Saturday, September 27, 2008

You’re Only a Day Away

My roommate and I are headed south over our week off from school. We have decided to take the sleeper bus because it is cheaper, and she has never had the privilege of such a ride.

Our original plan was to leave tonight, but since I am able to write this post, it is obvious I am not riding through the middle of the desert on a 24 hour excursion. I knew that train tickets go on sale ten days in advance, but I wasn’t sure about when I could start buying bus ones. I knew it was the holiday week and a lot of students would be traveling back to their home towns, so I figured it would be wise to try to buy our bunks early, before they were all sold out.

I mentioned to my tutor on Wednesday that I was heading over there after class, but he suggested waiting until tomorrow. The next morning I got up and headed to the bus station first thing in the morning, only to have the lady at the counter tell me “come back tomorrow”

Friday morning after class, I toted my heavy book bag, once again down to the station and stood in line. While you wait in line at these places, there are always guys with private cars trying to broker some sort of back door deal. I normally try to pretend I don’t speak any local language until I get to the counter. However, even after waiting 25minutes the response from the sales lady was “tomorrow”

Since I had learned that buses leave for our destination ever forty minutes, we decided that today we would just head over in the evening, about the time we wanted to leave, with our bags packed and ready to go. The crowds were crazy outside, and inside we learned that they were already sold out for the day. The lady said we could always try again tomorrow.

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, goes by a dismal pace”

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What are You Afraid of???

I was over at one of my Uyghur friend’s homes tonight. This girl has just recently moved into an apartment on her own. When I heard she was living by herself my natural first question was “Are you scared?” I have lived in several places on my own out here, and each time my local friends learn that I am alone, they always ask if I am scared.

I normally answer the question with the amusing antidote of how my old shower use to sound just like a cell phone when it got hot, and how my first night I was sure there was a stranger in my house. I didn’t sleep well that night, as I listened to every bump in the night and tried to convince myself it wasn't an intruder.

My friend tonight admitted to being afraid too, but not of someone breaking in. She is scared of evil spirits or ghosts. She started to tell me of all the things she does, or has heard of to do to protect yourself from evil spirits. She places a Koran at the entry way of her bedroom, she has a knife under her bed. She said that one of her friends suggested that she spit in all of the corners of her house. She went on to share several other seemingly useless sounding rituals for protection. It surprised me because this girl is very educated (she is looking into doing her Phd in America) she is also very modern and trendy, and yet she believes these tales, and has actually tried a number of them.

She wisely summed up our fears by saying “I was afraid of things I could see, and she was scared of what she could not see”. This of course led to a very interesting discussion. So what about you? What are you afraid of?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Depth of Human Pain

Today on my walk around town I couldn’t help but take notice of all the beggars. I know that this is not a situation unique to this city, or even to Central Asia in general but I was struck afresh with how they go about it.

First you have your beggars who sit on the street corners or stairs with their faces covered; you can’t really tell why they are there until you see their hand come out as you walk by. Many people ( even locals) are skeptical of these type of beggars, often questioning the persons laziness at resorting to looking for handouts on the street. Second are the ones who are trying to give back as they beg, many of these folks have brought along an old instrument of some sort and are playing music hoping that people will toss them some small change for their trouble.

Finally there are those who feel the need to explain why they are begging. These people will often have a typed out copy of the tragedy that has befallen their family. They sit beside the message board ( in both languages) and let people read it and accept money out of sympathy for their situation. Today on my way I took the time to read some of these stories. They really are heart breaking. Some people are trying to raise money so that their children can have an operation they desperately need, others have been burned or deformed in an accident that prevents the father from making money to feed his family of five. Often people have pictures to accompany their stories, pictures of infectious skin disorders, or physical deformities, one guy had his lung x-ray out on the street for all to see, one family even had a collection of doctor's notes and official hospital documentation (all stamped with a red stamp, of course) stating what was wrong.

I have learned over the years that I have been here to keep my small change. Anything that is less than one local dollar gets shoved into the front pocket of my purse. This gives me easy access to reach for a few coins whenever I pass one of these sick souls lying on the side of the street. But these few coins seem so little compared to the depth of human pain.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Successful 24 Hours

To fully understand and appreciate all that I am about to tell you, you would have to live here, but since most of you don’t let me just remind you that sometimes the simplest task can take forever. Anything official here requires a red stamp of approval., and some times not just one, but one from every office along the way. A lot of time can be spent in offices waiting or proving that you should get a document stamped.

Yet despite how slow things can go, my new roommate and I have had a successful 24 hours. We were able to check her out of dorm and get a full refund of her deposit ( this took going to four different offices, one of which we have secretly nick named the evil office). We also got registered at our new apartment. I had gone to the police station to register myself weeks ago, but when I brought in a roommate, they made us both do it all again. I have lived here for almost four years, but have never had an official blue card with a red stamp, since I have always lived in dorm I was saved some of the headache of registering. Thankfully the guys in the office we have to deal with all are Uyghur. They thought it was CUTE that we could speak their language, one of them is even good friends with my landlord. Like in most parts of the world it is all about who you know, and it never hurts to name drop. The only frustrating part of the police station was the fat,balding, leader guy who made a point of telling me how much he likes Canadian girls… YUCK.

We also found a fax machine that would send internationally so that my roommate could send her sister the paperwork she needs to come and visit. This took us walking up and down our street for over an hour asking at ever second shop and being directed around in circles.

Finally, and best of all, we got our hot water tank installed. Ever since I moved into my new place, I have been showering in cold water. Now we have a nice large hot water tank, and the workers even hooked it up to our bathroom sink, now I can wash my hands in warm water. It took two guys over three and a half hours to install the thing, and I learned along the way that I really need to brush up on my repair/ maintenance vocabulary in the national language. I was really struggling to understand words like pipe and tape. But who cares I have hot water.

It is rare to get that much official stuff done in a week, much less in 24 hours.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Roommate #13

After living alone for almost four years my solitude has been broken, my space has been entered and I have taken in unlucky roommate number 13. I know that living by myself has made me more selfish about both my time and space, so hopefully she will be able to stand me. After 12 other roommates in the past I know it will take work, but I am kind of excited to have someone around the house again.

Amanda had been living in the same dorm building I use to live in here on campus. But after just six months she had had enough. It is one thing that they have been renovating non stop for almost three months, which fills the air with noise and dust, but then last week they came to her dorm and held out a key telling her she had to move right then to a new room. I guess they were ready to start demolishing her room. What they fail to understand is that to us, that is not just a dorm room, it is a home. Amanda had a fridge and oven; she couldn’t just pick up and be out of the space in half an hour. The boss of the building has been pulling more and more tricks of late between over charging me when I moved out, not letting our friends in to visit, and now making her move on a moments notice. So I convinced her to get out of there and join me in my nice new place.

Goodbye to our old dorm building, trust me we will not miss it.

I have so many dorm stories since living there. My favourite was when I still lived at my old school. One day the building manager knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to be locked in or locked out. When I asked for how long, they said “12 hours”. I guess they weren’t planning on paying someone to sit at the desk during the summer so they needed to lock the front door. At the time I only had a key to my room, not to the whole building , so when they were gone I had my choice of being locked in the building alone with no way out for 12 hours, or locked out and unable to return to my house for 12 hours. Once again they didn’t understand that it was my home. I paid the rent and wanted the freedom to come and go as I pleased. Sometimes dorm life out here has made me want to cry, or scream, or sometimes both at the same time.

Oh well, now both Amanda and I are out of that situation, and I have promised as her new landlord not pull any of the stunts that are so common out here.

The two of us enjoying our new place together

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Used Furniture Market

My friend and I went shopping yesterday to buy her a dresser, we decided to save money and go to the used furniture market. This is a fun place to haggle with Uyghur sellers. When I go shopping in such places I normally change into a skirt to look more local, yesterday I went all out and put on my new bright pink and orange atlas dress. I stopped by the store on campus to ask them if they knew if a bus went from the school's back gate anywhere close to the market. They said no, and suggested we wait until they got off work. The lady was convinced I could never find the place on my own. I assured her I had been there before and knew it was near Turmarus restaurant and across from er dao wan road, neither of which she was familiar with ( I guess I know more about this town than they expect).

We arrived with no problems and started looking around. As we neared one man's section he smiled broadly at us as if in greeting and then said in Uyghur “you guys are ugly”. I think he was counting on the fact that we wouldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. But he chose to mess with the wrong girls “Why would you even say something like that?” I challenged back in Uyghur. All of his buddies laughed, instead of making us look stupid, he looked like the fool for greeting paying customers so rudely. After that sort of reception there was no way we were buying from him ( although sadly he had some of the nicer stuff).

Once we had bought our stuff we found a guy who was willing to transport it on a little motorized tricycle with a flat back. He not only had room for our purchases, but also for us. We sat sideways on his bike as he took off speeding though the streets of town. I had to use my toes to grip my sandals and keep them from falling off ( yes the weather warmed up just a little and I am back to my favourite footwear). We had to watch our feet when he took tight corners or other cars came in close beside us. There are no such things as seat belts for this sort of a ride. But thankfully we made it in one piece.

The bike looked a lot like this, but instead of just people it also had our stuff piled on it. This picture is taken in a small town with hardly any traffic on the street, but we were racing though the city streets. Let's just say these things don't come with seat belts, so you have to hang on tight.

The whole day was a great adventure.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rules for Ramadan

We are now almost half way through the Muslim month of fasting known as Ramadan. During this month followers of Islam world wide abstain from eating everyday from sun up to sun set. It is an interesting time here where I live in Central Asia since the government itself does not believe in Islam and in many ways tries to suppress any religious expression. Students who attend University are not allowed to practice any faith during the duration of their studies, however many of them ignore this rule and still try to live out the faith passed on to them from their families.

For those students who do decide to fast there are many obstacles to over come. There are no restaurants open on campus that early in the morning, and they would get caught trying to leave campus before sunrise. The school also hires other students to rise early in the morning and walk the halls. Their job is the listen at the door ways of each dorm for rustling or any noise that might indicate that someone is breaking the rules. The students who do choose to fast must either awake even earlier, learn to eat in the dark in complete silence, or as most of them do, just choose to skip breakfast and wait until sunset to eat their first meal of the day.

One thing I notice every year at this time is how much the fast is not about fellowship with god, but about letting all your neighbours know how pious and faithful you are. They fast to get noticed. From everything I have read on fasting it seems like it is kind of missing the real point.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Forced into Footwear

Fall is quickly descending upon us, and the warm weather is disappearing before my eyes. I like to hold on to the feeling of summer as long as I can. One easy way to do that is wearing sandals as long as possible. I like to keep them on right into November if I can… Although this year I have already had to put on socks and stuff my feet into shoes, not by choice obviously.

As many of you know most of my friends out here are older Uyghur woman, who are all terrified of the cold. At the slightest breeze they start to bundle up. They are convinced that cold temperatures will negatively affect their joints. Sometimes in the winter people go around with three and four layers of clothing.

I, however hate being hot. I would prefer to get a little chilly running to class for ten minutes, but able to sit comfortable for the four hours in the classroom, than ward off the cold outside but sweat to death inside. Everyday my teachers and friends tell me to wear more layers or thicker clothing.

I have still been running around in my summer sandals even though the temperature is starting to dip. One of my friends Patigule (72) would shake her head in disgust at me every time I went to her house. It got that I felt bad going to visit her because I knew she would disapprove of my footwear choice. She then got all of our neighbours on my case when we were sitting outside talking the other day. One lady even suggested that is why I have arthritis and why I needed to have my knees replaced.

So in order to keep my whole neighbourhood from knocking down my door and forcefully stuffing my feet into wool socks, I have had to rush the seasons myself. My feet are not happy. I have blisters on both ankles to prove their contempt for their early confinement, but at least my neighbours are happy ( they all think I have finally wised up). Peer pressure, ugh.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Garlic and Watermelon Anyone?

It was basically four years ago that I first came out here to live. Somewhere in the midst of it, life out here began to feel normal. As much as I have gotten use to things, I am sometimes reminded of how far removed they are from daily life in Canada. So for your sake I took my camera out on a walk with me and caught a glimpse of the everyday activities that I often take for granted, but thought you all might get a bit of a laugh out of. All of these were shot right in my new neighbourhood, not more than two minutes from my front door.

Garlic and watermelons are sold on the side of the street in huge piles, you can smell the garlic filling the air even before you turn the corner.

Red peppers drying out on a clothesline

Chickens, are our closest neighbours, these guys are right out under my bedroom window. Sadly to say the rooster died just shortly after I moved in here ( I swear I had no hand in his death, even if there were a few mornings that I did wish for it).

A recycling run. This couple would have spent their morning digging though the garbage house ( now there is something I should have taken a picture of) picking out anything that they can get a little money back for.

Young soldiers (freshmen) in training, another sign that the new school year has started.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Twins on the Town

It is considered a horrific embarrassment in North America for a woman to arrive at an event only to discover someone else is wearing her same outfit. We value our individuality and how it is expressed in our clothing.

Here the values are very different and much more communal. It is considered a wonderful expression of friendship for ladies to dress alike. They will walk around town or attend a wedding walking arm in arm with a close friend who has on the same dress.

In the past I have gone sweater shopping with some of my Uyghur friends so that we could express our friendship in this way. This week one of my American friends and I went shopping at the fabric market and both fell in love with the same bright red, orange, pink, black and white ( I really do like it, I think my tastes change the longer I am here) material and both wanted to make it into a dress. Thanks to the culture out here we could. Here we come, Fashion fabulous twins on the town.

Monday, September 01, 2008

School Start up Struggles

In my last post I mentioned having to put my fight face on, but I failed to mention what the issue was. Simply put: School. We started classes today, which meant last week I was in the office several times trying to register.

I have only studied Uyghur for four semesters, but that currently makes me at the highest level at our school. The school refused to open a class just for me and said I could either join the first year students, or “just go to another school”(this was said with a whole lot of attitude). Since I have already paid my tuition and gone through the police to get a visa for this semester, it is unwise and next to impossible to change schools. I also really like my school (most of the time). Instead I tried to encourage them to help me find a solution. They just kept insisting that this semester they were only going to offer one Uyghur class for all the foreigners no matter what level they were at.

My friend then suggested to me that maybe I could study with the local students who are in the Uyghur major. Thankfully the school agreed, although they never did call me back with my class schedule.

So this morning school was set to start at 7:30 am. I met my teacher and she took me to the local student’s registration office. She thought that the third year class would be the most suited to my level, but sadly those students are away for seven weeks on their practicum. So I decided to push myself and join the fourth year students. After writing down the times and room number, my teacher even walked me to the classroom (since we were now running late) and introduced me and my situation to the professor. It was a good class and I thought it would be a good semester.

But… the moment the bell rang , my teacher called to tell me to come back to the foreign students registration office, that new students had arrived today, and that they are now going to open a higher level class ( which is funny and extremely aggravating if you had heard how firmly they had insisted just three days ago, that they would under no circumstances be opening another class).

My new classmates are still more than a year behind me in their studies, but I am no longer allowed to study with the local students since they have opened this new class.

Okay quick recap of what the school told me:
- No class for you
- Go to another school
- This year we are only offering ONE Uyghur class, if you're not happy, go to another school
- Yes you can study with the local students
- No you can’t study with the local students
- We have opened a second Uyghur class

All this in less than a week, no wonder I often have to remind myself that I am attending the top University in the province.