They are central to the buzzing bazaars in Bishkek and other Kyrgyz cities: the strange babies.
No cooing and smiling and waving here. No cuteness, and no compliments for parents beaming with pride. I am talking about the many baby carriages without babies that fulfill a vital function at the bazaars: people use them to sell food and beverages. Instead of babies, they carry trays with fresh pastries, dozens of bananas, rows of steaming corn on the cob, large thermos with tea, stacks of round loaves of bread, buckets filled with maksym (a popular wheat-based drink, especially in the summer, when it is sold at every street corner), shoeboxes filled with sunflower seeds, and many other things that hungry and thirsty shoppers consume as they are making their way through the narrow bazaar aisles.
They serve as mobile food stands, equipped with plastic bags and cups for the goods to go, straight into the hands of busy shoppers. They are old and worn and show rust and repairs, such as replaced wheels that don’t match. Some have been modified, as many repurposed objects in Kyrgyzstan: instead of the bassinet, a wooden board sits on top of the steel frame, decorated with throws or blankets, now covered with baked goods and fruits. An object designed for infant transportation has become a vehicle for low-scale economic activity. An efficient transformation. Anything else would have been a waste of useful material.
These baby carriages are also a common sight during national holidays, when families celebrate, eat, and drink in Bishkek’s public places, and here they serve the same practical purpose: to hold, move, and sell food, drinks, and snacks.
Last summer, right after I left Bishkek, I spotted another strange baby. This time far away from Kyrgyzstan, in the German city of Wiesbaden, on a street lined with shops. This babyless baby carriage was not moving around with the flow of the bazaar traffic, but stood in front of a store that sells fancy fabrics for children’s clothes and accessories. No food here, and no wear and tear; it was shiny and filled and draped with trendy fabric samples instead. Same object, same original purpose, but different use and meaning: no practical, only aesthetic value, intended for an audience that reads, recognizes, and values this baby carriage as a hip fashion statement. This one, which must have been made around the same time as some models I saw in Bishkek (1970s), functioned as a prop with its stylish retro look. Vintage is in, in this part of the world.
What’s in a baby carriage? Here and there, in Kyrgyzstan and in Germany, not necessarily a baby, as one would expect. But a whole lot of different things and even more meanings.