Friday, March 9, 2012

Eager for Spring

Last weekend, my Kyrgyz teacher invited us to spend the afternoon at the park. Since the sun was out and the snow was melting, it was just what the kids needed! First we went to Manas-Orto Park, a spacious park with a castle feel set against the beautiful mountains as a backdrop. Instead of the traditional playground equipment, this park features huge cement structures with tons of steps, and a very tall, multi-story tower to climb. 

For Misha and Sebby, it was paradise. They immediately started running around in excitement, quickly dashing up steps and running around corners. I had to hurry to keep up to make sure Sebby wouldn't lose his balance on some of the steep stairways! Misha kept running ahead and enthusiastically calling out to Sebby. Sebby, in turn, couldn't wait to catch up with his big brother.

The melting snow created a very wet playground. Some of the stairways were so caked with snow that they boys ended up sliding down on their bottoms. Huge slushy puddles covered the ground. The end result was that both boys completely soaked their boots, and Sebby was drenched from the waist down! Nonetheless, they were having such a blast that they were not about to turn around and go home.

Green grass showing through!

With Rahat, my Kyrgyz teacher

Before heading home, we stopped at another park nearby, Park Lubvi - or Love Park. It features a copy of the famous LOVE statue (you may remember it from the "Love" stamp series.)

Newlyweds often come here to add a lock to this monument, hurling the keys into the lake as a symbol of their eternal love. Of course, the lake is frozen at the moment. In summer, a fountain and birds make the lake a bit more romantic.

Love Park also has a great American-style playground, which all of us played on with enthusiasm for quite some time!

Through the tunnel ... the only way to get to the second level.

My little chipmunk

"I did it!" Sebby proclaimed after successfully navigating the tunnel - with a bit of help.

A ladder up to the third level allows you access to this monster slide. A huge icy puddle awaits you at the bottom!

 After our park excursions, we had to go home, take hot baths and drink hot cocoa. The next day, we played a bit in our own courtyard:

Making snow castles and rivers

He wanted to wear this outside.

A swing and a sucker - pure contentment.

Birthday-Suit Banya Bash

Josh and I have never been ones to go all-out for birthday celebrations, and now that we have two kids to plan birthday parties for every year, we are even less inclined to anything. To top it off, the past five weeks have been so full of holidays that we've gotten a little fested-out. First came Josh's birthday on Feb. 4th, then Valentine's Day followed by Men's Day on the 23rd and my birthday on the actual 29th, and finally Women's Day on March 8.

However, we did celebrate our birthdays in a rather unusual way - by going to the banya. The banya is the Russian bathhouse, an experience no one should miss. We were lucky enough to have Russian and Kyrgyz friends introduce us to it the last time we were in Kyrgyzstan, and since we have returned, we have gone a few more times. A friend took Josh on his birthday, and two of my friends took me for mine.

People always ask us, "Do you have banyas in America?" and we respond: Not like this! I recall the Holiday Inn having a little steam room, in which four or five people sit around in their swimming suits for a bit before jumping back in the pool. The banya is something else entirely.

Men and women have their own separate sections, because in the banya everyone is completely naked. The entrance fee is fairly cheap, about $5, depending where you go. You pick up a big sheet and some flip-flops, undress and stash everything in a locker, wrap the sheet around yourself and head into inside to a large, humid washing room. Off goes the towel! You grab a washing basin, rinse it with bleach, and choose a spot for yourself at one of the low tables where you place your basin, shampoo, etc. You can stand beside your basin or sit on the table. Faucets are available for filling your basin with your desired temperature of water. Several showers are constantly running along the side wall. You are free to splash as much as you want and dump as much water on the floor as you want. There are drains everywhere.

Washing is a long, enjoyable process here. People can spend three or four hours in the banya. They scrub down every inch of skin. It's not uncommon to have a friend scrub your back for you. Once, a large Kyrgyz grandmother behind me asked me to scrub her back. To be honest, it was less of a request and more of an expected task, since I was young and she was old. After a bit of scrubbing, I crept away...

In between washing sessions, you enter the steam room - the best part. It's a fairly small room, but on busy days it can hold an amazing number of women at once, hip to hip. Women sit on the benches around the side, or if they want a cooler spot, on the stairs next to the exit. The air is incredibly hot and moist, so thick it feels like hot soup forcing its way down your throat into your lungs. Some people stay just a few minutes, others considerably longer. The smell is pleasant, like oak leaves. Those who like to increase the heat even more beat themselves with a oak-leaf bundle. Not me - I simply sit as still as I can.

After steaming, you go back out to scrub, shower, and leisurely wash your hair. You can return to the steam room as often as you like. Some zealous people jump into a cold swimming pool or a cold shower after steaming. The Russians are famed for plunging immediately into a snowbank or an icy lake!

The banya offers many other features as well, including massages, honey-oatmeal scrubs, a beauty salon, and a restaurant. Usually we go to the restaurant wrapped in our sheets for some sweet tea with lemon at some point during our time there.

You leave the banya feeling smooth, clean, and incredibly relaxed. The perfect follow-up is a bowl of hot, salty soup and a long nap. All in all, a pretty nice birthday.