There it was again. The unnerving stare. The boy was peeping at me from the shadows of the doorway. How long had he been watching me this time? I raised my eyebrows and smiled at him. His inscrutable expression didn’t change. Slowly, awkwardly, the smile melted from the corners of my mouth. The ensuing stare-off was uncomfortable.
I’m quite used to stares after two years of travel. At this point, I even consider being stared at a badge of success. It means I’ve succeeded in getting out there, away from the places tourists are common, or locals jaded towards outsiders. I find the resultant range of expressions fascinating. Some stares are bold and unashamed, some shy and tentative. But most interesting are the emotions behind them. The cliché “eyes don’t lie” is often true. I’ll catch hints of warm welcome, wide whites of wonder, or a simmering edge of anger. Stares reveal important clues of what people think of me and help guide my interactions in unfamiliar places.
The Kyrgyz boy in the yurt was different. I couldn’t crack him. There was mystery in those eyes, secrets in his utterly blank expression. It drove me mad with curiosity — What was behind his stare?
Our culture gap was certainly wide enough. The boy, not more than 7 years old, was the youngest member of a Kyrgyz goat herding family. We were staying in their yurt, pitched along the edge of Song-Kul Lake in central Kyrgyzstan. Finding the place was a pure stroke of luck. Morgan and I had rented backpacks for the weekend to do some trekking, and on our second day were hit with a heavy snowstorm. We were woefully unprepared for it. As we scrambled away from lightening along a trail disappearing under fresh snow, we picked out the outlines of goat herds in a valley below. One of those herds belonged to the family we were staying with.
“Come come, you stay.”
The family occasionally housed hikers like us, and we readily accepted the offer for a spot in their yurt for a modest price. Not only would we escape the worst of the snowstorm, but it offered an opportunity to witness a disappearing lifestyle. With the growth of mobile connectivity and mass migration to the cities, traditional nomads of the Kyrgyz highlands are on the decline.
Their life is tough. My first impressions were of the mother. She was among the hardest working women I’d ever seen – constantly moving as she milked horses, made flat bread, cleaned the yurt, and mixed yogurt with broad arms and calloused hands. Her husband never lifted a finger. He sat on a stool spitting sunflower seeds into the snow and bellowing commands at his three sons. When they weren’t clambering beneath his directives, the youngest – 7 and 10 years old – would retreat into the warmth of the yurt to play with a frayed deck of playing cards and read comic strips from an old newspaper. The eldest son went straight to his smart phone, texting friends in the capital and listening to the latest Russian pop music.
As for Morgan and me…well, you could usually find us next to the stove. Compared to the Kyrgyz, we were total wimps in the cold. For two days, our forays into sub-zero degree temperatures were followed by tactical retreats back to the indoor fireplace. It was cold enough we didn’t mind the smell of the burning cow dung.
It was after such a retreat that I found the boy staring at me again. After my smile failed to produce a response, I tried to imagine what he might be thinking.
Was he amused at our total newbishness to the cold?
Was he jealous of our gadgets –our DSLR camera and kindle e-readers?
Was he annoyed that we were there, invading the privacy of his home?
Was he excited?
Or maybe, he was confused. Why were we there?
After all, other people had voiced similar opinions. A couple days earlier, on our bus ride to the trail head, a gentleman asked me “Is your father rich?”
“No” I’d said, trying not to invite further questions on the subject.
“Then why are you wasting your money here?” he retorted.
I’ve heard this at other times on our trip, like in India and Myanmar. When so many dream of making of making it to the United States, to Los Angeles, a place that media tells them is filled with fantastic wealth and opportunities, some wonder why we’d ever want to leave. It’s difficult to explain why we’re trying to get away.
Just then, the mother entered the yurt, breaking my stare-off with her son in one of her flurries of movement. She pushed the boy aside and assumed his spot to prepare homemade noodles, kneading a ball of dough into flat discs and cutting it into strips. Her skill and energy were wonderful to behold. I was mesmerized.
She only paused when she caught me staring. She was probably wondering why I was so fascinated.