Saturday, June 30, 2012

It’s A Girl

The baby sitting in the stroller started to fuss.  Since it’s mother’s hands were full helping a client to design a new dress, one of the other seamstress’ patrons went over to the buggy, picked up the precious little bundle and started to rock the baby back and forth.  “What’s wrong little one?... There you go baby… you can stop crying… you're fine, don’t fuss.” She cooed over and over as she cared for the child.  “Are you a little boy or girl?” she asked in the same adorable voice that was calming the agitated little one.  She held the baby at arm’s length and looked down.  “Oh you’re a little girl, a precious little princess aren’t you?” 

No need for guessing in this culture… all babies wear split pants.  Normally these  seamless garments are viewed as nothing more than  an economical alternative to diapers, giving children the convenience of using the bathroom wherever they want, but today at the tailors I was also reminded how they make for easy gender identification tools as well.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Eyes Wide Shut

Islam teaches that people are not allowed worshiping idols.  This command against graven images can be taken quite literally.  My favorite example of following the letter of the law is the manikins in the fancy women’s dress shops.  These human figures are decked out in high fashion glittery outfits topped off with headscarves and everything – Yet to avoid the appearance of an actual human figure, their eyes have a thick layer of masking tape covering the sockets.   This simple solution is supposed to be enough to turn the figures from an opportunity to sin into a very shapely hanger.  They look harmless enough in the daylight, but walking by a few of these eyeless figures late at night can seem a little creepy. 


Saturday, June 23, 2012

No Look You

Our bus had been bumping its way over the desert highway for almost two hours when we were forced to come to a sudden halt.  An impromptu police check point had been set up and we were all commanded to climb off the bus and stand in a long line so that our identification and paperwork could be checked.

The sun blazed hot above our heads and groggy passengers, who had been contentedly sleeping moments before on the bus, now grumbled as they awaited their turn to talk to the officer.  I could hear them muttering “this is a waste of time’, or ‘why all the hassle’.  Both statements may be true… but these sorts of interruptions are all part of travelling in this part of the country.

Traffic heading in both directions was being stopped.  On both sides of the street makeshift shacks were set up for the officers to sit in comfort as they did their job.  The center of the road had barricades supporting large shade giving umbrellas.  Several guards stood at attention under them, wearing bullet proof vests and holding semi automatic weapons.  The intended intimidation factor wasn’t lost on any of us. 
I looked back at my travel companions; we were all dressed in very traditional Uyghur outfits.  The boys had on doppas ( an Uyghur man’s hat) and us girls were sporting long skirts, long sleeves and headscarves.  We were going for the ‘when in Rome’ mentality… but I also knew that was not really the mindset of the government or of the guys holding the big guns.  My mind started whirling with plausible explanations for our country bumpkin appearance.  

The man with the large gun broke rank and started strolling towards us “ Where are you from?” He asked our group in pretty fluent English.  As we chatted pleasantly I soon discovered this guy had studied at the same university I had done my language schooling at.  We were schoolmates, a bond that can count for a lot in this country.  He chuckled merrily and I knew there was at least one friendly face in the group.

Soon one man stepped out from the booth and said “Foreigners over here”.  His English was not nearly as clear, but to give him face in front of his colleagues we kept it the language of our questioning.  One by one he took our passport, “You what name?” “Birthdate when?” “Country of home where?”  “Where you go?” Sometimes we had to mutter under our breath an interpretation of what he was trying to ask each of us. 
He stopped one of the guys “picture no look you”  He declared.  “Oh I grew a beard,” he responded, stroking his facial hair with pride.   The officer smirked and waved him back on the bus.

He made a similar comment regarding my passport photo.  “This you no like!” 
know,” I said “It is a really bad picture.”

“He tried again more insistently “No you… picture like a black man”  

For the first time since getting off the bus I switched to speaking Uyghur , “Now big brother don’t be mean.  I was sick when the picture was taken… but it is not THAT bad.  Now I’m all embarrassed.”  His smirk broke into a full on smile and he laughed heartily as he passed my passport back and allowed me to go through.

I can’t wait till I get a new passport next year. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Public Restrooms

The building had become even more run down since I was in town five years ago, but it was the only public washroom in the vicinity of where we were walking.  As we drew closer to the cracking walls, the smell assaulted our noses .  The door marked ‘women’ was boarded up, so we all crept towards the men’s side.  The guys offered to go first to check out the situation… which was definitely the chivalrous thing to do. 

They came out having scouted the situation and reported back, “It’s pretty nasty in there.  Many of the boards are rotting out to the point they are no longer strong enough to hold a persons weight as they balance over the hole.  People have given up even trying to use some of the stalls… so you have to watch out for piles of waste as you go, and it gets darker the further back you go.  Avoid the first three stalls, since there is no stable place to stand… try the second and third ones from the end."
Their wives looked a little shaken at the prospect, only having been in county for a week, they were still not use to the whole squatty potty concept, which, based on the primitive nature of where we were standing, increased in grossness by a factor of 100.  The ladies retied their headscarves so that their mouths and noses could be better covered from the stench that lay before them. 

Minutes later they came out gasping for fresh air and visibly shaken by the crude washroom they had just been forced to endure.  As they squirted tons of flowery smelling hand sanitizer out, in hopes of washing away the memory, a Tajik man giggled  from where he had sat watching the whole scene.  

With renewed energy we took off walking and turned the corner of the street.  There gleaming in front of us in all it's freshly built cleanliness was a brand spanking new public washroom.  No wonder the Tajik guy was laughing so hard, he had watched these young ladies struggle and chock, knowing full well that if we all took ten steps to the left, our eyes would have alighted on a much more palatable solution. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dolan Music

I have heard of this specific style of Uyghur Traditional music for years, but never really knew where it came from or any details that set it apart.  Some of my current Expat friends are art and music lovers and requested my help learning a little more about Dolan Music.  So our last trip south took us to one of it’s home towns.   We asked around town about an Art Institute and were at first directed to a Museum filled with amazing Uyghur peasant or farmer paintings.  These graphic images and bright colors were beautiful…but there was no music or dance in the building.
They suggested we go to the city’s vocational school where one lady, the guru of all things Dolan, taught.  At four o’clock on a Friday afternoon we marched on campus, trying hard to look like we had purpose and intentionality so the gate guard wouldn’t stop us.  Being foreign helps,  people either figure you look important and therefore must have a reason for being on campus or they assume you are so stupid you wouldn’t even understand if they did ask, and so they let you go to save the hassle.  We were soon unshed into the female director’s office and after explaining our interest in Art and Dolan music she called the main teacher in to meet us.
We had figured that this trip would mainly be spent looking around and trying to find contacts… we never figured the teacher would be willing to call her students back to class late of a Friday afternoon to perform a personal mini concert just for us.  But that’s what we got.  When these high school aged kids picked up their instruments they forgot about a week’s worth of weariness from study, they put aside the fact it should have been the start of their weekend,  and they played with heart.  When they first started beating on their daps and burst out singing my heart skipped a beat with excitement.  I have tried repeatedly to upload one of the videos we took... but for some reason it just won't work.  So here are a few pictures of the kids playing.

Monday, June 11, 2012

On the Phone

The sand storm blew with furry rattling the windows of the cheap hotel we were staying in.  It was the first day travelling with the latest tour group who were paying my company for our interpretation services.  The group was gathered in one of the rooms having breakfast and I entered to make a few suggestions of things we could do or see even in spite of the blowing dust.  

The group remained rather unresponsive.  All of them had their heads bent intently over their fancy phones from the states.  Occasionally one person would chuckle and move their phone over a few inches so the person beside them could gaze at the screen and join in the joke.  A few seconds later another guy across the room felt it important to update us all on the score from some sort of ball game they had all missed during their flight over.

  I decided to cut them all some slack, I knew they were all still suffering from jet lag and the unpleasant prospect of going outside only to get coated in 12 layers of sand was not very  motivating for any of us to  head outside.  I hoped the longer we were on the road and the more they witnessed the wonder of this place the more excited they would get by their new surroundings. 

But the phone obsession continued and the groups  need to stay connected with the world outside only grew as the week went on.  We were walking down the cobbled stone streets passing women selling brightly hand stitched hats, or men slaughtering sheep and hanging the fresh meat to sell from their butcher hook.  On the corner a group sat on the ground pulling fresh flower petals off their stems, adding sugar and grinding them into a sweet jam like spread.  Nearby young children clad in split pants played a game of poggs, while a donkey snorted as he pulled his old wooden cart packed with grain up beside us. 
The sight was everything I love about my life here and I stole a glance at my travel companions to make sure they were drinking it all in and appropriately enjoying the moment.  Instead of gazing with fascination at the scene in front of them, instead of eagerly learning about this new place that they had flown across the world to see… I noticed the attention was once again focused only on their phones.  I tried to bite back a response and hold in my disgust.  But a comment of disapproval slipped out and the group told me that everyone in the west now a days was shackled to their phones. 

Okay, so not all of them were that bad... but it did get me thinking.  Is that true?  Is this what I have to look forward to next time I’m home?  Have conversations really turned into two people in the same room texting to each other from different phones?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

If This Was America...

This was the repeated refrain of one of the young women on the tour group I lead last week.  Every where she looked she saw violations, law suits waiting to happen, and people that should be being fined for their behavior... if they were in America, of course. 
  • Family of five all sitting on the same motor bike, no seatbelts, no helmets, no child safety seats.
  • Smoking in every restaurant and taxi 
  • Jay walking across the street and dodging between cars
  • Parking and driving cars in the middle of the sidewalk 
  • Selling non prepackaged food to children
  • Hotels that don't have keys for your room and expect you to leave your door ajar when you go out
  • Letting kids wander unattended down the street
  • Children wearing split pants and flashing the world- indecent exposure
  • Children and animals using the side of the road as a restroom, not using a pooper scooper to pick up the mess.
  • Racism as police repeatedly stopped the white western group for just walking down the street
  • Not marking crater sized holes in the sidewalk, potentially causing others to trip and fall
  • Honking car horns so loud and often that is disturbs the peace
  • The bus leaving an hour and a half before the time printed on the ticket
Maybe in America these are crimes... but here they're just part of everyday life.