The other evening I was treated by my counterpart with the relaxing past time of going to the banya. Although this was not a Russian style of banya with wet steam, it was a very interesting experience for me. Normally I have used private house banyas and gone in alone, but it is common for the banya to be used as a gathering place to socialize.
I believe that American women tend to pride themselves in having progressive thoughts in terms of gender equality, feminism, and the role of a modern woman in the modern world. What I witnessed was that these women, almost all of them were local teachers, sharing a space where there was no judgement or shyness. We sweated in the hot sauna without any clothing on, drank tea and ate fruit with chocolate in the kitchen area, and shared stories about what was happening in our lives. Such a liberating feeling to be around strange women but have a safe space to accept your skin. While doing this with colleagues in the US would probably result in some sort of punishment or scandal, it is a very common and normal aspect of being in this part of the world. Weekly, sometimes daily, there are cultural elements that block me or force me to compromise something in an uncomfortable sort of way, however, this time I was able to be open to the situation and understand that women around the world are so similar, lovely.
This is an old note I found from the summer that I intended on blogging about. It is irrelevant now but still part of the story and worth documenting:
"I am trying to keep myself connected to my community by starting a map from my house and working outward. The goal is to create a semi-"true to scale" grid of the city based on my footsteps. I will indicate all useful buildings as well as all of the street names. The other thing I have been doing is slowly gathering the working hours of useful places as well as the bus and train schedules. It feels impossible to make friends here because this is not a publicly friendly place. In fact, it typically leads to unsafe situations to make local friends with certain people in certain places. I am not sure why exactly."
This is sort of a collection of notes that I have kept about some of my experiences and observations. Not every moment has been a story but these are things worth noting.
Some things I do make me stand out like a sore thumb. They might not be indicators of being “an American” but they scream foreigner.
- Putting my purse on the floor
- Wearing my Burkenstocks
- Wearing my Burkenstocks with a dress or socks
- My tattoos (some of the kids don’t believe they are permanent)
- Drinking soda
- Drinking water (especially cold water….ice doesn’t exist here)
- Teachers (during school / formally) seem to wear long sleeves more frequently. Except when the school year ended and the dress code became much more casual. So when I wore short sleeves I sort of stuck out. Everyone thought I was cold.
- Carrying around a roll of toilet paper in my purse and blowing my nose. (people make fun of me in the US for this also)
There is a strong link to National pride and one way that is demonstrated is through military understanding. There was a military camp for youth at my old site at the beginning of the summer, which simulated boot camp I presume, they have "troupes" of students that sometimes compete in squads during military marches and following commands, and several schools I know of have a military class. There are old soviet posters of how to put on a gas mask / suit and assembling a rifle?
I should also comment that the dental situation in the villages needs some assistance because I have seen some students with black stumps for front teeth
Kazakhstan Fun Fact:
Here the date is formatted like this: 08.09.2011 instead of 9/8/2011
This story is from a few weeks ago:
I was coming home from a stressful situation the other night. Being in another city and getting home is always an ordeal, I know that the last bus to leave for my town was at 7:00pmish. I get there at 6 in anticipation of this but since I have never taken the "last bus" I was sort of nervous to figure out what to do. My language is so restricted! I wait in line and the teller keeps leaving the desk and the growing line behind me makes me feel even more anxious. So I ask the woman about a ticket towards my site. Her body language is best described as that of a 12 year old with her arms crossed, popping her gum, and rolling her eyes in the back of her head. She manages to mumble something to me in annoyance but of course I have no idea what she is saying! I freeze. Deer in the headlights. I side step out of line in order to gather my thoughts, when suddenly a man in the back of the line says to me in English, "May I help you with something?" I explained where I was going etc. and he talked to the tellers, informing them that I needed help I guess. Basically, when my bus came the teller escorted me out to my bus and then another woman who was taking tickets on the bus monitored me until I got to the right place. The guy arranged everything so that I would get there.....
Kazakhstan Fun Fact:
The police uniforms in Kazakhstan are exactly the same as the ones in Russia.
Let me just explain my adventure to the playground by my house a few months ago. This happened in the village I was living at before my recent move.
[I live right near a school and there is a very soviet style playground behind it. For the sake of the story, let’s just call it what it really looks like – a prison yard. The reason I am here is because the 5 year old has a ton of energy and loves to run on “the yard.” We make our way about a hundred yards. We finally arrive and the first thing I notice is that there are about 25 guys – no kids and no other women. Their ages range anywhere from 8 – 21 with most of them falling into the “high school” range. So this is already sort of a worrisome because the second they find out that I am an American and speak English, they will predictably see that as an opportunity to practice their English – which consists of yelling the f-word or asking my name no less than 452 times. Of course, the 5 year old wants to swing; that is the exact location where most of the guys were congregating. In my village loitering is a hobby. As we get to the swing I then notice that one of the younger boys has a tazer. This threat goes unnoticed by the five year old and I just go with it an hope to little baby Jesus that we don’t get tazed (another time when I went to the playground the same incident happened with a knife). So they seemed to be “playfully” pretending to hurt each other so I just pretended not to notice. After swinging for a while we moved to the slide. In “the yard” there are several types of bars and monkey bar things that one can practice doing pull ups and other types of upper body stretches on. This scene, plus the weapons, makes my prison yard reference accurate. In addition to all of this, it is important to note that there are thousands of pieces of broken glass – everywhere. Not only packed in the dirt of the playground but every road and outdoor path that I walk on. I hear a constant crunch of shards of glass under each step, and this village is heavy on farming. Everyone has a garden and animals of some sort. I have learned that some people just let their cows, ducks, sheep, chickens, cats, dogs, and whatever else was on Noah’s ark run wild during the day to graze. So next to / inside “the yard” there are also 4 huge cows. Anyway, back to the slide. So she wants to slide and I feel like everything she is touching could give us both hepatitis but I turn another blind eye to that. At the top of the slide, which is like 5 feet tall, she becomes very afraid. Then the boys begin to take notice. The next thing I knew my cover was blown. I spoke to her in English and then the “f” word and “whatizyourname” from all directions. Anywho, then they thought I didn’t understand her and of course I did, but they go up in my business to try and explain. After forever, she almost begins to cry at which point I go to push her back up the slide but she slips. Then she slides to the bottom and loves it. Like I said she would. Then she did it four hundred more times. After all of the red flags, testosterone, and 55 mosquito bites later – we went home. ]
Kazakhstan Fun Fact:
Students graduate high school in the 11th grade and American students graduate in the 12th grade.
I noticed that most of the dogs around here are sort of on the small side. They are like medium sized bodies with little legs usually. My old host mom told me that people catch and eat dogs – I guess the bigger dogs have more meat and are worth killing?
I still cannot get over all of the broken glass! I am numb to the trash on the ground but the glass is so astounding. For some reason it seems so dangerous to me for everyone to walk around on the glass, kids play on the glass, and animals graze on the glass. No one else seems to mind or think anything of it. Some of the pieces are huge chunks of a bottle left that could cut your foot off.
My former site mate told me about this airline search thing called skyscanner.com. It is supposed to be a really great site to search for tickets. Just passing that information along….
I tend to keep a plastic bag in my bedroom for trash since I am used to always having a trashcan in my room. My old host mom thought that was strange and seemed to be bothered by it. She would come in my room, shake her head and laugh at the fact that I left trash in my room until the bag was full. That experience made me realize that people don’t have trash cans in every room here. In the room with the toilet and kitchen are the only two places I really ever see any trash cans. It seems funny because I remember my grandmother having a trash can every 4 feet in her house.
Something totally unexpected came about when I arrived last spring and observed classes at my school. There is a general public school sort of dress code (stricter with younger kids and a bit looser with “high school” aged students) of black, white, grey, tan, and navy colored ‘church’ clothes. In addition to that there are these special uniforms that girls can wear, at their choosing I guess, that look exactly like a French Maid Halloween costume. I mean the works! Black dress with a knee length (or shorter) skirt, a lacy apron that ties in the back, white lace knee high stockings, black high heels, big puffy hair bows in pigtails. It TOTALLY blew my mind. It looks like a party but it is very much normal. Only a few girls wear it to class on a daily basis but it is worn more frequently during really special occasions.
Also, I kept seeing middle school aged Kazakh boys eating paper. I don’t know what that is all about. Another thing to reiterate I was constantly asked if I am married or have a boyfriend. It is a ritual in casual greetings that I don’t particularly enjoy. Partly because I don’t like when people constantly ask me in the U.S. either.
That’s all for now,
Kazakhstan Fun Fact: License plates are written using the English alphabet.
Since I have been without access to internet to post on my blog, I have written down my blog entries in word documents or taken notes etc. to add later. The following entry is currently not applicable but it is something I wrote about that applied to my life a few days ago before I was abruptly relocated.
" 6 months and new host family
I have officially been in Kazakhstan for 6 months or ¼ of my total service. Wow! What a crazy experience. So I am back to the blogging……having all of the pieces to get my stuff on my website has been a challenge obviously. I have continued to keep notes and records of what has been happening, and will slowly get the blog caught up to present day. I moved host families and it has made such a difference in my quality of life! This is a Kazakh family and I can talk about them more later.
Despite a slightly rough start settling in my community, this is a totally live-able situation. Here are some fun facts about my site provided to me through Peace Corps:
Type of Site: town
Distance from Capital: 190 km from Astana or 8 hours by train
Languages: Russian and Kazakh spoken equally
Transportation: busses, taxis, mini vans, on foot
Communication: landline and mobile networks, internet
Infastructure: water supply varies, in some places it is centralized, in others not. Hot water and heating is usually via electric boilers; electricity is constant, gas is not centralized.
Economic Situation: People often work at schools or get involved with private entrepreneurship
- 2 bazaars
- Shopping center
- Many small shops
- Sports center
- House of culture
- Post office
- 24 hour stores
- No swimming pool
- No cinemas
- Police station
- Bus station
- Train station
- 5 public schools
- Auto repair place
Police attitude towards foreigners: neutral
Pollution: near wooded area with late, air is fresher and cleaner than the city
New Site?: No
New Work Place?: No
Expanded Information (from my former site mate)
1. Geography – North Kazakhstan; steppe and forests
2. Weather – cold winters with snow and warm summers; fairly windy
3. Ethnic groups / languages and how they mark or characterize the area – Makinsk is roughly half Russian and half Kazakh with a large minority of populations of Ingush, Chechens, and Tzigans. Almost everybody speaks Russian, but a large amount of Kazakh can be heard on the street.
4. Population – After the Soviet Union, the population declined from about 50,000 to 25,000 but the population has stabilized.
5. Economic situation – The main factories are an asphalt company in Kaminikarrier and a mechanical factory. Otherwise the rest of the economy is either linked through the government or small businesses that don’t generate a large amount of income. There is a good amount of unemployment, though the exact figure is hard to gather. It’s hard to figure out if the situation is getting better, but most of the economy is focused in the government, financial and mineral extraction sectors, none of which are major parts of the local economy. "
Kazakhstan Fun Fact:
Here quotation marks are written like this:
«A” instead of “A”
Peace Corps Blog.
click above to play a traditional Kazakh song that I really like called the Karajorga. It is very popular and there is a traditional dance that is performed with it as well.
March 8, 2011 -
The contents of this page, and all links appearing on this page, do not represent the positions, views or intents of the U.S. Government, the Kazakhstan Government, or the United States Peace Corps.