Kyrgyzstan is full of animals of all kinds; domestic, wild and something in between. I have written before about how animals are often treated and seen very differently than we are used to in the United States. As my time here grows, I begin to find myself needing to adapt myself and my reactions to animals, especially the things that affect me and elicit a very emotional response, just in order to keep myself sane as well as to not look like the blathering tourist on the local mashrutka who gets excited and takes pictures every time our route is blocked and our journey put on pause by a herd of sheep or cattle or horses crossing the road. I am reminded of this every time I get a text from a fellow PCV describing the bloody scene of an accident where a horse was hit by a car, or when I approach my host family’s dog with a treat and it fearfully squeals and yaps and attempts to bite me as it cowers instead of gleefully approaching me, expecting a belly rub. I see donkeys lying on the side of the road with their feet tied together (presumably so they wont run away) making the loudest most horrid noises, and cows wandering the streets of my village, almost always unaccompanied. Explaining these differences to myself is difficult, but not being able to express to locals how some of these encounters are new for me and why they affect me is even more of a challenge.
Recently, I traveled to Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, Bishkek, to visit with some friends and to have a meeting with an organisation that will work collaboratively with mine throughout my service. After a 5 hour mashrutka ride, I arrived at the autovoxal in Bishkek and began mapping out my route to the friend’s apartment where I was to spend the weekend. It was late, about 8:00 pm, and I realised that to catch a mashrutka that would take me closest to where I needed to go I would have to walk a few blocks. So, huge backpack in tow, I hiked up to a large intersection and parked on a bus stop bench, waiting for the 265. I was looking at my phone when I suddenly heard an alarming cracking noise followed by a loud yelp. I looked up and didn’t see anything at first but then heard it again. Thud. Crack. Squeal. My eyes adjusted and I saw in the middle of the road that a dog had been hit by passing cars. The traffic director had stopped the flow of traffic down the road temporarily allowing the cross street to pass but was clearly paying no attention to the situation at hand. I looked around at the other people occupying the bus stop and most of them were covering their mouths, whispering and pointing. A few women had tears in their eyes. They all let out a gasp as the dog was hit by yet another car. It tried to limp off the road but couldn’t stand. As stood in shock on the side of the road, tears welling in my eyes another car drove past and another squeal pierced my ears. An older gentleman on the side of the road yelled at the traffic director, “look what is happening!” he screamed. Realising that no one was going to help the dog, which had now given up on trying to walk off the road and was lying in the street panting, I (dangerously and without thinking not just because of traffic dangers but also because dogs are notoriously dirty and diseased here) dropped my pack and ran into the street, scooped up the dog and brought it to the side of the road. A group of younger men crowded around and began muttering in Kyrgyz and Russian. I couldn’t stay to watch so I boarded the next mashrutka that passed and bit my lip hard to avoid bursting into tears and being seen as the deranged American tourist, crying for no reason. Of course I soon realised that this mashrutka that I had jumped onto so suddenly to remove myself from that street corner was not following a route in the direction I needed to go. It took another hour (and a quick rescue by a friend) to find my way back to the apartment I would be staying in.
I’ve been told that this experience, while shocking to me, is nothing in comparison to the sights volunteers often encounter when the local militsia “cleans up the streets” (goes around killing stray dogs) once a year. Stories like this about dogs, cats, horses, sheep, donkeys, mice, etc. often plague a volunteer’s experience with the uncomfortable reality that in order to survive in a new environment, sometimes you have to compartmentalise these emotions. Change the way you see, or don’t see certain aspects of life, and put every effort into changing the ways these experiences affect you.
On a lighter note, I also wanted to share a story about a night during Phase 3 of my PST. I was back living with my first host family in Krasnaya Rechka and wrote about it at the time but never posted. It details another difference in the ways in which animals can be perceived in other cultures as well as how language skills can sometimes get in the way of complete understanding. Here it is now.
Last night my Snaha knocked on my door, “Anna, Anna, Anna… Moshna?” (may I?) She quickly muttered something in Russian that I did not understand and finally mimed out that she needed my headlamp. She motioned towards the backyard and said something about our dog, Tobig. Knowing that I love Tobig, she looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to put on my slippers and come with her. I obliged, mostly out of curiosity for what she was so panicked about at 11:30 at night. I ran after her down the hallway into our garden. She motioned to the yard and repeated the word I had not understood before. Upon seeing the dumbfounded and confused look on my face, she mimed something that reminded me of being stung by a bee. I thought maybe Tobig had been stung. I could not see Tobig but heard him growling from the dark area in the corner of our pepper patch. We shined the light down the rows of peppers to find him. I asked if it was a bumblebee and if the dog had been hurt. (O.K. fine, I really asked if he was “sad” and mimed out being stung by a bee, my language skills aren’t that impressive yet). She looked at me with the same confused expression I had given her moments ago, and mimed out what she meant again, repeating the word. “Дикобраз! Дикобраз!” (Deekobraz)
This round of charades lead me to believe he had found a scorpion in our backyard. I repeated the word and tried to mime out scorpion (tail, pincers, repetitively asking if it was black or brown). She half listened to my attempt to capture a terrifying and poisonous creature and pointed to the ground where Tobig had attempted to dig something up, uprooting two or three of our pepper plants in the process. We continued towards the growling and as we walked down the dark rows of short shrubs I thought about what I would do if I were stung by a scorpion, an insect (maybe?) I know absolutely nothing about in the backyard of my host family’s house just days before swearing in as a PCV.
“Call the PC medical staff at 11:00 pm? Would I need to elevate my foot? Suck out the poison? How do I say ‘the damn thing stung me!’ in Russian? Would I die? I’m pretty sure we didn’t cover this in our first aid session!”
As we approached Tobig’s war zone with the mystery creature my Snaha gasped and pointed. She shined the light between a row of pepper leaves and strawberry plants and as she repeated the same word she had been saying over and over for the last five minutes, the light shone on… a hedgehog. Small, cute, not terrifying or “spoogalsya” (scary). I laughed and knelt next to it to which her response was to gasp even louder and scream at me; “Neilzya Anna! Ne Trogai!” (Don’t touch!) We returned to our mime game as she mimicked something that made her appear as if she was being shot with an arrow. I laughed again and in broken Russian and charade mimes, tried to explain that this was a hedgehog, not a porcupine. It is small and its quills wont shoot out at you if you pick it up, in fact, I explained, I had one as a pet in college! But not wanting to scare her more than I already had by approaching the “wild” animal in our garden, I allowed Tobig to take the night’s watch of the terrified little creature and returned to my room.