Disclaimer: The first paragraph of this post contains a bad word. I would have replaced it, but it best reflects what I want to say.
I can’t help but let out a little sigh of contentment as the first taste of my french roast coffee hits my lips, dark, full, and scalding. This sip was the culmination of a series of events, one after another, which enhanced this cup of coffee from good to divine. The temperature is now stubbornly remaining below-zero (today -30 farenheit), and yesterday I finally decided, fuck it, I’m going on a run. The temp was somewhere between five and ten degrees below-zero and it had finally stopped snowing. Breaking trail on the steppe was difficult; I wasn’t able to see the terrain due to snow drifts flattening out the dips and hills. It was slow but pleasing, in an extreme sort of way. I was alternating between running fast over the hard frozen earth, and falling up to my knees in snow drifts. At one point, when I was running along the river, and didn’t see a crevice and ran off a cliff. I found myself up to my armpits in snow, and sinking fast. The snow was only slightly more forgiving than quicksand, so I quickly pulled myself up, spread my body out, bellycrawled across the rest of the crevice, and continued running. Thirty minutes was about my max with the equipment I was wearing, and I easily found my way back following my tracks, even able to avoid some of my previous pitfalls. After eating some cabbage soup and showering, I reverently took the small bag of french roast out of the package my mom sent, and pressed a pot of coffee. I immediately felt the caffeine working its way through my blood stream, said a quick prayer to the gods of stimulants, and began thinking back on the past week.
I woke up on Monday morning to a ten below-zero flash frost; all of Sergeyevka that had been melting over the weekend was frozen solid. The entire town was a skating rink, and I did my worst to manouver myself home from school without falling. My concentration waned as I gazed at the babushkas who were gracefully skating around in their black leather high-heeled boots. They seem to glide across the ice, balanced by their massive old-lady bags, and catching the wind with their huge parkas. Although the high-heels might be stylishly unnecessary, I’ve discovered that fur-lined hoods are not. Yesterday I emptied my savings and bought a huge black parka with an enormous fur-lined hood. I decided this was a necessity when I was walking home and realized that EVERY other person I came across had huge fur-lined hoods, I then thought about pictures I’ve seen of Eskimos and it hit me, I needed to buy a new jacket as soon as possible. No matter how advanced winter clothing can get, nothing beats the simplicity of a huge fur-lined hood for keeping the wind off your face.
When it comes to work out clothes however, mom knows best, and her five-hundred pound package came just in time. I was able to astound my host family by going on a run on the steppe when it first dipped to ten-below. My secret was the high-tech face mask that I just received and pre-run snack of organic chocolate covered cashews, which I left on the kitchen table. This was before the big snows came, so I cruised across the frozen steppe, the fresh air cold in my lungs. I returned home to find my host-father in a semi-stupor on the couch, and walking into the kitchen to eat some post-run cashews, I found an empty ziplock bag. I had to smile, because really, who leaves a bag of chocolates to go running? Touche papa. Under the mistaken impression that I am deprived of sweets in Kazakhstan, my mother sent me an entire box full of chocolates, and I was able to overcome this minor setback and binge far into the night.
When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t frozen solid in my bed, so I knew there was a change in the weather. Over tea, my host mother mildly said that it was snowing outside, but I thought nothing of it and got ready as usual. Fifteen minutes before the first bell, I was still waiting with my host sister and the neighbor kids for our unreliable ride, when we received a phone call informing us that there was too much snow to drive.
That piqued my interest and I stepped outside into a white-out blizzard. It was a white-out to the extent that it could be while still being pitch-black outside. The tenth-grade neighbor boy wanted to take a test, and I felt like I should walk with him, even though we were all officially exempt from our duties at school. It also just struck me as badass. Stupid right? So, we stepped out into the white, wind blasted steppe, and walked/ran/crawled to school. It took us over an hour to get there, and we looked like crazy people by the time we stumbled inside. Our eyes were red and streaming, we were soaked, sweating, and both in button-down shirts, jackets, and ties. I was hoping to find an empty school, but it was almost full, due to the fact that most students live a five-minute walk from school, and it takes more than snow to cancel school here.
The best thing about the whole ordeal was that I felt great. I had been in and out of a self-pitying mood after coming to site, lamenting about my extreme placement situation. Lately however, I’ve realized two things: first, that I’m really glad that I’m in craziest site in Kazakhstan, and second, Peace Corps got me here and now it’s up to me. I didn’t fly all the way to Kazakhstan to teach at a great school and live in luxury. There’s also a good chance that this change of heart was precipitated by my birthday last week, which was the shit.
I never want to spend another birthday in the United States. November 26th was “Collin Day” in Sergeyevka, and it felt like the entire town came out to celebrate. My host family woke me up with a huge breakfast, a cake, and set of towels for the banya (sauna). I went to school that morning to talk to my counterpart before making the day-long trip to a Thanksgiving celebration with twenty other volunteers in a neighboring region. I looked really cool as I walked in with my big backpack and flecks of cake all over my face and shirt. I thought I’d try to sneak in, but the second I stepped inside, I was assaulted by a million handshakes and birthday wishes. I awkwardly shook hands with teachers and students while trying to wipe away the evidence of my early morning gluttony. I was confused and pleased at this show of happiness and solidarity regarding my existence, but I took it in stride, as is common in individuals with a tendency to an over-inflated sense of themselves.
I was almost immediately summoned to a teacher’s meeting downstairs. I had an idea of what was coming, but hoped that I would escape the embarrassment of seeing the entire faculty forced to formally celebrate my birthday. I walked into the room and saw that I would have no such luck; the whole faculty was squeezed into the tiny third grade desks, facing me. They gave three speeches, in Russian, Kazakh, and English, congratulating me on my birthday and thanking me for coming to their school. It was a moving experience. After each speech, I was required to kiss the presenter, which, contrary to what one might think, was challenging. During my first kiss, my face was grabbed as I pulled away, and my lips were firmly re-planted on the cheek of the older female teacher who had congratulated me in Kazakh. It turned out that every kiss had to be long enough to be captured by two or three cheap and slow digital cameras. I carried lipstick on my cheek with the rest of my presents upstairs to the English classroom where my class of sixth graders attacked me, handed me a cake, and sang happy birthday. I was having an amazing day. When I got into the resort later that night, I was too tired and excited to remember to eat after shedding my clothes and baggage, and gratefully accepted a beer in a plastic bottle. I drank the beer, contemplated just how good life was, and passed out.
My eyes forced themselves open the next morning when I heard my phone going off next to me. I felt like a bus had hit me in the face and that someone had poured rotten food down my stomach in an effort to revive me. Somehow I managed to stumble out of the room and fall onto the icy floor in the hallway. My parents were on the other line with two of my best friends, who I hadn’t talked to in months. They were all as appropriately energetic and cheerful as the moment called for, and getting it across that I was in no shape to talk was the best that I could do before hanging up. I then crawled back into the room and into bed, not to awake for many hours. It turned out that no-one was feeling good after our low-key night, and the prime suspect was the beer we drank from recycled plastic bottles. I assume it hit me the worst because I drank it on an empty stomach. So, after that kind of birthday, Thanksgiving weekend, weather, and running, I hope that you better understand just how good the coffee tasted as it touched my lips. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving,