It was drizzling rain, the sun had set, and I was fifteen miles from my bed in Kengesh.
“Damnit. There’s definitely no marshrutka coming.”
I knew I should have left Bishkek earlier, but I had been having a lot of fun hanging out with a bunch of the other Volunteers in the city. If I had left at 7:30 – like I had planned – I could have caught the last marshrutka home. Instead, I left at 8:15. Now I was going to have to pay double for a taxi or hitchhike.
I was standing on the side of the road with a group of locals who had apparently made similar decisions about staying out a little too late. One guy was talking to a taxi driver hanging around like a vulture. I guess he was waiting to see how long the rain would take to convince us to cough up the extra 50 som for a ride. Another guy was waving out into traffic trying to flag down any random passerby. The rest of us were just standing around, getting drenched, and waiting to see what would happen next.
Much to the chagrin of the taxi driver, a car pulled up next to the group and guys started piling in. Not being as quick as the others, the car filled up before I made it in. I slammed the car door in frustration and stepped back to the curb as it drove off. Just as I was deciding to cut my losses and get a cab, another car pulled up right behind. The driver rolled down his window and looked at me expectantly wanting to know where I was headed.
I hopped into the back seat next to a woman with a baby and reached forward to shake the driver’s hand.
“Chong rakmat, baike.”
“Okaci Jok. You are American?”
“Oh, ah, yeah. I’m a Volunteer in Kengesh.”
It’s not that uncommon to run into English speakers in this part of the country, and even though his was pretty broken, I wasn’t totally prepared for it.
(The rest of the conversation was a mix of Kyrgyz and English)
“Yes, I live in International. We have ten Volunteers training there. Jacob is our neighbor.”
“Oh yeah! I know Jacob, he’s a good friend of mine. My name’s Cole.”
“My name is Nurbeck. This is my wife Gulzada.” He motioned to the woman sitting next to me without looking back. I smiled and gave her a nod and she gave me a shy smile back. “How long have you been in Kyrgyzstan? Do you like it here?”
“I arrived about three months ago. And I like it a lot. Where I’m from we have no mountains.”
“Haha, yes, we have lots of mountains. What kind of work are you doing here? Are you an English teacher?”
“Oh, ah, no. I’m a Health Volunteer. I’m an engineer. I work with water and sanitation.”
The conversation lagged for a few moments when, out of the blue, Nurbeck said, “You’re a good man. It’s good that you are here.”
I was just about to nod off in the warmth and dryness of the back seat and wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly.
“I’m sorry, what’s that?”
“American’s are good people. They have bad government sometimes, but so do all countries. You are good to be here.”
I would hardly have known how to respond in English let alone in my broken Kyrgyz, but I gave it a shot.
“Oh, well, thank you, but I’m really very happy to be here. The Kyrgyz people are so generous to me. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
“You are away from your family and home. You must miss them.”
“I mean yes, I do, but being here is worth it.”
Nurbeck turned around and smiled just as we came into Kengesh.
“Here we are. Where do you live?”
“Just right here at this corner is fine,” I said pointing.
“No, no. Which way to your house. We’ll drop you off.”
I directed Nurbeck to my host family’s house where he stopped.
“How much for the ride?”
“No, no, nothing. I protested for a moment, but he was having none of it. “You needed help.”
“Thank you so much, Nurbeck.” I shook his hand again and Gulzada gave me another shy smile as I slipped her 50 som and hopped out. I stood for an extra second in the rain to wave as they drove off.
I’m not always convinced that my being here is particularly valuable or that I really have that much to offer, but as I got home that night none of that uncertainty crossed my mind.