There’s this old man living in our house. He’s been here a few months now. We call him Chong-Ata or “Big-Father.” He’s my host grandpa and recently celebrated his 84th Birthday – no small feat in a country with a current life expectancy of 65. Until recently, I didn’t know much about him other than the envy I have for his life of quiet leisure.
Over the past few months our conversations have been mostly limited to “How did you sleep?” and “Pass the sugar.” For a man who spends most of his time napping and drinking tea these are actually quite useful phrases; however, I began to work up the courage to ask a few more questions. My chance came one evening when we were all around the dinner table, sipping our last cups of tea.
Grandpa Jumabek was the oldest male of eight children, and when his father passed away, the responsibility of caring for his family fell literally on his shoulders. It was the late 1930s and food was scarce in the Kara-Suu Valley where the family lived. To the north over a mountain range lived his aunt, and knowing her family had food, he decided to make the trip to ask for help. Wearing a thin pair of shoes, Jumabek trekked for three days up and through a narrow pass, arriving in the Chui Valley on the other side. After staying a couple days, his aunt sent him back up over the mountains with two sacks of flour and a donkey in tow. Returning home, he was exhausted, having worn off a layer of skin on his feet leaving them bloodied and raw. Jumabek was only nine years old.
At nine years old I was proud of making my own sandwich. Being the breadwinner for an entire family is so much more badass.
My awe for this man grew, as did his stature. A broad and imposing man, I had to look twice to realize he’s actually several inches shorter than I am. It’s amazing what high regard can do for a person through the eyes of the admirer.
So the next time you see a man surrounded by a gaggle of admiring grandkids spinning tales with “back in my day,” think twice before you disbelieve. He might just be telling the truth.
Once shouldering a injured horse, Chong-Ata now shoulders three generations.