Sunday, October 16, 2011

Kyrgyzstan Journal: "Thank You for Calling Master Card"

Washington, DC
Sunday, October 16th, 0050am

Inside the main entrance to the University
In the long, slow morning after Company E's standing-room-only concert at the Opera House in Bishkek five of us (Kathryn, Rob, Amanda and Christian, me) made our way West along State Route M39 out of the Capital and towards our Master Class at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Kara-Balta. If you think that's a mouthful to write, try vocalizing it (but don't do it with anyone within ear-shot....). The drive was about 90 minute from the Silk Road Hotel (where we would later go on to leave our lasting impression by the shattering of a glass-top table as our last act after checking out at 3:40 in the morning) and as always the view out the window told many tales so unlike those in the city itself. Time travels backwards in Central Asia very easily.

Unlike most bus-rides, though, this one came with its own soundtrack. We'd come equipped with Season One of "Mad Men" and the mid-point of Don's endless dalliances. The van had the sound system and video that one only dreamt about as a kid in a hot car on a summer "trek." And, as the scenes of semi-rural life went by outside, the scenes of America at the turn of the 60s went by front-of-cabin. As with so many things that seem at first incongruous, this one, too, would later reveal itself to be in so many ways fitting to our destination.
An old guardian still lives outside the Capital....

At the beginning of "Mad Men" lie the roots of the 60s, but Don, Roger and the mens club of "Mad Men" are very much Nixon men. Kennedy was for the girls, as it were. The Soviets are everywhere in people's minds even though we are months removed from the Bay of Pigs and years from the Cuban Missile Crisis. The cars are long and loud, just like the ones outside the van. The phones have dials and long straight black cords that snake into the walls. The length of walk-around-while-talking travel in a call is only that of the length of that cord. Its not today where a single conversation begins in the kitchen, extends through getting ready to leave the house and often terminates at a destination 30 miles away and involving unlocking and locking doors, navigating traffic lights and finding a way to stay connected while talking to a parking attendant two-levels down into the earth. 

One State Route M39 the road is rough and Kathryn, a seat behind me is verbally at war with the unfaithful Mr. Draper. Up front someone is snoring. 

Along that old road, the kind of road that assuredly was once upon a camels back part of the entire silk road network the dust kicks up easily and the pot-holes, though not deep, are ubiquitous. Your liver gets a workout even though the van's breaks and shocks had been replaced sometime in the night. 

As we wound our way along the reality of just how in the middle of nowhere we were took hold. Small mud or brick homes, low-slung stood set-back from the road. The windows were small and the slope of the roof too like the old sway-backed mare out to pasture to create any comfort.  Before long livestock became a part of the scenery -- not rural livestock but the kind that accompanies a semi-transition into a store-bought life -- chickens, an occasional goat, a mule. There is still much of what people need to be found in those animals at the foothills of the Tien Shen Mountains and Whole Foods is 10 time zones and a life-time distant. 

As we neared the end of the first episode we were watching, as Don flashed back to his Korean origin story (if you know the show it will make sense, if not -- well, download it or something), we also neared the entrance to the University and our first encounter with one VI Lenin. Banished from the cities his presence is far from absent in the country and small towns. He is, here in this small city, clear and present. 

The van, as it pulls to a stop outside the entrance to this "Tara-like" mix of a mansion and a mausoleum, groans a bit. The air is clear and clean and the Company tired. 

At the top of the long stairs to the right, past ferns and paintings of plants and V.I. himself a woman, early 50s with blond bangs, black spandex, a ballet-skirt and what can only be described as an ample figure proudly shared through a low-cut leotard presents here students. Here there are ways to show respect that we forget at home -- and whether they are needed or not is irrelevant. You honor those ways to return that respect. The rooms moves as one in a mini-ballet of welcome. 

One of the young artists who enchanted our class in Kara-Balta.
The class begins and Rob, in his wonderful way, sets about torturing a room-full of young minds and bodies and making them love him for it. How much laughter are we really used to in jumping jacks? Yet he always elicits love with what will, a day later, be serious abdominal angst when they try to get out of bed. 

I vanish back down the stairs. 

Outside Lenin waits. Inside Lenin waits. 

But the contrasts are overwhelming. In the front chamber the ever-present woman, guarding the castle, as it were, sits at her desk. The phone by her right arm is, surely, the original one. I'd seen one just like it in the van on the screen. Black. A long cord stretching from its base to the wall. Small metal rotary dial. When it rings the plaster shakes. Her record-book is as old as the building, it seems. Yet it all works and that building will stand a million years from now. Its 1960 again. Just like on TV. 

But its also 2011. Her face glows a bit in the half-light. Some comes from the windows behind her. But most of it comes from the enormous flat-screen TV in front and to her right. On the screen are two avatars and in front two boys with controllers battling it out in Wii land. The sounds are digital and analogue combines as they yell and the phone rings. Behind them a tin relief of a bare-breasted woman, paint brush and palette in one hand, hammer-and-sickle in the other, reflects light as on a pond at twilight. In the corner V.I. watches and on the wall, barely visible, he stands in his study examining the papers of the day. 

It all fits into one small hallways down Route M39 outside Bishkek. "Mad Men" lies 50 years in the past, yet save for that Wii and a bit of time travel it was yet in front of me in a cool October morning. Upstairs an iPod blasted out Rhianna and ADELE. Downstairs a phone rang on a handset my grandparents would recognize. In the studio young bodies with feet in both worlds laughed at the 100th sit-up. 

The day before the Company left the States Kathryn called her credit card company.

"I'm calling to let you know I'm going out of the country and want to be sure I can use my card." 

"Sure. No problem. Where are you going?"


"Ok. And what country is that in?"

Its a fair question. 

Thank you for calling Master Card....

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