Thoughts from the Steppe

Our dam, which becomes a beautiful waterfall for a week in the spring.

I want to start off this blog by questioning American’s celebration of the death of Osama Bin Laden. I’m not talking about the morality killing Bin Laden, or even the politics of it, that’s all above my pay grade. No doubt his death is an important moment in history, but I think that we’re better than celebrating the death of another human being. I know we can do better than that, we have done better than that, and I have faith that we will do better than that. Accepting the news with thoughtfulness and gravity, along with  questions and ideas of how to move forward, now that, that would have shown the world that we, Americans, are ready to lead humanity into a new and better century.

However, I was impressed by President Obama’s statement regarding Bin Laden, and I can honestly say that know he is running the country makes me feel better about what’s going on. That got me down, so watching this: , was a nice medicine. It’s President Obama’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Priceless.

Me and Obama at our American booth for the May Day holiday

Food, lack there of, is getting to be a little bit of a problem, but for now I’m discovering more about my body and the nature of being hungry. Obviously I’m in no danger, it’s just that food is not always available when I desire it. The upside to this is that I am learning more about the nature of hunger and the effect that it has on my body. My energy level is actually higher when I’m hungry, but so is my anxiety, which interestingly seems to relate directly to survival mechanisms. Enough about that though, I’ll be moving into the neighbor’s house in this weekend, and I’m sure that the situation will be very different, as they are a family with four children (2, 10, 13, 16), a stay-at-home mom, a dad, and a babushka. Now, I’m not getting down at all on my family, because I am generally well fed, it’s just that when a family doesn’t stock the fridge like we do in America, and when you all have different schedules, meals sometimes get lost or forgotten. Hence dinners of chocolate, tea, and pilfered sausage.

I cannot stress enough how beautiful Sergeyevka has become in the past week. The other day, when I was running home from playing soccer with my ninth-graders I was dumbstruck by scene that seemed to roll out in front of me. I was facing east looking down over a grassy plain that melts into the river valley. The clouds on the horizon were dark and pregnant with rain, but the evening sun had just come through the clouds behind me. Everything glowed, the green grass, the white (kind of ) sheep, and the black dirt all seemed to shine up from the ground. Sounds were muted as they often are before storms, which gave the sweet-tasting spring air an aura of danger and possibility. It felt like I was walking in an over-saturated nature photo, and I was half expecting a cheesy looking wolf to materialize in front of me and start howling.

Our river, the Ishim. I love spring.

One of the best things about the change in weather is that I no longer feel like I live in a ghost town. The sun and warm weather has brought residents to the streets, and it feels like our population has exploded. Furthermore greenish trees and plants frame the abandoned apartment buildings and empty lots, further lessening the gloomy atmosphere which lasted from November to March. The simple joy I get from these things makes me wonder how adjusted I’m getting to where I’m living. I guess there’s no way to tell until I’m somewhere else, but I definitely enjoy the fragrance ‘au de bovsht’ more than when I lived in Saint Paul, and I also find myself forgetting about the smoke.

Smoke. Sergeyvka is covered in a black haze of smoke and dust. Due to the previously discussed strange attitudes to temperature here, the coal pechkas that heat our houses are still firing day and night, even as the temperature hits sixty during the day. Then, the burning trash thickens the pechka smoke, making it seem as though we’re in a perpetual fog (trash from inside, outside, and all around homes is constantly burned in the streets and in yards). The only way to completely escape the death air is when I go running. Running has been so good in fact, that it might even make up for the fact that I’ll probably get the black lung.

Running, I just want to talk about running. Running now is joy, freedom, and love. Those who know me best might think that I’m being literarily honest, even though for all purposes and to most audiences, that introductory sentence probably sounds full of shit and melodramatic. All I can say is that running on grass, for no purpose, breathing warm air, taking my shirt off, being kilometers away from town every day, playing around on riverbank paths, and just straight tearing it up like a G, is the best thing about spring. Every once in a while I take my shoes off for five or ten minutes just to feel the dirt and grass under my feet. Walking and running barefoot opens up an entire new field of awareness as the nerves in my feet start firing like crazy and my world expands. But it’s really just the act of running for no reason that gets me all warm and fuzzy.

Empty steppe. Perfect for running.

Today when I was running I saw men and then boys fishing down by the river, and I started thinking about their lives and my life, and why I was living so far away from home and why they were fishing by the river. I know that I have the opportunity to live far away from home and that’s a huge difference, but at the end of the day, why do I feel like I need to experience the world, live somewhere else, see something else, instead of just going fishing, getting a job, and living simple. Many people have come to this conclusion after years of travel, time, and money, but I don’t know, I love this shit. It’s in my nature to want something new and test the boundaries of my life and consciousness, so why go against what seems to be innate. Either way, the contrast between me and the fishermen seemed especially sharp today.

And by running, I mean running in bright purple short-shorts, shirtless, holding my shoes in my hands, my Shirley Temple curls bouncing behind me. From the looks I got from the fishermen, I gathered they thought I looked pretty strange. Can’t imagine why. In this vein I must admit that my sense of propriety and conformity is lagging with regard to my dress and behavior. I’m no saying that I set a bad example for my students or that I’m not professional, I just don’t give a damn about what people think about me and I do what I want.

During our training, Peace Corps staff and volunteer trainers all painted a picture for us of two kinds of volunteers: the kind that kept their American quirks at all costs, and the kind who adapted to local standards. Obviously, the adapted volunteers were depicted as the better, more flexible, less stupid volunteers, and the others were described to be self-absorbed and small-minded. But that’s the beauty of life, everyone sees it in their own way and own experience. I think adaption is great, especially when it comes to manners, customs, work clothing, and language. However, no matter how hard I try to adapt to become life everyone else, I’m always going to be the American volunteer, and being American is one of the main reasons why I was asked to be here in the first place.

Hence therefore, I have no problem running in short-shorts, singing in the street with my headphones, playing soccer with little kids, reading outside in the sun, sitting the grass, and doing yoga in abandoned lots. The kicker is, instead of just being a weird guy, I’m the weird American, which I’d be no matter what I did, and being myself is just more fun. But I will admit that living in another culture is what facilitates seeing through the boundaries and constraints that we tend to place on ourselves and others.

I went in to the city last weekend for the first time in a month, which is always a mix of good, bad, and strange. I came in for the first of May holiday, which in Kazakhstan is a holiday to celebrate Kazakhstani multiculturalism. We had a Peace Corps booth set up with pictures, an American flag cake, and different flyers and stuff. Doing the booth, being in crowds, seeing other booths, and just being in the city was refreshing.

Holiday in the city.

I decided to take a mini-bus home, which is usually faster than a regular bus, but a little slower than a taxi. Lately I’ve been going for the less expensive buses and minibuses because although they take a little longer, I have more room and they usually don’t play music. This bus took a lot longer, we were crammed four to a bench, the bus driver was chain-smoking, and halfway through the ride the high school girl who was sitting next to me was replaced by a babushka who smelled like fish. It was a ‘lil rough. Two things got me through the ride: the Notorious B.I.G., and this strange idea I had about sameness.

First, Biggie. Usually I enjoy gangster rap in my general consumption of music, but living in Kazakhstan I crave it, and I’m not the only one. Two other male volunteers, very different from each other, both separately confessed to me the same craving for NWA, Pac, and Dr. Dre. My best idea as to why this need exists is that (a) it’s nice to hear English that’s interesting, and (b) it’s hard for twenty-something guys to be constantly mature and teacher-like. The point is that Biggie, Tupac, and Common have been a good soundtrack for my life on the Siberian Steppe.

Second, thoughts about people. I was sitting facing the back of the minibus, so I had a clear view of almost all of the other passengers. I was trying to think about anything other than the heat or the smell of the bus, so I closely observed my seatmates. As I looked intensely at of all of the people on the bus, it struck me that we all look out at the world through the same eyes, same in that we’re human and we share the desire to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Obviously our gaze is tinted by experience, but there’s no denying that this human desire to avoid suffering and seek happiness creates a an intense bond of sameness. I’m sure that all of the people on the bus thought I was strange and awkward, but for a moment, I saw myself in every single person I was sitting with and I felt each of them in me. In my hot and stinky bus that was crawling through the steppe, I felt like I was at home, and that’s the coolest thing about that idea. No matter where I am in the world or what I’m doing, as long as I have that in me, I can find peace.

Muddy Sergeyevka. I'm so glad that's gone...until the next rain.

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6 Responses to Thoughts from the Steppe

  1. Lelde says:

    Your best blog entry yet. The last paragraph made my heart flutter in recognition of the same feeling I have had in rare and special occasions. It’s truly amazing, to realize how extremely similar we all are. There is nothing that cannot be overcome in our reach for the other person, no racial, social, class or religious divisions, when one remembers this bare and simple truth. We’re all made out of the same stuff, and like you say, all want to avoid suffering and reach (albeit differently perceived yet undeniably) happiness.

    Thank you for reminding me this, especially throughout this crazy turmoil occuring on TV right now.

    Many hugs, dear friend,


  2. Lynnell Mickelsen says:

    You are such a fine, fine writer, Collin. It’s a privilege to read your stuff.

    All the best from Minneapolis,


  3. John Halter says:

    Hey Colin,
    Nice photos, especially the one of you and Barrack “dapping.” But the allusion to your Shirley Temple tresses bouncing along in the breeze? I ain’t buying it. With those pythons you’re sporting I’m thinking you look more like Superstar Billy Graham or even Jesse “Pain is weakness leaving your body” Ventura. I’ll bet the Kazak girls get warm and fuzzy moustaches in your presence.

    We enjoyed a wonderful evening with your parents last Saturday night in a floating B&B on the Mississippi. Seems rivers everywhere are blooming with the torrents of spring. Yours, the Ishim, intrigues me; any barge traffic thereabouts?

    • ccousins says:

      Ha ha ha. I haven’t actually seen any traffic on the river, and now that you mention it, that’s kind of interesting. Hope all is well in cold/rainy MN.

  4. finmeg says:

    Love the pics. Spring is is wonderful for rejuvenating the spirits, isn’t it? I love spring so much. But the curls? Wow. I can see the Shirley Temple reference having some merit now. That or a greaser. Tuff.

    Stay Gold Cuz.

  5. Mary McCrossan says:

    Thanks for posting the pictures Collin! They are fascinating!
    P.S. Your curly hair is just one of many fabulous attributes you inherited from your mom!

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