No matter what I do, I can’t seem to dissuade our stinky little cat from finding her way to my lap while I sit at the table. It’s especially frustrating after I shower, and then I smell like cheep fruity soap with a hint of sheep poo. Anyways, she’s up here now as I start writing after a few weeks of…not writing.
I returned to Sergeyevka on Monday, and it’s just how I left it ten days before, wet, grey, muddy, and sleeting. The ash from all of the coal pechkas that clings to the muddy snow adds an especially desolate flavor to life. Since there were only four of us on the bus to my village, I was able to convince the bus driver to let me off before the bus station. I got off the road about a mile and a half away from my home which thankfully cut my hike by about a mile; as the bus ambled on, I stood breathing in exhaust and cold sleet, and after doing another self-evaluation regarding what the fuck I’m doing in Kazakhstan, I hiked up my big green bag and walked home.
I was riding the bus from Petropavlovsk, where I had spent the night after getting off a 33 hour train ride from Almaty. Almaty is the metropolis in the south of Kazakhstan that until recently was also the capital city. I say metropolis with no hint of irony; Almaty has culture, beauty, is unbelievably wealthy, and not only is it framed by stunning snow-capped mountains, it’s much much warmer than Sergeyevka. I shared a third-class compartment with three girls who are also volunteers, and also coming back from our Peace Corps conference and HIV/AIDS training. We stared out the windows as the train wound its way from rolling green hills and snow-capped mountains to the cold grey snow-covered plains where three of us slithered with the train to its last stop just short of Russia. Our ride was pleasant, if not a little melancholy, but I really can’t complain about drinking tea, eating, reading, and listening to music all day with friends. Even better, our wagon had a broken window which kept the temperature pleasant. However, to illustrate another path that a 33 hour train ride can take, I’ll relate my solo trip down to Almaty that happened almost two weeks ago.
I took the 3:30 p.m. bus from Sergeyevka to Petro on Friday the 25th, because I knew that it didn’t matter how long the ride took, given that my train was leaving at 11. As soon as I stepped onto the bus, a middle-aged Russian woman flagged me down to sit next to her. It turned out that she was actually a Russian citizen, not just ethnically Russian, and we hit it off well. After about a half hour of stopping every once in a while to pick people up, our bus was way over capacity. As I started to stand to give my seat to an older woman standing near us, my seat partner pulled me down, hissing that it was the woman’s own fault for not buying her ticket earlier. I momentarily sat back down, mostly because I was flustered, but after another minute or so, I couldn’t help but give up my seat. The moral of the story is that although I thought that it wouldn’t matter how long the bus ride took, after three and a half hours of sliding around sleety roads, elbowing drunk’ish men who were falling on me, and falling asleep standing up, I knew I should have taken a taxi.
I don’t believe in signs or luck, but my Russian friend gave me a little wooden Buddha when we said goodbye, and I like to think that it brought me luck for the rest of my trip. I met Becky, my volunteer momma from the city at the train station, and we got a bite to eat and a couple beers before headed south. The lady at the bar smiled at me and told me that the beers were very strong, but I thought it was the usual “no one drinks like Russians” sort of thing.
As I was sitting in the train station looking at my watch, the train clock, and my ticket and trying to figure out which were on Moscow time and which were on Kazakhstan time, my drooping eyelids and flagging intellect both informed me that yes, those beers were very strong. This was confirmed a minute later when I received a text from Becky wishing me a safe trip and cheerfully telling me that she too felt the buzz.
Fortunately I made it to the correct train, and squeezed into a compartment with three amiable looking Russian guys that looked my age. After introductions, I found out that Denis, Nikita, and Taraz were also going all the way to Almaty, and they offered me “tea” which turned out to be a poorly disguised two-liter filled with cognac. After two cups of chai, I passed out for the night and was lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train, to be only occasionally wakened by Nikita’s death-rattle like sleep apnea. I didn’t even mind that the train seemed to be over 100 degrees F; evidently cognac will do that to you.
The rest of the ride was smooth, and I ended up making lots of friends in my wagon, first with a family that was across from us, and their daughter who was about to go to college for English, and then with a bunch of military cadets that were on their way to Almaty for some sort of sporting competition. We bro’d it up over actual chai and chicken, but there was a tense moment when in the conversation I modestly said that I haven’t been keeping in the best form, and that I admired their dedication (as some of them were working out on the train). I know that modesty isn’t my forte, but given that not one cadet was even close to being in the same kind of shape as me, I thought it would be laughed off. I’m evidently not the only young guy affected by delusional thoughts, and so when they started strutting around, shit got iffy. When one skinny dude said something to the effect of “yeah, you really aren’t in good shape, it’s tough to be as dedicated as us army guys,” I got pissed. Fortunately I’m not a complete idiot, and just smiled and kept eating cookies.
Being in Almaty was a trip. It was pouring a warm summer rain when the train pulled in at six in the morning, and I was grateful for my new buddies who navigated me towards non- exhorbitant cab and negotiated the price for me. The week itself though was like a strange dream. The buildings were huge and gleaming; I was surrounded by people my age who shared both my language and culture; it was warm and Spring-like; I went running on a running path without my shirt; I went dancing at a Cuban salsa club; and best of all, no cow poo.
So walking back home in the gray sleet, with my big bag, not even trying to avoid the mud, I did some serious reevaluating of my life. I didn’t come to any actual conclusions, and the contrast is still messing with me something good, but I can say that I legitimately, no bullshit, missed my students, and didn’t realize it until I taught them yesterday. I’m not saying that the class didn’t completely exhaust me, or that it made everything perfect and doable, just that it keeps me out here, for at least one more day.