Thursday, 10 March 2011

Of Decadence, Decline and Fall(ing asleep)

The Heavy Duty Bit
For a large majority of the citizenry in Post-Soviet republics, the reality of liberty and free trade have not been the heady explosion of self-determination and consumer shopping spree contentment that early optimism hoped.  The liberalisation of the markets has resulted in a massive flight of capital elsewhere and in a seismic increase in the gap between rich and poor; while a small elite have amassed extraordinary wealth, the masses have had to deal with rising levels of unemployment and underfunded, decaying public services. 
Kyrgyzstan has been hit particularly hard by this shifting post-soviet landscape.   As an important location for  military testing and popular Soviet holiday destination, Kyrgyzstan punched above its weight in the USSR, and the Soviets engaged in construction projects in Kyrgyzstan that the country could not have hoped to have funded on its own.  Many people consider the late 70s and early 80s  to be a heyday for Kyrgyzstan.  In contrast, it is now a small, isolated nation bullied by big bruiser neighbours like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that have considerably more natural resources and material wealth.
The power vacuum left by the crumbling iron fist of Soviet rule has been quickly filled by organized crime.  Many of the bigwigs in this murky underworld are the same well-placed officials of the former Soviet Republics, and their heirs in oligarchy.  There has been an alarming rise in violent retributive crimes, prostitution, gambling and human trafficking throughout the former Soviet republics.
This is clear enough to see in Bishkek, bookmakers proliferate throughout the centre of town and the city has a swathe of casinos totally out of proportion with its population (even before you consider the low earnings of the average Bishkekian). 
The flow of human cargo from country to country (for forced labour, domestic servitude, commercial sex etc.) is an opportunistic hydra that springs up in one part of the world, drains it of its most precious resource and then disappears when the going gets tough, only to rear another ugly head in some other farflung corner of the Earth.  So the rise in human trafficking from South East Asia in the 70s; was followed in the early 80s by a glut of trafficking from Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana; which neatly sashayed in the mid-late 80s and early nineties into a dip into the Latin American market with large numbers trafficked principally from Brazil, Mexico and the Central American States.  The impact of illegal trafficking was, if not negligible, at the least fairly low in the Soviet Union, but with the collapse in 1991 came a fertile new recruiting ground for modern slavers.  The perfect pool as well, a steady flow of young, strong, attractive, well educated people, in the depths of poverty and buoyed with dreams of The West  fuelled by an influx of Western films, music and television.  It begin in Poland, Romania, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia, by the mid-90s it had shifted to Bulgaria, Moldova, the Ukraine and Russia.   Most recently the focus has shafted east, with Georgia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan becoming prime meat markets for traffickers.

None of which was going through my head as I watched dumbfounded whilst a hollering banshee of a woman (who may have been a prostitute) grabbed and tore at the hair of an employee at a private banya, with a khakied up security guy trying to control an raging bull of a man of quite inordiante bulk (who may have been a pimp).  No, my main thoughts ran as follows:

 <<What in the holy fuck is going on, is there anything I can do?  Will doing anything just make the situation worse? will doing anything make my face and body worse?  What kind of quilombo (both literally and figuratively) is this?>>

My questions are answered as the second security guard appears at the door carrying a beating stick, wipes his sweating brow and casually waves us over to our private banya rooms.   Clearly, this is business as usual. 
The layout of our private banya gives a good indication of the wide range of activities catered for, there is a sauna and shower room, a plunge pool, a tv rooom, a full sized Russian Billiards table, a massage table, and two double bedrooms (with convenient wipe-clean plastic covers).
And so, trying to ignore the drama unfolding outside, we get down to the important business of stripping down to a vaguely toga-esque cloth and alternatiely sweating, swigging beer and water and playing the fiendishly difficult game of Russian billiards (take a pool table, make it considerably larger and the pockets significantly smaller, increase the size of the balls and make all but one of them white - its not a game for the light hearted or impatient).  When we emerge from our pit of decadence to pay the bill all is quiet.  Aggresive negotations have clearly been concluded satisfactarally (though to whose satisfaction is an open question).  SNAFU.  To paraphrase a common cliche:

                                    <<T.I.B. - This Is Bishkek.>>

...and its Maximus Bishkekius to play a difficult white (i.e. any of them)

The (Rather More) Light Hearted Bit
There is an Old Chestnut which says that the fall of the Roman Empire was a result of its own growing decadence, the former discipline which allowed it to expand and conquer in all directions became debased in an orgy of alcohol, sexual proclivity and overeating and like an aging general’s belly the muscle and sinew of the Empire became softened with fat.
If this is the case, the Westerner in Kyrgyzstan is in for a fall.  I submit as exhibit A, 'The Logan', a challenge recently witnessed  This herculean event came about when Max noticed that Logan, a man of considerable metabolism, tended to order two full chicken dishes plus rice at our local fast food Chinese place (in the Vefa Centre, our local Turkish run shopping centre/mall and an opulent den of sin and iniquity if ever there was one).  This set off debate between Cole and Max ended in Cole laying down the gauntlet of 'The Logan' to Max: to wit, could they begin with Logan’s favourite instant pot mashed potato and then move on to eat two full Vefa Chinese Chicken in Dough portions, plus fried rice in one sitting.  Logan being a great fan of personal challenges (and ridiculously competitive) decided he would up the ante by doing all this but eating three portions instead of two.  Dan joined in on the action but in a state of some disrepair as he’d been at a party till the wee small hours the night before.   After the General gave an inspirational speech to his aspirant consumers, battle was joined.

The Chief Consumers square up
The master with his disciples
 The waitress taking the 11 orders for a table of 6 gave us all a quite reasonable look of disdain and mild disgust, but soon the food was flowing in true decadent banquet style.

The feast is laid before us
A debauched Roman feast - I think you'll agree the similarities are striking. 



The unconscionable overconsumption ended in a merry score draw, with Cole, Max and the master himself all polishing of their supersized meals with aplomb.

Job Done
Sadly, things did not end so well for Dan, who ground to a despondent halt after a pitiful one and quarter portions.

Failure (and last nights alcohol intake) inspire abject despair
And so, bleary eyed and full bellied, the competitors slouched and slothed there way home with a post-competition nap in their sights.

The Fall of Rome - a salutary warning to us all?
p.s. Just in case you think this was going to be a looking-up-one's-nose piece entirely about the oddities, extremeties and excesses of others, here's my addition to the general picture of decadence and depravity.   At about 5 in the morning, having supped a plentiful quanitity of beer over a 9 hour period.  I find myself dog-weary in our friendly, local strip club (I'm painfully aware of the potential hypocrisy of the bookends of this article, but we've chatted with the strippers and they're mostly smiley, happy students training to be police officers and suchlike).   As a parade of scantilly clad girls gyrate in front of me, I do the only reasonable thing, pop myself onto the floor and have a good nap.  Prompting the owner to observe

                                'What is he doing!? Sleeping...ah well, he must be gay.'

Me at my classiest and best.