By Tom Burke / Herald columnist
Note: My chaos quotient has maxed out, again. So here’s something a bit gentler and far removed from Covid, Trump, right-wing militia plots, or voter suppression. Relax and tag along.
In 2006 we spent three weeks in Koilyk, a rural village along the Silk Road in Kazakhstan in Central Asia. My daughter was serving in the Peace Corps and we traveled halfway ‘round the world to visit her.
It was a startling intersection of old and new. She had an internet connection but no household running water. The favorite auto was the Audi, but everybody owned much-used horses and carts. And every home had a banya (sauna), but outhouses were the “facilities” both winter and summer.
When we visited, there were still strong reminders of the “Soviet Times” as people called the years when Kaz was part of the USSR.
Among these reminders: the village memorial to The Great Patriotic War (WWII) with its list of Koilyk’s honored dead shockingly long for such a small farming community; and the ubiquitous Lata — the basic, Fiat-designed subcompact built for all of Russia in one big Moscow factory — and a shade-tree mechanic’s dream-come-true allowing for “unconventional” repairs, such as replacing the radiator water reservoir with a plastic Fanta pop bottle.
As a farming community Koilyk boasted great fields of giant sunflowers (grown for oil) and livestock. The nearest “real” town was 70 miles distant and when a fire destroyed a farmer’s end-of-summer, stacked-high hay harvest it was an old-fashioned bucket-brigade with kitchen pots and pans that battled the blaze, not the fire truck that took an hour-plus-plus-plus to arrive.
Kazaks proudly proclaim they “invented” the apple and, indeed, the ancestor of the domestic apple, the Malus sieversii, grows wild in the Tian Shan mountains. The fruit’s genome traces back to a grove near the old capital city, Almaty, who’s original name, Alma Alta, meant “Father Apple.” Which for Koilyk meant that each home along the well-traveled main road would put out a chair or small table packed solid with fruit from their backyard trees. You could look up the mile-ish main street and see scores of homemade benches laden with ripened fruit, plus a homeowner’s “specialty” offering.
Margaret’s host mother, Toma Luzyania, was renowned for her preserved hot peppers. So along with her apples were two dozen jars of Scoville Heat Unit record-setters. Regulars would make a stop at her “stand,” as would buses, and the peppers would sell out quickly. (Note: I tried one of her peppers, once, and after my tongue un-swelled and my eyes refocused, I tried to catch my breath and talk. I couldn’t. My daughter gave me one of those “I warned ya” looks, and Toma just smiled; and then asked if I’d like to try a “hot” one. I graciously declined.)
Toma ran a restaurant and nursed a very sick husband who passed, most likely because there were no local doctors, hospitals, or any real medical facilities nearby. She was an amazing woman. Strong, resilient and charming. Life in Koilyk was tough.
But we had a marvelous three weeks.
We toured a bit, finding an archaeological dig from Silk Road days (we still have a few shards of pottery from Marco Polo’s time) and went to Almaty for the museums, indoor plumbing and restaurants.
I’m modestly well traveled. While in the merchant navy I circumnavigated the globe on a freighter; spent time in Australia and New Zealand; did the Med; and traveled down the west coast of South America. By my mid-20s I’d seen crushing poverty in India, desperate people in the Southern Hemisphere, and a transitioning Europe. And as I made my way in business, I traveled across this country and to the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Italy and France.
So I guess I’m going to end up sounding like Rick Steves and his “travel broadens” shtick. Well, it does.
And this week I’d like to be writing about our recent travel to Ireland; our summer in Spain; a pilgrimage to Rome; a return cruise to Alaska; and doing this autumn’s leaf-peeping in New Hampshire where my wife and I spent our honeymoon 48 years ago last week.
But I won’t. Neither will you. Our government’s failed response to the coronavirus has not just killed 212,000 souls but upended the plans (and lives) of millions.
So, instead, I’ll just fire up my web browser and once again virtually “transit” the Panama Canal (sipping a Balboa lager); revisit the Piazza San Marco in Venice (Campari and soda, anyone?); once more climb the Acropolis to the Parthenon (my reward: a sip of Ouzo, Opa!); and re-enjoy Perth in Western Australia (with another shrimp from the barbie and a Fosters from the fridge).
It ain’t like bein’ there, but today, it’s the best I can do.
Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke[email protected]