Hello All and Happy Holidays!
We're in town after a long time in Bayanaul enjoying a shower, a hotel bed, and buying some train tickets. We have to go to Almaty for Inter-Service Training in January, so we get to experience that wonderful 26 hour ride once again. This time it won't be our wedding anniversary, so not quite as exciting, but this time we'll also know to bring more water and won't end up sipping hot water out of the bottom of a Ramon noodle container like last time.
With the holidays approaching we have been missing you all more than ever, but please know we are thinking of you. To answer some of your questions, I have decided to write "a day in the life" article to give you an idea of what life is like here. I think you'll see it's not so bad. We are known to have a very "kooshy" Peace Corps Assignment.
Our walks are getting shorter these days though since we have seen the dreaded -30. The dreaded -40 is still on the way, but we are staying warm as long as there is no wind.
Please keep sending questions and updates our way. I know it is frustrating to only hear from us once a month, but we really love hearing from you! We should be on email January 3rd from Almaty, so it will be a little shorter between emails this time if you get a chance to write. And now, a day in the life...
7:30 am Alarm—I awake and it is dark. Not early morning dark, but pitch. I fumble around on the floor to find my warmest fleece, pants and socks and stumble out to the outhouse, flashlight in hand. The cold hits me in the face and I am instantly awake. I can tell it is at least -20 because my hand freezes to the handle of the outhouse as I pull it open. I believe the appropriate phrase here is "freeze my butt off."
8:30 am School—Class begins and the students are all late. They are just like any other students and offer excuses such as "overslept, didn't hear the bell, etc." My team-teacher begins class and the students begin to drift off. I remind them in my best Russian to pay attention and they giggle at my accent. Finally I am able to bring them back to attention by suggesting we sing in English, that's their favorite.
12:00 pm Break between classes—I'm in the freezing cafeteria having a cup of tea. I do this to be friendly, but also to appear so. Though many teachers consider the cafeteria as too cold to sit in, they will remind me if they haven't seen me in a few days. Eventually a teacher sits down with me and we talk about how cold it is. Small talk in Russian is the same small talk in English. I think I should learn the word for "really cold" in Kazakh. My Russian is good enough that I don't need to think about the words before I say them, but then the teacher changes the subject and I am lost at the unfamilar turn of phrase.
2:00 Host Family Home, Lunch time— I ask my host sister Arisha (6 years old) how school was, she replies like any 6 year old--"good."
3:00 School.—The students who studied in the morning are at home now, but hopefully some of them will return for optional classes in the afternoon. I sit and wait, since this is what I'm really here for, this one-on-one time with students when I can really answer their questions and help them improve their English. Today I'm not disappointed. Torgyn, a 9th grader, comes in smiling widely. She is reading Harry Potter in English and has many questions about what certain phrases mean.
5:30 Heading Home—After Torgyn no other students came, but it's okay, the tasks I had planned can always be done next week. Jack has come to meet me on his way home from school. We look hopefully around as we leave school, hoping for a ride, but we are out of luck today. I pull my scarf closer around my face and Jack turns up his collar, and we're off. We walk home through the mountains to block some of the wind. We walk quickly and feel mostly warm except for the many times we have to stop when we pass small boys who all want to shake Jack's hand. They call after us down the street, "What is your name?" and other such phrases they know in English.
6:30 Dinner—We are having meat and potatoes again. That's usually fine, though over-salted. I take one bite and consider the toughness of the meat as I chew over and over. Like beef, but richer, hmmm. "Carnina?" I ask my host mother and she replies "Conyeshna." By that she means of course it is horse. We are getting good at conversing at the dinner table, and the conversation flows easily with lots of hand gestures to help us along. "Banya cevodnya" she informs us and we smile. We love banya day, the one day a week we can get clean apart from washing our hair in the sink.
9:00 pm Bedroom. —We sit and read waiting our turn for banya munching on snacks sent from the States. We read a lot. We wait a lot.
9:30 pm Banya. —With a last look at the phone, knowing Jack's parents will call as soon as we are in the banya, we throw on our boots and head across the yard. We open the door and the steam rushes out, instantaneously forming icicles on the doorway. Quickly we close the door and feel the rush of heat envelop us. This first room of the banya is where we keep our towels and clothes. We strip and head into room #2. This room is far warmer and filled with benches and buckets. We pass through this room and into room #3, hot and steamy. This room only contains a high bench and a ladle filled with water. We dump the water on the hot rocks in the corner and steam fills the room. Immediately we begin to sweat, and the idea is that you are sweating out a week's worth of dirt. It feels wonderful. The true banya enthusiasts make this room far hotter than I can stand and hit each other with birch branches to really get the blood flowing. Maybe I'll do that one day. Most days I head back into room #2 to bathe. There are two faucets in the corner, one hot, one cold. I fill a bucket with a little of both to a good temperature and ladle water over myself. At this point this feels like the most natural thing in the world. I wouldn't mind a shower, but the banya is warm and welcoming. I shampoo my hair, dump the remainder of the bucket on my head, and that's it. Back in room #1 I dress quickly before I start sweating again and run back out in the cold.
10:00 pm Host Family House—Back inside I see the family seated at the dinner table. "Sloken Parem" they call. "Spaciba" (thank you) I reply as I know I should, though I'm still not sure what this means. Jack and I guess it means something between "You sure smell better," and "Hey, you're dehydrated, let's drink!" Sure enough our host father produces a bottle of vodka and we toast to the banya while munching on sausage and bread.
11:00 pm bedroom—Back in our room we return to our books and tell each other stories from our day before sleep. It was just a day like any other day, in any other place. It just happened to be a day in Kazakhstan.
Welcome to our holiday edition, with the following extra feature:
Here's your russian lesson:
Russians just say "sprazneekom" for every holiday. (Literally it means: "with the holiday!") This is administratively very convenient as we only had to learn one phrase.
There is a lot of drinking:
Our host mother just bought a new fur coat. It was a two bottle of vodka occasion. (Plus two bottles of beer and a bottle of champagne. There were 6 of us.)
Tidbits: Place Names in Central Asia:
The old capital of Kazakhstan is called (or was called) "Alma ata." In Kazakh this means "father of apples." This is because they grow...apples.
The current capital was called "Tselinograd," which means "virgin lands city" after the famous scheme a la Nikita Kruschev. Then when that turned out to...not work...they changed it back to Akmola, which in Kazakh means "white city." After Nazarbayev moved the capital there his political opponents used a play on words that used an alternative meaning of Akmola as "white tomb.". So Nazarbayev changed the name again to Astana, which simply means "capital."
The capital of Kyrgyzstan was called Frunze, after the famous red army general who conquered most of central Asia in the 1920's. When Kyrgyzstan became independent they changed the name to "Bishkek." which is the name of the staff used to churn horse's milk. My how our priorities have changed.
The capital of Tajikistan is "Dushanbe," which means "Monday.".Can you guess why? It's because the town is named after its market, which, if you haven't guessed yet, is open only on Mondays.