When we travel, we aim to maximize our depth of understanding of a place relative to the limited amount of time we have to spend there. We try to plan our visit to each location around the people we know, the recommendations they make and a list of sights that we’ve developed independently through our own research. Planning our visit to Kyrgyzstan was no exception. However, the wide cross-section of people, sights and activities to which we had access provided us the opportunity to dig more deeply than usual.
Opportunities to question one’s assumptions and to view oneself and one’s environment from a different perspective defines the intersection of travel and personal growth. As we learned more about Kyrgyz culture and life in Kyrgyzstan, we found ourselves at that crossroads examining our definitions of family and community.
A Big World in Small Town Kyrgyzstan
After our interview at Radio Azattyk, Gulyz, the journalist who interviewed us, put us in touch with a distant relative in Karakol, a small town in eastern Kyrgyzstan near Lake Issyk-Kul. Gulyz thought it would be interesting for us to stay with a family in order to learn first-hand about Kyrgyz life in a smaller town.
Banura, our host in Karakol, was the mother of three children, head of the largest Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in town, and founder of a women’s group called “Women Can Do It.” At the time of our visit, she was also running for local government in the upcoming elections. These marked only the beginning of a long list of responsibilities and community activities that she actively pursued and juggled.
When we first arrived, Banura had spent her Saturday afternoon preparing for four days of seminars that aimed to facilitate dialogue between police forces and their local communities in small villages around Lake Issyk-Kul. The potato harvest was also in full swing and her mother-in-law was expecting her assistance in the garden the next day.
Despite all this, Banura insisted on taking us out for dinner, during which she managed to fit in a quick strategy meeting with another candidate for local government office. She also discussed her first trip to America in 1999 for a women’s leadership study program. Coincidentally and remarkably, it was to Dan’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She credits this program hosted by the University of Scranton for helping to fuel her participation in her community and in local politics.
Banura’s husband and three children were accustomed to Banura’s visitors and crazy schedule. Everyone did his part to support the other in this dynamic landscape. We were amazed by the seamless support and transition in all directions. The family helped the grandparents with their garden work and other home projects that required younger sets of hands. To complete the extended family circle of support, the two grandmothers pitched in by taking care of the children when Banura and her husband couldn’t line up their erratic schedules with school. The whole thing was less about organization and everything being in the right place at the right time. Rather, the stability of the family system seemed to based on flexibility and compassion.
Despite spending a week running seminars in the field and staying up late to help her mother, Banura’s Kyrgyz hospitality gene caused her wake up early on our last Saturday morning in order to prepare us oromo, a traditional Kyrgyz dish. We always felt welcome in her home and never felt like an obligation. We are thankful for having had the opportunity to meet Banura and her family and to catch a glimpse into a small town life with a world-wide view.