How to keep naked guys from talking to you

I’m not sure of a more awkward situation than a naked guy striking up small talk while I’m scrubbing my privies. Yet this is the ritual I must endure every time I head out for my weekly bath at the local banya. (Ok, well maybe bi-weekly.)

When I say banya, picture a combination shower-and-sauna. Now instead of a shower, picture two taps and a bucket. Also there’s a lot of bare skin. (I hope you stopped picturing.)

Being the considerably less pigmented and infinitely more tattooed (I have two) of the bunch, I tend to be identified as not being from around here. This invariably engenders the usual line of questioning for a foreigner in Kyrgyzstan.

“Are you married?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Should I be scared that a naked man who I’m showering with is asking me if I have a girlfriend? I brush it off, along with the water that’s splashing off his naked body onto mine.

So to alleviate my bathing woes, I’ve developed a strategy. I start talking first.

Because here’s the truth: nobody likes small talk from strangers while they’re naked. It’s one of those universal human things.

The trick is to immediately upon arrival at the banya start asking a ton of questions—where are you from, what’s your name, do you like to eat meat, are you getting married—the usual. The other person quickly realizes, “Oh my gosh. It’s a talker. If I start grunting my answers and hide my shame towards the corner, maybe he’ll stop.” After a few of these exchanges, you can close your mouth and enjoy the remainder of your bi-weekly washing in peace.

And if the other guy doesn’t stop talking? Well, then you might just make a friend for life. There’s nothing more enduring than a friendship made in the nude.

Where I used to bathe when I lived with my host family out in the village

Life is a series of interruptions

There’s this really weird thing that happens in Kyrgyz schools. You’re teaching a class when all of a sudden the door opens, some random face peers in, the jaw goes slack, and the door closes. Then it happens again. And again. Count ‘em, six, seven, eight times or more the door opens and bangs shut, eight times or more the flow of the lesson stops, the waves crashing against the blackboard.

Not a single face asks for anything.

Not even a foot steps in the room.

There’s no answer. No reason. No explanation.

I caught one of the people once as they were turning down the hallway, running after them to catch up.

“Why did you just open the door and shut it again?”

He just shrugged.

Once I tried locking the door from the inside to keep people from opening it. The next person just knocked until I opened it.

“Oh. You’re teaching in here.”

Yes, I’m teaching in here! What else goes on in a classroom!!

It must be the universe just having a laugh at this lesson. And I mean the lesson I’m being taught as I stand in front of the room.

Life is just one long list of interruptions. Whoever called life a path was wrong. Life is not a path. It’s a game of plinko.

As I was trying to insert this plinko video, my girlfriend called me. I looked at the phone and thought, “Eh, I can call back. I need to finish this thought.”

Five minutes later I’m hearing on the other end of the line, “You didn’t answer because you were writing?”


“So…your blog thing is more important than me?”

“I…uh…you know…(actually plinko?)…well…actually you were interrupting my post on interruptions, so congratulations—you just made my blog!”

Oh, the irony.

Actually, it’s not ironic at all because interruptions are all that ever happen.

There’s no such thing as a line we tread through life. We’re jostled. Bumped. Tossed. Lifted and hurled. One of you out there tell me you’re in the spot you pictured being in 10 years ago.

My friend Maksat likes to say one little turn even from your current direction puts you in an unimaginably different place years down the road. One degree to the left or the right. One nudge. One phone call possibly.

And it’s so good to realize that. To know that the interruptions aren’t hurting your plans for your life. They are your life. That when the phone rings you’ve got life coming at you in a way you maybe couldn’t have anticipated and it’s your new little thread that you grab onto to ski along the waves. Life is interruptions, and that is great.


What are your favorite interruptions? Where have they taken you?

I just wanna be a Kyrgyz foodie

Hey all! 2015 has been rung in and I’m back in Kyrgyzstan for my last stretch in the Peace Corps. Six months left today until I COS (that fun acronym for closing my service!).

My blogging friend Grace over at cooking in the corps asked me some questions about food in Kyrgyzstan and I answered. Check out the intense post here. (If you dare!)

Drinking fermented milk in the mountains

A cause for Kyrgyzstan, 16 years and counting

A life-changing conversation with a leading expert on bride-kidnapping

Last week I had the honor of meeting with Dr. Russell Kleinbach, one of the world’s leading experts on bride-kidnapping in the Kyrgyz Republic. A professor emeritus of Philadelphia University, this is his tenth trip to Kyrgyzstan since first teaching in Osh as a Fulbright Scholar in 1998.

Born and raised as a Minnesota farm boy, Dr. Kleinbach went to seminary in Kansas City then worked as a civil rights activist, once meeting with senators on Capitol Hill in the mid-1960s.

After returning from his trip to Washington, D.C., he was asked to be a guest on a talk show debating the Vietnam War. Going head to head with staunch proponents, the “green” Dr. Kleinbach quickly found himself in over his head. “They tore me every which way and loose,” he told me, with a quiet chuckle.

For the next six months he read everything he could on the war, educating himself on the history and perspectives of the conflict. This led him and his wife to spend the last two years of the ‘60s living and working in Vietnam. The experience helped shape his deep ideological belief that “the foundation of all conflict in the world is inequality.”

Dr. Kleinbach worked for most of his career as a professor teaching psychology and the humanities. Having had a keen interest in the Soviet Union, he took the opportunity to live and work in Kyrgyzstan, a former soviet republic, a few years into its newly forming history. Here Dr. Kleinbach was first made aware of the phenomenon of bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a social ill that affected his students and those in his community. Sixteen years later, Dr. Kleinbach continues to work researching and educating Kyrgyz people on the effects of this practice and how it can be stopped.

Bride-kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is an extremely complex issue which runs the spectrum from those who elope to those who are physically taken practically at random off the street. Dr. Kleinbach’s cause works to end what they call “non-consensual bride-kidnapping” or the practice of forcing a woman to marry who doesn’t want to. (More detailed information can be found in this well-written 2013 Eurasianet article. A descriptive account can be found in this NYT article from 2005.)

Reducing bride-kidnapping rates one village at a time

I was initially invited to meet Dr. Kleinbach by my Japanese volunteer friend in our village. Entering the guest house where he and the director of the organization he started, Kyz Korgon, were staying, we found them folding pamphlets and rolling posters for their next round of seminars and door-to-door canvassing in villages in our region.

He started right in with the history of his work in Kyrgyzstan since 1998, the research he’s done, and the methods of education they employ.

Bride-kidnapping is a prevalent practice that, according to his research, has been growing in Kyrgyzstan since the 1950s. It is popularly believed here among Kyrgyz people that this practice has ancient cultural roots, yet Dr. Kleinbach believes it’s a more recent phenomenon. “In a culture without a written history, tradition can develop quite quickly,” he tells me, adding that no where even in oral tradition does the idea of bride-kidnapping appear as a legitimate way of gaining a wife. “It’s not in the Manas,” he says, referring to the world’s longest epic poem and what today many Kyrgyz people consider the foundation of Kyrgyz culture.

This is one of the appeals he makes to people during his organization’s seminars. They focus on a multi-pronged approach to reach people which includes a discussion on how according to the Koran, Muslim Imams are forbidden to bless a marriage that is non-consensual.

“The issue is start the thinking process,” he says. But he’s doing a lot more than that. His work is getting results.

The organization he works with canvasses an entire village, conducting interviews with women and men to determine the statistics on the number of women who have married non-consensually. Then, they meet with students and unmarried youth to show a video of women who have been kidnapped and discuss the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. The sessions end with an appeal for a written and signed “pledge of resistance” form stating that for girls, if kidnapped they will leave and return home, and for boys, that they will promise to only marry someone who will agree to the marriage.

The next year his organization returns to the same village and conducts interviews with those who have been married since they were in that village the previous year. The results are showing nearly a 50 percent drop in the number of non-consensual marriages.

His talk on the organization’s work only slowed when our host brought out the afternoon lunch of rice soup and steamed dumplings.

You’re asking the wrong question

As the conversation moved on to the kind of chatter associated with all meals, I felt this growing urge to ask him a selfish question. Maybe it was his professorial demeanor. Maybe it was his warm heart and open ear from decades of mentoring students. Maybe it was simply a deep gift for relating to people. Whatever it was, I felt that tug that comes whenever you’re in the presence of someone great, that tug to ask for sage words of wisdom gained from a life of living with purpose.

“What am I supposed to be?”

As a 30-year-old, still hopping the world every couple of years without a clear plan, I yearn for that calling. A cause that pulls my feet out of bed every day to stand for something instead of that listless noise that’s made me fall for everything.

“If you had a calling, you’d probably know it by now,” he says, tossing the thought ball back to me. “Don’t worry about the question ‘What am I going to do with my life?’…Focus on a cause you can pursue.”

Indeed Dr. Kleinbach didn’t discover the cause of bride-kidnapping prevention until he was in his late 50s. “Ah, but I already had a full life teaching. This is just sort of the icing on the cake.” He went on to commend the role of the teacher I’ve been playing saying that’s cause enough, an honorable cause.

Always one to make things practical, he followed this immediately by challenging me to pick up the cause of educating people of the dangers of bride-kidnapping and helping people work out a better way. To stake my claim here, in Kyrgyzstan, working with local people to end this practice that wrecks havoc in so many lives.

And there it is: the secret. It’s nothing more—and nothing less—than simply doing something. To start thinking about others and what needs to be done. To not worry about having what it takes or being on the right path because in his words, “the education will take care of itself.” That each and every cause is fought by people who through doing the work are discovering how to better people’s lives.

I’d been asking the wrong question and seeking its answer in the wrong direction. Focus on the self is where the problem lies, not the solution.

A cause to celebrate

“You ever hear about stone soup?” Dr. Kleinbach gave me a whimsical look.

I had—I remembered the story from grade school, where a man with only a stone for dinner invites the village over for soup, but first cleverly asks each person for just a little something to flavor the stone. The story ends with a simmering pot of vegetable stew and dinner for the entire community. I nod.

“I’m the guy with the stone.”

Dr. Kleinbach looks at me with the smile of one wise enough to know it’s not the personal cause alone that changes the world. It’s a focused heart, a willingness to do something and an invitation to draw others in to make a difference.

IMG_6310A student painted poster hanging in my school reads: “The 8th of March! Dear ladies and girls–we congratulate you on your upcoming holiday.” (International Women’s Day)

Tex-Mex food-stands open in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Local entrepreneurs bring Mexican to Kyrgyzstan

Here in Bishkek, it’s said, you could sell the air and make money.

This year however, two young entrepreneurs are making a go of it offering much more than air. Each has opened his own food-stand selling burritos.

Ilias Zhoroev, 26, developed his skills while working the night shift at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. After spending all night at the restaurant, Zhoroev and his friends would head to Subway or Chipotle after work for their dinner.

“It’s more healthy [than McDonald’s],” says Zhoroev. He’s leaning back in one of the plastic lawn chairs in front of his shop, aptly named Burrito. McDonald’s was a great experience for him in the service business and has greatly influenced how he runs his food stand and manages his employees.

Upon return to Kyrgyzstan, Zhoroev wanted to open a place like Subway because of its fresh and healthy options. “But some guys [here] did it ahead of us. So we thought, ‘We have Subway. Why not Chipotle?’”

Any visitor familiar with the Subway or Chipotle set-up will immediately recognize the similarity in Zhoroev’s food stand, located on the corner of Sovietskaya (Baitik Baatyr) and Jantosheva. There’s a simple menu offering choice of chicken, beef, steak or veggie. All the regular Tex-Mex toppings are added behind a glass window in front of the customer.


It’s a long haul from Mexico to Kyrgyzstan. Most Kyrgyzstanis aren’t accustomed to spicy food and it’s taking a bit of convincing to capture the local market.

“Most Kyrgyz people, they want meat,” says Zhoroev, chuckling. “They ask, ‘why this rice, and beans?’”

“First of all, it’s the meat,” says Tologon Arykov, 26. Washing his hands, he comes out of the kitchen and takes a seat across the table. Located on the East side of Rahat Shopping Mall, his shop, Amigo, offers indoor seating for about a dozen customers.

“We have fresh vegetables and cheese [and] we use our unique spices.” Arykov holds up two bags of dried peppers he got from an American chef during a culinary diplomacy event at the American Embassy. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you have anything other than the burrito?’ So we’re looking at other options like quesadillas or chili soup.”

Playing the entrepreneurial ‘air’ guitar

“I started from nothing—searching the internet,” says Arykov. This is his first business venture and it’s moving along like a bit of an experiment. “You have to have risk,” he adds, saying he expects it to take more than a year until the business is sustainable. “Research a lot. Location is huge. You have to have money and you have to have time for the people to love [the restaurant].”

Zhoroev’s shop, Burrito, has been open about six months longer than Amigo and has already acquired a clientele. “We have regular customers here and it’s important we recognize that,” he says pointing in the directions of the nearby American school and American Embassy.

“Love what you do,” says Zhoroev. His model is to have “a good product for a good price” and not worry about profit. “It’s not about the money. If you have the desire, you can find the money.” In a place where one can sell the air for profit, it’s easy to understand their excitement about the Tex-Mex burrito’s chances here in Bishkek.


IMG_1253“Burrito” located on Sovietskaya (Baitik Baatyr) and Jantosheva

Amigo“Amigo” located on Toktogul and Kalyk Akieva

IMG_1260Tologon Arykov displays chipotle peppers in his shop “Amigo”