Monday, September 23, 2013

Saving Janela

I went a long way from the airport to the main road where absolutly no one wanted to stop for me. They didn't even slow down and me wearing or nor wearing the Kalpak didn't have any effect whatsoever. After a while some guy wanted money and shook his head in exasperation when I explained to him the definition of hitchhiking.
"I travel without money. If you want to help, go on, if not, it doesn't matter, I'll find another car"
"What do you mean without money?"
My ride is the boss of Nestlé, Kyrgyzstan

I've been in this situation a million times already. The person who takes me in the end is the head of Nestlé development, Kyrgyzstan. He's a cool guy, you can see he has eaten a little too much Nestlé but he doesn't have any in his car.
He explains to me they're trying to expand but it's not an easy task considering the Kyrgyz mentality.
Here, people don't have a consumer culture like we have in europe. Shops are full of chocolate and ready-to-be eaten products but nobody buys them. Anything imported, anything that has a brand on it is simply too expensive for the locals to afford. For the while time that I have been here I haven't been invited to a restaurant once. Everyone can cook here and can they can cook well. Many people make their own bread, their own jam and juices. Fruits and vegetables come from their garden. A fair half of Kyrgyz families has a cow and produces their own milk and all the products that come from it. Those who don't often buy from their neighbours. What's left to buy in a shop? Not much and certainly not imported pruducts of Nestlé.
However, since American television has slowly made its way to Kyrgyz homes, the consumer culture has grown too, people are buying more, especially in the capital and often at credit.

The boss of Nestlé takes me back to Igor's place. He is very kind and even speaks english. I climb over the fence at 5:30 in the morning. I see Igor asleep in his chair, in front of his TV, a glass of compot not too far. I take the remote from his hand and turn the thing off. He doesn't wake up. Poor thing, he must have fallen asleep out of sadness. I go to my bed and sleep until noon. Igor wakes up only because he hears me making noise arount the house. I don't even know if he would ever wake up otherwise... ever. He is still sad Ilona has left, we talk about it a bit. He tells me to stay one more day no problem, this is not europe. I've told him I'll see this girl Janela, who's come to Bishkek and works there. For Igor who doesn't have a wife, dating a girl when you're still young enough is quite important. The fact that me and Janela are not actually dating doesn't really matter, he has his own opinion anyway. And actually Igor happens to be more right that I thought as the time.

I meet Janela in front of Beta stores 2 in the south of Bishkek. I haven't seen her forever. She's dressed in pink with a little white, she wears giant sunglasses that are bigger than her head. She's smiling, happy and hyperactive as ever. We talk... a lot. About a lot of stuff. Considering we actually see each other for the third time it feels weird. But when you just feel confortable being with and talking to someone, why not go ahead, why be bothered by the number of times you've actually seen each other?
Taking stupid pictures in VEFA commercial center, Bishkek

We go to a commercial center and take a lot of stupid photos everywhere. In clothing stores with the figurines, in some playground for children, in front of jewlery. We eat ice cream, laugh stupidly and I wonder if I couldn't be doing something more constructive. Like go to Osh or write my blog. After a while I realize that we are acting like on a couple on a date. This is weird. Could I be dating a Kyrgyz girl and not even realize it? How lame is that? And how cool!
Or maybe this is just a Kyrgyz female trait I don't understand, I mean for example, interpreting Nata's signals was like tuning Igor's soviet radio to modern frequencies. So what do I know. However, I must say that while Janela's english isn't perfect and my russian still sucks when it comes to communicating on a deeper level, our communication is great and clear, better than with some people speaking my mother tongue. That is because Janela really knows how to listen. She is really interested in what I have to say, not just waiting for her turn to speak. She is very good at weighing another person's feelings, mine in the present case, taking them into account. She tries to find the good, positive and confortables sides of people and camp on them. That's why it is so easy to be with her. At least for me.
The most developped positive trait in Janela, just before kindness is altruism and it is also her course. She feels the need to help other people, she feels it like a mission, she exists by it. She can't not help someone, it's driving her. And it makes her sad when she can't do anything. That is why, contrary to all of her other sisters, she decided to devote her life to pay that endless credit for her family.
And that is why it is a curse, she feels the need to put her own life in front of others.

If we go deeper into a philosophical discussion, we can ask ourselves wheather true altruism truly exists. Chances are it doesn't. We do help others because maybe after they will help us. Or we help others simply because they will like us, we'll have more friends to secure our future if difficult times come. Or maybe we help people because it makes us happy so in the end, we seek nothing more than our own happiness and we are all egoists. Thinking this way, we can only approach altruism, never reach it.
If it is so, Janela is the person that is the closest to a true altruist that I know. All the actions I see, all the posessions she has, nothing is directly directed at her. It's directed at her friends, her family, me. I've never seen anyone like that.

We have a lot of differences. I mean it, a lot. She's muslim and not the least of them. Not fanatic, nothing of the sort, just a strong believer. She prays, she thinks stuff like a girl must stay pure until marriage. I even think she believes stuff like angels, god is testing us and that he makes miracles happen. But she's kind and open enough to take into account my point of view without trying to change it or make me feel unconfortable about it. And my point of view is basically: fuck all that!
She wants to marry and have a family and I have a panic fear of relationship. The only person who can construct a relatonship that I don't fear is Nata because she makes the concept of open relationship work in practice.
But weirdly enough, our differences came out in the first place and our common traits second. We both have the curse of helping people too much. Obviously she has it more than me and she doesn't see it in such poor light as I do. We are both optimists even though is it easier for me to be one than for her. We both like to go against the wind, both very heavily but her in a gentle manner which hurts as few people as possible; as for me, just give me a tank.

But similarities and differences are secundary, the most important thing is communication, I learned that on the way with my different travelling partners. I finally got close to the truth about this weird Kyrgyz tradition of bridenapping. If you haven't been following the blog for some time, bridenapping is a custom where a man kidnaps his bride, brings her to his family and forces her to marry him. It's obviously a very hard moment for the girl which men find peace in the very common russian sentence that says it all: ona privikne: she'll get used to it.
Janela got kidnapped 5 years ago, when she was nineteen. She was attending another wedding and a girl she barely knew forced her into a car on her way back to Karakol to marry some idiot she had never seen before. It was a nightmare, scary as hell, something that I wish won't happen to me and my hitchhiking partner on my way to Kamchatka. She was driven to some family house where they talked the poor and scared girl into accepting what was thrown at her with the ever-famous argument: if you go back now, shame will fall on you.
When I heard this kind of stories the first time, in an abstract time, with abstract people and narrated by men, I thought is was funny. Now that it has happened to Janela, now that I know that it happens to actual people, I just want to say: fuck you guys with your ancient traditions, don't you have any shame?
Janela escaped because she threatened to kill herself on the spot if she couldn't phone her sister. She was only allowed to say that she was happy to be married to that asshole but since none of the family members spoke a single word of english, she managed to tell her sister to call the police.
When the cops came, she got away. In Kyrgyzstan the sentence for kidnapping is seven years in jail but of course Janela didn't press charges because she doesn't wish seven years in jail on anyone. And as cruel as what these people did was, I can understand not pressing charges. Seven years in jail is hard and I'm sure prison conditions in Kyrgyzstan are pretty awful.

Meanwhile I am still staying at Igor's. It's been more than a week but the good Igor still doesn't see a problem with it. I have no idea what giant amount of money would I have to spend to pay for accomodation had I been a tourist.

Since I met Janela I have made my own judgment about how desperate the situation is. And it is obvious she or her family cannot handle it alone. My idea is to gather money by crowdfunding and hope this works. My favorite website for this is indiegogo.com, a version of kickstarter which is more oriented towards charity.
In these things, you have to get lucky and there is only a slight chance Janela does but rationaly thinking, there is no other realistic solutions besides her parents commiting suicide to erase the debt (and would that erase it?) or things like that.

So I slowly and secretly started to build that project, thinking that Janela would be against the idea but the situation escalated faster than I had ever expected.
I cannot disclose how I got wind of it but today, Janela was $200 short of paying interests to the bank for her family. Not paying interests to the bank means the house being seized and her and her family on the street, nothing less. And don't think for a second anybody would help. They would just be ashamed for having had neighbours that got homeless.
Luckily, the blog I've set up a while ago had gathered that sum. It would have gathered more if paypal wouldn't have such an unusable paying system. Unfortunatelly or should I say tragically even, paypal has become the one and only paying system on the internet, I just couldn't find an alterntive. Why tragically? Because you have to have a paypal account to donate and creating a paypal account is so complicated, such a pain in the ass that it would discourage the most willing of donators. And of course, contrary to what is advertised, paypal does not allow you to pay by credit card, at least not in europe and that's from where all my donations are from. What does it mean? It means that from all the people who wanted to donate, less than half managed to doo it. Are we living in world where spending money is made easy but you have to fight to donate it? What the fuck does that say about us as a nation?

So besides paypal sabotaging Janela's donation campaign, people have gathered the money through Orianne, my former girlfriend if France, mostly through physical cash. In a world of internet and information exchange, this is just ridiculous. I'll stress that point by saying that it was people working in Internet and Telecomunations, people who are born with the networks, people who pay online every day, these people did not manage to donate money by paypal, that is how bad the paypal paying system is. Orianne has wired it to my bank account. We managed to do this before 2 PM, the deadline being at 3. I rushed to the other side to the city to meet with Janela. She was there, completly stressed out, stil wearing hight heels, business skirt and a shirt from her business interview. All of her friends refused to lend the $200 and we all know what the next step is: take a credit in a bank at an interest rate of 15% and never pay it back.
So basically that was a huge piece of luck. If Janela hadn't met me and Ilona two weeks ago, if I didn't pressure Ilona into meeting her again and again because she was asian and exotic, if I hadn't had wind of her financial problems, if I hadn't set up the donation page a while ago, she would lose her house over two hundered dollars.
This is no exageration, losing homes over $200 happens a lot in Kyrgyzstan, I learned that fact as I dug deeper into the culture. This is not a country with a culture of demonstration but I saw despereate people in front of the "while house" where the government is seated with an inscription which reads: "I borrowed 1200 soms (240 USD) and that is the last thing I did."
I can say that after merely a month of being here, I've dived deeper into the culture than any casual tourist, actually I've dived in more than I even intended to. This is not just travelling, this is not funny anymore. This is the harsh hand of reality, and even though I am experiencing it from a second hand, it is already too much.
Janela and I run through the capital, we race through the destroyed dusty streets of south bishkek. At last we find a bank. I cannot wire the money directly to Janela because she doesn't have a bank account and my bank would probably block the wire transfer for security reasons because it doesn't know Kyrgyzstan. So I withdraw 10,000 soms and we wire them to a bank in Karakol where Janela's father is waiting to withdraw them and bring them to pay the interests.
Done. Janela's tired and ready to faint: "This is a miracle".
It might be but it would be a bigger miracle if Janela's didn't have a supernatural interpretation of how wonderful this is that god made this miracle happen, that he sent me, Ilona and this awesome Orianne who gathered all that money for them.
Celebrating the successful payment of interests

This is huge and we take some time to rest, to celebrate. Celebration takes the form of a stupid photo session in the central square in Bishkek. Basically we ask people to take our pictures in random places. That is where I meet for the first time another negative trait of the Kyrgyz culture, one that will be bothering me the most in the future: don't steal our girls.
On one hand, I can understand that. All Kyrgyz girls are beautiful and most of them look like supermodels. They are thin, not a gram of fat, they smile all the time, they cook like an average french professional chef, they know how to dress like an average professional french cloth designer, they have long beautiful dark hair and a makeup their european counterparts would only use for their wedding ceremony. They wear high heels in a terrain where their european counterparts would wear boots and sticks to keep balance. You wonder, where their keep the ugly specimens, they probably kill them at birth or hide them behind so much makeup you just can't recognize them.
Besides all this, Kyrgyz girls are prepared to give birth to 5 children while maintaining their silouhette, raise them, cook for their husband everyday and of course also work to make money because you have to be two to make a living. Do they sleep? Not much but they have the makeup to cover it.
Long story short, there is plenty of reasons for Kyrgyz boys to keep Kyrgyz girls for themselves, I would have done the same. In fact, there is no way I am dating a european girl after having crossed the border of Asia. No way in hell, never.
Not because I am looking for a slave but because of all the other reasons.
On the other hand this overprotective custom of local girls is really annoying. I cannot talk of Janelle without meeting a dozen angry looks from jealous guys. When we stay together late, that means after 6PM, Janela gets calls from her friends who check on her, approximatly one call every half an hour. Their friends are afraid she might be kidnapped (but that is a behaviour you should expect from a Kyrgyz rather than from a european, don't you think?) and they sincerly don't understand what reasons she has to spend time with me.

When we're in a bus, people stare at us like we have the pleague. When they hear english from Janela, they look at us with disgust. Sometimes I have the impression that dating a foreigner is the Kyrgyz equivalent of prostitution. By foreigner, I don't mean russian, that can be tolerated but an American?That's very bad. And don't be naive, in this part of the world, you can be French, Czech, Spanish, Algerian or Ukrainian, you'll still be American.
Janela looks for a song to sing

So spending time with Janela is hard for both of us, her more than me because it is usually the girl's fault.
Today we stay late, we go to a Karaoke bar and Janela sings. I think the name of the song is "Obmen me" in russian. She's doing good, at least I think so. And we dance 4-step rock which is very bad according to local traditions (it's a couple dance, unmarried girl with foreigner bla bla bla) but we rock. We wanted to dance on three songs but after seeing the revolted looks on people's faces we decide to flee the bar after two.



We escape to Igor's house. He's very happy to meet Janela and invites us to eat dinner, one enourmous bowl of whatever for me, one enormous bowl of whatever for her. She doesn't manage to eat a quarter of that thing which surprises Igor very much. It's not that hard to deduce she probably eat a leaf of salad for lunch when you look at her silouhette but I guess Kyrgyzstan is blind when it comes to hospitality. Janela doesn't drink Alcohol, therefore, Igor respectfully serves his "compot". He can't get why she doesn't drink it when he assures her that he didn't add any vodka to the wine.
Janela is someone who has never drunk a single drop of alcohol nor smoked a bud a weed in her life. So Igor's compot would probably be her first alcohol poisoning. Janela was embarassed beyond measure, obviously she wasn't used to be offered vodka and refuse it as we did a milion times with Ilona.
I drunk her part which is a normal behaviour but she was relieved beyond measure. Janela's emotions are all beyond measure actually. Janela thanked Igor so much for hosting me and Ilona and saving us from a certain death. She decided to buy some sweets for him, that's probably what Ilona would have done.
Igor was very happy to see Janela and Janela was very happy to see Igor. I was drunk and was talking bullshit. Every european girl would run away at this point. Date number one, I sit on the strawberries you bought me. Date number two I take you to see a drunk guy who lives in a dump and get drunk with him.  But not Janela, she seemed to find the whole thing interesting. I think I said something about taking her to Jurmala in Latvia if she comes to europe. Pretty interesting place.

Janela said that for the first time she sees light in her life. The last seven years were only about paying back her parents debt. And that life is europe. How funny is that?