Saturday, June 04, 2011

Close Encounters Of The Foreign Kind

I never knew my paternal grandfather who died of cancer a couple of years before I was born. All I know of him is through faded photographs and my father's reminiscences. One anecdote has particularly stayed with me. When my grandfather visited London from Czechoslovakia in the 70's he would wander around the local neighbourhood, but he would leave his watch at home on purpose. This gave him an excuse to go up to people to ask them the time and so strike up a conversation and use his limited English. I do something similar. I like asking people for directions. Often it is necessary as maps and signs are often inadequate, but usually I will ask more often than is really required so that I can practice my limited local language skills and create a human contact. Rarely does anything bigger come of it, but a transient conversation and a smile are the ephemera that make travelling special. I think my grandfather and I would have got along well.

These contacts are the palette that colour my days: even the dullest places can become exciting and the most cosmopolitan metropolis a morgue depending on who you meet. Tashkent is supposed to be Central Asia's cultural capital whilst Bishkek is but a backwater with, quite frankly, nothing going on. Yet for me the roles were reversed thanks to the people I met. Tashkent was OK, but Bishkek has been a revelation. I've met some fantastic people who have led me down the rabbit-hole of unexpected activities such as playing ping-pong in the central, Panfilov park on a Thursday afternoon and going to a private, Soviet-era banya in the bowels of a swimming pool complex. The most unexpected though was through my couchsurfing contact here, a girl named Selbi. A very forceful and energetic individual who is an activist for LGBT rights in Kyrgyzstan. That in itself is extraordinary as in the region homosexuality and even sexuality issues in general are ignored, swept under the carpet and plain denied. Although homosexuality has been legalised in Kyrgyzstan (as opposed to all the other Central Asian republics where it is still illegal) it isn't recognised and there is still much discrimination and certainly little understanding. So when she invited me to come along to a gay club in Bishkek I was very eager to see what it would be like. I was surprised to find that it was in a very central location and not hidden (although it wasn't advertised as a gay club), though the bouncers at the door made sure that only known clientele and foreigners got in (foreigners aren't seen as being homophobic and so are accepted as LGBT supporters). The club itself was pretty ordinary and could have been anywhere. There wasn't even that much overtly homosexual action, but instead it was a place where the LGBT community could let their hair down and relax and have a party without fear of interference. It was nice for me too as I put on my best T-shirt and dusted off my dancing shoes (well, sandals) and bust some uncoordinated moves on the floor. It seems to be a universal law that gay people are not just better dressers, but also better dancers. It was funny to see that there were two groups at the club that night. There's the hard dance fans with their pumping beats, but as soon as I Will Survive hit the amps they fled the dancefloor to be replaced by the camp, cheese crowd (to which, I must admit, I belong). Seeing that there is a gay scene in this, in certain respects, conservative part of the world and that the LGBT community is working to make its voice heard and get its rights.

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