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Archive for the ‘Travel Essays’ Category

Dare I say we’re on the home stretch to spring and winter just didn’t feel like participating this year?  Stores are eager to purge their shelves and racks of bulky wool sweaters and fur-lined hoodies, making room for the louder colors and patterns of spring break apparel.  Like a hummingbird drawn to nectar, I stop inside the GAP store on State Street and laze from one display to the next, fiddling for price tags that almost never match my more reasonable expectations.  But I never planned on paying full price for a see through sun blouse anyway.  I’m more inclined to dig through the mound of scratchy sweaters in the back, because it’s never too late to start preparing for the inevitable: winter happens every year.

Speaking of winter clothes, one of the best gifts I’ve ever received was a hand-knit sweater vest from my Kyrgyz host-mother. With regards to fashion, the pairing of the words “best gift” and “sweater vest” may seem unlikely, but winters in Kyrgyzstan were relentless and this extra layer appealed to my burrowing instincts. After spending an entire winter admiring my host sister’s vest, I decided it was time to express interest in one myself. So I asked my host mother if she would knit me one for my winter birthday.  She said, “Yes.”

Dibar in her sweater vest.

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We parted ways in the land of mutton and noodles and found each other back in the land of tuna noodle casserole.  I knew Kyndyz was in the Twin Cities, so I called to invite her to celebrate Christmas with my family. It was perhaps the most persistent invitation I’ve ever extended, taking me at least 3 phone calls to convince her that she would not have to work at the mall on Christmas.  While the Kyrgyz have caught Valentine’s Day fever, a Christian holiday simply does not resonate in a country that is predominately Muslim.

After church on Christmas Eve, my brother and I drove across the cities to pick up Kyndyz while the rest of the family went back to my grandparents’ house to prepare our standard meal of beef stroganoff.  In preparing all of the side dishes, my grandpa remembered the no pork rule before grandma sprinkled bacon bits into her broccoli salad.  Something I had forgotten to mention.  They also set out a few presents for Kyndyz under the tree.

In customary fashion, Kyndyz asked if her Kyrgyz friend could join us – a welcome Christmas stowaway.  I alerted family of the addition, so they could rearrange for another guest.  Anyone unfamiliar with Midwestern culture should be cued in on the inherent urge to avoid conflict, even when it just entails curbing an uncomfortable moment of having to add another place set to the table when someone unexpected shows up.  Best to add that chair and pretend to be an infallible hostess – anticipating the needs of unforeseen company.  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but this helter-skelter hospitality was apparent in the gift exchange after dinner.

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*Name changed for privacy reasons

Two years ago, my Christmas card featured a mash up of my family and my Kyrgyz family.  My parents had come to visit my second summer in Kyrgyzstan and all eight of us had posed for a group photo.  Framed by bright yellow flowers and a cotton candy pink house with sky blue shutters, our mismatched crew took on an equally whimsical appeal.  My dad stood a head above my host dad, showcasing the familiar American toothy grin in contrast to the more stoic Soviet-style camera-ready expression.  And my mom embraced my host sister, lighting up their side with a shared smile. Only my brother was missing – his tall stature would have made him the perfect bookend, opposite my dad.

A photo my host family shared on my facebook wall

I have this photo hanging on my fridge in Madison, Wisconsin, where I now live.  It’s certainly nostalgic, but my connection to those I came to care so much about in Kyrgyzstan is hardly restricted to a 4×6 snapshot.  If I want to catch up on the latest village gossip, I just sign onto Skype and call my host mom’s cell phone, catching her on a Friday morning, while I’m still stuck in Thursday evening.  Or if I want to hear my host sister’s 6-month-old baby boy cooing, I call her cell phone and we spend the next 30 minutes reveling in the sound of each other’s voices. (more…)

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Repurposing Redefined

There are certain things you never want to find reemerging from the trash can.  Say a clump of hair, for instance, or a moist Kleenex, or a used…you get the point.  But curiosity is an impossible spoiler, which often manifests itself in the likes of puppies and small children.  For me, this unintentional exploiter/lovable scavenger was a brown, chicken-legged, Kyrgyz boy with a round face and dimples.  His name is Almaz, which, of all things, means “Diamond.”

I was living with his family in Kyrgyzstan and Almaz was my sacred link to feelings of “home” or the familiar.  Having already experienced the antics of a birth brother, I found comfort in most of his offensive behaviors, those that my father would excuse with the phrase, “He’s just a boy,” while we were growing up.   I admired the freedom boys in Kyrgyzstan had to really stretch their limbs, though.  They could race around the entire village on their bikes, strip down to their briefs and swim in the canal, and kick up clouds of dust playing soccer in the street.  To top it all off, they only had to bathe every other week, when they fired up the bathing house – a convenience in the eyes of this demographic.

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