Sunday, February 6, 2011

Osh, part I

We got up at 5:30 the morning we left. Actually, D got up at 5:30 and I got up about 15 minutes before we had to walk out the door. As a direct result of lacking my supervision in the kitchen, D dropped one of the coffee pots on the floor and it stopped working. When Big V called to say he was outside, we were just getting to our huge mugs of coffee. We did our best to smash them at high speed, but ended up having to pour quite a bit down the sink.

After picking up Small V (no relation to Big V) we headed out of town through fields of pylons and fuzzy livestock who almost blended into the brown grass. Everything felt pale- the sleepy blue of the sky, the faded grass, the faded cottages we passed.

After a few hours we started climbing. In front of us the white slopes on either side of the pass rippled and bubbled into each other. I felt nauseous. At the peak I ran through some shardy, wind-driven snow to a rather well-used outhouse. The mixture of dramatic sensations the expedition entailed cured me of my nausea.

The bubbly slopes became craggy, and scattered with dark firs that spiked up from the slopes with commendable verticality. We stopped at a roadside restaurant in a dip between two slopes. Outside it was an imitation Swiss chalet; its interior was generically post-Soviet cozy- dark with pine benches and a tiny gas stove in the corner. We asked for dumplings; they didn't have any. Big V and D proceeded to go through their second, third, fourth choices on the menu before our waitress, a sincere-looking young woman with several gold teeth, explained that all they had was soup, and fried eggs with salami. We ordered four helping of fried eggs with no salami. They were delicious and fresh.

About fifteen minutes on from the restaurant we came to wooden shack with a red '90s VW parked outside. "Uncle Vasya!" Big V shouted. "Can I congratulate you?" A solid, elderly Russian guy in a big fur hat stepped out of the car: "Long time, no see!" He looked elated. His youngest daughter had bought him a car for New Years, he explained. He motioned for us to come out and join him, and opened up the trunk of his car to reveal a whole array of his legendary honey. He poured some bright pink liquid – his homemade raspberry wine – into plastic cups, as D and the Vs protested weakly. I scarfed down half a cup before taking a breath, and only then did I get the taste of raw alcohol. Dyadya Vasya started reading an excerpt from a dirty hardback called "Honey and its Healing Qualities." Big V's mouth flickered and he turned his face to the side. The basic gist was that honey makes you immortal. Given how good he looked, none of us were really in a position to question him. D and Vs made arrangements to buy some honey with royal jelly on our way back. Big D explained that I'd just arrived, and Dyadya Vasya handed me a jar of honey as a gift. He also gave us the raspberry wine for the car ride. I was the only one happy about this.

As we climbed back down the craggy pass lost its snow, lost its trees, and turned iron-red and rolling. Then it became the Fergana valley, flat, brown, and able to be driven through quickly, other than the odd abrupt stop to avoid hitting a cow standing in the middle of the road. I liked seeing all the donkeys- donkeys pulling boys in carts, donkeys carrying loads to the next village on their own, and donkeys just hanging out.

We drove through Uzgen. It felt large and slow and serious. Old Uzbek men in their long cloaks and bulky hats walked in pairs, apparently in silence. Even the crowd of people waiting at a bus stop looked contemplative. (Perhaps they were simply contemplating walking home, or who this person was staring at them from inside a 4x4.) There was no question when were nearing Osh. Torched houses appeared on either side. "This is one of the villages that starts sending people into Osh early on the morning of the 11th," D said. As we got nearer the torched cottages became more dense. Some were closer to piles of rubble; others were simply shells with four walls and a ring of black around the top. D explained, although it hardly needed explanation, that because the roofs were wooden and stored hay, they had gone up in flames like matchboxes.

The makhalla (Uzbek quarter) where we stayed was on Tashkent Street, where the damage was slight. Vitalii, an older Russian guy with dark coloring and light blue eyes, greeted D and Vs, who introduced him to me. Small V took immediate inventory of the bowls of honey and black currant jam set out on the kitchen table. I slept while he and D discussed the final touches to the report on the decay of infrastructure. Around 6:30 we headed over to the makhalla where O the lawyer lived. He greeted us with a toddler in his arms. The house was spacious, and in the process of a plasticky but relatively inoffensive "Western renovation." They had begun renovating before June, now the process was halted. I think there were several lots of rubble in the vicinity of their house, but those were such a typical sight that I may be mixing up locations. The IO officials present cheerfully eviscerated Osh's police force; O was downcast and spoke little: Uzbeks didn't want to leave their own quarters; work opportunities had all but disappeared. We asked about the mayor expanding his sphere of influence; O replied thoughtfully that he was doing so mainly in the area of "business." Everyone laughed. Small V and I drank tons of Bishkek brand cognac.

Big V ended up taking all the guests home, which meant piling six people in the back of the car. Small V appeared to have completely disappeared under the pile at one point, and we were relieved to finally make out the muffled sound of his voice. Back at the inn, D, Vs, and I said goodnight and went off to our rooms, a cozy little family.

Next day-delicious kasha, aladi, cream, and honey at the inn. Then coffee at the California Cafe, where the head chef, a pretty, middle-aged woman with one eye, greeted Big V and D as friends. Then to a local human rights organization. The head grimaced as he spoke, as if trying not to cry. Harassment of Uzbeks was rampant, he said. Pensioners taking care of their grandchildren were having drugs planted in their houses and getting tens of thousand of dollars- or more- extorted in order to have charges dropped. People, including relatives of his, had been illegally detained, beaten, and tortured. He opened his notebook to a laminated photo of a boy with his fingernails ripped out. On our way out to lunch we stopped by a major news agency that happened to be in the same building. A formal, intelligent-looking woman told us that the situation was stabilizing and things were getting better. That was about it. "She was clearly embarrassed," D said after we left.

After California Cafe part II we dropped by everyone's least favorite IO to talk to a political officer, a fast-talking and diligent American. His biggest concern was what was going to happen to vulnerable populations in a few months when all the donor money runs out. With dramatically increasing food prices, people would be turning to robbery and the Uzbeks, who don't feel comfortable going to the police, would be the targets. He said the mayor had toned down his ethnic cleansing rhetoric, was basically a stand-up guy as narcotraffickers go, and suggested the international community would be well-advised to cooperate with him.

From there it was off to the youth organization, where I was told they had great relations with the mayor, and that they didn't discuss ethnicity, because it simply created a sense of divide where there was none. After that, I talked to a sweet, slightly crestfallen-seeming dude at a sexual violence program. He basically said that their funds were being cut just as clients were opening up not only about sexual violence during the pogroms, but about about generational cycles of violence in their families.

We had an enormous dinner at the California Cafe, then stumbled home to bed with bloated stomachs.

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