Friday, August 15, 2008

Fear Dawned as Night Fell

Fear Dawned as Night Fell

The soldier beneath my balcony motioned to his lips the quintessential universal sign that all smokers know. The puff sign. So I tossed down a nail figuring ‘here you go’. One always if practical offers out cigarettes. Not when one has too few for the next moments, but when one has enough. Sometimes the last. The soldier dropped the falling offering and then scampered off to the guard box to find some matches. Upon his return to being beneath the balcony he yells up what sounds like ‘yer kay’. I slightly shook my head affirmatively with absolutely no conception of what he was saying to me. An empathetic head-nod. The guard seemed pleased maybe too pleased. For it then struck me that what I had just barely nodded my head too is the question of ‘you’re gay’. It seems impossible to comprehend why I thought this but his question when posed to me sounded closest to those words. ‘He isn’t saying that’ I thought to myself. But no matter, I am misunderstood on the frequent, whether it’s thought, word, or deed. Then the soldier offered to me to listen to his cassette player. I respectfully turned down the much-appreciated offer. Appreciated because I hadn’t had human interaction of any sort for about 2 days, plus it was night and I was conversing (without understanding each other) to someone. I was incredibly afraid to be outside after dark now seeing as how I had just been assaulted in this city less than a month before. I still hadn’t shaken the fear of this foreign, alien, malicious dark. So as I sat back down knowing that not much was being communicated except for the new fact that I was apparently a homosexual. Amused, I had to laugh at my fear and situation, at anything actually, I just had to plain laugh at something.
The hammer swings.

A few nights later it seemed that the same guards were on duty again. I really couldn’t tell but they adorned the same uniforms, had the same type of faces and hair. It being dark and they seemingly being friendly; they may not have been the same people.

I was staying in one of the nicest hotels in all of Bishkek, incredibly afraid to be out after dark. This had never been a feeling I ever really have had. Even when alone and wandering the dark cities anywhere. Only occasionally I have been somewhat nervous when with my lady-friend (more scared for her safety than mine). Seeing as how the hotel was actually connected to the Ministry of Defense and these being soldiers on duty beneath my balcony, I figured I’d venture down and share some of the vodka that I had just offered them. They seemed very enthusiastic to this idea.

I had been watching them a little as I was sitting/standing and reading on the balcony very much bewildered as to their total lack of ability to water the very dehydrated meter-tall pine trees planted beneath me and in front of the hotel. So I walked down the four half-flights of stairs to meet up with some humans. They were watering these ten or so trees by spraying a high-pressure hose at only one of the tree’s roots. This partially exposed its surface system and did nothing for the other trees. So after we poured up some very healthy portions and shot them down we shared some rather mediocre sausage that one of them had brought back from the guardhouse along with plastic cups. I signaled for them to pour up some more while I took the hose and set it down at each of the trees in turn. I did this to make the impact of the high-pressure water much more minimal. We shot some more shots and I tended the trees. They seemed very thankful to hangout even though they and myself exchanged no words that either of us understood. I was glad to be outside, at night, even though it was only just below my hotel room and only for about 15 minutes. I returned to my room feeling a little bit better, a little more human.

I had planned to stay in Kyrgyzstan from between one and two months but the decision to stay for the longer amount was made for me, as I was forced to seek a new passport seeing as how mine had been stolen. I must be one of a very small number of people (on some esoteric bureaucratic list) who currently holds a U.S. passport issued out of the embassy in Bishkek. That fact (I think) has held me up with some customs officers when heading into other countries (few as that number may be). I reflect on this now and not at the time. For my time, when seeking said passport, visas and other traveler’s inter-country papers, was spent being afraid to be out after dark and trying to figure out where and who and what the fuck I had to do.

There was a girl who came to my aid as always seems to be the case. As much as I hide and shy away they seem to come ‘round and help me more then I help myself sometimes. Maybe this is the true purity of the female. They seem to be much more willing and generous.

I walked in to the Kyrgyz consulate to start the bureaucratic wheels a’turnin’. First off, the clerk spoke no English and I spoke no Russian or Kyrgyz. Secondly I had no idea what I actually had to do to begin the process and thirdly there were some rather long lines that I had just waited in to arrive at that point of complete ignorance and non-ability to communicate with the consulate clerk. I tried to explain that my passport was stolen and that I needed a new visa for the duration of time that I had already been in the country until the date that the new visa would expire. This being a fairly complicated concept to relay in language that all parties don’t understand. I had thought of what I didn’t need happening. I didn’t need to finally receive a new visa that would begin sometime in the future while the one that I was legitimately there on expired. I knew I would surely be stopped by some nosy cops and didn’t want more unwarranted trouble with being there during some limbo loophole time-frame on an expired visa while holding a new visa that would not start for some yet to be determined date. This may seem like the splitting of hairs, but I must say that after having dealt with the powers that be I was in no mood whatsoever to be spun through some hostile, hassle-the-tourist hoodwink. I let the man read the police report and that gave him a better idea but then he just pointed at the door from whence I had come and said, "Go". I looked at him and then at the doorway, back at him again and tried to reiterate that I needed a new visa. He made the ‘writing sign’ with his hand and pointed to the door again. I thought that I might never get this visa predicament figured out. I had waited in line for about 25 minutes to be told to leave again. I really didn’t want to wait around anymore, wasting yet additional time, seeing as how the window for consulates to deal with foreigners was already small and on specific days (only 2 hours on Tuesday and Thursday). I had no desire to be told (or shown) yet again that I lacked ‘vital’ papers of a most critical nature. I didn’t know then that I soon enough would continue to do this waiting with improper procedural papers over and over again, in a multitude of languages and a multiplicity of locations. Waiting in lines and going to correct and incorrect places. Talking to the right and wrong people.

So I exited into one of the numerous antechambers between the entrance and the main clerical room. There were a large number of people waiting here as well. Everywhere was people waiting. I saw a Caucasian girl here amongst the throng and accosted her for assistance. Maybe I asked her for help because she was more similar to me in appearance or because most of the Kyrgyz I had run into didn’t speak my tongue. Whatever the reason, she was most helpful in showing me which forms I had to fill out and where actually they could be obtained. So with newly filled out forms I stepped back into the lines and waited my turn. This time it seemed that things would start working. The clerk nodded his head and rubber-stamped a bunch of places. I had to relinquish my brand-new, two-day old passport I had received from the U.S. embassy there. I was very hesitant to part with it after I had been sans passport for over a month. I was told to come back to retrieve it a week later at a time when the consulate was actually supposed to be closed. I thought that this smelled of grift but what was I to do being in a country where money talked and I actually had enough where I could make it be heard. Doesn’t, unfortunately, money speak everywhere, and usually only in avaricious drivel-toned, repugnant cadence?

I had made a half dozen treks to the U.S. embassy and even met the ambassador himself. The first time I went to the U.S. embassy by my lonesome I thought the little van would take me out of the city and continue to some other forsaken place. Forsaken because my nerves were still jangled and everything was so new that I was completely unsure of the correct movements and motions. The embassy is much on the outskirts and to get to it you almost have to leave the city. It always seemed that I had missed the spot to get off and walk the rest of the way. But I managed. The last time I went I was held up in the security checkpoint for almost an hour as they thought I might have had bomb-making components in my hair. I was as amicable as possible but that was the day I was to receive my new passport and another hang-up was to be expected but also just add to all of the everything that made it so much more of a huge hassle.

So after my passport was given to the clerk I went to find the girl who had helped me and offered to buy her and her colleague lunch. This, I suggested, as a show of my appreciation plus meeting new people is often an enjoyable occurrence. They had to return back to their offices but I was shown where I could have passport photos taken. I needed to give the Kyrgyz embassy two or so, not to mention how many I would have to give the Chinese. So we parted but she invited me to a concert a few days later at the stadium and I heartily agreed. I gave her my phone number in case she wanted to converse with me before hand, to see that I was actually a nice guy. It didn’t hit me until after I had started walking back to my hotel room, aka (safe house), that I had just agreed to meet her on some corner at night in the city where I was now afraid to be out after dark. A quick fear trembled through me but I knew I had to face the darkness sometime. Plus, this was an external darkness usually easier to face than the internal black.

So we met at the designated time and location and walked to the stadium together. There was an incredible amount of people trying to get in and this comforted me to some extent because I figured that I was less likely to be attacked again with so many people around. If I was out after dark where would the attackers be coming from and what could I do. Not just be careful but WHERE WOULD THEY BE COMING FROM! This was now what I would be thinking for some time into the future. We walked to an entrance with less people pushing and shoving to get in. I was told that the bands we would see were very popular in Russia as well as Kyrgyzstan. I was up for something more than being in my hotel. As the show went on I eased into a more relaxed feeling and she and I chatted about things and life. The music was very pop and pretty nice. It was fairly obvious that the singer was lip-syncing but rather enjoyable seeing as what else I had been doing, such as reading for 6 or more hours a day for the past good amount of weeks.

She decided to go see if she could find her friends who may have been attending the concert, as well as to grab some beverages. So I stayed to hold our seats and continued to watch the show. Seated directly in front of us was a group of about 5 Kyrgyz guys in their mid-twenties. One of them turned around and tried to start conversing with me. I tried to as well. We fumbled through words and made each other laugh at our inability. I felt more at ease and watched more of the concert. Then when he turned around again he informed me in his best English yet, that he really enjoyed boxing, fighting or anything that had to with violent activities. He seemingly told this to me as a new confidant, more quietly than before and almost an aside that his friends didn’t necessarily need to hear at the present. This normally wouldn’t have meant anything accept for the sheer fact alone that this dude had way too much testosterone. But after getting boxed to the ground already in that country he informing me that he liked pugilism only succeeded in making me think that what he really wanted to do was pummel me to the dirt. It was like being at a picnic that is thoroughly enjoyable, in the sun, with friends, playing croquet, and having brought your dog or cat along to enjoy the wonderful ambiance. Then at the height of the exceptional day being told by a friend that your pet actually is now dead, being crushed beneath the car tire there in the street behind you. I kid you not. The frazzled nature in which I was existing at the time made what he told me feel as ton-of-bricks heavy as some incredibly painful knowledge. The wind was truly sucked out of my sails. My heart quickened and I tried my best to keep up the pseudo-humorous lack of communication that had been going on, and that had abruptly been choked off on my side by the new information I was unfortunately now privy too. All I could think about was how had I allowed myself to get into another situation where I was going to get my ass kicked yet again! He and his friends grew more animated as the show continued. He informed me that the last band was his and his friends’ favorite. I could only imagine what the favorite band of a group of Kyrgyz guys that like to fight and that would be subsequently kicking my ass, could truly be. Was it going to be some Death Metal? How about some hard Gangsta Rap? What about punk? I really couldn’t decide. I hastily whirled through the possibilities in my mind. I was however, still thinking in terms of occidental culture, what people that enjoy fighting would listen to according to my preconceived notions. What would be my assailants theme? This is what I thought about for sometime and that I really didn’t want to ever find out. I knew whatever it was going to be I would most likely not enjoy it. Not the music itself per se, because I so enjoy many elements from many styles, but the physical assault I believed to now be so agonizingly imminent.
My new friend, Masha, finally returned and that eased my nerves a little. Not that she would have been able to protect or defend me but that she could more successfully yell for help on my behalf. The moment of truth arrived as to what the sonic make-up would be for the soundtrack to my beat-down. The stage dimmed, the spectators rose to their feet and smoke began billowing out onto the stage. Then came a low rumbling of synth. It struck me as how much like Depeche Mode this was going to be. I thought ‘hey’ this could be worse it could be some ridiculous kind of music. But this was starting off sounding very cool. The music I was going to be beat-up too was actually going to be cool, a small consolation at the time. The swooning keys began to take a more melodious gait while the smoke continued to gather and the lights started to flicker and move. My next attackers began to shout as well as most of the people. They started to jump up and down and really get heated up. The palpable excitement only grew the longer this intro went. Then right at the moment I thought it was going to kick in to some uber-cool industrial music, five guys ran out onto the stage and the most unexpected boy-band tune was afoot. It was like a burst of gay sunrays through the dark and cool storm cloud of music. I stood completely dumbfounded. Everyone else was yelling and screaming at this New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys Russian knock-off version and I was completely speechless. Not that I had been yelling in anticipatory excitement but I was so thoroughly stunned. I didn’t know if I was more shocked that I was going to be beat-up or the fact that the favorite music of the perpetrators was considered to be ‘gay’ by popular culture in the U.S. if men of that age listened to it. Not necessarily that the music was homosexual but a definite derogatory opinion with some of that connotation. Where I’m from only usually pre-teen girls listen to that genre of music. The dancers/lip-sync enthusiasts were busting out some super half-assed dance moves like they had just learned to dance the week prior to this performance. So, I was incredibly surprised. I had not conceived, even on a whim, that this was to be the aural accompaniment to my next injurious altercation. I had to think, what strange new hell is this!
As the show advanced and Masha actually conversed a little with the guys in front of us, I grew more at ease. They eventually moved to get better seats but I thought perhaps they moved only to get in better position for a much more formidable surprise attack. I was still somewhat nervous as we stayed through the entire concert. Some people began leaving early so there was a constant stream of exodus for the last 45 minutes of the show. I really didn’t want us to be the last people to leave. The thought of my return to the hotel was becoming more and more weightily present. As soon as the music was over we departed and I jockeyed us into the far edge of a large crowd. This so I could look around behind me to see and hear the omnipresent attackers and be able to keep an eye on everyone in front of me. It was a very nervous and brisk walk. As fast as possible without looking as worried as I seriously was. Never let ‘them’ scent your fear. I was rife with the odor. She tried to talk about the show and other nice things but all I could do with my prey induced, self-preservation thought, was focus on where everyone around us was located. I saw her to a taxi about halfway back to my hotel, on a very non-streetlight-lit street. She headed away home, safe. Then I increased my brisk stride and arrived back at the hotel, I felt, miraculously unscathed. Now that was a show!

A few weeks later I was told by Joe that his ‘foster father’ (the owner of the house where Joe and Caroline lived) wanted me to get in contact with a friend of his that lived in Bishkek. His friend spoke some English and wanted to meet with me to practice. I was on a very loose schedule that consisted of reading, shopping for food and liquor that I would bring back to the hotel room, attending a play or concert or going to a museum, and then every couple of days going to a consulate or embassy. All of this most certainly done with one lone chief goal, to return to the hotel before sundown like some kind of reverse vampire.

So this man called me up and we made and broke various appointments and finally kept one about a week before I left that country. We arranged to meet in the main park of the city where there are some theaters and restaurants skirting on the eastern exterior. He had invited his niece along that spoke English a little bit better than he did. So all three of us went to a restaurant that served ‘Western’ food. They thinking, perhaps, that this would impress me by having us eat some food that I was familiar with. (To be honest I really don’t care what style food is prepared in. I am very open to almost all. I do cook certain things and try new, dreamed up recipes of mine occasionally and I definitely try new styles of food, especially in a foreign land. One has to keep in mind that people in some countries think that ‘Western’ food is from a higher social-strata, it usually is, due to its unbelievably more expensive price. I really felt quite embarrassed at this because I am a human like any other. Also, most ‘Western’ food has almost become synonymous with fast food and the like. I am not much of a fan of fast food at all. In fact I steer clear of the shit). We sat down at a table outside and I was told to order whatever I wanted. I didn’t want to make him seem cheap because I already knew that I was most definitely his guest and I didn’t want to force him to pay too much, so I ordered one of the least expensive wines, which was still quite a luxury in Bishkek. The waitress came and lit the candle in the center of the table and poured our glasses full. The girl and I started conversing in a more amicable way. She was fairly cute and very nice. We talked about Bishkek and what I like to do. Art, reading and the like. This suddenly seemed to piss the man off. We had all three of us been at the table about 15 minutes when he, out of nowhere, laid into her, very angrily and extremely animated. We had already ordered our food and were all sharing the wine when he informed me that his niece would now promptly be taking leave from our company. I asked why this was seeing as how her food was coming and he said that she had someone else to meet, a friend. I found this highly unusual but after they had this yelling match maybe it would be for the best. But the yelling match had basically been one sided, from his. So she left, which was against my wishes because she was female and much closer to my age and we had been trying at nice conversation. Now I became engaged into a conversation with some older man by about 15 years, at a supper, overly romantic candle-lit dinner in a crazy country that I was afraid to be outside in after dark. There were about 5 other couples at the restaurant, all man and woman. I was with some dude who had just shouted away the lone female from our table before the food had arrived and who was wearing a white sweater wrapped around his shoulders, tied at his chest. This isn’t a sure sign for ‘gay’ but then again I think that in his case, it was.

So the sun slowly sank and with it my fear rose. The dinner lasted some 2 hours and we had good enough conversation, I trying to keep it away from sports and other things that are the easy questions to acquire from courses and on things I find much more interesting. I talked about some of the shows I had been to see. Such as the 3 hour Russian farce play, where I understood only about 16 words and how I had clung to those 16 words for any semblance of understanding. But what is fascinating about watching plays in other languages is the fact that the actors are human and how body language and movement as well as the tone of voice have so much to do with the conveyance of the intended message. Add to that context and an open, willing mind to understand and I understood the main gist, I suppose, by sheer will. That is my summation and no one else’s. I could have missed everything. We discussed cars, of which I am no real source for information but I could hold my own especially with someone trying to speak a second language. We talked about many things. I couldn’t quite shake the fact that he had screamed away the girl and the inescapable thought that it was now night and I still had to walk back to my apartment.

I mistakenly acquiesced to his suggestion that he escort me back to my hotel. I thought that surely there is strength in numbers and that obviously two in a fight is better than one. But what I have yet to mention is that this guy was also lame. I mean really he was lame. His left leg was not very useful, he could stand and pseudo-walk, but his walking speed was at such a fraction of the pace that I needed, to return to my hotel room promptly. Instead of using it to walk it was more like sliding it on the ground to use as a brace to lunge his much more useful leg forward. So what I had thought about the safety in numbers, was blown out of the water by the site that we must have created. Here we were moving across the park, creeping, ever so painfully slowly, me, a definite foreigner and he, a half-cripple middle-aged man. We seriously must have been the envy of all would-be attackers. I was so certain of this. The conversation, incredibly sketchy by this time. I was trying to keep a look out for the perps and yet trying to keep a steady flow of information. I really don’t know how I did it. The distance back to my hotel was about 2 km and it would have taken me alone approximately 10 minutes. We seriously snailed along for about 30 minutes, all this time with me in a sort of reserved panic. This man had on the whitest of preppy sweaters, dangling about his shoulders like some kind of mugger’s target beacon pinned to his back. In the darkness of the night it was shining like a huge hunk of iron on a submarine’s radar. A bull’s eye beckoning for the beat down or so I thought.

We arrived safe enough at my hotel and I thought he would leave me at that but no, he wished to see what a hotel room there looked like as well as use the facilities. I am not sure why but it may have had something to due with the former much more oppressive regime but he actually asked the permission of the hotel clerks to accompany me, to my chagrin, up to my room. He was told that they didn’t mind. Like what hotel clerk anywhere minds who comes and goes with one of their best paying customers? This man must not have been in many hotels for sure and that is one reason (hopefully the only one) that he wanted to come to my room. So we went and I showed him briefly around the non-too-spectacular room that was definitely nice enough. Then he used the facilities and while he did this I left the door to the room ajar to let him know that was the way out, in case he had forgotten. He left and I settled into any easier mind-frame and prepared myself mentally for the next part of my journey the following week into China. I mostly hoped that I would leave my fear behind.

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