flowers, kitchen supplies, and a mirror for Steph, a fellow volunteer who just moved into her own apartment; we ate the best pizza I’ve had in Kyrgyzstan; and we sat for hours in the famous Karakol Coffee. It had the vibe of a real American coffee shop, and it was neat to see the rapport the volunteers have built with the place’s owners. Recently, Olga and Vadim bought Karakol Coffee for their 17-year old daughter, Zhenya; Zhenya manages the place, bakes all the brownies and cakes, and works the counter every day after school.
I especially loved the morning we spent around Karakol’s religious spaces. Steph’s apartment is not too far from a Dungan mosque, famous for being built without any nails. There are two large murals in the space by the door that depict beautiful images of rainbows and the solar system; the accompanying text on both murals is in four languages (Arabic, Kyrgyz, Russian, and English). Karakol’s other religious gem is an old Orthodox church; it’s a huge building, at least by Kyrgyz standards, all weathered wood and intricate trim. We couldn’t take any pictures inside, but the change to stare up at the dome painted with constellations made up for the little boy screaming the whole time we were walking around.
With a mid-afternoon flight from Bishkek on Sunday, I had to leave Karakol on Saturday afternoon. I waited an hour and a half for the marshrutka to Balykchy (Fisherman) to leave, but I made it to the other end of the lake before sundown. I spent the night in Balykchy with two other volunteers, catching up and talking clubs, grants, and summer plans at Smak, the city’s best-known café. The power only went out once and we only had to ask for the check and our change 3 times before calling it a night.
There’s a Russian saying, “В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше,” or in English, “It’s good as a guest, but it’s better at home.” Now that I’m back in Jalal-Abad for good (at least for three weeks before the next Peace Corps training in Bishkek…), I’m excited to dig into work, redevelop a routine, and spend some time with my host family. After spending so many hours at Karakol Coffee, I’ve also got to start networking around Jalal-Abad to find someone who’d be willing and interested to import an espresso machine and lay the groundwork for a real coffee shop…