This is the first part of a two-part entry. This post details all that lead up to my arriving at site, and the next part will be about my first experiences in Sergeyevka. A note of warning for all readers who are of gentle disposition, this post briefly acknowledges that humans poop.
Last week, all of us Peace Corps trainees were assembled at a hotel in Almaty for our counterpart conference. This meant we spent three days getting to know our main contact at site, listening to lectures, and doing incomprehensibly helpful activities. My counterpart is Natalia Stupina, an older Russian woman who has lived in Sergeyevka most of her life. She’s sweet, motherly, and very, very different from me. Although the conference was supposed to be about the counterparts, we all twitched impatiently through lectures before going bananas when they let us go for the evening. It was an intense week. We were all about to leave the close friends we had spent the past two months getting to know, and go to tiny villages, small towns, large towns, and gleaming cities all over the country.
It’s not every day that you meet a bunch of new people in a new country, learn a new language, work at a new job, and are then shipped off to new homes to live in new socio-economic classes, and experience new climate/geography, all with virtually no control over your situation. Needless to say, the conference was an emotional roller-coaster. However, somehow we all managed to haul ourselves out of bed with our bags at seven o’clock on Saturday morning to go to our swearing-in ceremony. I faced the flag, said a pledge, received a pin, shook hands with the US Ambassador, and was handed a large jar of raspberry jam by my former host-mama. It was strange closure. There were too many emotions to feel much of anything.
The train ride was pleasant but surreal. There were nine of us and our counterparts on the train, but we quickly found out that we were all separated throughout the cars. It must have been a blast to watch all of the cracked-out volunteers struggle with our massive bags as we could barely figure out what was going on around us. We traveled second class, which meant that my counterpart and I shared a cramped four-person coupe (room) with two other people. Luckily, I packed relatively well, so space was not too much of an issue. One of our neighbors was a sweet older woman who smelled nice, and our other neighbor was a middle-aged slob who reeked of alcohol, which we found out later was actually masking his natural stench.
His appearance was striking; his face was so badly beaten that he could barely open his eyes, and both of his fists were swollen to twice their normal size. He mostly stayed to himself and got out of our way when we needed him to. I think that was a combination of a terrible hangover, getting his ass whupped, and my going into alpha-male-don’t-#$%@-with-me mode. It’s hard to stay emotionally detached from someone who smells like death and sleeps three feet from you, and I felt justified in my coolness to him when he didn’t offer to give up his lower birth to my counterpart and got hammered at a twenty minute stop in Astana.
Aside from the smelly and strange coupe-mate, the train was comfortable and fun. All of us volunteers found each other and talked everywhere we could, in the hallways, in our berths, and even in the dining car. The woman who ran the dining car was not fond of the last option, but as the car was never occupied and we always ordered something for exorbitant prices, I never felt bad about it. Having nice conversations and little perks on the train was what made the ride pleasant. I especially enjoyed the water dispenser for tea and coffee that was heated by coal, and the bathroom with its dual-action toilets.
Squat toilets are common in Kazakhstan, and to be honest, they’re much cleaner and more comfortable to use than regular ones when you’re using a public bathroom. The train bathroom however had a regular toilet that was souped up to do double-duty; the seat at little grippy things on it to stand on and a handle to hold onto the wall in front of you so you don’t fall. How sweet is that?! I’m the kind of person would stand on a toilet just for for the hell of it, and on this train they created a bathroom so I could do it easier! Pooping was tons of fun. Anyways, the train ride was relaxing and pleasant on Saturday night, but on Sunday it became rather melancholy as my friends all got off at their different stops, leaving three of us hurtling alone down to the end of the tracks to the Petropavlosk station, which is so close to Russia that it’s actually owned by Russia.
The train was behind schedule, so we arrived at a little before ten o’clock in the evening. It was late and there was a storm with snow and high winds, so my counterpart and I had to stay in Petro instead of driving the 180 kilometers to Sergeyevka. The train station was surprisingly modern and elegant, and had rooms to rent for crazy high prices, but we didn’t have much of a choice. Therefore, after over thirty hours of travel and one more hour of waiting at the front desk, I squeezed all of my bags into a tiny room, peeled off my clothes, and passed out in a bed adjacent to my counterpart. The next day would begin the next chapter of my life.