In Kyrgyzstan, guesting is something holy. To honor guests with food, with tea, with bombarding questions about their health, their business, their families is something on a different plane of holiness than a simple communion – it’s a sense of building community. It is also one of my favorite things about living in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Guesting is simple – you invite a guest, sit him in the most honored seat, and feed him the best pieces of meat, the largest portions of food, and never-ending cups of tea. Tables are laid with salads, boiled potatoes, bottles of soda and vodka, fresh-baked bread, deep-fried borsok, candy, chocolate, bowls of homemade jam, fruit, and sticky, clumping bowls of sugar. It is a showcase of Kyrgyz food and hospitality, and it can last for hours into the night, sharing stories and shots of vodka, sometimes even days for special events like weddings, funerals, and births. It is a part of life progressing here, and a chance to include all of your family, all of your friends, even sometimes all of your village, to be a part of the passing of these important moments.
But what I love about guesting is that it happens in less grand ways everyday in Kyrgyzstan. As a Volunteer living on my own in a big city, I don’t often get to go guesting, but the same hospitality is offered at my office during coffee breaks, or in trainings when the Ejes sneak me chocolates from their purses. It’s a culture of giving – people here might not have much, but they will give you all that they can.
Guests bring candy, cookies, wine, juice, vodka or fruit for their host; both guest and host pretending that a hosting gift is unexpected. You share hot, steaming plates of beshbarmak, the most beloved national food of the Kyrgyz people (the most dreaded meal of a Peace Corps Volunteer), saying an omeen in unison, greasy hands washing the blessings of your meal over your face. It is a period of time suspended – only the people around you matter, the hours only belied by the passing back and forth of tea. You share more than food, more than dirty jokes or stories; you share, if just for a moment, each other.
I was lucky to go guesting at Tamerlan-Agai’s* house recently in Dohan, a small villiage in a valley between the bright shores of Issyk-Kul and the ever-present mountains. Tamerlan-Agai is a Language and Cultural Faciliator, or LCF, that works with new Volunteers on learning Kyrgyz and preparing for their lives of service in the Kyrgyz Republic. He is an English Teacher and works with a new NGO working to improve teaching methodologies and public knowledge of rights, as well as being a farmer to a huge field of pears, apples, cows, and sheep. He is married, the father of four (with another on the way), and told us stories of his kids at school, his recent trip to the US (supported by RPCVs from Kyrgyzstan), and his plans for us to come back to help harvest apples in the Fall when we will drink beer and make shashlik from one of his sheep. He told us that he wanted to fight the idea that all beshbarmak is bad, common among Volunteers, and proved it with what is the best plate of boiled meat, noodles, onions and broth that I have eaten in this country.
Every time I go guesting, I am reminded of how lucky I am to be here, to work with my organization and my community, and be a part of the legacy of Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic. Guesting has become time that I can reflect, even surrounded by conversation across heaping bowls and passing plates. It is giving, but also receiving.
Left to Right, Top to Bottom:
Tamerlan doles out portions of beshbarmak, a noodle dish topped with shredded sheep meat and boiled onion and meat broth. | One plate of beshbarmak is clearly not enough.
A guesting table, including a steaming plate of beshbarmak, salads, candy, bread.
Tamerlan, with his growing family. | Peace Corps Volunteers Maryn and Britta. | Tamerlan’s daughter, being shy and playing with noodles.
*Agai, like baike, is a term of respect for an older males, but used specifically for teachers or educators.