Places Where Flowers Bloom: Our Debt to the Poor

September 2014

We sat opposite each other on short, backless stools in Baatir’s backyard. A pair of well-worn shoes in hand, Baatir punctured another hole in the shoe’s rubber sole with an awl, hooked the piece of thread he carefully held on the inside of the shoe, and pulled it back out through the hole. In about fifteen minutes, he had completely re-sown the shoe’s entire sole.

Baatir sat on his stool with a tattered apron spread over his knees. The two of us were both hunched over as he worked and I watched, but we were hunched over for two very different reasons. I sat that way because my stool didn’t have a back. Baatir sat that way because, as Forrest Gump would say, his back is as crooked as a question mark. Though perhaps as tall as I am, standing up as straight as he can, looks me about in the solar plexus.

“These shoes new cost maybe 400 com at the bazaar,” Baatir said.

Pulling my mad mental math skills out of my back pocket, I quickly translated that into good old American greenbacks. About $8.00.

“To fix these, I charge 50 com. So it’s really good for the people who come to me. This way they don’t have to buy new shoes so often,” Baatir explained.

I returned to my mental calculations. Let’s see, I thought. If fifty com is about a dollar, and it takes him about half an hour to sew a pair, then he can’t average much more than two dollars an hour on a good day.

Baatir’s only in his mid-thirties and has lived with his disease—probably Kyphosis, Laura thinks—since he was a teenager. He lives with two of his younger brothers in a separate structure on his parents’ property. He doesn’t work outside of the shoes he repairs, which isn’t too many considering his only clients are the people from his village who have read the hand-painted “shoe repair” sign outside his front door.

“Many people bring me their shoes during the fall,” Baatir told me. “People wear boots and heavier shoes during the fall and winter, so there are more shoes that need fixing. Do people fix their shoes like this in America?” he asked me.

“Well, actually, no,” I told him. “They just throw them away and buy a new pair.”

Baatir laughed his characteristic laugh, revealing the row of gold crowns that covered all of his upper front teeth. He slapped his knee and shook his head. Silly Americans, he probably thought.

One of the most difficult realities we face every single day is that of wacky worldwide wealth distribution. All that an average Westerner has is simply mind-numbing by comparison. For example, one time June’s daughter, a fifteen-year-old, was going to the bazaar, so we asked if she would buy us some clothes hangers.

“How many do you need?” she asked.

Laura and I looked at each other and thought for a moment. We already had ten or so.

“Maybe fifteen,” I told them.

June’s daughter was genuinely shocked. “Ohhh! Fifteen? That’s a lot of clothes!”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. And it was clear to her that that number was for the two of us to share. Good thing she didn’t know about the ten hangers we already had or that the only reason we weren’t going to ask for more was because our closet wasn’t big enough.

On another occasion, shortly after Laura had posted a picture on Facebook of the earring rack she bought from the bazaar, one of Laura’s local friends asked why Laura collected earrings. At first, Laura wasn’t quite sure how to respond.

“What earring collection are you talking about? That’s about half as many as I used to have!” Laura said. Her friend told her she only had three pairs of earrings at home.
It’s enough to make you pause and reflect.

We’re thankful for all that Baatir, Laura’s friend, and June’s daughter are teaching us. They’ve helped us see reality through new eyes, and for that, ironically, we’re very indebted to them. We’re grateful for these dear people. How we long to give to them as they’ve so freely given to us.


This post is part of a series we’re calling Places Where Flowers Bloom in which we recount tales from our first days in Central Asia in search of the flowers that have bloomed, even after what felt like a long winter. Read more posts from this series here:

  1. Meeting the Landlady
  2. A Long Month
  3. Getting Evicted
  4. Where We Finally Landed
  5. Sheep Eyes, Bride-napping, and Fasting

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