Going Native: Kazakhstan via Americans I

Besides the litany of hygienic horrors and abuses of animals we now encounter on a daily basis, something we hadn’t anticipated before this trip was the basic acknowledgment that other cultures are scary and weird. When the time came to enter Kazakhstan, we understood this quite well, and were ready to alter our travel methodology. Facing a land mass larger than Western Europe wholly lacking a tourist infrastructure, affordable accomodation, a casually learnable language, and flavorful food, we grabbed our challenge by the bactrian hump, and bravely forged a path of least resistance — by staying exclusively with Americans, for free.

Through CouchSurfing, and heavily milking the massive network of Peace Corps volunteers flung willy nilly across the vast and nebulous plains of Nazarbayev, we got to venture completely off the tourist radar, and, thankfully, preserve our wallets for the relentless cash drain that would be China. And also spend way more on beer.

Instead of floundering about with botched Russian phrases, poorly informed travel decisions, and multitudinous misinterpretations of local culture as we did in Kyrgyzstan, we stitched together a veil of our hosts’ experiences — suggestions and warnings, praises and complaints — slapped it over our heads, and actually had fun for once. And now we bequeath that veil unto thee, for a thorough, incisive, unbiased, wholesome, American, thirdhand account of Kazakhstan.

Name: Tifin
Location: Almaty
Profession: Middle-school math and science teacher for rich diplomats’ kids

NOTE: Flag not intentionally flipped. This is a patriotic article.

Although she came to teach, Tifin will leave Kazakhstan having learned. Not just about haggling for overpriced baked goods with condescending locals who correct your Russian grammar in their own broken, slurred dialect, or how to avoid getting run over by drunken bus drivers on your bike, but above all that the independent adult woman is the antithesis of Kazakh femininity. After negotiating many a “Where is your husband?”, “It is very odd that you are single”, “We encourage our teachers to get married” and other US lawsuit-worthy needlings in her interview process, she arrived to her luxuriously furnished company-paid Almaty apartment to find a subtly-hinting empty crib. Like a true utilitarian Vermonter, she immediately put it to good use by allowing CouchSurfers to air their laundry on it. On an unrelated note, she’s also been hit by lightning, had malaria and swine flu, and been poisoned by a middle schooler.

During our stay, Tifin helped us discover:

  • The gross overconsumption emerging alongside Kazakhstan’s increasingly Westward-aiming oil economy, on display next door at the MegaCenter, home to an indoor ice rink, a cineplex, $210 Levi’s, $10 KFC products, and the most impossibly attractive young women we’d ever seen in a single Kenny G-blasting superedifice
  • Through her 6th graders’ hands-on bacteria growth experiment, that Steve definitively has a filthier moustache than Devon

Also, we ate tacos.

Tifin’s Blog: http://almatyadventures.blogspot.com

Name: Katharine
Location: Zhetysay, a small farming town down on the Uzbek border
Profession: Peace Corps English teacher
By the time we got to Zhetysay, we’d spent a month or so experiencing ex-Soviet cities and their ubiquitous open manholes, usually deep, trash-filled affairs lurking in the middle of a busy street or conspicuously unlit pedestrian path. We’d never seen anyone actually fall in one, but we knew it happened. Of course, not. to. Americans. Or so we thought, until we met Kat. In fact, the manhole she fell into wasn’t even open, but the concrete block that covered it acted more like the seat of a dunk tank — a dunk tank filled with her neighborhood’s fetid bowel movements.

Our first host to thus have spent some serious time “in the shit” — one year by then — Kat and her sitemate Tess casually blew our minds apart with tales of Kazakh culture, making them really the first human beings (although certainly not the last on this tour) to see what genuine shock looks like on the faces of the usually otherwise jaded Misters Kaye and Blunden. Here are some of them:

  • Girls, when they’re old enough (16) but not too old (22’s pushing it), get bridenapped. Most expect it. Many are even disappointed if it doesn’t happen, forcing their soon-to-be-beaus to make a big show of it, barging into high school class, hefting girls over their shoulder, tossing them in the trunk and whisking them off to their long pined-for awful future. Yet somehow there are still others who fear it, even avoid it, hoping maybe to leave town do fun things like attend university or assert themselves as individuals; these girls are anomalies and should be shamed, shamed, shamed. And bridenapped.
  • Uzbeks — despite being physically indistinguishable, speaking but a marginally different Turkic language, practicing a similarly loose edition of Islam, having no concept of national identity until the Soviets carved out some confusing borders to invent ethnically-based nationalist strife for controlling its subjects, and eating the same nasty boiled goat products — are the scum of the earth. Yet locals turn a blind eye when these Mexicans of southern Kazakhstan sneak across the border in fruit trucks to toil in their fields.
  • Baboushkas (cumpled old grandmas) have magical powers. Including curing the sick and soothing newborns by sucking up a toothless mouthful of water and spitting it all over the patient’s face. This works especially well on buses, where passengers can line up for treatment.

Also, we made pancakes. And syrup. Sort of.
Kat’s Blog: http://katharinedoeskazakhstan.wordpress.com/

Name: Jon
Location: Shauildir, a tiny one-street town with no running water (but plenty of notaries)
Profession: Peace Corps English teacher

”]Jon is somewhat of a mythical figure in the Kazakh P.C. circle, as he braves unaided the inhospitable social climate of remote and tiny Shauildir, where he’s managed, in his spartan apartment, to attain the highest level of Kazakh literacy amongst the entire American population. Even more of a mythical figure is his mostly rehabilitated kitten Selena, who survived a light stomping, kicking, throwing-against-a-tree, spine-snapping and temporary blindness-inducing by a giggly “psychopathic toddler” who was only spared a grisly demise at Jon’s hands because he had a hot mom (stealthily deemed “Hot Mom” by Jon). As modest as he is hardened, Jon makes no complaints about cooking from a sporadically refilled gas tank; washing dishes, doing laundry, and bathing out of (and back into) buckets of water he’s hauled up to his plumbing-devoid pad from the neighborhood pump with tediously uncanny scientific precision; doing all his business out in the bone-chilling Central Asian cold; or enduring all manner of daily ostracism from locals who just don’t get what this white guy is doing in their town — or that he speaks Kazakh and knows exactly what they’re saying when he walks by.

With Jon’s guidance, we explored an undeveloped, long-neglected UNESCO site littered with centuries’ old pottery and at least one human jawbone, learned to whip up fajitas from scratch, helped break in his freshly-dug poo pit (the last one got full), wandered out onto the boundless Steppe, played with his ferociously adorable, if wobbly, kitten, and had ourselves an all-around great time. Hearing his accounts, we even cracked into the bizarre and often terrifying collective Kazakh educational cosmos, some glimpses of which are reproduced here:

  • After studying English for seven years, you should only be able to say “Hello!”, “What is your age!” and “My name is!” without then stating what your name is. If it comes to it, anything the English teacher your government has arranged to teach you English managed to sneak into your brain last school year should be totally evaporated by the end of summer.
  • Books are really boring and should only be read in class — never at home or on the long, dull, several-hour bus rides that typify travel to anywhere. If for some reason you must look at one, at least don’t underline things or make notes; people will know you are insane.
  • Don’t memorize. Plagiarize!
  • From 1939 to 1945 there was an important conflict known as The Great Patriotic War fought between the European nations of India and China. Nobody knows where or why it was fought, but it is clear that we Kazakhs were integral in some way — mostly by dying and getting our names on plaques and monuments in every town across the nation.
  • Cities built on the sea can include Atyrau, Aktau and any other ex-Soviet municipality around the Caspian Sea. Of course, obviously in this case “sea” cannot mean “ocean” because we all know a city couldn’t be built next to one of those; the waves would come and knock the buildings right down! [Heard from the mouth of a real-life teacher.]
  • If you think your English teacher is cute, ask for his number. After all, you’re already 16.

When he joined the Peace Corps, there were a lot of places he could’ve ended up, but the fact is: Jon is in Shauildir. As adaptable as they come, there may’ve been no volunteer better suited to the task than he. Indeed, what to most should seem like insurmountable social, cultural, institutional, physical, hygienic and existential hurdles are to Jon now but routine maneuvers, mere blips on the radar in his palpably genuine and indefatigable dedication to service, however thankless we might make it sound. A bona fide Peace Corps trooper, our kalpaks are off to him.

Names: Laura and Chris
Location: Zhanatac (at least, what’s left of it)
Profession: Peace Corps English teachers for Kazakh and Russian students, respectively

(From L to R) Steve, Laura, Devon. (Not pictured: Chris)

Many people often asked us why we wanted to go to Kazakhstan, especially people in Kazakhstan. One reason was that we both have sizeable boners for abandonment, urban decay and devastation, and we figured we could find some out on the failed and frigid ex-Soviet steppe. “Well then,” Katharine and Jon both told us, “you need to go to Zhanatac.” A few emails and a stupid criss-crossing of marshutka rides later, we were en route to Peace Corps Volunteer Laura Hilbert’s floor.

Well, as we’ve documented elsewhere, they were right. Yet after landing that first massive blow to our senses, like the Muhammad Ali of remote, half-abandoned Central Asian cities, Zhanatac delivered another, this time to our preconceived notions of just how odd people can be.

Walking back from the incongruously modern school where Laura teaches English (in Kazakh) our new host led us through some empty apartment blocks, past the rubble of a former school and up to an old hilltop playground populated with faded, peeling cement animals and, to all of our surprise, a disheveled old man as startled by our arrival (and Devon’s camera) as we were by his presence… and the large green leaf draped over his bald skull. Halting, Devon stammered, “Uhhh…. old guy there…. is that lettuce on his head?” Instantly, perhaps still in teacher mode, Laura responded with the tone of a mother whose children just saw a chimpanzee start masturbating, “Yes it is. It helps keep him cool.” After an uncomfortable exchange of Kazakh, Russian and drunken grunts, Lettucehead went his way and we went ours, past the murder victim trash heap to her building.

We passed the evening at Laura’s place, a formerly abandoned flat in which she laid new flooring, installed new cabinets, painted, decorated and otherwise completely revived, by herself, earning both the respect of her neighbors and the right to live in it rent-free. Since it happened to be her birthday, she put on some motown tunes and called over her sitemate, Chris from Chapel Hill, while we boys bought some fixin’s and generously let Laura whip them into a mouth-watering panoply of homesickening, non-goatface-based dishes: cheesy garlic potatoes, cheesy garlic bread and beef soup washed down with her reserve supply of duty-free Tanqueray and Bacardi.

Although he’d just “pounded some Beshbarmak” (the national dish, literally meaning “five fingers”, the utensil you use to shovel down communal plates of horse guts) and knocked back seven vodka shots at the three-day party honoring his host-mom’s new grandson, Chris came over and, sufficiently loosened up, got to telling us about his life in Zhanatac. As a Russian-speaking English teacher in a town that hates Russians, but also a good-looking, single young American man — some say “the most eligibile man in the city” — in a culture (and classroom) full of boisterous, highly sexualized, and uncomfortably gorgeous young females, Chris’ PC tour has not been without its insightful moments. Here are some of them:

  • Soon after arriving in Zhanatac, Chris was invited to a wedding. In the evening there was dancing. Around 10 o’clock he noticed about thirty girls lined up along the wall and asked a local friend if they were preparing to do some sort of special, traditional wedding dance for girls. “No,” the friend said. “This is the line to dance with you.” At 2 AM, mostly by skilfully dancing with multiple partners at once, he’d reached the end.
  • At a local get-together, a baboushka suddenly pulled Chris away and led him into a bedroom, closing the door as she left him alone. A moment later, the door reopened, a beautiful young girl of 17 or so was shoved in, and the door slammed shut again, this time locking. The girl explained: “We are to be married. This is my family’s request.”
  • One day during lunchtime, two female students started fighting over Chris, fervently enough for one to toss piping hot tea on the other’s blouse. Chris, whose say in the matter had evidently mattered not anyway, ignored the scuffle and just kept eating his lunch.
  • Once, a 16-year-old female student showed up to Chris’ office hours, asked a few questions, then swiftly slipped her hand down his pants. [Sufficiently loosened up ourselves, we pressed for more details. Choosing his words carefully, he admitted some. Did she make it down there?] “There was contact.” [Was it… you know… not that you wanted it to be or anything, but… good timing?] “Um.” [Like, was there anything worth remembering?] “… Let’s just say… I’ve seen a lot of naked Kazakh men… and anything I got, she’ll remember.”
  • While chatting on his host-mom’s front porch with a neighbor man, the subject got on to sex and how Chris had not had any of it since joinging the Peace Corps. At this the neighbor man immediately got up and left without saying a word. Confused, Chris went inside. Later that evening there came a knock at the door. Chris opened it to find the neighbor man standing there with a prostitute. In a hushed tone, Chris politely declined, pointing to his host-mom cooking several feet away as an excuse. [Was she cute? we had to ask. Chris thought a moment.] “She was freakishly tall.”
  • Back in Issyk, at the school where he was first training, Chris witnessed an in-school bridenapping — at knifepoint — which ended with the school director getting his hand sliced and the girl being dragged out of the classroom, kicking and screaming. Later, the other Peace Corps trainee who saw this quit the Peace Corps.
  • For some reason, during English lessons, Chris wound up having to explain the difference between “having sex” and “making love”. Of the latter, he told the class, “it’s gentler.”
  • They don’t have Teacher Appreciation Day in Zhanatac, but Chris’ students don’t let that stop them. Twelve of them got together and made him a calendar, each taking nine photos of his- or herself, making one per month. One student, a teenage girl, made her photos part of a series: of herself crawling suggestively toward the camera, eventually getting nine times closer. Although flattered, Chris isn’t sure he can bring the gift home through US customs.
  • Recently, his host-mom got a new car. As is customary, she threw a party, the kind where countless friends and family show up, get tanked and take turns driving it around the neighborhood, honking, all night long — three all-nights long.
  • Every now and then, local boys invite Chris to participate in local fight clubs where young men and boys slice at each other with knives, usually just to first blood. This is an honor Chris has turned down every time.
  • One afternoon, Chris rode with a local friend 25 minutes away to a village populated entirely by Kurds. Stalin had deported its original inhabitants to Almaty, then ordered them to come here, many hundreds of kilometers across the barren, wasted steppe, on foot. The half of them that didn’t die on the way did exactly that. Since 1991, many more have emigrated from Iraq. When Chris arrived, and was identified as an American, villagers began literally hailing him, dropping to their knees and worshipping. This was a strange and powerful experience.

Overall, we had a really great Laura’s birthday. Also, we ate delicious things that Laura cans and pickles.

Blogs: Laura’s, Chris’s

Believe it or not, this article keeps going! Continue Goin’ Native with the equally fascinating second half!

About Steve and Devon

Yeah! We're the best!
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