Sunday, January 23, 2005

Many events, none of which add up to any excellent stories ...

The Peace Corps country director and medical officer visited Kokshetau. They watched a couple of my math lessons, treated the volunteers from the area to lunch and dinner. We're lucky to have a director who is willing to put the time into having personal connections with volunteers and buy them bottles of dry red wine.

I have a new apartment all of my own. It's nearer to work, and near the lake, which, given the condition of lake Kokshetau, probably detracts from the property value. My place is super, and it's a space that's all mine, for the first time since I've arrived. The decor could be taken out of any 1950s Soviet sitcom, but I'll work on that. My landlord has a car and helped me move. Shortly, I'll join them for plov.

By the way, I read that our "rice pilaf" comes from the word "plov", the ubiquitous Uzbek meat-and-rice dish. "Pilaf" as I knew it in America is a shameful mockery of this delicious national Central Asian dish - a culinary crime on the order of what passes for "pizza" here.

My host brother Chingis found a job as a waiter in one of Kokshetau's best hotels.

I was having dinner with friends of my host family, and one of the more drunken guests was midway through one of the all-peoples-are-brothers speeches that are common on such occasions when I, as an American, am introduced. His speech turned worryingly to politics, and he mentioned Nazarbaev. Your president, I said. No, he said proudly, our Khan. America and Germany, he said, have presidents. We have a Khan. Telling.

It was Jay's birthday. We celebrated by making tacos in my new apartment and then visiting disco.

Mstan's cds arrived, which has given this week a singular soundtrack. It's dizzying to suddenly have so much new music to listen to. Like stepping out of a hallway into a large courtyard. Or discovering that an uncomfortable car seat you've been sitting in for hours actually reclines after all. Or finding excellent nachos in a bar in Almaty.

If you've ever sparred with someone who's a better fighter than you, and they got distracted or over-confident and you managed to slip in a punch on the nose that's not enough to beat them but enough to make them a angry and then you knew that now you're really going to get it, then you know how I feel. I played the aforementioned chess playing shop teacher at my school, and though it was hardly a fair game - he was trying to supervise his class at the same time and moved very quickly, taking about one minute to think for every three I spent staring at the board - I beat him. No less, I beat him with a group of kids standing around watching saying things like, "it's Kazakhstan vs. America!" How did this happen? A lot of luck on my part, and a lot of overconfidence on his - he tried for a quick victory and underdevloped early in the game, leaving himself tied up from late in the middle game on. Of course he didn't -seem- angry, but I'm waiting to get clobbered next time we play. And we will play again.

I have taken many steps along the road to becoming like a local - cooking traditional food, considering shots of vodka at lunch unsurprising, putting my toilet paper in a little basket instead of flushing it, washing my clothes by hand, having a local girlfriend, hoarding chalk at school, pushing in lines, and yelling at service-sector workers. However, nothing has made me feel as authentic as my recent acquisition of a giant furry hat. When I'm wearing my long wool coat, giant furry hat, and Komsomol pin, I am an excellent imitation of the real thing. Until I open my mouth. Or walk. Or do anything other than stand there and glare.

The lady who works at the university cafeteria, who knows me and knows how I feel about the cutthroat way lines are usually executed here, and especially in the cafeteria, yelled at someone for trying to cut in front of me in line, bless her heart.

Pelevin fans, take note. I discovered that there are sections in my Russian copy of "Generation P" - also published in English as "Bablyon" and "Homo Zapiens" - that are missing in my English translation. What's in it? So far, something about monkeys in jeeps chasing human women, and the color red. The Russian is obtuse and colloquial, and I must consult my tutor.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Happy Birthday

Happy birthday, Mom!

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Holidays ...

The first of my two holiday seasons in Kazakhstan has passed. Christmas isn't a big deal to anyone except Americans here, so we celebrated comparatively quietly. I got a phone call from my parents and grandmother in the morning, opened the presents my family had sent me, and went to a relatively laid back gathering at Sojin's, an ex-PCV who was sent home for medical reasons and returned on his own initative and dime for mysterious reasons.

New Year's here plays the role of both Christmas and New Year's rolled together, with a lot of similarities and a few differences. One difference is that here Santa Claus is known as "Ded' Moroz", or "Grandfather Frost". (It's interesting that Grandfather Frost is represented pretty much exactly like the American Santa Claus, in a red suit and white beard, which I'm sure makes Coca-Cola proud.) A bigger difference is that where in American Christmas symbols we have the matronly figure of Mrs. Claus, Kazakhstan has "Snegurochka", Grandfather Frost's sexy granddaughter. Every major New Year's party is emceed by a wized Grandfather Frost and scantiliy dressed Snegurochka who lead the party with toasts, games, and songs. On December 29th, our school had a party, at which the teachers got drunk and got funky together in the school cafeteria, dancing like they were twice their students' ages and half their own. I won a bottle opener for dancing like a rooster.

I was asked to dance like a rooster because this is the year of the rooster, or "the year of the cock" as the uninitiated in English slang, like my counterpart, love to loudly proclaim. (Interestingly, Russian also has an antiquiated word for rooster with a sexual double meaning.) There are consequently ice statues of roosters everywhere, everyone gives each other cheap rooster trinkets (making it impossible to find anything remotely rooster-like in Kokshetau for two days before New Year's), and everyone makes rooster sounds at midnight. By the way, there's a superstition here that the way you spend your New Year's is the way you'll spend the rest of the year, which could explain some of Kazakhstan's drinking problems.

I spent New Year's with Gulshat and her roommates and friends. The most remarkable part of the evening was our obligatory visit to the city center ice village. In addition to the giant ice statues and walls around the center square, the city constructed two giant ice-hills, about two stories tall, that you can climb up via ice stairs in the back and, at great personal risk, try to safely slide down. Note I said ice, not snow - it was slipperly slippery ice, like an ice cube. There were big holes, about six inches deep, that had been somehow been gouged in the middle of the hill, and all the ice sloped towards them, so you inevitably bruised your butt every time you went down. Often a child would get completely stuck in one, and take out several people coming behind. Most adults - that is, adult males, I guess - tried to go down standing up, though, which was really dangerous, what with the holes and very fast kids sweeping your legs out from under you. I never made it all the way down standing up, which involved doing a little jump over the holes that I could never get right, but I'm proud to say Brian did it. At the bottom, people gathered oblivious to the children rocketing by. More than once I saw someone get their legs completely swept and fall flat on their back on the hard ice. Meanwhile, all around, children were discharging cheap fireworks that were available for a few hundred tenge apiece. The most hazardous, and consequently most popular, was a tube that shot bottle rockets about a hundred feet up. The first few usually didn't get very high, though, and exploded on the ground, and even the later ones required the child to hold the tube up to prevent them from becoming surface-to-surface missiles. It also wasn't exactly clear when the tube was spent, since there were about ten rockets that came at 10-20 second intervals. All this went on in a crowd of people gathered around a giant, spinning Christmas tree next to giant ice statues of Grandfather Frost, Snegurochka, a rooster, and a monkey. Brian and I agreed - this was all absolutely first-class.