It’s nearly midnight when I step out from the Народный holding four bags full of odds and ends – clothes, leftover food, detergent, etcetera – and the five liter bottle of water I just bought. There are basically no mashrutkas around at this time of the night and I’m looking for a taxi as my new apartment, which I am just completing a move to, is a 40 min trudge away. There’s a car at the corner but when the driver hears that I want to go to Panfilov, he shakes his head in dismissal and walks away. A pair of policemen watch intently across the street; I studiously ignore them. The last thing I need right now is to be asked to produce documents and a bribe (it’s already happened once before, and foreigners are often prime targets).
As I feel the winter chill flexing its muscles, I see a cab coming in the distance. It stops right behind the cops but the driver gets out and opens his trunk before I can even tell him where to go and ask how much he’ll charge. I’m happy to pay extra but he quotes a fair price and motions for me to get in the car. The police drive away.
The roads are mostly empty right now. A few taxis cruise here and there, some guys screeching tires and laughing loudly, and the odd car that is swerving left and right at high speed. The driver asks if I’m Indian and we lapse into a silence after he realizes that my command of Russian is strictly rudimentary. He tries to make awkward small talk. You know…Urdu? Do they speak English in Pakistan? We speak some English here too. But mostly Russian. The Soviets were here, you know, the Russians.
We get to my place and after I pay him and head to the back to get my stuff, something quite touching happens.
The driver – this big, macho half-Russian half-Kyrgyz guy – picks up half my bags and declares that he will carry them to my apartment. His car is running and his door is open but he’s seen that we’re not exactly at my doorstep – in my old Stalinskaya apartment complex, you have go through a fence and walk through a decrepit courtyard to get to the building. I am completely surprised and very grateful.
This is exactly why I feel so comfortable in Bishkek. There’s an element of human interaction here that I love, and my experience here has been sprinkled with instances of kindness and good will from strangers.
Like the time my fruit seller gave me a discount because I was fumbling in my pocket for change.
Or the Kazakh man who, upon learning that I was from Pakistan, clasped my hand and surreptitiously left some candy in it.
Then there was the cab driver who actually returned some money to me after we struggled through a conversation during the morning traffic jam.
Oh, and the lady who drew her toddling daughter’s attention for my camera at a street fair last month.
Actually, all the random smiles from people that have helped me fit in – no truer act of charity perhaps.
This is different from my experience in Canada where people generally stick to themselves. Walking down any major street in Toronto, people are more likely to look through you than to look at you. Interactions with strangers are almost always premeditated, rarely spontaneous (except for in certain public spaces, such as parks). There was once a group of teens walking around Yonge/Dundas with a FREE HUGS placard. It was sweet – but constructed**.
This increased level of human interaction with strangers reminds me of Pakistan as well, where almost every transaction involves bargaining and where chain supermarkets have not yet displaced fruit and vegetable stalls and small independent grocery stores are still common (thank god). One of my favorite memories from Karachi is the mango seller who bought a plate of gol gappay for me in exchange for a photo (written four years ago; please judge accordingly!).
More of the same, please.
The driver did not end up carrying my bags to my doorstep. But he made my day.
*(Narodnyy: lit. people, but in this context, the chain of 24-hour supermarkets across Bishkek)
**Of course, more relaxed attitudes around displaying emotions come with a price. No one has ever stopped my car to get into a fight in Canada, for example. No stranger ever tried to punch me because he hated my presence. And I’ve never had to deal with neighbors so noisy that I could barely sleep.
Sometimes I think it might not be so bad to have occasionally loud neighbors. There’s a very interesting comparison in social norms around politeness to be made here – but that’s for a future post.