13 October 2007

The malignant degeneration of a country

Kyrgyzstan is an absolutely gorgeous, fascinating country, where men wear twelve-inch-tall hats and find it a mark of status, where people greet each other by touching the corners of their foreheads together, where water flows uphill (really...). And it is being actively ruined by tourism.

The substrate: Take a poor, third-world country whose coal-based economy collapsed with the death of the Soviet Union, leaving it with a per-capita GDP of $542 per year.* (This places its economy below that of Ghana and just above those of Haiti and Mali. An optometrist here makes $50/month; a physics professor, $42. A sack of grain, on the other hand, costs $35). Strip this country of a regime that was, while oppressive, at least responsible for keeping it afloat with money from other provinces. And in doing so, leave 55% of its populace unemployed or underemployed, and hungry for money.

The reactant: Now. Add to this an industry which promises money—lots of it—and quickly. In three hours of driving, for example, a guy whose car we hired to get from Osh to a small town in the mountains earned almost as much as either of his optometrist and professor parents made in a single month. Just for driving.

The result: Well, greed. And though this greed may be eminently explainable, we still bristle under it. We tourists are walking wallets. Anything costs money. And I mean anything. Travelling in the former Soviet Union is already trying, simply because of the attitude people have toward tourists. This is that much worse.

Case in point: The bedrock of tourism in Kyrgyzstan is a loose federation of tour "operators" (sometimes no more than one person with a cell phone) who work under the umbrella of an organization called Community-Based Tourism. CBT is modelled on the Swiss Helvetas and is touted by the Lonely Planet as "a world leader in...grass-roots tourism." (But of course. LP is fond of hyperbole).

In that mountain town (called—in almost bad CS Lewis nomenclature—Arslanbob), our hope was to work with CBT and do some horseback riding through the Ferghana arm of the Tian Shan mountains. Because, quite honestly, this country is beautiful. We'd planned on a couple of days.

We got to the CBT office to arrange both a homestay and the riding. Before the salaam aleykums were out of our mouths, we were presented with a price list. It didn't look all that bad: $10 to hire a horse for the whole day, for example.

Ah. But then, there are these rules, see. For example: you hire your own horse and the horse of the guide. Your guide, of course, is "no problem English speaking" but you can also hire an "interpreter" for the day. We got a bad feeling about all this and decided to try them out just for a day trip. We were then asked if we wanted a cook (a cook?! for a day?). We declined.

Handshakes were about to happen, when it was sprung on us that we had to pay for our guide's food.

It's Ramadan. He's fasting.

That minor detail was of no import. We still had to underwrite our guide's nonexistent picnic lunch.

OK. Fine. "What about us," we asked. "Can you provide a picnic for us?"

"Oh no. There are stores in the center. You bring food."

Well, can we cater for our guide then?

Of course not.

To make matters even more insulting, our guide ended up not fasting but stealing a slice of watermelon from some Polish tourists we ran into. No picnic, however, ever materialized.

And this sort of wily, slimy slipperiness has characterized just about every interaction we've had in Kyrgyzstan. Paying for things that never happen. Ordering a Coke in a restaurant and being given a 2L bottle. Seeing a beef skewer on the menu for one price and having it turn out to be 10% more when the bill is presented to you. I grant that we're quibbling over pennies here, but it leaves you unwilling to trust anyone in this country.

Oh, and Faisul, the "no problem English speaking" guide? Yeah. Here is a snippet of one of our conversations. We were sitting on a rock outcropping, overlooking the Ferghana mountains and Arslanbob. There is a supposedly holy, cube-shaped rock midway up one of the peaks (we couldn't go. It was "too cold." In a country whose average winter temperatures remain above freezing, it was more likely that our guide was too cold). He tried to point out the Holy Rock to me. I couldn't see it.

He takes my camera. "Maybe zhhh zhhh yes yes?" and with each zhhh, he moved his right hand, palm facing him, closer and further from his eyes.


"Maybe кнопка yes yes?"

"I'm sorry. What?"

"Maybe...uh... I кнобка? yes yes?"

This went on for a good ten minutes, before I figured out that кнопка was the Russian word for button, zhhh zhhh was his way of expressing zoom, and what he wanted was to take a picture of the holy rock and show it to me on my camera's LCD screen. He was that kind of guide. God forbid attempting to find out whether there was a special greeting you made on Eid-il-fitr, the last day of Ramadan, and the day on which we were кнопка-ing.

Now, I know I've been perseverating over the issue of language in this blog. Don't get me wrong; between us, Peggy and I speak six languages, four of them well enough to hire a guide in. It's just the—evidently Western—concept that if you pay for some promised thing, you'd like that thing actually to be there.

We have met a few exceptions to this cheat-the-tourist rule. Like the guy who drove us (the son of the optometrist and physicist). He was genuinely interested in our opinions about care for the elderly in the West, or about the role of Islam in the elevation of the status of women throughout the world. (It helped, too, that if you closed your eyes, he really, seriously sounded like Borat).

Or, there was our homestay in Arslanbob. Hands-down, this has been the best experience we've had in Kyrgyzstan. The family we were staying with (an older man, his younger wife, an 11-year-old daughter named Alisha, and a baby) were Uzbeks who, like everyone else in the tourist industry, had benefited financially from the influx of foreigners into Arslanbob. But they didn't show it. There wasn't the slightest hint of rapaciousness in them. Every night, we had a sumptuous meal, home-cooked and traditional (rice pilaf, for example, to celebrate Eid). Every morning, an equivalent breakfast. When I asked, the first night, to take a loaf of the home-cooked bread on our horseback riding trip, the husband said yes, but then inexplicably stole the loaf from me. Only to come back with one his wife had just finished taking out of the oven.

They cared for the smallest detail. A space heater in our room was, mysteriously, turned on when we came back in the evening from riding. And our last morning, we left too early for breakfast. Instead, the whole family showed up to see us off with a sack absolutely laden with food for our drive to Bishkek. And when we came to pay, they gave us one meal for free.

We paid them the full price anyway, but five minutes later, he was knocking on our door to try to give us money back. It's people like that that engender in you a desire to lavish what little gifts you might have in your backpacks. That is the power of hospitality.

The avarice into which the majority of the country has descended, though, makes you wonder: yes, Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, but honestly, you can see mountains and alpine lakes and waterfalls in South America, in Nepal, in Canada. Do you still come here, with your (ever-weakening) US dollar and inject what little you can into their economy, even if you thereby cement the already metastatic, avaricious attitude to foreigners? In the end, what is our responsibility as tourists? To further the malignant degeneration of a country but help its economy, or to avoid it altogether?

*Nominal, in case you're wondering

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