A week and a half away from my site and suddenly its spring when I get back. Most of the snow is gone, you can go around in a t-shirt and shorts and there’s even the tiniest bit of green in places. My mood, which was pretty black and blue for awhile, has skyrocketed into the atmosphere. I went for a run; I hung around in our yard talking to Galiya (host mom) and just enjoyed the gorgeous weather. There doesn’t seem to be a single sour note in my life right now. I think I owe most of that to the awesome vacation I took, so I’ll talk about that now. I hope you’re all comfortable, this is a long one. Take your bathroom breaks now, cause we're not stopping.
Let me start off by saying that this vacation was fantastic. Vacations in general are fantastic, but this one was exceptional. It may have been because I was in such a funk leading up to it, but also I think that in general there was a lot of funness about it. I’ll give you a quick rundown, and then fill in the middle with some good stories.
I took a train ride down to Shymkent, which is called the Texas of Kazakhstan because it’s so wild and corrupt. Sort of a Wild West thing I understand. 86 volunteers descended on the city for a few days and caused havoc, drank and enjoyed the Kazakhstani hospitality and New Years. I was only there for a day and a half, and then we hopped a bus to Almaty where I had training and seminars for a few days. I spent a couple days with my host family from training then headed back North. That’s the short of it, now for the long.
I rode the train down with Nora, Andrew and Jeffrey OCAP. Andrew is another Kaz-18, Jeffrey OCAP is another volunteer that came with me to Kazakhstan and is working with a small organization helping disabled children. And speaking of children, we were stuck on what seemed to be the small, loud, children’s wagon of the train. There was a ridiculous number of kids running and climbing on the train, and they seemed to especially love kicking my feet which hang over the edge of my little bed. It was getting better until the toy lady came through the train with a bag of loud, obnoxious toys for sale. Of course grandpa had to buy some for his grandchildren, and from then on it was constant electronic bleeping and blooping.
Anyway, the train ride was mostly uneventful besides the little monkeys, but once people learned that Nora can speak Kazakh, and also very good Russian, lots of people wanted to talk. She spent an hour taking to our conductor about the typical conversation pieces: how much money people make in the states, corruption, families etc. I sat and listened, maybe speaking a couple times when a question was directed directly to me. That was redundant.
Besides the conductor, there were just a couple other people that did a little chatting. We had a four hour layover in Astana, in which I didn’t realize the train was actually going to leave for those four hours. I got off in my basketball shorts and my fleece, thinking I could get back on and put my pants on if I got cold. It pulled away, and we decided to head into the city. This is at 11 pm maybe. We go wandering, and I’m attracting more than my share of strange looks. One woman looked at me and exclaimed “Aren’t you cold!” I told her no, but that was a lie. There was still snow on the ground.
We made it into a trendy café, looking very out of place. I ordered some sort of vegetable thing and a fanta, then Andrew and I spent the next 45 minutes playing tabletop soccer, or whatever he called it. When it closed we wandered back to the train station and killed time. We played every mind numbing game we could think of and eventually the train came back and we piled on and zonked out until 10 or 11 the next day.
Shymkent was the site of a massive invasion of Americans. Eighty-six Peace Corps Volunteers descended on this beautiful city in Southern Kazakhstan. For three nights or possibly more they scattered to various bars and cafes and commenced to “get their groove on.” I think this is a much needed vacation for everybody, and a chance to cut loose. And many people did cut loose and probably even drifted out to sea a bit. I had no part in this. My biggest adventure from Shymkent was an ocean of beer, though not as in a vast amount of it. Let me explain.
I and some friends decided we wanted to sit at an outdoor café and partake in the local beer, originally named Shymkentian (translated). We found what appeared to be a suitable place, namely it was outside and it had beer. We scooted a couple tables together and assembled an assortment of chairs around them. The woman came up and we ordered a few beers and some munchy treats. In Kazakhstan, if you drink but don’t eat anything, even if it’s little flavored croutons, it’s extremely strange. The woman brought out two beers and went back for the rest. I, being the gentleman I am, offered to taste test the first batch. A mistake.
I was parched and starving for a beer after hearing about all the fun I had missed out on the last couple nights, so I took a big long drink, eyes closed rapturously. As I drank, rapturous eyes turned into squinty, confused and slightly disgusted eyes. I swallowed, opened my eyes and slowly set the beer down. “Something is wrong,” I simply said. All of those with beers in their hands immediately froze, cold mugs already tilted towards their mouths. “The beer…is salty!”
I took another sip to confirm, that in fact, the beer tasted like salt water. Others sampled, and we all agreed, this was not natural beer. We called the woman back and attempted to explain the situation. We wanted new beers that didn’t taste like they were made with salt water. Other theories involving bodily fluids were proposed, and confirmed in my mind when the woman refused to taste the beer. After much arguing we finally got our free beers which tasted normal. Only a brave few of us would continue with the drinking however, and we turned out to be the unwise few, because the next batch again was salty, though not as much. Perhaps the woman was all tapped out…Anyway, we moved on.
The other big event at Shymkent was the Kazakh New Year, Nauryz. Many volunteers found their way over to the large hippodrome (it’s for horses, not hippos) on the afternoon of the 22nd. It was a regular street festival throughout the place. There was dancing exhibitions, parachutists, singing, street BBQ and other forms of entertainment. We wandered about, taking in what we could. We all agreed the local plof (rice with meat and carrots) was the best we’d had in Kazakhstan. Then we found a seat in the bleachers to watch the games.
This was a nice part because the people down south typically seem to be friendlier than those up north. Maybe it was the beer going around the stands, but people seemed much more open and talkative. I sat next to a man who had come with his family, and we stroke up a conversation about the sports and traditions along with my buddy Matthew. He helped to explain the rules of the games, which were all somewhat simple.
There was first traditional races, which were run by younger children on bareback horses. They were lighter than the men and so could go faster and their horses could keep up longer. The first race I saw one child fell off at the very beginning and nearly got trampled by the horse behind him. Other people also fell, often at high speeds, and the ambulance was kept busy. Intense and dangerous games, but that’s why children don’t play the game…or do.
My personal favorite was the kissing game. I man and a woman take off on separate horses and the man is charged with catching up to the girl and planting a big wet one on her lips at full gallop. The entire time the girl is allowed to whip him, slap him or whatever to avoid the kiss. If the man fails, she gets to ride back whipping him the length of the course. More often than not the woman won, to the delight of all the feminists sitting around us.
There was horse wrestling, in which two shirtless and macho men fought to throw each other from the saddle. Apparently tactics can be quite brutal, like using your horse as a ram to knock over the other mans horse and pin him beneath. Most of the time it was just a lot of shoving and pulling. This wasn’t as fun because we were far off and it was difficult to see.
Finally came the big game: Kokpar. This game came be played between teams or on an individual basis, but the game is the same. There is a pre-prepared headless sheep carcass in the middle of the field. At either end are two raised circular pits. Men on horseback fight to pick up the carcass while on horseback, that race toward the pits and toss it in. In the meantime the other players beat him and thrash him, grab his horse and do whatever they can to stop him. This can often end in broken bones, cuts, blindness and the occasional trampling, but this seemed pretty tame. Nobody had to be carted off that I saw, and I have no idea who won, but it was a good time to watch and cheer for whoever had the carcass.
It was over 80 degrees Fahrenheit that day and I managed to work out a pretty good sunburn (before I found a newspaper hat to put on. Everybody was wearing them). It was actually really amazing. Coming south on the train you could see the snow fading away alongside the tracks and slowly this strange greenness seeped into the ground. We eventually recognized it as the long lost grass that nobody up north has seen for months. It was a delight to step off the train and smell…freshness. The smell of grass and green in general was amazing to our senses and I couldn’t get enough of it.
Besides grass the south had another thing going for it: fresh fruits and vegetables. They were everywhere and they didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Mom, I like cucumber now. It’s great. It’s delicious. I can’t get enough of it now. Now that I’m back north, I’ll have to wait until July and August to get it again, but it’ll be a fantastic two months when I do.
That’s the big events from Shymkent. Two pages covering two days. I spent the next five days in Almaty, but don’t worry, it shouldn’t take five pages. Some of what happened may have to be edited for content but you guys can get the good stuff still. Most volunteers headed to the bus station together and practically rented an entire bus for ourselves, though a few Kazakhstani’s managed to slip on, though I’m sure they regretted it within a few minutes when nothing could be heard over the babble of English.
The bus was an overnight bus and easily 4/5 seats were filled by American volunteers. The first couple hours was endless babble that slowly drifted into snores and soft murmuring. The bus driver, once we all shut up, but on Rambo IV. It was in Russian, and I didn’t even realize it was a new movie for a long time. I also should mention that there is a young man among us volunteers with the incredible name of Rambo (last name Shootz actually) and he didn’t much appreciate seeing the movie. Didn’t do him enough credit or something like that. Anyway, most of the trip was spent snuggled up to your seat mate (mine was Matthew) trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one that spent all of the next day trying to work out kinks and pains in shoulders, neck and back.
Upon arrival in Almaty, Matthew and I made our way back to Kaskelen to spend the day with our training host families. It was my sister’s, Karolina, birthday. It was only 10 am when we got there, so of course she wasn’t up yet. We hung out in my kitchen and talked to my host mom until people started showing up. We spent a good amount of time chatting and telling everything that’s been going on with us the past four months. It was a great time and I practiced my Russian until my tongue was dry.
Matthew made the remark that it’s incredible how these folks can celebrate every single birthday or holiday in the exact same way, with a big family dinner. There are always toasts, and they typically follow a set pattern, though I deviated by getting myself completely confused about what I was trying to say, so I’m sure everybody else followed perfectly. It was a good time, but in the evening we had to head to Kazakhstan Sanitarium for our conference.
I won’t bore you with all the details of this seminar. Basically, it was a time for Volunteers to come together after there first four months at site and do one serious thing: Bitch. And lots of it. Ugh, my counterpart is insane! My host family abuses me! I get stalked by random guys! You could go to any conversation the first day or two and hear basically the same thing coming from every mouth. Let me tell you, this was very, very reassuring. To know I’m not alone in my problems is a huge comfort.
It was also inspiring though. Once all the bitch was out of our system, we could get down to business. What works in your classes? How do you control the little monkeys? How do you reconcile yourself to the grading system? For three days all of these ideas were tossed around and everybody came away with a few new good ideas. Besides that, it inspired me to think that I can always be doing a better job. Intermingled with all of that business was information about summer camps, getting shots and medical advice from Doctor Victor and all that other nitty gritty.
Now let me tell you about evenings in Sanitarium Kazakhstan. Awesome. Simply amazing. There was beer, vodka and wine. There was a computerized version of Risk (Alex, I know you like the dice, but some of the rules in this version are so much better), there was toasting in the bathroom, there was guitar playing, there was Jackie dancing to music only she could hear, and there was slurred conversation straight from the heart (which we all agree is probably the best type). That’s all you folks need to know about that.
My last couple days were spent again with my host family, but getting to them was a bit of an adventure. First of all, my first attempt to go buy a train ticket back to Pavlodar ended up me realizing I had forgot my passport. Peace Corps gave us these great, Kazakhstani government issued, certified ID cards that are good for absolutely nothing except showing people how your name is spelled in Russian. The woman at the train station refused to take it, so I had to go back and get my passport and go it again. At this point, I was stuck with a seat on the wall of the train, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
My ticket wasn’t until Saturday night, and they were kicking us out of the Sanitarium on Friday, so I had to make my way to my host families again to spend the night. I thought, “Hey, I’m an experienced Kazakhstan traveler with a good command of the language, I can do this!” I couldn’t. Buses in Almaty are stupid. They are impossible to figure out. I got to my first destination where I hoped to find another bus to take me to another bus station from there, and thought I had. I guess it was going in the wrong direction and I ended up in a ghetto somewhere up in the hills. I got off where I could see another bus and stood, blending in perfectly with the dark skinned, black haired Kazakhstani’s who did not at all stare at me standing on the side of the road with two bulging bags handing off me. I took this bus to what I thought was another bus station (not the one I wanted) and the guy confirmed my guess. I got off. I couldn’t find the actual bus station. I wandered the streets for awhile until I finally got tired and approached a taxi.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks me.
I laugh at this point. “No way” I say.
“How much do you think?”
“400.” That’s pretty much on the high end.
“My friend, this place is very far. 800 Tenge”
“How about 700?” My desperation is starting to show.
“Fine whatever.” We get in his cab and head out. Every twenty feet he stops to ask another person if they want a ride. We start to chat. It’s the typical conversations you have with people here. We talk about his car and about my car. How much do cars cost in America? How much money would he make in America? I tell him the middle income salary for a year. Nobody in this country will do the math themselves, dividing that number by 12 to figure out the monthly income. They always have to ask. I’m too lazy to do it exactly, so I say some general number, which as I think about turns out to be about 10,000 dollars to much, but he’s pretty impressed.
We talk about the girls, and I’m pretty sure I learned some dirty words at this point, but wasn’t really following that close. We talk about the heat, about how expensive Moscow is, how beautiful Almaty is and all of that. Along the way we pick up a pair of guys, not too far from where I got on. They get in and say “We’re going to so and so, and we aren’t paying more than 200 Tenge.” The driver quickly agrees, as I think to myself, this place better be really close, because otherwise I got screwed. By the time I got out of the cab, they had driven almost as far as me, and weren’t at their destination yet. To add salt to the wound, the taxi driver tells me as he pulls my bags out of the trunk that when I catch a cab to Kaskelen, don’t pay more that 200 Tenge. It’s at least as far to Kaskelen as it was to this bus station. That’s what I get for being a rich American I guess.
Okay, so I get to Kaskelen, I spend another day and a half, that wasn’t as exciting but still very relaxing. I saw a few more people I didn’t get a chance to talk to on Monday when we first arrived, I go to somebody else’s birthday dinner and get lots of compliments about my Russian. When Saturday night rolls around, I was expecting another big send off at the station with Karolina, Zhenya and whoever else will fit in the car. Instead, I get a ride with my host brother Vasa and his two buddies.
More colorful conversation. Vasa’s two friends pointed out the street where all the hookers used to stand. Apparently the police cracked down on them though. This has forced all the poor hookers to move inside the cafes, that way nobody can see them. Now their pimps stand on the corners. So you either have to talk to these guys or make the long trek up the sidewalk and into a café to find love by the hour.
The train ride back was another one of my highlights of the trip, as well. The only bad part was I was on the wall of the train. The way these cars are set up, there are four beds (two bunk beds) in a group, where your feet are towards the wall and your feet stick out into the aisle. Then there is a bunk beds on the opposite wall in which you lay lengthwise, framed by two walls. They are exactly six feet long. I am exactly bigger than six feet. I don’t fit too well. That led to much tossing and turning during the night. That was the bad part. The great part was all the people I talked to.
The first group was led by a very talkative (in English!!!!!) young man, probably about my age. His group were in a school training to be detectives, in a city called Karaganda. They were on their way back from a competition in Almaty with the Kazakhstan version of the CIA. The talkative guy got first place apparently, and the one girl in the group got second. I talked to all of them a bunch and they were very friendly. We shared food and played cards, and that first night apparently kept folks up until about midnight, when the conductor told us to go to bed.
The boys in the group kept asking me how beautiful I thought the girl was and that I could bride-nap her if I want. They claim they were jokes, but I know I was a bit uncomfortable and I’m guessing the girl was as well. Turns out she’s from Pavlodar, and I thought she was riding all the way back with me there, but she ended up getting off at Karaganda too.
The second day grew into a giant group of people. I will identify them as I first saw them: the big, talkative Kazakh man (here on out BTK), loud obnoxious teenage punks (LOTP), three very attractive Kazakh girls (VAK’s) and a small family (small family). The first to approach me was BTK. He has a daughter studying in Houston and had lots of questions and advice for me. He asked if I spoke any Kazakh. Let me tell you, these people love you if all you can say is hello and thank you (which is all I can say). He told me I was his son now. Our conversation was completely in Russian (except Hello and Thank You) and he was a pretty funny guy. A little crazy, which added to his charm. He initiated the talking and pulled in all the others.
The next to get sucked in was VAK 1. She came and sat down and talked to me, a little in English. This is basically a huge turn on for any American struggling with the language. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked her what institute or university she studied at in Pavlodar. She let me know she was a 10th grader in high school still. Oh. Awesome. It was somewhere along this time that LOTP and VAK’s 1 and 2 got on. Seeing the additional VAK’s, I was sure they had to be in college.
I’m going to keep you in suspense though and talk about the LOTP’s for now. They were aged 10 to 17 maybe. They got on the train, took off their shirts and turned on their music. They climbed on their bunks and did a bunch of loud talking. They made kissy noises at the VAK’s. I immediately didn’t like them. When we pulled into Astana station, we had a 40 minutes break there. Speaking of break (see how I did that), the LOTP turned out to be a break dancing group. Something I hadn’t expected to see on my trip was a group of kid’s break dancing on the station floor in Astana in the middle of the night.
They were really pretty good and gave us all a good show. They collected money, took it into the nearby shop and bought a bunch of junk food. My favorite part was the woman who was clearly a mom (or drunk, they’re often hard to tell apart at competitions) who was cheering really loud and at one point ran out and gave the youngest a kiss on the cheek. She was very enthusiastic. After that, the LOTP, or at least the “cool” ones, wanted to talk to the American too. I found out they were coming back from a competition as well and had taken 1st place nationwide in a break dancing competition. Pretty impressive.
After Astana, basically a ring formed around me of people wanting to talk to the American. I was sitting on my wall seat. BTK was across from me with a few other older folks. VAK 1 was in her upper bunk, leaning out into the aisle to get a good view, and LOTP were scattered throughout. When VAK’s 2 and 3 cut through, BTK called them out and said something about talking to the American. They pretended like this was the first time they had seen me on the train (pleeeease) and looked surprised. They grabbed some seats and jumped in, and I’m always happy to give my time to VAK’s.
Some more chatting, mostly about what things are like in America, how do I like Kazakhstan, why don’t I have a girlfriend. Somewhere in this conversation, I managed to slip in the subtle question that would reveal their ages. High School. Am I doomed? Where are all the eligible bachelorettes? Turns out they had some advice for me on this subject. VAK’s 2 and 3 tell me I should just ask attractive girls on the street the time and I’m instantly in. Worth a shot.
Another interesting tidbit: apparently the women of Kazakhstan were in some sort of international competition that rated them as the 3rd hottest ethnicity or something like that, in all the world. South Korea took first; I don’t know who took second. I can believe it though, because most Kazakh’s look like supermodels. So for all those of you wondering if I will come back with a girlfriend, I can only say that I’m trying my hardest.
With that, my trip ends. It was wonderful, enlightening at some times, stupourous at others. It was a much needed break, and again I was ready to return to work. My favorite times are now when I travel, especially on the train, when I can meet so many new people, talk to them and share with them about our lives in America (or your lives I should say) and take stories and experiences away from them. I hope that some of you will get the chance to visit me this summer, you’re always welcome. Love you all, enjoy your Springs and take care.