Standing on the side of the highway, watching unmolested drivers whiz by me and my abandoned bus buddies, I wondered how long it would take to walk back to Bishkek. Our driver had disappeared with the police some 45 minutes previously.
“Is he coming back?” I asked Aidana, my student. She was leaning against the minibus and snow flurries were gathering in her dark hair.
“Can you drive?” was her response.
We were headed to her favorite cousin’s wedding in southern Kyrgyzstan, and 12 hours of mountainous highway lay between us and her family’s home in Jalalabad. Our plan had been foolproof: take a minibus south, immerse me in culture, take a minibus back. Easy as winking, as my Russian friend says. I just forgot the part about being in a developing country.
Fortunately, $3000 goes pretty far in this country. The combined bus fares sprang our driver from his alpine incarceration, which also spared my companions from certain death, as the steering wheel was on the right-hand side and my bus-driving talent is underdeveloped.
The rumor-mill was in Kyrgyz, so my student translated something about alcohol-driving. “We bought back a drunk driver??”
“No, he was yesterday.”
There are times my Outsider status is reinforced through simple incredulation. Whether I’m incredulous about being bumped by a car while eating breakfast on a patio, or whether my students are incredulous about the concept of burning a dead body and storing the remains on the mantle, its the State of Weird that defines the Outsider. So I watched the largest mountains I’ve ever seen loom ever-larger, and cautiously sniffed for the stench of (non-existent) vodka, and bobbed along with the dance rhythms of Kyrgyz music in the purest State of Weird.
Sometimes it’s refreshing to have zero control.
We made it to a village outside of Yzgen, in the hills outside of Jalalabad, in the wee hours of the morning. The box houses, picket fences, Soviet Lada Nivas, and farm animals of Aidana’s hometown were hidden away in an impossible fog. I hoisted my small pack, primarily carrying a big bottle of maple syrup for my hosts, and wondered if I should have tried walking back to Bishkek. But I’m glad I gambled because, to quote Star Trek, survival is insufficient.
The best part about a wedding, regardless of where you are in the world, is the general sense of happiness. I looked and acted like an Outsider — and we all knew it — but a smile and Kyrgyz greeting was all it took to be part of the community that literally tied a knot around the bride and groom.
But let me begin at the beginning, when I was still the owner of my pants.
The festivities on the groom’s side began early, so Aidana’s family and I arrived a bit before 9 am. Sleeping on Aidana’s mother’s shoulder in a creaking Lada Nivas has a way of building a familial bond, so I was surprised that the aunts and uncles didn’t recognize me as one of their own. It was a whirlwind of introductions. Double kiss here, firm handshake there, best smile front and center. At one point, I found myself rushed out of my street clothes and into my dress by the eldest auntie, who approved of my Kyrgyz vest and promised me off to her son.
Actually, I was promised to so many gentlemen that I will soon have a Wikipedia page for leading the most powerful, matriarchal harem in Kyrgyzstan. And I do genuinely mean it when I use the word “gentlemen.” They offered up handkerchiefs when I had honey on my hands, held open doors, and proposed on bended knee. And I do genuinely mean it when I use the word “matriarchal.” These guys will learn to cook.
The first of the foreign traditions I participated in was breaking into the bride’s house. I suspect it has something to do with the Kyrgyz tradition of bride kidnapping, but our orderly, staged B&E required the groom and groomsmen to snake their way through the protesting bridesmaids and beg entry into the home. Their shoes, which were piled outside in a polite effort to keep the carpets clean, were then stolen and sold back to the men. Aidana said the money goes to the newly-weds.
The second noteworthy tradition was the ceremony. After the bride was taken to the groom’s family’s home, they were tied together with a scarf. Their families dressed them in new fur coats and hats, and friends and family tucked money into their clothes (seriously). Finally, the bride was outfitted with her new bride’s headscarf, the joluk. After the gifts were given, significant family members prayed blessings over them, and then we went to party.
And oh, did we party. Every traditional dish — horse meat and pickled salads, Ozgen rice and beef, thick noodles with sheep fat, deep fried bread and honey with the bees still stuck in it, manti dumplings of veggies and meat — were piled up on tablecloths. We went from venue to venue via a party bus that mysteriously appeared on the muddy road outside the groom’s house.
Aidana and my future husbands taught me how to dance the Kyrgyz way. It’s quite simple: have no sense of rhythm, but do a lot of mechanical arm movements originating in the shoulder and snap your fingers while kicking your feet about. Honestly, it was like training a monkey to waltz. I respect their efforts.
By the time the festivities were over, I was worn out, sweaty, and stuffed with deep fried bread. We made it back to Aidana’s village around 2 or 3 in the morning, but notably without her mother. This became the source of my next adventure: The Problem of the Travelling Pants.
In that whirlwind morning, sometime prior to breaking into the bride’s home, and around the time of the first proposal, my pants were tucked in Aidana’s suitcase and tossed into an uncle’s trunk. This bag, and possibly this trunk, went missing for two days. I still don’t know the when and why, but I do know that the social consequences of having no pants are surprisingly restricting. I was under rural house arrest with Aidana.
Her home, which seemed typical for her village — but I can’t speak for the rest of Kyrgyzstan — was built close to the dirt road on an acre or two of farmland, which backed up to a lazy creek. A rickety outhouse/beehive leaned in on itself in one corner, and the geese, cows, and goats cackled a chorus in another. We entered the house through a warm-weather porch and navigated the kicked-off shoes of her younger siblings. They met the clothing requirements of society, so they came and went with the freedom secured only by pants. I think they flaunted it a bit.
Aidana and I lounged about in our pajamas throughout the lazy hours that followed. She showed me how to chase roosters out of the house and how to make bread in the outdoor oven, and she ventured to teach me the process of pumpkin manti (dumplings) on the floor of the kitchen. Kyrgyz homes have minimal furnishings, traditionally, as everyone lounges and sleeps on thick, long cushions and eats around short, squat tables.
In the end, the pants arrived as mysteriously as they had disappeared. Aidana and I loaded up into a city-bound vehicle and began the long journey back towards Bishkek. We missed days of school (not that I minded terribly), but I gained significantly more than merely time. I celebrated with a community who had never met me; feasted on types of food that seem as strange to me as cremation is to my students; appreciated the rare beauty of offering a handkerchief; embraced a temporary family with smiles that replaced language; and accidentally came to experience day-to-day life in a Kyrgyz village. I was culturally immersed to the brink of drowning, pantless.
And that’s what encourages the Outsider to continue living in the State of Weird.