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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

A Sunday Afternoon in Kyrgyzstan

Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic
Personal Essay

It's Sunday afternoon and I need bread. I ate the last piece at lunch and a scattered mess of crumbs atop my lopsided kitchen table is the only bread in the house. I need bread for breakfast before I teach tomorrow morning.

I brush the crumbs into a bucket that holds all my food scraps—apple rinds, egg shells, moldy pastries and sour milk—which I will feed to the hogs later, along with whatever else I have accumulated.

Not that I own any hogs. I live in a house in a family's compound. The family lives a hundred meters from me. A large garden, a small apple and pear tree grove, and some livestock pens and stables separate our homes. In the orchard is a grassy half-acre of land where the family's two cows graze and a muscular horse stomps in the background.

The father of the family sometimes sits and smokes and carves wood in the shade of the grove. He runs around the trees, hiding behind the abandoned chicken coop or the rickety firewood shed. Sometimes I see him leap out of hiding and open fire on his enemies, using a broken broom handle for a gun. His voice and breath and tongue work together to simulate rapid machine gun fire—the same way I used to play as a boy. His main enemies seem to be the pigs and the calves. Yet a few times I have caught him peering through my windows. I suspect I have only narrowly survived numerous assassination attempts.

Thus far, however, I have escaped and so I'll be needing bread. I quickly set about tidying before I leave. This doesn't take long as the house contains relatively little: a lumpy bed, a free-standing closet, a refrigerator, a kitchen cabinet, a gas stove, a sink that sometimes yields cold running water, an assortment of chairs and stools, and two tables—one for each of my two rooms. I have everything I need, but not much else. I straighten some papers and close the closet doors. I don't need to turn off the lights because usually during the day there is no electricity. The infrequency of electricity gradually increases as the seasons progress from summer into fall and winter.

I throw on a sweatshirt, pausing to brush off the whitewash that discolors it. Nearly every home and building in the village where I live has been whitewashed inside and out, and the white powder flakes off onto my clothes. At first I was not skilled in avoiding the whitewash, and walked around the village with white splotches on my clothes. It still happens occasionally. I have learned to be more careful, but sometimes my fellow teachers at school will come up to me and, without saying a word, begin to brush off the white powder.

I walk out of my house into the bright Sunday afternoon sunshine and begin walking down the gravel road toward the village bazaar. I can see the snow-capped Kungey Alatau mountains in the north, towering 4,000 meters above the village. A kilometer south of here sits the beautiful Lake Issk-kul. It is 170 kilometers long, and neither end of the lake can be seen while lying on the beach near the village. But it is fall and the air is too chilly to be lying on beaches.

I head down the road at a relaxed, easy pace. I wave and yell "Hello!" to one of my neighbors, an old Russian man who wears a black stocking cap year-round. Sometimes he gives me lectures about the dangers of drinking or smoking, though I've heard he did plenty of both in his day. He sits on a bench outside his home. When he smiles, his gold teeth flash in the sun. There are benches or logs positioned outside most homes in the village. The village social scene takes place on these benches. Neighbors sit together and talk, watching the children play and the people passing by. People stop to sit and chat with their friends.

Most of the houses in the village are built the same: four-room white-washed houses, enclosed by a fence and a gate. One particular shade of light blue paint trims the wood around windows and doors. Another Volunteer once pointed out to me how there seem to be only three colors of paint in Kyrgyzstan. She said the standards enforced by the Soviet government extended even to colors of paint.

I pass a group of small boys playing in the street. Their faces and ragged sweat clothes are smeared with the dirt of the road in which they play all day. Their game is to roll a metal hoop down the street using a curved, metal rod to push it along. I remember seeing kids play this game once when I was watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

The boys stop playing as I approach. They stare at my clothes, my shoes. I smile and stare back. I am probably as interested in them as they are in me. I say hello.

One of the boys, no more than four years old, steps forward and thrusts out a grubby hand. Handshakes are an important ritual for males in Krygyz society. If a Krygyz male enters a room where there are 10 men, the first thing he does is to shake each man's hand. The boy's parents have taught him well. I shake his hand and ask, "How are you?"

The boy is either too shy or too nervous to reply, so I just smile and nod and move on. I glance back and find them still staring after me, their metal hoop lying in the street.

An ancient car rumbles past me, shaking and stirring up dust. Soon after, a young man trots past on a horse, followed by a slow, creaking wooden donkey cart. The cart is loaded down with huge sacks of flour and a crate of apples. The driver, an elderly man with a deeply wrinkled face, seems content to let the donkeys go at their own pace. He is probably headed home. It is 3:15 and the day's business is ending. I see men and women in the distance, carrying bags of vegetables, rice, and sugar away from the bazaar.

"Hello, Mr. Becker!"

I turn, and see one of my students smiling and waving from her front yard. I smile back and return her greeting. Students from school—even ones I have never taught—are always saying hello. I like it. It makes me feel welcome.

I round the corner and see the bazaar a block ahead of me. To my left, I can see a 10-foot statue of Lenin in the distance. Lenin is gazing off into the west, his arm extended. He is pointing to something, but what he is pointing to, I do not know.

I pass through the bazaar, shuffling past various stands where vendors sell sugar, flour, vinegar, matches, safety pins, shot glasses, tomato paste, honey, and a hundred other odds and ends. I nod hello to a few of the vendors. They nod back and ask what I'm looking for. Many vendors are closing now and they pack their wares onto donkey carts or into wheelbarrows.

Beyond the small plaza that houses the vendors is a bakery. I usually buy my bread from women in the bazaar who bring baby carriages full of freshly baked bread to sell. All of the women have left the bazaar, however, so I go to the bakery instead. Tacked to the light blue painted door is a sign that reads: Bread will be ready at four o'clock.

It is 3:30, so I decide to wait outside the bakery. Though it is a sunny day, it is mid-October and a chill hangs in the air. The leaves on the aspen trees throughout the village are beginning to turn yellow and a thin, spotty layer of leaves covers the ground. I find a grassy patch of ground in the sun and sit. Though the sun is falling behind the mountains, it's still hot enough to warm my face. The air is clean and fresh. When the wind blows, I smell burning leaves. I watch the remaining vendors pack their things to leave the bazaar. Others stand around talking and laughing.

I sit quietly and feel the sun grow gradually colder. I'm sure the villagers think I'm crazy to sit on the grass. I've heard people say sitting on the ground gives men hemorrhoids and makes women sterile by freezing their ovaries. I often sit on the ground, though, and they must believe I have a very serious case of hemorrhoids.

I rip up some grass and let it fall to the ground. A few of my students ride by on their bikes and yell hello. After a bit I check my watch and see that 20 minutes have passed. I think about teaching tomorrow and wonder how the weekend passed so quickly. All at once I start to have a strange feeling in my chest. It's not a frightening sensation, but a reminiscent, almost déjà vu feeling. Soon I figure out what it is: It feels like a late Sunday afternoon in the States. It's a lazy, content feeling. It's wondering if you are prepared for Monday and knowing you have only a few more hours before it comes.

The feeling is so distinct that—for a moment—I forget where I am. I imagine I am at home in the U.S., and I have just finished watching a football game and am trying to figure out what to cook for dinner.

The sensation of displacement fades, but that Sunday afternoon feeling stays, even as I watch the last of the bazaar workers disassemble their stalls and listen to the workers carry on in Russian. It is the first time I've felt this way since I came to Kyrgyzstan four months ago. The days have come and gone, but Sunday hasn't felt like Sunday before. Up until this point, I had forgotten that Sunday afternoon—like Monday morning, or Friday afternoon—even had a distinct feeling about it. Since moving here, the days have lost their characteristic feeling, as if I'm on vacation and have forgotten what day it is.

This is a good sign, I think. A sign that I am adjusting to life here; a sign that some sort of normalcy is setting in amidst all that is strange and different. In a few minutes, I will go inside the bakery, buy bread, and return home for a quick meal. I've never believed in big meals on Sunday. 

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