I arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan yesterday morning. I hate overnight flights! I can no longer sleep on an airplane, no matter how much I pretend. This one was no different, except that it did not help that “dinner” was served at 2:00 am with all the accompanying chatter and lights. I should not complain, cheap seats are cheap seats and the goal was reached: Kyrgyzstan, a destination just a little outside my comfort zone.
I am beginning to feel like a seasoned traveler and I can pass along some airport advice: You finally arrive in a country that has consumed almost all your waking thoughts for the last six months—fearful thoughts, excited thoughts, how-am-I-going-to-react-to-these-people thoughts. But before you are legally in the country you must pass through the three trials: immigration, baggage claim, and customs. In Kyrgyzstan, these turned out to be perfunctory. But whatever the country, you are probably suffering from what I call “travel exhaustion.” Then, as soon as you exit customs into the “ARRIVAL HALL,” you face a gauntlet of taxi drivers with the manners of paparazzi. They all claim your dazed attention and all you are looking for is a toilet and maybe a cash machine. You are pulled along in a wake of other dazed travelers being lured away onto the pricey magic-carpet-rides into the city.
My first piece advice for exiting the “ARRIVAL HALL” unscathed: To every driver who gets in your face, say “NO…toilet!” and point vaguely down the hall. That will shake them off. If you are lucky, one may even point you in the right direction. Besides, you probably really do need a toilet and you don’t want to remember that after you are already in the taxi.
Next: Find a cash machine and get some local currency. When another driver approaches you, just say, “NO…cash machine!” If possible, try to find one as far from the hoard of drivers as possible, because now that you have money, they are VERY interested!
Next…and this is the most important:
Now your response is: “Coffee” as you mime drinking. Find an airport café, preferably far away from the “paparazzi,” although they will probably leave you alone while you are in the café. Get tea (just to be rebellious) and maybe something to eat. This solves two problems as you have also changed that 1000-SOM bill spit out by the ATM.
Sit down and take a deep breath. You have plenty of time to find your hostel. It is time to begin the process of savoring the fact that you are somewhere new. Pull out your journal and dump all your wrung-out stresses and fears there. Send out a Facebook post: “I am here!” Double-check your strategy for getting into the city. (Because, of course you researched that before you boarded your flight, right?) By the time the tea cup is empty, you are ready. Take an exit door somewhat away from the taxi mob and head for the bus stop.
You have just saved a great deal of money, because you figured out before you even boarded the plane how to take the local bus or tram into the city. How in the world did I travel before the internet was invented??
If you didn’t, usually, there is a helpful tourist information counter near Arrivals, and they can help you out.
OR… it is okay to take a taxi, but it will be your choice now, not theirs.
Okay…now for my market story…
After mostly sleeping, and eating a little bit yesterday, I was refreshed this morning and ready to explore. Biskek’s Osh Bazaar is a mecca for market-lovers like me, and this morning I made a bee-line for it. I saw not one other obvious “foreigner” there and that surprised me. I am sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. But at a few stalls, I got smiles and, “where are you from?” in broken English. Some of the women were entranced by my braids.
And that brings me to my market-shopping strategy. If I am thinking about buying ingredients for lunch or dinner, I have a list, or at least some items in mind, like bread, some protein, fruit/vegetable, dried fruit, etc., leaving lots of options open. If I have time (and I usually allow lots of time for my first visit), I wander through almost all the stalls seeing what is available. If someone attempts to talk to me in English, I respond readily and ask about some of the items they are selling. The friendly ones often offer sample tastes. The vendors who are interested in me, (“where are you from?” for example) are the ones likely to get my business. Smiles are another great way to get my attention, even if they cannot speak English. When I was living in Peru, the five market vendors that I returned to week after week, were the ones who engaged with me meaningfully on my first visit to their market.
And this does not mean the vendor who only smiles and points to his wares begging me to buy. No, they must be genuinely friendly—you can tell the difference.
Today, once I had a bag of goods in my hand, more vendors showed interest in me. This is a phenomenon that I have noticed before. But that is okay. More smiles generate more conversations—you never know where that can lead.
I was looking for kurut, very strong, sour, salty dried goat cheese balls. A well-seasoned traveler at the hostel had told me about these hard white or brown balls that I would see at the market. And there they were…table after table of white balls. It was a delight to know what this “something new” was. From the first smiling vendor, I asked for a sample. Whew, sour and salty it was! And I asked for a sample bag of several different kinds. It set me back a whole 75 US cents.
And that was just an example of how much this little field trip cost me. I spent a total of 260 SOM ($3.80 USD). And there is more to try on future visits.