Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Darkest Recesses of my Heart

My brother came home early while I was taking care of the nephew yesterday. The kid was napping (Finally, after an hour of sqirking around in the big boy bed, he passed out after a block in the stroller), and I was watching my Netflix DVD in the living room. Well, I jumped right up, turned it off, pulled out the DVD, and stuffed it in my purse as soon as I heard the doorknob turn, but it was too late. He caught me.

"What are you watching? What is that?" Ever the big brother, always able to catch the slightest hint of shame.

"It's, um, it's Battlestar Galactica." Ever the less-than-cool little sister, always apologizing for my nerdiness.

"The TV show?" Disbelief.

"Yeah, well, it's from Netflix. I kind of love it."

And, so, as long as I've already been outed by my favorite older brother, I might as well tell you, faithful readers, Jenn and Jen alike. I love Battlestar Galactica. And no, I am not secretly a man. Women can like Sci Fi, too, you know. Really, really nerdy women, for example.

But, if you want to judge, then at least watch some of it before you do, because if you do you'll see a show in which the humans are driven to participate in suicide bombings, and you'll see main characters argue about the use of the tactic. You'll see secret wartime tribunals meet to condemn accused traitors, and you'll see the danger of the secret tribunal as they almost execute an innocent man. You'll see post-traumatic stress turn Starbuck into a not-so-sympathetic heroine. You'll watch intelligent arguments about genocide and biological warfare. And you'll get to see gratuitous shots of Lee Adama with his shirt off, which just about proves that I'm not the only straight woman watching the show.

So, anyway, I'm not trying to deny my nerdiness. Indeed, I am thankful that it allowed me to watch such an intelligent and pertinent show (gratuitous male torsos aside). I will just say that my name is Alex, and I am a Battlestar Galactica viewer, and I'm proud. Join me. Together we can conquer the final frontier and make Sci Fi safe for women at long last.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mary Johnson

Our first experience with the previous owner of our house's do-it-yourself tendencies came within two weeks of moving in. At the closing, she said that as a single woman, she always felt safer coming home and parking in her garage if she didn't have to get out of her car to lift the garage door. She bragged that she had installed a garage door opener as a safety measure in her new home. So, one fateful day, coming home late at night, I pushed the button on the much-lauded garage door opener and watched as the garage door was pulled apart by the mechanism that was supposed to lift it. You see, in the old days garage doors were heavy, and they were designed to be lifted from below by the driver of the car. They were not designed to be pulled from above by an automatic opener. It was predictable that the door would fail. Predictable, that is, to everyone except for Mary Johnson.

"Mary Johnson" quickly became a cuss word around our house. When we operated a hole-saw on the door frame of the downstairs apartment door in order to install a deadbolt, and found that it spun helplessly when it hit the folded pages of a magazine that had been used to shim the door in place, we shook our heads and muttered, "Mary Johnson". Then the kitchen sink clogged - because it had been installed to drain uphill - which cost us hundreds of dollars to fix. My sun room painting project turned into an ordeal when I discovered that not only had the wallpaper been painted over, but the bottom 2 feet of the wall had also been plastered on top of the wallpaper. Good one, Mary Johnson. Thanks to you, I had to install wainscoting.

To be fair, the house is nearly 100 years old, so Mary Johnson may not have been the owner for all of the gimcrack do-it-yourself fix-it jobs that have ever been done to it. Life isn't fair, though, so in our minds she always gets the blame. When an outlet sent off sparks in the attic, and I opened it up to find an octopus of wires behind the faceplate, I could only curse poor "Mary Johnson", especially when I discovered that trying to simplify the wiring in that overloaded outlet affected the lights in the living room.

And so this morning, when I had a roofer over to give me an estimate for some leaks, I was quick to point out that the previous owner didn't know jack about flashing. His inspection revealed that not only did poor Mary Johnson know nothing about flashing techniques, her shingling skills were poor, too. I'm shocked. How could a woman who shims with a magazine not know how to shingle a roof? And with all her fix-it skillz didn't she ever hire anyone to do anything around the house?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Home Sweet Divot

I've had my bed for enough years, and enough of those years have featured me sleeping alone in it, that I've managed to wear away a me-shaped divot on one side of the mattress. There's something comforting about that indentation in my bed. It gives me a thrill similar to the one I feel because my space bar and home keys are shiny with wear. I made this. I did it all by myself, and not because I was trying to, but just because I used these things enough times that eventually they yielded to the weight of my body or to the gentle tapping of my right thumb enough times in just that one spot on earth.

How many nights did it take for me to curve the mattress to exactly fit just the way I sleep? How many words did I type so that my soft skin finally wore away the plastic beneath it?

At any rate, it's nice to be home to the one mattress in the world that is shaped this way. It's freeing to have instant access to the Internet any time I want it (although I'm trying not to want it quite so often, since I should be doing dishes or learning Calculus), and, even though I have had to spend the past two days at a conference for math team coaches, it's wonderful to have some measure of control over my own time again. This morning I ran for 40 minutes in the dog park, catching again that sense of rhythm I get from the sound of my feet on the ground and the feeling of air entering my lungs. I was molding the muscles in my legs not by trying to but by using them over and over again, wearing away a path in the dog park with my running shoes at the same time as the dirt whittled away at the tread on their bottoms.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Safe in London, Folks

I just reserved a hotel at Heathrow (so expensive Buddy may have to switch to generic kibbles) and I'm off to explore these Tubes they have here, as soon as I drop off my bags, rinse my pits, and change for the theatre. See you soon in the MN!

After I wrote these words, I took the tube to Leicester Square, bought a half-price ticket and saw "The Thirty-Nine Steps" at the Criterion. Didn't know that you would be able to hear the tube every time it rumbled underneath during the show. Didn't realize it was a comedy. Didn't think it was all that funny, but I might have liked it better if I had just seen the movie. I also thought one of the actors was an annoying ham, but the rest of the audience loved him, so who am I to judge? (Well, most of you know that I secretly think I am a better judge of acting ability than that loud tourist next to me who didn't even change out of his dirty t-shirt and shorts to watch the theater. OK, OK, it's not a secret.)

Even if it wasn't funny, the theater was a great way to keep myself awake until London bedtime. I was alone on the Tube ride home, so I took a picture. After taking over two hundred pictures in two weeks in Kyrgyzstan, suddenly I think I'm too cool to let anyone see me snap photos in London.

I realized as I returned to my hotel room that my definition of having enough space is being able to pee with the door open and walk around after my shower without a towel. No wonder I felt overcrowded for two weeks. And, yes, some parking lot in London got to see me naked if it was looking, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Do You Have the Time?

I don't have a watch. Tom does and it has local and East Coast time, so I have been using his East Coast time and changing it by two hours to figure out what you-all are doing in Minnesota (usually when I'm up you're sleeping). I am embarrassed to admit that it wasn't until yesterday that I figured out a pretty good trick for figuring out the time back home. When I had Tom's watch, I figured out I could take the current time, add two hours and change the AM to PM to get East Coast time. Then, I had to subtract two hours to get Minnesota time. Some of you math-people might already be there. Here's the trick to get Minnesota time: We're twelve hours off. I just change the AM to PM. Duh.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Not-So-Very-Hot Lake

I dreamed last night that while I was babysitting for Cat and Finn, I lost Finn. The worst part was that the Alex in my dream had all of the panic of the real Alex, but none of the competence, and so there was a lot of aimless running around and moments when I would reach for my cell phone and find that instead of packing my phone I had accidentally stolen the TV remote from my apartment in Bishkek. Anyway, I wouldn't allow myself to wake up until Finn was relocated, which happened not due to the incompetent-Al, but due to a call from an anonymous person who wanted to deliver him safely home under cover of darkness without being identified. Dum dum dum.

My first R and R event of the day was a solitary walk to the beach of Issyk-Kyl at 6:00 AM. I planned to go earlier, but I awoke to find that I was locked inside the guest house compound until the cooks woke up to make breakfast. Issyk-Kyl means "hot lake". It got its name not because it's actually hot, but because it never freezes. There is a big difference between hot water and not-frozen water as you know, but I guess "Pretty Damn Cold Lake that Somehow Still Never Freezes" doesn't sound inviting to Russian tourists, so "Hot Lake" it is. At 6 AM, the Russian tourists are sparse but friendly. The greet each other loudly, laugh at the people psyching themselves up for a morning swim, flirt with the little kids toddling on the shore, and stand chatting on the beach while they take in the beauty of the lake surrounded by ice-capped mountains.

I talked a while with a paunchy Russian and a middle-aged Kyrgyz man. We quickly used up all of their English words - and my Russian was exhausted at "good morning" - and so the conversation ended with "American women, beautiful. I love you." Then I jumped in the lake.

I swam again after breakfast, but at that time of day the beach has too many Russians with too much junk in their trunks (and a spare tire up front). Still there is something appealing about a culture in which it's OK to wear a skimpy swimsuit no matter your body type - not visually appealing, mind you, but appealing nonetheless. The Russians all had terrible sunburns. During the hour I sat on the beach, I saw no one apply a drop of sunscreen. I guess their skin cancer can heal during the nine months of winter.

A little before lunchtime, we piled into the van again for a trip to the Kyrgyz version of the Katy Daly - only with a more powerful diesel engine and a deck large enough fpr a table that seats twelve. It was the first relaxing part of the R and R, and we took advantage of it by lounging on the deck and stuffing piles of grilled meat, bread, and salads into our guts. At one point, the capatain stopped the boat, and some of us jumped in the lake again. The water at this depth was startlingly blue and crystal clear. It was a lovely - if cold - third swim of the day.

Now we are all back in Bishkek and I have moved into my new apartment. Dean and Suze left this morning. The trip is winding down. We just have one more day to stroll the city, one more day to work, andthen we fly home. I spend a night in London on the way home, which will be an adventure, but I miss my Buddy and my bed - although not necessarily the smell of Buddy in my bed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Everybody Forward!

After horseback riding it was difficult to imagine our planned whitewater-rafting trip. I didn't want to be wrong again, but it just had to be a disappointment after the horses.

The trip began with the van pulling off to the side of the road where we had to scurry across the highway, down a ravine, and across some railroad tracks to three lean and muscular Russian-Kyrgyz men in skimpy bathing suits. They ferried us on a raft across the river to their camp, where they outfitted us with wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. They made what sure sounded like surly comments about us in Russian. Our translator/guide confirmed that they were in "bad moods."

They guided us back to the raft, where six of us got to paddle on our knees with straps holding us in place. The rest of the crew straddled an inflatable bench in the middle of the raft and held onto straps. Four strong guides joined us as paddlers at each of the corners. The lead guide said, "You: left side" - pointing at my side - "You: right side" - pointing across the raft. "I say: left side forward, right side back paddle. I say: right side forward, left side back paddle. I say: Everybody forward. I say stop, you stop. Pay attention. Dangerous place. OK?" - slight pause, and then, "Right side forward, left side back paddle." We did as he said and the boat turned towards the current. "Everybody forward!" We were in the whitewater within seconds. "Stop!", and the four guides took over steering us around rocks and safely through the rough water. I was drenched immediately from the splashing waves.

Before 20 minutes had passed, the guides steered us to shore so they could reinflate the boat. Then they huddled together with the lead guide giving instructions (or so it seemed to the non-Russian speaker), and then they all laced their arms over each others shoulders and bowed their heads for what appeared to be one last prayer for safety. Nice effect, because we listened a little more carefully when we were allowed back on the raft and the lead guide pointed ahead with his paddle and said, "This very dangerous place. Pay attention. Everybody forward!" We followed his instructions and we were rewarded with a nosedive down the next set of rapids. When my paddle reached out only to find air, I reached a little bit further, because all I knew was that if I wanted to survive, I had to obey that calm, certain, and heavily-accented voice over my right shoulder. He knew where every hidden boulder lay, and if we listened to him he was going to navigate us safely past them and down the river - no matter how crabby he was.

We had two hours of near-constant rapids. It was two hours with a little bit of terror, but mostly great fun. I wanted it to last longer, but my knees shook like jello when I finally unstrapped them from the boat, so it was probably a good thing that we were finished and ready for another nap in the van and a drive to the lake.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Finding My Sociable Self

I thought about staying behind in Bishkek while the crew went on holiday. I was having fantasies about empty apartments, privacy, and unscheduled time. Then I spoke firmly to myself. "Al," said I, "You are being a hermit. Get over yourself. You might actually enjoy yourself if you do." Thank goodness I listened, because I was right.

The first stop of our vacation-within-a-vacation was horseback riding. I was expecting lazy nags plodding through a well-worn trail through a forest. I was expecting to be afraid nevertheless, and I was expecting to be thrown from my nag and wind up trampled and dead on the ground. I was wrong.

The drive to the stable should have convinced me of how rugged the trail was going to be. We traveled across narrow dirt roads up into the mountains. At one point, our van, laden with thirteen people and their gear lurched across a bridge made of logs. The logs rolled under our wheels as we passed. The driver just laughed when we gasped. "We do this all the time," said our English-speaking guide, and I tried not to imagine all of those previous trips weakening the structure of the bridge.

I climbed up on my horse apprehensively, and received instructions. "Chu" means go, and "Prrrr" means stop. I barely had time to hope that my horse would be understanding that my American tongue just doesn't roll its R's. And then, within five minutes, we were climbing mountainous trails and viewing breathtaking scenery. I clung to my saddle with my arms and legs as we descended into valleys, and I relaxed my grip ever so sligtly when we headed up the hills again. It was two of the most thrilling hours of my trip so far - the view so gorgeous and the transportation so exciting that the time passed quickly. It wasn't until we reached the shephard's hut where we were to sleep, that I realized how hungry I was. My hunger had been anticipated and a giant feast lay before us when we entered the hut. We ate with gusto, appreciation, and good humor.

And so it was that I found my sociable self inside of an isolated hut in the middle of the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?

The last day of floors is complete!

On Monday we move on to ceilings. We had a traditional Kyrgyz meal at a restaurant with Kamile as our translator. I complained to Jim about feeling overcrowded in the Penthouse. After our R and R trip to the Lake, I will move into the apartment that Jim and Suze and Dean share. Suze and Dean leave on Sunday morning because their flight got rescheduled, and I will have my own personal space for the last two days and three nights of the trip. A room of one's own, as it were.

Donning the Rose-Colored Glasses

I've gone from living alone with my Buddy to living in a 2-bedroom one-bath apartment with three other people, and taking all of my meals with nine other people, and I can be flexible and roll with the punches as well as anyone, but I sure do miss my alone-time these days. Seven days of togetherness appears to be just about my limit. Suze tried to tell me to take an antibiotic yesterday, and I gave her that sneer of dismissal patented by my family, which I instantly regretted. Lindsay asked me why I was so quiet at dinner and I snapped, "Because I'm an introvert and being with all of these people all of the time drains my energy." She didn't talk to me again all through dinner. Way to go, Al. Making friends and influencing people halfway around the world just like you do at home. Sweet.

Yesterday we worked on the floor some more. Because the lumber is so bad, we had trouble making the floorboards fit. Every board has to be flipped and rotated to see what the best fit is, and then it has to be wedged into place to eliminate the gaps before it's nailed in place. Our team got a rhythm going by the end of the day (and included Lindsay who forgave me for being such a downer at dinner), but we still weren't able to finish the job by the end of the day.

We spend our down-time on the job exchanging language lessons with our Kyrgyz co-workers. We can how say "Malatok" which means hammer, and they can say "crowbar" with a delightful roll of the first "R". All of us accompany our new foreign language skills with self-conscious laughter.

On Thursday, we leave for a little R and R at Lake Issyk-Kyl. I will post when I return. I just hope I don't throttle anyone during our little vacation - at least part of which will include all ten of us sleeping in the same room. If you are at home in Minnesota and reading this, shoot me a comment or an email while I'm gone so I can remember that I'm still lovable even if I am sometimes a bit prickly.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

In Which The Team Searches for Ice Cream, but I Don't Write About It Because I Don't Want to Sound Crabby

The volunteer coordinator made us all nametags to wear on the jobsite. They're written in Cyrillic letters because they are for the Kyrgyz workers and homeowners. We had a new translator today, and because I am constantly practicing my reading (which is slow like a small child's), I sounded out her name. She caught me staring, so I said, "Is your name Snora?" and she laughed. "This is in English," she said. "My name is Chopa." Then, she threw me a bone. "But you'd be right if it were in Russian." See what problems are caused when they pervert our letters?

We started nailing in the floorboards today - the first semi-skilled labor of the trip. Men kept taking my hammer and my skill saw out of my hands - the universal language of sexism is fluently spoken here. There is a bit of a shortage of hammers. The good news is that I was allowed to continue hammering after they saw me pound in a few nails. The bad news is that the Kyrgyz kid who took my skill saw is less than 20 and used it with no eye protection. Maybe his imagination isn't good enough for him to picture a splinter sticking through his eyeball, but mine is.

Dinner was a long and tedious process, followed by a slightly embarrassing trip to icecream, which is not on the BRAT diet and, therefore, made me crabby since I wanted to go home, but we won't talk about that...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Get Your Own Damn Letters, Comrade!

I'm learning to read the Russian script. It's not that hard, since it's phonetic and it's not like I have to memorize thousands of Kanji. I hate not being able to read, and the tourist maps are all written in our letters while what few street signs there are are in Cyrillic, so the only way to get un-lost if you can't sound out the signs is by asking a loal, and I've found quite a few locals who don't know what the streets are called, either. And so, in short, I'm becoming literate.

I still remember the day in Sri Lanka that I finally sounded out the words "Seat Covers" on an advertizement we passed every day in our van. It was a thrill. The comparable thrill came today when without consulting a map, I read that we were on "Pavlov" street.

I do have a beef with the Ruskies, however. I don't mind if they borrow some of our letters. It makes it easier for me to memorize them, actually. But if they want to use our letters they should have to use the sound, too. Instead, they're all: "Oh, I like your P. It's really pretty. Let's make it sound like an R." and "Ooo, that B is so curvey and bubbly, it sure would make a nice V. Oh, and let's make it sound like an F at the end of a word, too, OK?" Bunch of pinko Commies, if you ask me. We have an R and a V and an F. Why don't you just take those?

Anyway, the gang (except for Rice Girl) shopped for picnic food at the Osh Market, and then we drove an hour to a park up in the mountains to eat it. Unfortunately, it started to rain as soon as we unpacked the food, so we sheltered under some trees until it was safe to walk back to the van, where Suze led us in a meditation which I tried to follow, despite my inherant skeptism, until I heard Tom, who is nearly deaf, whisper loudly to Denise: "Now, what are we waiting for?" He couldn't hear a word of the tranquil meditation. I decided to have my own meditation watching the rain drops on the van window merge and drip down the glass. It's difficult for me to suspend my disbelief during a group mediation in the best of circumstances.

Then we visited a tourist yurt in the middle of a monument to Manas. There was instense wind blowing against us all the way to the yurt, and when we got inside we discovered that the yurt had been damaged by the wind. Somehow I think that an actual, non-tourist yurt can withstand a wind storm. In the yurt, the crew played dress-up with the costumes available (put there for that purpose?), while I tried not to think about my intestines and took pictures.

I'm still on the BRAT diet this morning, because I had pizza for dinner, and it didn't sit well, but I've broken down and taken an immodium, so I can work today. There was a BBC special on our apartment TV this morning about Cordova. I'm already planning my next adventure. Now I need some Spanish lessons to go with my Cyrillic ones.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

In Which I Try to Remember what BRAT Stands For

Our second work day was much like the first, but with more heat and less water. The water delivery to our job site failed to arrive twice and so it got to be 11:00 and we were working hard in the hot sun, and the water still hadn't come. You want to see some crabby Americans? Deny them potable water. Our apartment was also short on water this morning, so my personal water bottle was already empty when we arrived. Sadness. Thirst. I volunteered to work inside to keep away from the blazing sun, and so I wrapped wires around nails and dug holes and stayed away from the concrete.

The water eventually arrived, but the afternoon just kept getting hotter. Paulina experienced some sort of heat exhaustion and had to lie in the shade and still we worked (although I did keep her company in the shade for a bit longer than strictly necessary).

All of it made me feel old and tired, and so when the young women and Denise went out for cocktails after dinner, I opted to stay home and sleep instead. My sleep was hard and sound, but interrupted by frequent, urgent trips to the bathroom. We have a tourism day planned next. This could be the day I discover the joys of the BRAT diet.

P.S. Don't worry, Mom. I haven't written the next post, yet, but I will spoil the ending and tell you that I found some rice at the market and ate bananas and apples and rice all day. My intenstines have straightened themselves out. I mean, they are still wrapped up inside me as they should be, but they are no longer reminding me of that fact every 20 minutes.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Work Begins

The house is even less finished than I imagined. They build with concrete here, not wood, and in its current state the house looks like it has been carved out of dirt. It is house-shaped, but otherwise feels like a cave.

We had three teams again with three different jobs. Denise, Elyse, Tom, and Paulina stood outside in the blazing heat and mixed concrete. They hauled dirt in a tool I have named the "barrow" because it's a wheel-barrow with a second set of handles in place of the wheel. They dumped the dirt into big troughs along with cement powder, added water, and then stirred the trough with shovels and hoes. It's grueling manual labor, and it's hot, since the temperature reached at least 90 degrees, and the troughs are in the sun during the worst heat of the day.

Suze, Jim, and Homa were the wall crew. They drove nails into the rough concrete walls and then tied wire to the nails in a diamond pattern. They were preparing the walls for the layer of smooth plaster that will make the house more home-y and less cave-y. Unfortunately, they had to reuse nails from another project, and so part of the job included trying to hammer out the bends in old nails. It was frustrating work, and Suze looked positively bitter by the end of the day,despite looking OK with life in this photo.

Who knew the hole-digging crew would have the most satisfying job? My team dug holes into the hard-packed dirt floors in one room. We had to dig 40 holes which were to be 30 cm by 30 cm by 30 com, and about 100 cm apart. Lindsey, Dean, and I worked with some silent Kyrgyz family members. In addition to trying to dig through hard, dry baked earth, we also got to watch the progress of lunch outside our window. The mother in the family cooked a giant wok full of "plov" for us over an open fire.

It was a more manual labor filled day than I expected, but we got to watch our progress, first in adding to the number of holes and then in filling them up again with concrete for the footings. And we got to eat plov under grape vines with views of mountains peeking through the leaves. What could be better?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In Which We Meet the Team

Why do I have to be Judy's daughter? I love my mother, and I feel lucky to have inherited every trait I could from her, except for one: I keep waking up ridiculously early. You could blame jet lag. You could easily blame the trains which are less than a block away, or the barking dogs in our neighborhood, or even the ticking clock on the wall. However, as the daughter of a woman who rises every morning at ever more ridiculous hours, I know that the real culprit is genetics. Or possibly nurture, since she also used to stand and watch me sleep in the morning, until those I'm-being-watched senses started tingling and I opened one eye - to which she would respond "Oh, Al, I knew you'd be up," which such enthusiasm that I was forced to join her for some pre-dawn mother-daughter time. Anyway, with no mother here to keep me company, the pre-dawn has become my writing time.

The rest of our group arrived yesterday, and we all met for the first time (finally!) for a team meeting at noon. We learned that we will be finishing a house for a family. I'm not sure what this means, but I did meet an American woman on the plane whose daughter bought a house in Bishkek and then had to finish all the details on it herself. I'm not talking details like shower curtains and grout. I'm talking installing bathtubs and light fixtures, putting up drywall and mud. So it might be something like that, which sounds a little more high-skilled than is ideal for volunteers, but we'll see.

We then went out for a big lunch under a tent at a restaurant with the authentic Kygyz name of "Edgar's". I had a pizza, with sour cream and mushrooms, in an attempt to choose toppings that the locals might eat, but it arrived swimming in grease, which was a bit much even for me, and I like my fat.

After lunch we went on a shopping spree for breakfast food. It was all paid for by Habitat (or, more accurately, by us, but a long time ago when we paid our trip fees), and our only instructions were to "be reasonable". It was like some kind of reality TV show. We divided into three teams and descended upon the grocery store.

Our team - "Team Penthouse" - consists of Tom, Paulina, Denise and me. It is the most age-diverse team, ranging in age from 20 to 70-something. We also each have our own breakfast needs, but we're all pretty aggressive and not at all jet-lagged having been here for two days, and so we managed to do pretty well for ourselves, operating like a well-oiled machine, and finding sweet and savory breakfast options. Denise even side-lined as the group organizer for staples like coffee, sugar, and water for all the teams.

The "Seasoned Travelers Team" consists of Jim, our team leader, and Dean and Suze, a married couple from New York. Jim had few needs, mainly yogurt and bread, but he had to man the cart for the whole group. Dean and Suze shopped well together because they already knew each other's tastes, but they wasted precious time looking for soy milk (soy milk?!).

Meanwhile, "Team Jet Lag", with three women in their twenties weighed themselves down early with a giant watermelon. Homa and Lindsey went to Bowdoin together and graduated the same year, and then coincidentally both signed up for the same random trip to Kyrgyzstan. Lindsey also spent nine hours in the Moscow airport with Elyse before the 8 hour flight here which arrived at 5:00 in the morning. Despite their jet-lag this group of acquaintances manged to leave the store with a full bag of groceries - and one giant watermelon.

By the time we packed up all of the loot, it was nearly time for dinner even though none of use was really hungry after that big lunch. Still, we piled into the van and made our way to one of the fanciest restaurants in Bishkek for a welcome banquet. We were greeted with a three course meal, and giant platters of food, including, yes, some plates of grilled meat. Mmm, meat. We also got to meet the local Habitat bigwigs, who were very kind and grateful to our team.

And then, because I am Judy's daughter, and it was nearly 9:00, I fell asleep before I could even finish one chapter of my book.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

In Which We Move Up to the Penthouse

In the middle of the night, our doorbell rang. And rang. And rang some more. By "the middle of the night" I mean at least 11:00 and we were still awake and chatting, but still. We both got very quiet and waited for the intruder to go away. Neither of us made a move to answer the door. I decided it was probably someone who was expecting the landlord or another renter to be staying in our room, and I went to sleep after the ringing finally stopped. Still, the visitor was very persistent, and didn't give up easily, so I understood when Paulina informed me the next morning that she hadn't been able to fall asleep for hours afterwards. I suggested that we pack up our things and move to the other apartment. They had extra beds, anyway, and we didn't like being isolated, so really it was perfect.

In the other apartment, we meet a new cast of characters. Tom is a retired cosmetics marketer who now works as the EMT for his town in Connecticut. He gets to use the siren. He's in his mid-70s and has legs to rival Jimmy's new muscular ones. He also has nearly no hearing in the upper registers.

Denise is a competitive swimmer from California on a sabbatical from her real job to do this sort of thing. I'm not sure what the real job is. She claims to want to be a competitor on Survivor. I can't tell whether she's joking.

We now live together in the 9th floor penthouse, which has slightly nicer Soviet-era details than that last place, including some really outstanding light fixtures. These will be our digs for the next two weeks. The best part is that Tom likes to get up early and make coffee - although not quite as early as I do. As a I wrote these words, I was the only one up, and I was writing by the light of my headlamp. The worst part is the ticking clock in my bedroom/the living room. I decided that the clock will hereafter sleep in the bathroom.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

In Which We Travel from Food Emergency to Food Emergency

After a morning of much sitting around and studying maps, we ventured out of the apartment and onto the streets of Bishkek at nearly 11:00. We exchanged money at a little place down the street and both got ripped off. Paulina lost more than I did. New vow: Be more careful, especially around money-changers.

I had a whole route planned and Bishkek has mountains to the South, so it was going to be feasible even with my wretched sense of direction, except of course it was cloudy by the time we made it out, so the mountain compass didn't work. Besides, our apartment wasn't exactly where I thought it was, so the route quickly went out the window. Still, it's always exciting to walk around a new city, and I was even more excited to discover that the city is a calm one without people on the street approaching you to buy buy buy or men yelling "Hello, American, where are you going?". In fact, we were mostly ignored despite being two attractive blond women and a little bit lost. A good sign.

The drivers here suck, however, so crossing the street is always an adventure. They anticipate when their light will change to gren and are already well across the street when it happens. The safest way to cross is with a local, or at the beginning of a light cycle - wait too long and they'll run you down, even if your light is still technically green.

So we walked and we walked, and I soon realized that my urgent need for food would never be matched by Paulina's. She was nervous to stop at a restaurant because we couldn't read the menus. She wanted a grocery store instead. We actually found two likely candidates, but both of them, even though they looked like grocery stores from the outside, actually turned out to be full of individual booths, mostly of people selling cell phones. Can that many cell phone vendors be profitable? Do they understand about supply and demand? Finally, well after I had reached the medical emergency stage in my food panic, we found a window on the street that said "Fast Food" and had pictures of hamburgers and pizza. I pointed to the hamburger, and the woman at the counter said, "All we have is cheeseburgers and hot dogs." I said "Cheeseburger" with the last of my strength and was rewarded with possibly the most delicious cheeseburger I have ever eaten. Ah, protein after a long walk through the heat.

Our next adventure (after long jet-lag naps) was to find the other apartment with two of our other team members in it. We talked to Tom on the phone and he said, "Is your apartment next to a beat up old playground?" We confirmed that it was, so he said, "OK, then we're in the same complex, just go to our building and come up to the 9th floor." He gave us the address, and we set out, walking up dillapidated cement staircases in our complex and failing to find the apartment he described. Finally with the address written carefully on a piece of paper, I began to approach the young mothers on the beat-up old playground. One of them was so helpful that she even called her own mother on her cell phone and directed us two blocks down the street. One the way, we passed three more beat-up old playgrounds, a street name in Russian script, and no house numbers at all. I had to ask 3 more young mothers (and Paulina had to use her Polish to understand their Russian) before we finally found the building. Addresses are not a big thing here, apparently. You just have to know your building by sight. Also, beat-up old playgrounds make terrible landmarks in this city.

This second adventure also ended with food, because even though Paulina still wasn't hungry, I was, and so Denise (one of the other group members) took us out to dinner at a German restaurant with pictures on the menu. I had more beef and the second food panic of the day was finally subdued.

In Which We Find Our Room

We were met at the airport by a man carrying a sign that said "Habitat" in carefully stenciled letters. The flight arrived at 3:30 am, even though it was scheduled to arrive at 2:30, so the man had not only interrupted his sleep to meet us, but had probably also waited an hour and half for us to make it through customs and baggage claim (where my luggage did, in fact, arrive with everyone else's). Still his expression was calm and kind as he guided us to his car. He used what may be his only English sentence ("My name is Ruslan") before we got to the car, and so we drove into the city in near silence. He handed us a note which read: "You address: Sovietskaya Street, Building 101, apartment 56". It was too hard to communicate that we already had a hotel room reserved elsewhere, and so we allowed ourselves to be whisked away to a strange apartment.

We stopped along the way at an all-night supermarket, where our friend in one-word English sentences (Juice? Water? Yogurt?) helped us shop for provisions for the night and payed for our purchases waving his wallet full of local currency when we offered to pay with a credit card. Unfortunately for Paulina, I had reached the stage in my jet lag at which decision making had become impossible. All I knew that I wanted was water, and that was only because my thirst was pressing and immediate. With no help from me, she also secured us some bread and cheese.

The apartment is in a complex of buildings with a mural of "Lolita" painted seductively on the side. He took us into a back alley and into an open outside door which lead to one of those rickety and tiny European elevators - the kind you never expect to make it to your destination - and up to apartment 56. Apartment 56 is very Soviet Block. It's the kind of place youcouch can easily imagine coming home to after spending a day waiting in line for toilet paper. Paulina said, "Oh, this looks very Polish," and I agreed, having once spent a night in a Soviet-era Polish apartment in Krakow. The furniture could be from the 1960s or 1970s, used for decades and kept clean and tidy. Nothing is beautiful or extranious. No frivolity.

Still it felt good to be somewhere, and so we gratefully said goodbye to our friend, brushed our teeth, changed into pajamas and put ourselves to bed (or couch as the case may be) just as the first morning light started to appear on the horizon.

Monday, July 07, 2008

In Which My Flight is Delayed

My Polish travel-companion and I don't know one another. We just happened to be on the same flight from London to Bishkek, connected with each other by email, and agreed to meet in the London airport before renting a room together in Bishkek. She's part of the Habitat for Humanity group, 20 years old, blonde, and living in Paris as an au pair over the summer. In her last email, she said that she would wear a pink scarf on her wrist so that I would recognize her. I've been on enough blind dates that I wasn't really worried, but I agreed to tie some yellow yarn to my bag so she could find me as well.

My itinerary gave me 3 hours layover in London, which is good because the ticket agent in Minneapolis couldn't give me a boarding pass for the last leg of my trip. "Don't worry," she said. "You'll have plenty of time to figure it out in London." Famous last words, which may or may not have jinxed my flight from Chicago, causing a delay of over two hours in take off, which is how I found myself running through Heathrow, following the maze of walkways and ground transport to Terminal One and a long line at the transfer desk, me at the end of it, and the digital clock in front of me ticking down the minutes to my 1:00 departure. The ticket agents felt no urgency. At one point all but one of them walked away from their computers (Break time? Now?!). The clock said 12:56 when my patience gave out, and I asked the two people in front of me if they might let me go ahead of them. They did, and so I was close to the front of my endless line, when the boarding call for my flight came on ("Passengers to Bishkek, please, report to gate 38 for immediate departure.") Finally a desk agent took my ticket. Finally she (ever so slowly) picked up a phone to hold my flight. Finally she told me to run to gate 38. "But your bags might not be on the flight," she said to my departing back. Cheerio, then.

And so I met Paulina while I was drenched in sweat, seeing her bright pink scarf moments before she warmly embraced me. She was as relieved as I was that we wouldn't be traveling this last, most frightening leg of the journey alone after all. I don't think there's another flight from London to Bishkek for two days. Phew.

After all of that running and panic and worry, I am now (as I write this, not as I type it) back in the calm of an airplane seat, sitting for another 8 hours (on top of the 8 and a half I've already been in the air). It's a good thing I'm practiced in the fine art of sleeping on a plane. I've also already finished my first trashy novel of the trip. Take that, Youngster.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wii Hangover

Family and friends gathered for a goodbye barbecue at Jimmy and Judy's house last night. There was swimming and a new game called noodle-balance-toypedo-catch, or noodle-toypedo for short. You have to balance on the noodle, standing in the deep end, while you and your friend(s) shoot the toypedo over to each other. If you fail to catch it, you have to surface-dive with the noodle between your legs to retrieve it. Good fun, and not overly strenuous, which makes it a successful Saturday afternoon pool game.

After dinner, I walked around the block with my mom, Buddy, and the one with all the N's and her children. How to make a walk around the block turn into an hour long adventure: bring two-year-olds. Finn dragged a car around the block. Cat climbed up every neighbors' steps and walked down the ramp when she wasn't busy trying to "get me". Eventually, Finn helped her out by yelling, "Here's another one, Ayah," as we approached a set of steps. Their play is evolving out of the parallel stage and into interactive play. He even let her pretend to wash the car. Fun to watch, especially if you're not in any kind of a hurry.

I was in a kind of hurry though, because there was a Wii party going on, and you know how I feel about the Wii. Well, my love for the Wii doesn't quite seem to extend to Mario Brawl, which I don't understand at all. Too many bright colors and moving pictures for me to keep track of my guy (who turns out to be kind of a crappy fighter - except when I accidentally set it up for the computer to control him). Tennis and golf are still where it's at. Somehow, when we're Wii-ing, it's possible to get so wrapped up in the game that it gets to be 1:00 in the morning, and we're still on the 7th hole and not about to quit without finishing.

And, so, this morning, when my body got me up at 7:00 as usual, my brain stayed in bed. Sure, I ran through the dog park with the dog (who now smells of mango-fish, because of his inability to resist the lure of a roll through a rotting fish carcass, and my mango flavored dog shampoo.) But I'm all disjointed and unable to focus. It took me three tries to finally call the newspaper and get it to stop while I'm gone. This is the Wii-hangover. If I lived in the same house as the machine, I'm sure I'd be having a little hair of the dog that bit me right now, because I could really use some practice on my putting, and I'd like to have a Wii age of less than 50.

No. Al. Must. Focus. Leaving the country in six hours.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Independence Day

The neighborhood smells like gunpowder. Explosions surround us, small pops and larger ones, and shrieking spinning shouts. When my neighbors aren't throwing meat in the boulevard, I guess they are shopping for explosives and blowing shit up. Buddy hates the 4th of July. Not only does he have to live in some kind of war zone, but I leave him alone for the loudest part, because I just can't keep myself away from the party in Powderhorn just to comfort the dog. He didn't even eat his rawhide while I was away. Too scared. Also, he had let himself into the kitchen and the rawhide was in the living room. Why he was in the kitchen, I don't know, since it's Against the Rules and there was nothing there for him but dirty dishes anyway. The "how" he was in the kitchen has been solved. He jumps my 4 foot tall baby gate. I watched him do it when I returned from the fireworks, graceful in his disobedience. We'll see what kind of trouble he discovers when the baby gate is replaced with a real door. He'll probably take the opportunity to teach himself doorknob technology, and then I'll be sorry.

So, I am not quite packed for my trip. I leave on Sunday. The house is a wreck (dirty dishes rinsed in dog slobber all over the kitchen), and I have no idea what to expect when I get off that plane. This is the least prepared I have ever been for an overseas trip. I'm on my way to bed, so I can finish the packing and cleaning in the morning, before I spend my two hours in the library - and maybe pick up a travel guide that's actually helpful while I'm at it.

What am I doing? I'm going to be in Central Asia in three days, and I don't even know what that means. I guess this is what adventure feels like.