Part II of our thorough, incisive, unbiased, wholesome, American, thirdhand account of Kazakhstan. (Continued from Part I.)
Names: Mark and Mike
Location: Taraz, a reasonably picturesque college town
Profession: Peace Corps non-profit management consultant and English teacher, respectively
Kaz21 Newbies, Mark, Cat Shirts. (Not Pictured: Mike)
When Mike and Mark got spat out of the mysterious black hole that is the Peace Corps site assignment process, they somehow landed in modern, picturesque Taraz, each with a relatively fancy apartment in close proximity to supermarkets, sprawling green Soviet parks, wifi, and hot babes. In other words, they lucked out. And in even otherer words, they didn’t get Jon’s gig. Although Laura put us in touch with Mike, Mark had an MPEG-capable DVD player stocked with recent Daily Show and Colbert Report reruns, so we crashed with him.
However, between bites of kebab, sips of Shymkentskoe and semi-enlightened scoffs to punctuate Jon Stewart’s jabs, Mark explained that not far beneath Taraz’ beautiful veneer lay a stranger, older culture steeped in odd traditions — basically, it was still Kazakhstan. Unmarried at 28, Mark is an enigma to his colleagues. Even after a year of teaching English at the local university, where he spends each day surrounded by gorgeous, nubile, young Kazakh chicks, he has yet to get engaged to a single one. “Do you not think our students are beautiful?!” his fellow teachers and superiors demand. “Of course I do…” he answers honestly. “Then why do you not date them?!” The response, “Because they’re my students” leaves them baffled, as does, “Because most of them are like 18, often less” “Because I already have a smoking hot Kazakh girlfriend” might work, but would risk exposing that little secret to her family who might disapprove and sabotage the relationship, or — even worse — approve and put a stop to that whole weird bachelor business for good.
Mike transformed a mess of Cyrillic and numbers into our next train route, then introduced us to fried cabbage and Krac, which is sort of like sour beer that doesn’t get you drunk. Incidentally, having completed his contracted two years in Taraz, he has officially re-upped for a third. Voluntarily. Why? You should see his smoking hot Kazakh girlfriend.
Also, Mark made pancakes.
Names: Emily and The Pavlodar Crew
Profession: Peace Corps English teachers and non-profit managers/slaves
Oh, Emily. As Steve recently admitted in a Facebook message to her, ever since we left our favorite CouchSurfing host of all-time, we’ve been wanting to send her love letters, but just can’t figure out how to make that anything other than extremely creepy.
We’d wanted to get up to Kazakhstan’s frosty northern reaches to see how its more Russified Siberian border region contrasted with its staunchly traditional South, so we sent a Couch Request to Emily up in the mid-sized riverside city of Pavlodar.
In our message, we highlighted our mutual appreciation for The Big Lebowski and suggested watching it while sipping White Kazakhs (i.e. White Russians with the milk swapped for kymyz, or fermented horse milk). Intrigued, and excited to emerge from CouchSurfing retirement just to host her first non-Peace Corps American couchsurfers, Emily was on board. But, she warned, our projected two or three days would very likely “revamp” to “about a week”. She had plans for us.
A week in any part of Kazakhstan didn’t sound too appetizing, but three weeks and a 27-hour train ride later, when we got to her modern, comfortable flat, we realized that’s not what this would be. There were eight American Peace Corps Volunteers, plus a stocky, our-moustache-loving German Boy Scout Leader scattered around the area teaching English or managing non-profits, and they liked to hang out. And listen to good music. And cook good food. And drink reasonably-OK beer. A lot. Automatically, we were not just included but expected to join. By coming to Pavlodar, we would be taking a break from traveling in as close as a place could be to feeling like home.
Well, a week was still a lot, but Emily laughed at our jokes, so we went for it — and stayed nine days.
Our new instant friends included:
- Emily: Right out of the gate we could tell this English-teaching Whiz-CAN-suh-nite was our kind of gal. Her humor was at least as warped as ours. She made us cinnabuns. She dance-fought a feisty Kazakh girl for us. She integrated us into her entire social life and let us stink up her house for nine days. She even gave Devon her pants. If polyandry were legal and Devon’s girlfriend was cool with it, we would whisk Emily home and marry the hell out her for a long, long time.
- Shannon: Kind-hearted, always laughing, belch-friendly, MBA-holding Missourian whose distaste for profanity was never intentionally yet nonetheless perpetually violated (mostly by us and Hannes). Helps run a business and works with kids at the Samal Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Youth, the local government’s dumping ground for anyone otherized by physical or developmental disabilities. Shannon let us in on free lunches at the Center, which, even had she not hung out with us all the time and generally been awesome, made her alright in our book. Also, she fell in love with this man.
- Hannes: Sturdy, excitable, perpetually uninhibited Bavarian Boy Scout leader fond of beer, Big Bon brand instant noodles, kittens, and exclaiming “Oh yeah!” “Ohmygad!” “Wooow!” and “Focking grate!”. In P-Dar to work loosely with the local scouts and help out at Samal, Hannes’ constant humor, affinity for facial hair, and penchant for spontaneous pants-dropping quickly made him one our favorite friends we’ve made on this trip, or ever.
- Paul and Susan (aka Poosan): Superbly-traveled, good-storied, fun-loving, hard-joking married couple of Silicon Valley tech powerhouses who cashed out way on top and joined the Peace Corps for a change of pace, which they definitely found coaching Pavlodar businesses. Poosan are full-on grown-ups and parents; which may be what drives them to “take care” of the Peace Corps kids (meaning anyone under 38). Poosan are also not that old and extremely cool, which may be what drives them to lead the charge in letting loose and knockin’ it back so heartily. Regardless, we were lucky enough to experience the best of both those worlds.
- Karla: “Crisis-Corps” English teacher who’d done time at schools in Ukraine and China, and Emily’s newly-arrived impending “replacement”, Karla put up with a lot of our shenanigans. As the New Kid in Town, Karla’s smooth slide into the Pavlodar groove paralleled ours. Although our wacky conflict-filled travel tales, silly voice addictions and ceaselesss weiner jokes probably weren’t her cup of tea, Karla’s deep appreciation for Tommy Wiseau’s The Room made us homesick in a shocking, unhealthy way for which we were not prepared.
- Brian: Tall drink of whiskey from Tennessee with a booze-activated drawl and a mean bag of dance moves, Brian introduced us to a soulful Cee Lo Green song with a lip-sync’d pantomime so dead-on that we can never hear it without imagining it. Although he was teaching English in some village somewhere, he was sure to make it into town (and eventually onto Poosan’s couch) whenever festivities arose. So a lot.
- Chris: Laid-back, friendly university-level English-teaching cardigan-sporter from Iowa whose students’ ideas of respect prioritized not wearing pajamas to school about a million points higher than doing any work, Chris was a regular staple at our fun evenings, and often the first human voice we’d hear each morning while he Skyped his gal (incidentally, a match made in the Peace Corps) at 8 AM sharp. Also, he brought out his facial hair in force for Oktoberfest.
- Megan: Posted off in a village where she was finishing up her tour of teaching English, speaking fluent Russian and Kazakh, and gossipping with the local girls, Megan made it in for Italian Night weekend. In the three days we shared at Emily’s flat we got to probe her for weird Kazakh cultural nuggets, learn that her dad’s ferret was on Myspace, hear her impassioned views on just about everything, and crash head-on into the sturdiest wall against our sarcastic, thought-derailing silliness we’d ever encountered.
Emily’s itinerary for us included events of both a professional and social nature. Here are our favorites.
- Bombing #1: English Class. Emily invited us to her university English class to talk about our trip so, we assumed, they could hear what American English sounded like when it was awkwardly mumbled and masked with nervous laughter. Well, we delivered. After fifty minutes of failed sarcasm, bad puns, self-deprecating physical comedy, tangenital stories, lost pop cultural references and one pathetic hand-drawn map, all the students learned was how bored Americans could make them. Emily was the only one laughing. Karla was not. However, ego-dashing public awkwardness was a small price to pay for a free buffet meal in the campus cafeteria and the chance to make silly faces at giggly girls.
- Burgers and Hockey Night. For this week’s Friday Happy Hour get-together, the gang met up at BurgerMaxx for burgers and beer, then crossed the street to the hockey stadium to watch the P-Dar Ertic skate around and pick fistfights with their rival and drink more beer. When watching that got boring, we turned our eyes to the stands where we got to see a handful of MILFs, a fat old man hitting on a high school student, and the dozens of mullets adorning every boy’s skull. Except for one chubby kid who had a black eye, presumably for not having a mullet.
- Rich Frenchies and Drunken Dance Fight. Somehow Emily got us invited to a regal club dinner with rich French macrofarmers, their hot imported Russian girlfriends, a handful of other high-rolling expats and a hospitality-obsessed Kazakh local, who — despite our shabby appearance and them not having a clue who we were — insisted on buying us booze and snacks. In Kazakhstan, a bottle opened must become a bottle finished; thus, somewhere into the course of six, the club had one ugly dance party on its hands. Back home our particular brand of deliberately bad, unstylish, uncool antidancing goes over fine, but here, where coolness is the law and irony is unheard of, not so much. Especially not with local girls who, fiercely protective of each other, dance in a circle, which they evidently prefer not to have breached by the three-dude (Hannes jumped on board) ”ass train”. It wasn’t long before one girl, the group’s enforcer, danced over and, to the beat of Lady Gaga, choked-tossed Steve then Devon and kneed Hannes dangerously close to his bullseye. Seeing our peril, our fearless host sprung into action, dance-fighting our gyrating assailant back to her stylish circle, which then mysteriously spirited her away and out of the club.
Hours later, having ruined enough locals’ nights, our group returned to the table to square up and leave. Waiting was a bill for $400. As Devon reached for his wallet, Emily scolded, “Don’t. These guys won’t let you pay. They have money!” Yet, inexplicably, Steve would not be deterred. A moment later a guy who takes a bunch of bananas over a full plate of food just to save a nickel, a guy who rarely, if ever, puts a dollar into any pool, had dropped a 500 tenge bill. Or about $3.37.
Later that night, at the supermarket, Hannes promised Devon he’d buy him a beer if he dropped his pants, which Devon immediately did. Hannes then made no move to grab a beer, but instead went ahead and dropped his pants, too. Rather than arbitrate who owed what to whom, Emily simply whisked them up to her flat, which Shannon and Steve were theretofore locked out of.
- Italian Night. The P-Dar crew had lots of themed nights in which they picked a country, scrounged whatever local ingredients might collectively resemble its cuisine, fabricated costumes and adopted accents, cooked, ate, drank and made merry. The one we experienced was Italian Night at hosted and primarily catered by Poosan. Not since Laura’s birthday feast had we felt such rich and decadent globs of nourishment goo up our flavor-deprived tongues. Garlic bread, salad, lasagna, fettucini carbonara with bacon, pasta sauce from scratch, and a fresh batch of limoncello Paul made himself. Also red wine. And lots of beer. (Paul showed us that in KZ, you can take an empty 1.5L bottle to a store, have them hook it up to a tap and fill it with beer.) Not bad night with not a boiled goat product in sight.
- Bombing #2: Free-verse Jazz Poetry. After informing us we would be attending the American culture-themed English Club at the library, Emily explained that all special guests must show off a talent. Lacking real ones, we showed off a fake one: classic American free-verse jazz poetry. Donning our sunglasses, so it wasn’t really us up there, Steve rambled something off about beat poets. Then Devon grabbed Emily’s guitar and began pounding out a nonsensical jazz progression as Steve opened a book on US Presidents, cleared his throat and in his best/worst Winston Churchill voice spoke the one-page bio of William Howard Taft. Although extremely unimpressed, the students did want to know Steve’s thoughts on British culture. For some reason, he started explaining their class system. “And if you’re sort of lower-class, they have a lot of slang, so someone might say you’re acting ‘yobbish’ or call you a ‘yob’.” At this a hush filled the room. A what? the students wanted to know. Blind to the road he was treading, Steve answered, “A yob. Here, I’ll spell it.” He scrawled Y-O-B on the whiteboard, “Yob.” A moment passed silently before a woman explained to Steve, “Here this is extremely vulgar word.” Turns out it means “fuck”. Bringing the count to 0 for 2.
- Scavenger Hunt. Embracing this fun-filled group activity they learned about at English Club, Emily’s star clubmembers put together an elaborate hunt requiring two teams to view photos of locations along the riverside, find them, then answer difficult questions about Peace Corps History, the German Boy Scouts and surfing to earn the next clue; right answers led you in the right direction, wrong answers led you in the opposite. However, when they organizers realized they had to sprint after the teams, often in the wrong direction, to administer clues, they must have discovered that this was a game that no one could win. Maybe next time they’ll try pin the tail on the stray dog.
- Bombing #3: Cheerleading. This evening’s English Club lesson traced a thick fiber in the fabric of American adolescence: cheerleading. Emily talked about high school rivalries, football games, cliques and other tenets of the teenage high school experience. Then, as a flexible, athletic and fully capable former cheerleader, Emily used her experiential knowledge to describe various cheers, leaps and acrobatics, and have us demonstrate. After five months of torturing our health, flexibility, dexterity and coordination were not our strongest skills. But we gave it our all, flashing our thighs, slapping our bum-cheeks and shrieking at Em’s command. If we succeeded at anything, it was in convincing the students we were, on top of everything else, also gay — a taboo up there with incest and infanticide in Kazakh culture. When we led a group cheer, the girls humored it enough, but the guys just stood there stonefaced.
- Bombing #4: Time of Your Life. Our visit coincided with Emily’s last week in the Peace Corps and, thus, her English Club going away party. Since the theme again was American Culture, we elected to commemorate this end of an era the only way American young people know how: by performing Green Day’s “Time of Your Life”, Devon on guitar, Steve and Hannes on vocals. Somehow, despite hearing this at every end-of-the-year rally, graduation ceremony, or remotely conclusive event for the past twelve years, we realized we didn’t know the words, even when they were written right in front of us. Finished butchering it and proud at our superior senses of ironic humor, we chuckled to ourselves while a star student passed something out to everyond. Then stopped dead when we saw it was the lyrics to no other than Green Day’s “Time of Your Life”. The kids had done their homework, we admitted as we strummed the intro and jumped into a second rendition of that stupid goddamn song.
- Disney Power Hour and Drunk Plate. What’s better than gulping down a shot of beer every minute for an hour? Ditching the egg timer for sixty video clips, each 60-seconds long, of classic Disney songs! And then, if you’re Hannes and Shannon, getting on an overnight train to Astana. A veteran, Emily knew that all who brave this alcoholic onslaught deserve a reward. Our reward was Drunk Plate: a cookie sheet heaped with sliced potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cheese, sauce, more sauce, and more cheese, slow-cooked in the oven since noon, and then pounded Beshbarmac-style. Later, Steve fell asleep in front of everyone, and got diarrhea.
- Oktoberfest. In honor of Hannes, the crew convinced a local bar to let us celebrate Germany’s favorite boozefest there, complete with one-litre beer glasses, Sharpie tick-mark tallies on our wrists and a soundtrack, provided by Hannes, of the same 40 minutes of oompah polka songs (and, conspicuously, Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy”) on repeat all evening. Never ones to dress down, everyone did their best to push their boobies up and look the part. Although Poosan came close with their matching sliced rice bag vesty deal and lederhosen, the clear winner was Hannes who, in being as Bavarian as possible, had brought the real deal from home. (We just wore the Cat Shirts and said we were gay German tourists.)
Well, the beer succeeded at getting: the gals to take close-ups of their breasts; Hannes and Susan to slurp spicy mustard off Devon’s finger; a Kazakh guy to complain about us wearing sunglasses inside and then fall out of his chair; Shannon to barf into a beer stein; everyone who wasn’t us to leave; Devon silly enough to try and silly-walk between a Kazakh dude and his girlfriend and, consequently, choke-slammed to the sidewalk; us both about three hours of sleep before hoofing it to our 6am two-day train to Almaty to catch another two-dayer to China.
We never even made those White Kazakhs. However, we did eat lots and lots of Big Bon.
Overall, experiencing American culture was a very unique, important and eye-opening experience that we won’t soon forget!!!