I think I may have been the only one to see the irony of listening to “Hava Nagila” in my all Muslim household. It came on their disc of mp3’s that must have been a New Years present, because I had never heard it before, and if I had, I would have let all of you know about it. I laughed to myself, then immediately sat down here to write this so I wouldn’t forget it. The next song was Hammertime, by the way.
Religion is one of the things in this country that irks me. (For me, an irk is something that’s not that bad, but I secretly roll my eyes at it all the time it occurs. That may not be the standard definition, but it’s what we’re going with here). The Soviet Union did everything it could to stamp out religion, so the people really can’t be blamed. They lived in a system where you were persecuted for your religious beliefs, so it’s just normal that nowadays most people have very little real devotion. My family is Tatar, which also makes them a Muslim family. My sister washes her face with her hands after a meal, but beyond that, religion doesn’t really enter the household. Personally, I feel that if you are going to claim a religion, you should embrace a lot more of the aspects of it. You aren’t really a Christian if you just celebrate Christmas for the presents. You have to hold the beliefs of that religion in your heart, and I’d be curious to know how much people here really know their religions that they claim to be a part of.
Okay, on a lighter note, it’s a New Year and I’ve got some stories to tell:
I went back to Almaty and Kaskelen for New Years with my host family and a couple friends from training, Matthew and Drew. It was really great to see my family again, who seemed really excited to see me. I showed up two days before the other guys and got to spend some time just hanging out and relaxing. Drew was the next to show up, on Sunday afternoon. We planned to meet up in the city and hang out there for a bit, but it turned into a bit of a fiasco. For those of you who have never been to Almaty (that’s pretty much all of you), it’s a massive, sprawling city. It has a population of 2.7 million people that spread out, not up. The bus system is chaotic and it can take up to an hour to get anywhere in the city. That sets the stage.
I was going to take a mashrutka (sort of a mini van but a little bigger) to go and meet Drew. I thought we were meeting at a place called City Plus, which is a bizarre mall near the edge of the city. Drew thought we were meeting at a place called the Silk Way, which is like a big old strip mall. I forgot how to get to the mashrutka stand in Kaskelen and spent close to an hour looking for it before one passed me and I asked if it was going to Sairan, my stop. The guy told me to climb on board so I did. It took me to Altan Orda, a bazaar not even in Almaty. I said “Sairan?” The man said “No, Altan Orda…of course” and kicked me off the bus. I was beyond irked at this guy. Anyway, I stood around for 10 minutes, asking various mashrutkas if they were going to Altan Orda. One guy finally told me to get on and I thought “oh, man…where am I going now” as I climbed aboard. Luckily, he took me to my stop and I made my way to the mall.
I messaged Drew that I was there, only to discover he had been waiting for me at Silk Way. I convinced him to come to me since this was the way back to Kaskelen anyway. He agreed, though he didn’t want to try to find me on the city buses. (This was the same reason I didn’t want to go to him). I spent an hour or so wandering around this mall, looking at various gadgets. At one point I wandered into a supermarket. The supermarkets here are insane (like all other public places) and I couldn’t find my way out. All the lines were packed with people or blocked off by big metal bars and I have a deathly fear of being yelled at by large Kazakhstani man that I can’t understand who eventually throws me in prison for cutting. Anyway, I decided to just buy something and stand in one of the insane lines.
I chose a bottle of fanta and a Twix bar and got in what I thought would be a quick line. I was behind a woman with a shopping cart loaded with various New Years food. I had resolved myself to waiting behind her when a man with a single bottle of champagne, using his language skills he had developed for 40 years asked if he could jump in front of her since he had only one item. She politely agreed and I thought of how, in one year, that man could be me. Once the women got to the front and her items were scanned, it seemed to be going quickly. That was, until the checker decided it was a good idea to scan this cake five times! Why…I don’t know. There were five tags, so the woman scanned them all.
The money was exchanged but then the checker realized she had just charged the woman an extra few thousand tenge (maybe 20 dollars or more). She had to work for five minutes to get the charged erased and the money given back. After a couple minutes, I did the half turn to the people behind me and gave the eye roll, half smile that’s necessary in such situations. I was happy to see that this gesture seems to be international, as I got the head bob shoulder shrugs from the folks behind me. I was working out some cross-cultural integration there!
It was after this that Drew and I talked again and he had given up on the buses and was going to head home and I was tired of waiting, so I headed home too. I got back two hours before he did, too. The next day Matthew showed up and we had a big old family reunion. It was a really good time, just hanging out and sharing various stories.
New Years started about 9 pm with a big feast and various toasts around the table. It continued with various games that people had either thought up or seemed to be old traditions. The big one was called Fanti, and it was sort of like charades. Everybody either got a piece of paper that told them one thing they had to do. Sometimes people had to guess what it was, other times it was just something funny. An example was, wish everybody a Happy New Year five different ways (angry, happy, sad etc). I managed to get juggle three apples. I busted that out without a problem. There were some other games that had people making fools of themselves, but I’m going to save those to use on you all when I get home.
Right around midnight the radio was turned on and people listened to President Nazerbaeyev giving his traditional New Years speech. At the stroke of midnight everybody chants Happy New Year (in Russian) then races outside for fireworks. Kaskelen was a war zone that night! All over the sky things were exploding and whistling. I did my part to add to the chaos. I had bought two packs of Roman Candles and was firing them off. The most exciting part was they only went about five feet in the air most of the time before exploding, so there were sparks and fire raining down everywhere! After that it was back inside and exchanging presents.
It was very informal; you just walk around and hand out your things, unwrapped and all that. My family told me they had a gift for me waiting for me up in my room. No, it wasn’t a girl. It was a new sweater (think Cosby Show) that was incredibly warm. I’ve been putting it to good use up here in the North, but it was too warm for down south. Very comfortable and nice, I was very touched. I gave out the gifts I had bought as well, and got various candies and a reindeer candy cane mug from Lena (host Aunt, Matthew’s mom).
Then more food came. After midnight is the Pelmini time. I only had room for a couple of those (like most people it seemed). We ate, and then resumed the different games. This lasted until about 3.30 in the morning, where exhausted, I crashed in bed. The next day the three of us from my language group and Daniel, another volunteer in town, went to visit Indira, our language tutor. She was very happy to see us and we had a good time talking with her and showing off our awesome new Russian skills. Most of the talking was in Russian, which I was impressed with. We are all fairly competent, especially when put in a room with each other and nobody points out the tons of mistakes we are making.
Daniel got love advice from Indira; we drank a good number of toasts again and ate more good food, then made our way home. The rest of the vacation involved just hanging around and relaxing. My train back, I managed to get on the right wagon with help from my host family. We said our tearful (not me of course) goodbyes, assuring Karolina I would be back in March, hopefully in time for her birthday (day after Randy’s), and I climbed aboard. I had managed to pick up a pretty bad cough and a case of the sniffles while down there, and my family included some powder drink to help with it on the train. My host dad told the woman sitting next to me to make sure I drink it on the train.
I ended up talking to this woman for a while when the train first got started. She was wondering why I was taking the train to Pavlodar instead of flying. I explained that I can’t afford a plane, that I’m here as a volunteer. We chatted some more, explaining that I was an English teacher here with an organization, living for two years. She told me about her daughter studying English in Moscow and about her family that all lives in Pavlodar. She herself was a retired engineer of some sort, I couldn’t understand the entire details, but she said she was very good at math.
I was feeling pretty good about how my chat had gone as she got up to head to the bathroom, and rather than jeopardize what so far had been a great conversation, I put my head phones in and listened to Dane Cook for a bit. She came back and we spoke a bit more, but then she went to bed and I contentedly listened to music and worked on my book.
Over the course of the train ride, I managed to read all of Catch-22. It’s a pretty interesting book, though it gets depressing throughout it. When I got to Pavlodar, I met up with my buddy Adam and crashed at his place. I saw a Steinbeck collection on his shelf, so I’ve borrowed that now and am working through some more of the classics. I decided that this is a good time to get some serious reading in, and maybe break myself away from my computer a bit more (ironic that as I say this I’m sitting at a computer). Anyway, if you have some recommendations on what I should be reading, as far as really awesome books go, let me know and I’ll see if I can get my hands on them.
My big project in Russian now, actually, is to read a Stephen King book. I asked Karolina (host sister, remember) if she had a good, not too difficult, book in Russian I could borrow and try to read. She gave me The Green Mile. Not the simplest book, but interesting so far. At this point I have finished the first chapter (about 4 pages) in about a week. I read 30-60 minutes a day, dictionary open and notebook at the ready for interesting words I find. The first bit was very slow going, but I’m getting better at looking up words and I’m moving a bit quickly. The rare instance that I can understand something without a dictionary is cause for a small dance and celebration in my room. Also, thanks to the parents who have explained the more confusing sections in English to me.
School has started up again, and I’m trying to turn a new leaf. With most of my classes I was teaching with a young teacher, but we rarely worked together. She had been sick and I was teaching alone for awhile, and when she came back, we didn’t plan lessons together much. That led to me not doing much in classes besides a few minutes in the beginning. I’ve now set up a time each week (hopefully) that we can plan lessons together and get me involved a bit more. It should be pretty good, because I’ve got ideas for lessons that I’d like to try, but I can’t do much without her help.
I was pretty depressed before my vacation, but coming back now, I’m happy to be here. I really prefer village life to city life. It’s quieter here, and much cleaner. In Kaskelen, you get black boogers and everything stinks. Out here it’s fresh air and frozen boogers. Though I enjoyed a shower and indoor toilet, those things are less important to me than I realized. They are things I can adapt to and, though maybe not enjoy, tolerate. I had the thought that maybe the reason I have been thinking how much greater Kaskelen is, has to do with my friends there. I had people I could talk and joke with on a regular basis in English. Language class was some of the most fun I’ve had, and that’s gone now. As time goes by here though, I’m enjoying what I have.
I definitely needed that vacation, and I will probably need more in the future, but for now I’m settled. I’m happy, I feel productive (which is key to my happiness) and I have no complaints (we’re down to seven geese). I’ve got a whole year ahead of me in Kazakhstan, and that’s both daunting and exciting. I think about the changes that may happen in a year; changes in me and changes around me. Hopefully I can be a part of some very good changes in Zhelezinka. And for all of you folks back home, hopefully you can do the same. Here’s wishing everybody a happy and productive New Year.