Here’s a delightful essay, a character study, a study in cross-cultural (mis)communication, and a travel story by Renee Giovarelli. Some of you may have read her “What it’s like living here” piece published earlier on NC, also set in Kyrgyzstan, where Renee often travels for her work. Renee travels the world for an NGO involved in reforming land and property rights. But she also writes urgent, passionate essays about the places she visits. For an earlier essay on Kyrgyzstan see “Fermented Milk” in New Letters. Her essay “The Bad Malaria Shot,” which she presented at her graduate reading in the summer, was a finalist for the Wasafiri 2010 New Writing Prize.
The Real McCoy
By Renee Giovarelli
When I arrived in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan at that time, and three hours by car from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, my final destination, Sergei Sergeivich Kuzmin stood pressed against the glass window watching me come into customs. Hundreds of people, also searching the deplaning passengers for the first signs that their loved ones had arrived safely, stood behind him. He was a master at pushing himself and me to the front of any crowd. Seeing him, I relaxed.
Sergei had been flying into Central Asia from Moscow to interpret for me for five years, ever since I first started working in Kyrgyzstan, which he called Kyrgyzia, the name of the territory when it was part of the Soviet Union and not an independent country. Broad and short with a large belly and a Charlie Brown head, he brushed his thinning white hair straight back so that his forehead and bushy eyebrows were prominently featured, as was his sizable nose and enormous smile. Over the past five years, Sergei and I had established a routine, which seldom varied. Actually, Sergei established the routine and I complied. I let Sergei guide me around and take charge of everything on my first trip to Kyrgyzstan, the first country stamped in my passport, and it had been impossible to wrestle any control back since.
But this was going to be our last trip–I had to fire him.
It used to be that every country in the former Soviet Union smelled the same when you stepped off the plane—a faint odor of sewage mixed with cooked cabbage and chilled sweat, and clothes that had been worn for several days but don’t exactly smell yet of body odor, burning leaves and dried cow dung. For me, the differentiation of the Soviet republics was first signaled by the change in smells in the air at night.
On this, my fifteenth trip, it was cool at three in the morning but would soon be hot enough for a sleeveless silk blouse. I filed out of the plane behind the oil men and World Bank consultants, in front of the missionaries and Peace Corps volunteers–not fitting in with either crowd. I wasn’t a middle-aged male in a white shirt and not an eager, young zealot with a backpack either, but somewhere between the two and slightly disdainful of both.