The Bill Bame - Winter 2007

The Bill Bame - Summer 2007


Past Issues

The first issue of the newsletter has been released by our editor, Becca Ripley. Two of the articles are posted below. You can also download the entire formatted newsletter in Word (413 kb size).

Four Years For a T-Shirt

by Matt Cain

The judge offered his hand and apologies for the actions of misguided youth. The defense lawyer told me I taught English to her daughter and invited me to dinner with her family. The two young men accused of theft and assaulting me stood nearby, watching and listening. They must have been adding up the odds against them, measuring their bad luck. Whatever they had intended, it wasn't this.

It happened July 4th late at night. I was walking home from West Cafe along Toktogul Street. The beers I drank weighed heavily and I decided to find a tree since it was another 10 minutes until home. Slipping into the shadows and doing my business, two men came toward me. I got myself proper and tried to walk past them out of the shadows and into the street. They grabbed me, saying nothing, pulling me back into the shadows. Turned around, with my back toward the street, I tried talking to them and yanking free of their grip. They kept pulling and eventually I was bent over and one had grabbed the collar and back of my shirt. We struggled in this way for a few moments until I figured if I wiggled a bit, my shirt would come off in their hands and I could escape. They yanked my shirt off and I moved out into the street.

Bare chested, fear replaced by anger, I demanded they give me the shirt and t-shirt back. I tried first in Russian, but who knows what I actually said. They looked a bit puzzled. Finally I yelled and cursed them in English. This caught their attention. The shorter and rounder of the two stopped picking up the cigarettes spilled out of my shirt pocket, got my shirt, folded it nicely and handed it back while bowing with his right hand over his heart. He then took off toward a car waiting a little ways down the street. The other one remained, t-shirt in hand and flashed a badge. He beckoned me to him. I refused to leave the relative safety of the road, where I was trying to flag down passing cars. I flashed him my Peace Corps wallet and motioned for him to come out into the lighted street. He refused and after a moment, walked to the car, taking my t-shirt.

The next morning I went to the militia headquarters with a friend to file a report. After getting passed from officer to officer, all looking somewhat puzzled and amused as the story was told, and writing the story three times, I went home thinking that was the end of it. Next morning, the militia summoned me to identify suspects. When I arrive, I'm taken into a small room where a t-shirt lies on a table. They ask if it is mine. It is. How do I know? It has the deodorant rings in the armpit. They get a good laugh when I explain, then they escort me into another room where five men are lined up against the wall. Do I recognize any of them? One of them is a militia officer who took my written report the day before. Another is an old man, still drunk from the night before and offering to shake my hand. The third a man I'd never seen before.

The last two, heads down, beltless and without shoelaces, resembled the two who grabbed me. I wasn't sure, but it wasn't the other three. The officer in charge didn't need to hear anything more and pulled the two young men into the other room with the t-shirt, had them lean over the table, and took a Polaroid of them with the evidence

They assigned me a lawyer which led to more reports. One meeting involved me and my program manager Rashid, who was now my official translator, sitting in a small room in militia headquarters, with my lawyer at a small table across from us. Next to me the two accused of attacking me waited for the questioning. During breaks they asked for cigarettes and told me they meant it only as a joke. And that I shouldn't be out alone after dark.

When I thought this meeting couldn't get more bizarre, in came a high ranking officer and three others. They sat on the other side of the room, the officer behind a small table and the others on the bench that extended down from where I sat with my crew. The officer began questioning one of the young men, loud enough for our group to stop what we were doing to listen. I couldn't understand what they were saying, but a young man began crying, saying over and over he had been drunk and didn't remember anything. Rashid translated the rest for me. The young man was accused of beating another man to death with repeated blows to the head with a rock.

Once the court date arrived, I met Rashid, Marat and the temporary country director (Joe was out of the country for the month) outside the court. We waited next to the Land Cruisers for the defendants to arrive. Some of my neighbors (I lived about a 2 minute walk from the court) saw me and came to offer support. By the time the defendants arrived, in a Lada stuffed with six others accused of crime and a militia officer, a small crowd stood around me. They showed us to a room where we waited for the lawyers and judge, the two young men along the back wall, me and the Peace Corps staff on the side wall, and my neighbors standing outside looking in through the large, open windows.

The proceedings began and we all recited our stories and questioned each other about little details. They pleaded guilty and offered apologies, explaining hardships and poor judgment. They had thought I was a drunk Russian peeing in the central park and they simply wanted to tell me to be more respectful. An honest mistake, won't happen again. I accepted their apologies and we waited for the sentencing. The judge spoke and I saw the young men's eyes widen and mouths open. They both tried to speak and the judge silenced them. The judge then asked me questions. Rashid told me they were sentenced to four years in prison. Did I find their punishment fair? I don't know what outcome I expected, but this definitely was not it. I blurted out that four years was too much and Rashid immediately translated before I could say anything else. The defense lawyer cheered and one of the defendants came toward me hand out and head bowed thanking me before the militia officer pushed him back to his seat. The sentence was changed to probation and the case was gaveled to an end.

The judge offered his thanks and returned the evidence, my t-shirt, to me. We all walked out together and shook hands all around. An older brother of one of the defendants thanked me before walking off with newly freed brother. The other defendant walked alone toward the city center. Peace Corps staff piled into the Land Cruisers and set off for Bishkek. And I was escorted back to my apartment by neighbors who were determined to find me a wife who would know how to wash away the yellowish deodorant stains in the armpits of my t-shirts.


A Return Visit

by Tiffany Tuttle

The first phrase I said in Kyrgyz after four years away was, "Menin sumkam kelgen jok" (My bag hasn't come yet.) This was not a surprise to me, since I had flown with Horizon air from Seattle to Los Angeles, and then switched to Aeroflot from LA to Moscow, and Moscow to Bishkek. I had packed all the essentials in my carry-ons: my camera, laptop, a change of clothes, my toothbrush and basic toiletries, a water filter, and library books on the anthropology of art.

Adjusting to being back in Kyrgyzstan was like coming home to someplace whose little quirks I knew well but needed to remind myself about. Oh yeah, the wall switches are on the left of the door at shoulder-height. Right, the toilet paper goes in the trash, not the toilet. Need to remember to pick up a kepetilnik for heating bath water when I see a bazaar...

There were a lot of things that I could still say in Kyrgyz and Russian, but there was a whole lot more that people could say to me that I couldn't understand. I has also misplaced my mental map of Bishkek - I spent the first several days wandering around, either walking in the wrong direction for hours and then surrendering and taking a taxi home, or taking marshrutkas on crazy rides all over the place, hopping from one to the next in the hopes that I would get to somewhere I recognized. I hadn't planned on spending a week in Bishkek, but it was actually an unexpected blessing, since it gave me time to regroup and orient myself in a town where a mix of Russian, Kyrgyz and English could get me by. And then I went to Kochkor.

I was one of the Volunteers who was moved up from the south when the problems in Batken began in 1999, and my time in the Peace Corps had been a little rocky. I had made arrangements with the Peace Corps to leave my village to head up the GLOBE ecology program in Jalal-Abad, a difficult decision made even more difficult by my host family's failure to understand why I was leaving. Then, during what should have been my transition, I was evacuated with the other southern volunteers and relocated to Balikchi. I never saw my host family again. My time in Balikchi had been marked by professional frustration, both with GLOBE and the Fund Meerim center where I was working, and because my time was short and other PCVs were plentiful I made few attempts to integrate into my new community. After COS, I struggled with whether or not my second year had been served well, whether or not I had made any impact. Hearing that the struggling GLOBE program collapsed under my successor, Alice Tyler (now Moy), despite all her valiant efforts did not assuage my doubts. Now I was back, and a bit leery of opening old wounds by traveling back to my old haunts.

The reason I was back was to study the effects tourism was having on shyrdaks. I had been good friends with Alison Howard (now Howard-Yilmaz), the PCV working with Kyrgyz Style, and had spent time with her and the ladies in the office, learning about the difficulties of making shyrdaks for export. When I had applied to graduate school, I was hoping to study tourist art among Native Americans. Then I realized that the connections I had made in Kyrgyzstan, academic interest in Central Asia, along with my knowledge of the culture and the language, made studying tourist art there a much more exciting option for an MA thesis.

So Anara at Kyrgyz Style had put me in contact with Altyn Kol, a shyrdak making group in Kochkor, Naryn, just a two hour taxi ride south of the lake. For the first month in Kochkor, I went to the Altyn Kol office and simply hung out, trying to make a chair-seat sized shyrdak and helping with the English-speaking tourists that occasionally came into the office in the slow month of June. Altyn Kol shared their building and their PCV, Jake, with Community Based Tourism, aka CBT. Tourists would come to CBT so that they could experience a homestay in one of the jailoos nearby, such as Lake Song-Kol, and often while they were in the building they would stop by Altyn Kol's store and purchase some of the shyrdaks and other souvenirs that Altyn Kol members had made.

I found out pretty quickly that things in Kyrgzstan had changed, when I tried to tell some tourists that a car from Bishkek to Osh could take up to 26 hours, something that K5s and K6es had experienced while I was in country; with the new road that was finished in 2000 the ride rarely took more than 12 hours, and Jake chastised me for scaring the tourists like that. Aside from Jake, there were two other volunteers in town, and one more who lived in a village nearby and visited often to work on a computer and check email. Living outside of town meant that I didn't ever make it to Mandisco with them in the evenings, but it was fun having lunch or getting marozhna in town in the afternoons with the PCV boys.

I made arrangements to stay for all of June and July with Sveta-eje, the manager of Altyn Kol, her husband Adambeck-baike and one their son Jildizbeck. This was our cozy family for the first month, and then as the universities let out their three other sons came to stay for various periods of time, with a wife and 6-month-old baby and various friends in tow. In addition, one of Adambeck's nieces, Perizat, was an English language student and she volunteered to act as my translator so that she could "have a practice." The population of the house swelled, making life much more lively.

Wary of making ties and leaving quickly, at first I treated Adambeck and Sveta as my hosts, not my host family. That all ended quickly, however, as they began to introduce me to everyone as their daughter, gave me nicknames (Tinatin, or Tina for short, or sometimes simply Tifa), and treated me as one of their own. Their generosity and warmth overcame all of my doubts, and helped me work through the remaining issues that I had about my experiences as a PCV. Through the long conversations we had walking 3 km. to and from the store each day, watching a Russian-dubbed Venezuelan telenovella, and playing with Sveta and Adambecks' granddaughter, Perizat and I became close friends and confidantes. She helped me find women to interview, translated their responses to my questions, and helped me get out of drinking more chai than was absolutely necessary.

I was also lucky enough to have an old friend, Amy Redwine (K6 with me), in Bishkek while I was living in Kochkor. Amy had come back to teach English, and generously opened her apartment to me whenever I was in town. I befriended some of her coworkers, Benjamin and Adam, as well. I knew that I couldn't allow myself to work next door to CBT all summer and never make it to jailoo, so the four of us went on a weekend horseback trip to a small lake called Kol-Ukok. The ride was long, the arrival in the dark harrowing, but the family we stayed with was very generous, and the stories and photos that we took back were worth it. Amy also hosted me for my last week in country, and I could not have had more fun in Bishkek if I had tried.

This time around, I commissioned a full-sized shyrdak for myself (a bonus of working with a shyrdak-making group), since I had only brought back a small one after my PCV service. Spending all day in the souvenir shop proved dangerous as well, as I bought nearly as many souvenirs for myself - wall-hangings, hair ornaments, sheepskin chair pads, piyalas, etc - as I did for my friends and family back home. The souvenirs I bought were generously added to by many of the Altyn Kol members I had befriended, who gave me beautiful slippers, pillow cases, and hot pads as estelik (rememberances).

I got back to the US with all my bags, lots of photographs and souvenirs, and plenty of new stories to tell. I remembered where the light switches were and where to put the toilet paper after a few days, and showering was delightful. I bought a mini-kepetilnik at the grocery store for heating up tea at school. My photograph of a kazan full of boiling sheep parts came in second behind a classmate's Cameroonian dried monkey as the worst-looking food eaten in the field (although when it was done, the plov tasted great). I have given five talks on my research experiences, to audiences as varied as three prospective PCVs, two classes of undergrads, and the Post-Socialist Studies group of the American Anthropological Association, all of which have been received enthusiastically. I am also in the process of revising the first draft of my thesis. And Perizat writes emails to me once or twice a week, to tell me what the weather is like, how her classes are going, and to say hello from my new friends and family back in Kyrgyzstan.

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Site updated: December 19, 2007