|By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, May 26, 2003 - 1:06 pm: Edit Post|
Kazakhstan -- This guy is there right now
Kazakhstan -- This guy is there right now
Kazakhstan -- This guy is there right now
by Jeremy Beer
There's this guy. This guy, Jeremy Beer, is a blood brother of the raging face. The raging face lives in America, but this guy, this blood brother, this guy, lives in Kazakhstan, over not too far from Afghanistan and Russia and other places like that. He's in the Peace Corps. He's in the picture below, but he is not the guy with the straight black hair that the other guy with glasses is holding. He is the guy with glasses.
As I write I am just returning from the store where I buy food and light bulbs. Today I bought 10 eggs (no dozens here), some yogurt, and what I think is mustard. I was going to buy some jam, but I couldn’t remember the word for Jam in Russian, so I decided to do without it. My friend Olga was working the cash register, and as she slapped the wooden discs of her abacus back and forth (supposedly calculating what I owed for my groceries), she asked how I liked life in Lisakovsk. What were my impressions of the weather (-28 Celsius today)? How did I like Russian women? There was one more question, but I couldn’t figure out what she was saying. I just told her that I absolutely loved all three of the things she was asking about, and she laughed a little bit as she smiled. “Sem-desiat piat Tenge” she said, and I fumbled through a handful of change. She reached over the counter and picked out 80 Tenge from my hand, the equivalent of 51 American cents. Fair enough, I thought. As I packed my goods into the plastic bag I was carrying,
I thanked Olga for her help, wished her a Happy New Year, and headed out into the winter night.
Jogging out of the store and into the cold, I noticed that a light snow had begun to fall. What had started as just a dusting of snow earlier that afternoon had accumulated into a good snowfall. As I trudged towards home, I had to struggle to see past the flakes of snow stuck to my glasses. My fur collared jacket was zipped up to my cheeks and my brand new mink “chapka” was perched firmly on my head, yet the cold still found a way to get in. Nevertheless, It occurred to me that it was somehow fun to be walking through this storm with my plastic bag full of groceries. Feeling inspired, I turned off my usual path and decided to take the long way home. This “long way home” simply involves a detour through the town’s park, but it always represents something of an adventure. As I entered the gates of the park, Ipassed by the Soviet era tanks and canons decorating the entrance area. For some reason I’ve taken to gently patting these war relics as I pass, perhaps hoping that if I win their affection, they won’t hurt me.
With a few pats I was on my way, free to think about more important issues like my mink “chapka” hat and why it didn’t have earflaps. This chapka is a Russian phenomenon of sorts. Think of it as a cake shaped fur hat. I think that is the best way to imagine it. A hollow fur cake worn on one’s head. Now, there are apparently obvious differences between a man’s chapka and a women’s chapka, but I have yet to figure the whole thing out. My lack of understanding in the matter was a great source of amusement for the young women who sold me my chapka. I tried on a number of different models in the second hand store where I bought the hat, but the one I really liked was made of fox fur. The woman working behind the counter refused to sell it to me. She said that unless I was going to give it to my girlfriend, I could not buy it (ha ha). I told her that I suspected my girlfriend had little need for a fur hat in West Africa, to which she replied, “one never knows”. I conceded that that was not a bad point. The whole affair must have been like man rolling into Macy’s saying that he wants to buy a suit, but demanding that the evening gown he had picked out was quite obviously the best suit in the store. The only difference is that the people at Macy’s probably would have let me buy the fox fur chapka. In the end, I bought a different, distinctly male chapka for $3.00 (and got them to throw in another rabbit fur chapka for half price). I’ve been wearing these hats ever since. My only problem is that, once again, the thing doesn’t cover one’s ears. How can that be? While your head reaps the benefits of the fur cake, the ears are left to suffer. Walking through the park, with the wind and snow blowing, I began rubbing my ears vigorously to see if they might in fact fall off. I decided that people here obviously didn’t appreciate their ears enough, ignoring them with their silly hats.
Passing by a group of people (all wearing chapkas), I got the distinct impression that talking to oneself while rubbing one’s ears was far from acceptable behavior. I decided it was time to go home. Not “home” home, mind you. In the 7 months I’ve been here, I’ve started to lose my sense of what “home” is all about. I mean, everybody has been so good about writing letters and keeping in touch, but after a certain point you realize that you’re going to be here a little while and you might as well make a life for yourself. I’ve found that many of the things I once couldn’t believe about living here have become rather normal. For example, there is this gigantic castle made of ice in the center of town. Just imagine a place where people have scarcely enough food to eat or wood to burn, yet there is a three story castle made of ice in the center of town. And I’m not just talking about some shabby Holiday Inn Sunday Brunch omelet table decoration. This thing is gigantic and beautiful: complete with two opposing turrets and three breathtakingly steep slides that feed onto a frozen pond. It took an army of able bodied people three days to make it. Cranes, tractors, chainsaws, blow torches. Again, not enough food to eat, but enough time and energy to devote to this beautifully creative thing. After seeing a seven year old girl (wrapped head to toe in the pelt of some dead animal) descend the three story ice slide standing on her feet, I am certainly all for it. Point is; I now absent-mindedly pass by this castle all the time with scarcely a second thought.
Things just seem to be unfolding like that. People having more gold teeth than normal ones. Drunk people littering the streets. Cars driving 70 miles an hour on the snow packed sidewalks (think “funny cars” at Three River stadium, but not as funny). Everything that once seemed strange is beginning to fade into normalcy. I’ve also come to know some of the people living here a bit better, and that has helped me to assimilate a little more. Just the other night I was with my friend Sergei, and I got an interesting glimpse into how hard life here has been for some people. We were playing chess (Sergei, like everybody else in this town, is an amazing chess player) and Sergei began to tell me about the time he spent cleaning up the Nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. He was amused by my thinly veiled horror as he described the tools and methods the Soviets had employed to smooth over that disaster. Sergei proudly showed me the Geiger counter the government had issued him as a health measure. The idea was that once the counter registered a certain level of exposure to radioactive isotopes, the person wearing it would be removed from the clean up site.
This counter would have been equally at home in a Cracker Jack’s box as it was in Sergei’s hand. “You’re lucky you don’t have cancer”, I told him. “How do you know I don’t?”, he replied. Hmmmm. He then picked up his guitar and played some Elvis Presley songs, which I didn’t know.
I don’t mean to suggest that everybody here is some sort of victim of the Soviet Nuclear program. For all I know they are, but they certainly don’t act like it. People here seem to have more serious problems to contend with than the abstract threat of nuclear radiation. Chief on this list of concerns is the lack of available work. The other day when I presented my friend Gulnara (which means “yellow flower” in Kazak) with the observation that Russian people are much more willing to talk to strangers than Americans are, her response was a simple one. She said, “It’s not that we are nicer people, we just have more time to talk because nobody here has a job.”
I thought that was pretty funny. Job or not, people here love to stand around and talk about politics, the weather, gossip, their favorite Brazilian soap opera, how drunk they are. Whatever. This all leads to a pretty relaxed pace of life. So far, my impression is that things here are not too bad. At least for the younger generations.Unfortunately, many of the “Babushkas” (grandmothers) that lived their lives under the Soviet system now find themselves without pensions. There are hundreds of “Babushkas” that have no savings, no families, and no possibility of work. The solution to their problems seems to be to sit in the snow and sell sunflower seeds in -40 weather. Hour after cold hour, stooped over bowls of sunflower seeds and cigarettes. In talking to them I try and remind myself that life, in many ways, could be much worse.
An important lesson, I suppose, in the context of current events. It seems to me that, at this point, people over here have kind of stopped caring about terrorism, etc…. After all of those attacks in America, everybody in town was very consoling, and almost fearful of the American response. Then, about a week after the attacks, there was this almost palpable feeling of defiance and disregard for the United States. In the weeks following the initial American action in Afghanistan, I was told more than once to “go home, because Americans are bad”. But, in the past few months, people here have been generally supportive of America. Some strangers have even gone out of their way to express support. This one guy that gave me a ride in his Ford Fiesta (“a nice car, no?”) demanded that we “Now go and hunt for Osama Bin Laden!”. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. Was he speaking as a representative of the global community or did he actually want to drive the ‘ol fiesta down to Afghanistan and give it a shot? As we sped along, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was sober enough to find the brake pedal. Sitting in the back seat, squeezed between two very large men, I resigned myself to siphoning out what little oxygen I could from the heavy cigarette smoke engulfing the car. The thought crossed my mind that this might be the way I die: Sitting sandwiched
between these large Kazak men in the back of a smoky Ford Fiesta. It was only the incongruous waving of the driver’s hands (shouldn’t those be on the steering wheel?) that brought me out of my self-pitying trance. As he furiously shook a black piece of metal(removed from the glove box) all around the Fiesta’a cramped interior, he began mumbling about “Bruce Wellis” and “Arnol’ Shwarzwegger”. It was with more than a bit of concern that I realized he was holding a handgun.
Great. Now instead of me just being mellow dramatic, I had a real reason to be afraid. I couldn’t really escape and I didn’t really know how to conjugate the verb “to shoot” (as in “please don’t shoot me, sir”). In my mind, I very clearly saw a black and white picture of my body face down in some empty field. My hands started getting sweaty. Then the car stopped, and everybody piled out. The driver came around the rear bumper of the Fiesta and put his arm around me. Together we walked down the sidewalk into a half-constructed building. Mental revision of photograph: substitute empty field with abandoned building.
I was served tea, given the 25 cent tour of the abandoned building, and talked to at great length about the ladies clothing store this man was planning to build there. After a little discussion about Architecture and its place in the modern world, our friend even showed me his hand-drafted plans for the store (and they were really pretty impressive). By the time I had calmed down, it was time to get back into the Fiesta. We drove a little ways towards my neighborhood, and then I told them I had to go to the store so they might as well just let me out on the street. We skid 20 feet to a stop, I hopped out no worse for wear, and we all exchanged hearty handshakes as if we had just made some sort of lucrative business deal. As I walked away, I decided to try and be a little brighter in the future.
Unfortunately, I’ve been having little success. One would think that, given this new “be smarter” resolution, I would be able to avoid doing things like trying to dry my clothes on the porch while it’s snowing. Well, think again. I have now officially seen a pair of my own pants frozen solid. I have also seen a frozen pigeon and a frozen dog, but I was not responsible for either of those events. Along with the pigeon, the pants, and the dog, the windows in my apartment have now frozen over, too. This means that I can no longer open them or see the vacant apartment building across the street. A sacrifice I am willing to make, however, seeing as how these frosty windows prevent the neighborhood kids from launching firecrackers at me and yelling questions to me about Brittany Spears from the street below. There has been a virtual halt in the little known game of “use this mirror to reflect the sun into the American guys eyes while he eats lunch”. Along with the Ice Castle and the frozen animals, winter has also brought with it a number of wooden sleds. Not big, horse drawn numbers. I’m talking about metal-railed red racer type sleds, like the ones kids had in the 1950’s. People here drag these sleds everywhere, carrying firewood and sacks of potatoes and their children and car motors. I’ve been rammed in the shins a couple of times, so I’ve learned to watch where I’m walking.
What else have I learned? I’ve become pretty good at sifting the rocks and baby cockroaches from the rice I buy. That was admittedly disgusting, but…well nothing. Sorry. Umm…outside of school I’ve been involved in a couple of community projects. I teach English at the local TV station, and we’ve been working together to produce (read: shoddily throw together) a television series on business ethics and consumer rights. I’ve also started teaching Marketing at the local Sausage and Vodka factory. They have, among other things, an amazing beer production facility and, during a recent tour, I couldn’t help but feel a little like Doug Mackenzie in “Strange Brew”.
Keeping with the “Strange Brew” analogy, the owners of this factory are all rather sinister. They bought the whole operation from the Soviets for next to nothing, and they can be seen on any given day driving around town in Land Cruisers and Range Rovers (usually smoking cigarettes and talking into cell phones that don’t work). As can be expected, they wear sunglasses most of the time.
To date, I’ve learned much more from the people here than they’ve learned from me. In spite of my efforts, I’ve found people’s resourcefulness, generosity, and perseverance to really be inspiring. Almost everybody here is patient with my 3rd grade Russian skills, and although I make an ass out of myself more often than not, I’m never made to feel that way. In many ways, this feels like what I’ve always imagined the American West to have felt like; rough, not very safe, but full of ingenious, hard working and big hearted people (who smoke and drink a lot more than they bath). Although my fascination with the Tonka style trucks on the street and the kitchen faucet churning out chocolate brown water has somewhat faded, I still find living here to be a lot of fun. Being away from home is hard sometimes, but with a glass of homemade wine, some deeply fried squash and a game of chess, one could almost be fooled into thinking it was home.
The one thing that is missing, aside from everything imaginable, is all of you. I miss you guys and hope that everybody has great holiday season and a good New Year. I really do appreciate all the letters and nice things you guy’s have been sending me, and I can’t honestly tell you how much it all means to me.
Thanks again, everybody.
Copyright© 2002-2003 snowyday life
|By Nancy Scaife on Wednesday, July 16, 2003 - 3:58 pm: Edit Post|
Can you please, please send us the address of the baby house #1 in Almaty. I am wanting to send our little Aigul a package but the agency just wants us to send it through their coordinator. I was happy to do this the first time but she never got it. It must have been lost in the mail. Now I know someone who will be in Almaty and is very willing to drop the package off at her baby house but they just need the address because they don't know which baby house it is.
I would be so grateful if you can send us the address.
thanks very much,