Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Snowball Fight in July

On our trip we took a bus up to a small city in the mountains. We were at about 15 000 feet with mountains stretching another 10 000 feet above us. The view was breath taking. I was also a little cold. It had rained all day on our way up, when we came down the mountain we saw many places that were covered in snow. We stopped to enjoy the view and take a few pictures. As I was talking to an older Tajik farmer, who was out with his 200 grazing sheep, one of my friends threw the first fist full of snow. This meant war. Both the Tajik farmer and our driver thought we had gone a little crazy, but really how often do you get to have a snow ball fight 14km from the Tajikistan border with a Tajik farmer, a Uyghur driver, five Americans and one Canadian in the middle of July at the base of one of the world's tallest mountains. Let's just say it was a first for me. What started out as a fair fight quickly digressed to all against one guy.

I commented to our farmer friend how fortunate he was to live in the mountains and be able to go walking with his sheep everyday amongst such magnificent peeks. He responded by saying "All of you foreigners think it is so pretty here, but really I think your home town is lovely" Lovely really? A clear sight of downtown Detroit has nothing on these snow caped heights.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I've Been Through the Desert on a Camel With No Name It Didn't Feel Good to be Out In the Rain

One of our adventures on the trip was riding camels in the desert. We got up early in the morning, layered our skin with sunscreen in preparation for a long hot desert journey under the scorching sun. We then took a two hour bus ride to the middle of nowhere.
While on the bus we were the entertainment. Since we were travelling cheaply we took the local bus, which was filled with farmers and such, many of whom had never seen a white skinned person outside of the TV. They stared at us like we were aliens until some of the other girls started to feel uncomfortable under their intense gaze. I always figure in these situation it is best to confront it head on, and try to answer their questions, instead of being stared at the whole trip. So I struck up a conversation in Uyghur. If foreigners were fascinating, an 'American' girl who could speak their language was even more unbelievable. For the rest of the trip I was fielding questions from all over the bus. I think, by the end everyone knew where I was from, where I currently live, what I am studying, what I hope to do in the future, how much rent I pay, how much tuition I pay, how old I am, how many people are in my family, what job everyone in my family has and how much they enjoy their jobs, where we were going, why we were going, how long we would be gone for, how much we paid for our tickets, how many times I had been in that part of the province, how many years I had studied that language, and likely a dozen other things. I was like a circus freak, that just kept answering questions. Unfortunately having all this information did not stop the man from starring at us in disbelief, if anything it just intensified their gaze.

Once we got off the bus we headed out to the desert for a camel ride. But as we approached the camel owners it started to rain. They wanted to charge what I thought was an exorbitantly high price for an hour long ride... so I tried to talk them down. I complained about the rain, commented on how few people would actually go riding on a wet day like today. I tried and tried but they would not budge. I turned to my friends to find out what they wanted to do... only to find one other girl still standing with me. Now you have to understand, when it comes to hard core bargaining there is always strength in numbers. The more people you have, the more business they would lose if they don't agree to your price. The more people you have, the more intimidating you appear. And yet despite that well known fact we were just two small girls trying to negotiate with all the camel owners. We regrouped, grabbed our friends and started again. It didn't matter that our friends couldn't speak the language, and couldn't understand what was being said we had more people. This time I took another approach, I played the "we are poor students" card. It is universally true that college students everywhere are known to be broke. I even went so far as to tell them how much the school charges foreign students to study and that we had to take the local bus to get here. When they still didn't move, We walked. This can be a risky move, because you actually have to be willing to leave and not get called back. But we called their bluff and headed for the bus. In the end our small bus driver friend told them to just give it to us. So we each got a third of the price knocked off.

Which was good considering how cold and wet it can be in the desert. It was pouring and we all got drenched as we rode our camels with no names (I asked) though the chill damp desert sand. What a day.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

On the Road Again

I spent last week travelling, again. This time my two new neighbours in the dorm building were planning a trip to the southern part of the province. I love it down there, so it didn't take too much work to convince me to come along as translator. Because of people's different schedules though, we only had five days (or 120 hours) for the whole trip. We all agreed we wanted to travel relatively cheaply, which means we often opt for the slightly slower modes of transportation. We spent over 64 hours of the last week in some sort of transportaion (train, bus, car). It was a tiring but great time. As I get pictures from the rest of the gang I will post more about the trip. I however forgot to take my camera with me.

Different people, different trip, the same good old hard sleeper on the train.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

No Matter Who My Friends Are - They Aren't Welcome

As most of you probably already know I have have been living in dorm for the last three years. It really hasn't been all that bad ( even though the main room is only 7 1/2 feet by 7 1/2 feet). I have the room all to myself and it even has its own bathroom. But despite all this luxury I have been contemplating moving into a real apartment where I could have more room to host guests and cook meals. Last week I found a place with a lot of potential, and this week I was pushed to make a final decision.

The leader of our building is a difficult man to work with at the best of times, but of late he has been on a bit of a power trip. The other day he stood at the front door of our building with his arms tightly crossed across his chest and a stern face in place. He seemed immovable and impassable. He was refusing to let anyone enter the building who did not live there.

My next door neighbour was expecting her tutor, who eventually called to say she had been stopped at the front door. My neighbour has only been here a few months and her language is still in progress so she asked me to come along and try to figure out what was going on. At first the leader of the building said it was because there had been thieves and he didn't trust anyone to come in. When I pushed him, and asked what had been stolen and from where, he quickly changed his story and said that they were doing construction on the building and it wasn't safe to have people coming and going. So of course I asked "is it safe for us to be living here?" "Oh, yes you have paid your rent, you are safe here", he responded. Finally I tried to figure out who had instituted this new rule. He told me I had to talk to the Foreign student college, that it was their rule.

So I called the head of the foreign student department and said that by not allowing our friends to come and visit us they were making dorm feel more like prison than a home. But the leader of the department had never even heard of this rule. He also told me he has no control over the dorm and I would have to go back and speak with the stern faced impossible dorm leader. Grrrshk.

But instead of dealing with him the next phone called I made was to let the landlord know that I would take the apartment I had looked at.

Which means: I'm moving. I'm moving to a new home where all my friends no matter who, or how old will be welcome.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

My People I Thought Were My Friends Aren’t Really My Friends

How do you define friendship? Who are your friends? Who can be your friends? We don’t often contemplate questions like these, but recently I’ve had reason to do so.

In North American culture, it is possible for a person from one generation to become friends with a person from another generation. In high school I was always better friends with a lot of my teachers than with my fellow peers. I have also always had a strange affinity with the retired generation (I think it has something to do with talking about our aches and pains).

Apparently, that’s not the case in Uyghur culture. A person from one generation would not consider a person from a different generation - whether lower or higher - to be a friend. Yes, they might act the same toward that person as they act toward their friends in their own generation, but they would not think of using the term “friend.” That would be disrespectful. The same would apply between a student and a teacher.

A couple weeks ago my friend Liz (yes I can rightly call her my friend since she is a 20 something American girl) was talking with one of her Uyghur college students. In the course of her conversation Liz mentioned how much she was going to miss all of her friends(referring to her students) over summer vacation. . The student was quick to respond and correct her mistake, “Oh no, we’re not your friends; we’re your students.”

Then just a few days ago I was out walking around campus with a young Uyghur lady my age. Part way through our walk we passed Patigul, a 72 year old woman that I spend a lot of my free time with. I exuberantly greeted her kissing both cheeks and asking numberous times about her health and family. She seemed likewise generally pleased to see me, and even invited me to stop over for tea later that afternoon if I had time. As we resumed our walk the young lady I was with asked “who was that?” “Oh, Patigul,” I said “she is a good friend of mine.” That brought on gales of laughter from my companion. I thought that maybe I had pronounced something wrong, but no, it was the concept itself that brought on the laughter. Apparently it is a ridiculous idea that I could be friends with someone several generations older than myself.

In fact the young woman informed me that I should never call some one like that my friend. I could call her my “teacher”, or my “mother”, but I must never call her “friend”. Suddenly things started to fit, pieces were coming together in my head. Even my tutor who is 12 years younger than Patigul calls her “teacher” or sometimes “big sister” instead of “friend”. If twelve years is considered a big enough gap that it is disrespectful to simply call some one a friend, then I realize I have a lot less friends out here than I thought.

It seems that, in Uyghur culture, even though you might be friends with someone older than yourself, it’s not acceptable to call them your friend. You can think of them as your friend; you can act friendly towards them, and do all the things that friends would do, but you just can’t call them that. That would be disrespectful. It just means I have been spending an immense amount of time cultivating relationships with people who have turned out not to be my “friends”. Oh well I still love them. The relationship doesn’t have to change, just its name.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Free to Fly

One of the most frustrating parts of spending time in Canada, for me at least, is getting around. I don’t have a drivers licence (sorry dad), everything is very spaced out and far removed from each other, and the bus system is… well… lets just say ‘its less than positive’. All of these things added together make it hard to be mobile when I am at home.

Today I experienced the joy of going from place to place here in Central Asia. Unlike in North America the number of people here who have their own personal car is a very small percentage. Since there are so many people packed into a small geographical space, most places are compact and close together. The bus system is also the most amazing thing you have ever seen. When my brother was here three years ago he stood at the bus stop out front my school and averaged out how often a new bus pulls in. He figured that every thirty seven seconds a bus will arrive at my stop. With that sort of frequency I never have to wait, or even chase after a bus. If the one I want is already at the stop and I am still half a block away I just let it drive off and know I can catch another one just like it in a minute of two.

There is great freedom in being able to move around at will and not have to depend on someone else to drive you, to be able to jump from one bus to another with no hassle, to walk from destination to destination without getting tired. Everytime I come back I feel like I grow wings.

View of the street from inside a bus

Saturday, July 05, 2008

I'm Back

I am writing this blog from the other side of the world. I flew out of the Windsor Airport on the morning of July 2nd and have safely returned to my 'other home' in Central Asia. Despite the thick layer of coal dust that lingered in my room after six months of not being touched, this years return was not as traumatic as last years.