The First Thing

By Brittany Callahan
Oct. 25, 2017
Apa (photo by Matthew Blumenthal)

The first thing my apa1 taught me was how to clean my shoes. As I was leaving for my second language lesson, still jetlagged, she ran after me wielding a horsehair brush. She was talking rapidly in Kyrgyz and I only caught one word – ooyat2. She knelt on our stoop, took hold of the shoe I was putting on and began to vigorously exile every speck of dirt from it. I crouched next to her and picked up my other shoe. There were a lot of things on my mind; possibly being late, my desperate need for sleep, and the very, very dusty road that led to my LCF’s house.

Through an intricate dance of gestures she offered (twice) to clean both shoes. I refused (twice) and motioned that I’d like to do it myself. She shrugged her shoulders and handed me the brush. After rushing through it, I rachmat-ed3 profusely and, wearing one very clean shoe and one moderately clean shoe, left through the back gate. By the time I reached class ten minutes later, my shoes were covered in a fine but visible layer of dust.

The next day I woke up late, and in my morning trip to the outhouse, nearly tripped over my apa again kneeling on the stoop and cleaning my shoes. I could not understand why she bothered and was anxious that she was crouching in the cool morning while I sat inside sipping hot tea. I knew they would be dirty again by the time I came home that night and I thought it completely futile. Not knowing the Kyrgyz word for futile, I squatted next to her and mimed doing it myself. She kept me company while I did, occasionally letting loose a smile or an azamat4.

I know that my first impression of this country was dust: The dusty road I live on, dust working its insidious way into my nice suede loafers, dust covering the street dogs I stopped to pet despite all the clear advice against it. I also know that for the first week living here I never saw any mountains, even though from my backyard, on a clear day, you can see a beautiful stretch of the Ala Too. This month, the first of many, has been characterized by the daily struggle of not missing the mountains by focusing on the dust.

Some days I win and I am rewarded with the overwhelming joy of seeing mountains while I hang up my laundry and understanding snippets of conversations on a crowded marshrutka5. There are many days that aren’t as epiphanous, but I live for the ones that are – the days that the dust only makes the dusk, and the mountains, more beautiful.

[1] Mother (апа)

[2] Shame (уят)

[3] Thanks (рахмат)

[4] Well done (азамат)

[5] Taxi bus (маршрутка)