From the Farm Guesthouse at Rot Front
There’s honestly not much to do here. In a sense that’s ideal for us – a break from the stress and dust and daily life of Bishkek where my husband is more than busy with work, and every day we have to contend with being a non-Muslim family surrounded by a mostly conservative Islamic-oriented community covered and fasting for Ramzan under the parching summer sun. I’m tired of worrying about wearing shorts every time I walk outside. It’s hot; how can those women bear to wear full skirts and overcoats when it’s 95 degrees?!
An occasional break from Bishkek is good – clear our lungs, clear our minds.
But I wouldn’t want to live in the Kyrgyz countryside, for it doesn’t seem a place of happening, possibility. What would you do if you were a youth here? What are the possibilities? For there doesn’t seem to be a great notion of innovation, of opportunity. Men squat by their cars in the shade; cows bellow as they wade through the grass or take great, lumbering strides across the road, oblivious to the traffic stopped for them to pass; women stand around in small groups, babies on their hips, or hang laundry in the garden. The people I pass seem to be waiting – perhaps not waiting for anything in particular, but not likely to initiate momentum themselves. Waiting for someone else to take the first step, waiting for something to happen, waiting for the government to come in, waiting for commands, options, instructions.
The other guests at the farm are an older Swiss German couple. The husband works for a company that sold some radio equipment to a station here and has thus traveled here for work dozens of times over the past decade. When I asked him what changes he had noticed in the Kyrgyz countryside he paused and then said “Nothing. They have more modern tractors”.
Across the street mountains loom over the fields and quaint white houses with peaked roofs painted sky blue. Last night as we drove through the winding countryside the mountains were a study in gradients of grey. This morning was hot and lush and green, the colors of a Kyrgyz summer – brown earth, blue skies, green leaves and grass, bright red cherries in the trees, a poke of purple or yellow flowers by the road. Beautiful, but still.
I can’t really complain about the guesthouse, and yet there are so many ways in which it could be improved, details here and there. Perhaps it’s usually more on target, when the owner/managers are on the property, for the gushing reviews seem to be describing a different place than the one where we stayed. Meals – communal, held at the long table outside the summer kitchen – are sometimes an affair of awkward silence, as if the youth working here aren’t quite sure how to talk to their few guests on equal footing. The food is also not our usual fare. I thought the huge mound of pasta peppered with slices of spam-like salami we were served up last night was on account of the power outages following yesterday’s storm. But lunch too was a literal mountain of pasta, with a tiny side salad, and a few chunks of meat barely visible atop the sliced and steamed potatoes covering the noodles. Dinner was a bowl of rice and potatoes with some sauce, and a plate of pork to share. Our only vegetable was the leaves of lettuce used for garnish on the plate of pork. Ironic – I’d expect more fresh food when staying on a farm in mid-summer. After our meals I felt both overly full and under-satisfied, as if I’d eaten too many calories, but not gotten enough nutrients.
I realized how healthy we usually eat this morning when breakfast turned out to be a stack of thick golden blini and a half bowl of buckwheat porridge. I looked at the pancakes and almost asked if there was yogurt and fruit, or eggs on the side. Even our one year old was perplexed – she’s used to having “little little into the middle” at every meal, with half her plate being fresh produce, and some protein at every repas. I ran back to the mini fridge in the guesthouse and took out the hardboiled eggs and cheese we had brought, along with a container of mixed nuts and dried fruit. Later we snacked on cucumbers and sour cherries from the guesthouse tree. Three meals a day can’t just be based on starch. (Though they are in many parts of Kyrgyzstan, which is how the country has simultaneously high rates of type II diabetes *and* malnutrition). When we got back to Bishkek I threw together a French carrot salad, and our baby sat in her high chair stuffing handfuls of shredded carrot into her mouth. More balanced meals would certainly be better.
So would a number of other little things here and there – actually comfortable seating in the garden (backless benches do not count), a cleaned-up courtyard outside the guesthouse, a better attached shower-head that wouldn’t droop down and bop you in the head mid-rinse, better sweeping up of the cobwebs that seem to be in every corner. Even *I* saw too many spiders for my own comfort this weekend. Dropping down to the floor to find a fallen pacifier I also noticed that the floor seemed to have not been swept in… a while. Not good when you have a toddler still crawling around on her hands and knees. Our room has three beds plus a crib in it, but no wardrobe or place to hang clothes or store the suitcase, which means there’s barely space to walk, and it’s dark. Little things that are easy to do. The guesthouse is nice for Kyrgyzstan, but I’m tired of saying “nice *for*”; especially when places can be nice in and of themselves. They already have the farm; why not turn the guesthouse into something wonderful – meals made from fresh produce, a nice garden where guests could sit and read books or sip coffee, a clean place to retire to at night.
I finally started reading about the organization that runs it on our way back. It’s called “Act of Kindness” and is run by a biblical Canadian couple and their Canadian daughter and her local husband. Their mission with the farm is to provide a place for orphans who have ‘grown out of government assistance’ (I.e. are too old for orphanages) and yet still need some structure and support. Not a lot of work seems to be going on on the farm, but, again, that might be in part because none of the people who run it were on site this weekend. I don’t believe in private charity towards persons – the inevitable creation of a hierarchy of persons and class divide between benevolent endowers of charity (who may remove their charity at any time) and grateful recipients makes me uneasy in a way that state aid (which persons have access to based on their *rights* as *citizens* to a certain equal minimum standard) does not. But it’s not my project. It would just be nice to know a little more about it (i.e. that it’s not primarily a guesthouse) before arriving. This is because, for guests, the farm seems to exist in an odd, in-between, space. Because you are paying (1000 som/night including all three meals) you do expect some service (I.e rooms cleaned of cobwebs and dust, functioning shower heads, etc…); but, because it’s a charity, it’s also awkward to ask for any of these things. Is your presence – and payment – part of the act of charity too? The same with meals – CBTs (Community Based Tourism, through which locals rent out rooms in their houses to tourists) are around 450/night per person, but offer only breakfast. I’m not going to count in the cost of preparing the food, as guests eat with the half dozen or so residents of the farm, and everybody eats the same meal. Do we eat 550 som/day of ingredients in lunch and dinner? I’d say not, as all the ingredients used to prepare the meals are cheap – rice, potatoes, wheat flour, noodles, a bit of carrots, cucumber and meat from the farm. We just stopped at Globus to do our grocery shopping for the week, and our entire bill – including wine and meat – ran just over 3000 som. So the guesthouse offers accommodation comparable to that found at a CBT, but we’re paying more for food than we’re consuming. And yet, because it’s a charity, what can we say? Can we ask for eggs at breakfast, or salad with dinner? Perhaps their operating budget doesn’t leave a lot for food. Though even if it doesn’t, they could at least introduce healthier fare – beans and buckwheat and rye and seasonal vegetables are not expensive in Kyrgyzstan. The World Food Program works with Kyrgyz elementary schools to provide nutritious and well-balanced lunches for school children for 15 som per student per day – introducing healthier fare need not sink their budget. I also can’t see how condoning or encouraging residents to prepare and eat food that is actually harmful for their bodies – especially when there are so many programs in the country working to educate people in inexpensive healthy nutrition using local ingredients – can be an “act of kindness”. For me, I just felt bloated and irritable all weekend.
I also feel like a farm guesthouse should either be a place where one can go and relax – which would entail having places where guests could sit and read a book or have a comfortable conversation somewhere other than the rather dark rooms or the long benches by the dining table – or a place where guests can pitch in an actually have some active part, or both. When there’s neither – well, what are you supposed to do there?
In all, yes, we got away from Bishkek (and -sob!- missed a free open buffet Turkish brunch celebrating the end of Ramadan), but it ended up being less truly relaxing and enjoyable than I had hoped for. Alas.