My husband was once detained at an airport—not taken into custody, but kept back from boarding. We were leaving Kyrgyzstan after a three week visit with family, returning home to the U.S. The staff at Manas Airport said something was wrong with Stas’s passport or visa—I don’t remember now—and wouldn’t let him board the plane. He had a green card at the time and a Kyrgyz passport. The airport staff insisted that I move ahead to the waiting area while they held Stas back at security. I couldn’t see Stas from where they made me sit, and I had no idea what was going on. Kyrgyzstan is a place where the police sometimes pull people over for bribes, and I didn’t know if the security staff saw a legitimate problem with the documents or just a couple of Americans.
When I got up to try to see the security area I was told to sit back down. Meanwhile, the plane was boarding. I tried to think about how to think about whether to fly or not if Stas wasn’t allowed through. How many days of work might I miss if I didn’t get on the plane? How much money would we lose on the ticket? How serious was the problem with Stas’s documents? The questions mounted while the line at the gate diminished and I began to panic. But soon Stas was allowed through—his documents had checked out after all (and without a bribe).
We flew home as planned, but this incident really shook me up. I couldn’t believe how easy it was for someone to control me and separate me from my husband. It was shocking that anyone could have that right. Not being able to explain my situation or argue a position in a local language had made me feel totally helpless while the atmosphere at Manas—at once rigid and unpredictable—had made it difficult to breathe. Encapsulated in this incident were many of the things I found challenging about being in Kyrgyzstan, from the stony authoritarianism to my language limitations. As the final episode in an at-times challenging three-week visit, this incident came to represent the trip as a whole and left me feeling awful about a place I loved.
When it came time to return to Kyrgyzstan a year later, I had to have a serious talk with myself. I couldn’t control other people—the taxi drivers who took risks I wouldn’t, the vendors in the bazaar who raised their prices for the American, the store clerks who got impatient with my Russian. And I couldn’t really stand up for myself. With my intermediate Russian language and zero Kyrgyz language, I had little ability to navigate difficult situations. The only thing I could do was take things as easily as possible and look for things to appreciate. So I tried this. Not only did I feel happier and safer, but the encounters I had with others—drivers, vendors, and clerks—were better.
I’m not suggesting this as some kind of object lesson. I’m just telling what happened to me. And none of this has anything to do with the image above except that over this cold gray weekend I was remembering Manas and drawing yellow tulips.