Running, Picnics, and Counting Change

My 7th graders with a picture from their pen pals and another volunteer.

Right now I feel like the luckiest volunteer in Kazakhstan. I’m living in a land of green grass, birch forest, cow doo, and women in high heels. I aimlessly went running the other day, aimless except for the goal to run. It didn’t matter where I was going, how long I’d be running, or most of all how fast or slow I went, I just wanted to be outside. So I slipped on my purple short-shorts and glided out of my new house, and after a couple kilometer I crossed over our dam and found myself running along the edge of a quarry on the other side of the river. Falling would mean serious maiming at the least, but I was free, I didn’t care. I danced over the rocks and cliffs, relishing the excitement and the freedom of doing exactly what I wanted. It felt wonderful to have my thoughts in my feet instead of my head. Soon the quarry was behind me and I was running through green meadows and birch forests. The only sound was the wind in trees, my footsteps, and my breath. It was so beautiful that when I found myself in a particularly blessed meadow, I stopped and stood and laughed. Then, because I could, I started throwing fallen birch sticks as far as my arm would let me. I was exhausted when I got home, and I passed out for a few hours on my bed, dreaming of more fields to explore and things to think about.

I went on a picnic with my seventh graders on Saturday. I had no idea what to expect when I met them at school at five o’clock, but they’d been begging me to come and picnic with them all week, and I thought, what the hell. I got to school at just about five, and they all were there waiting for me(I found out from my old host-sister later that they had already called my current host-sister to ask if I was on my way). There were nine of them, six girls and three boys, all carrying plastic bags of food. We stopped at a store on the way to wherever we were going (I had no idea), and they bought more food and I bought some two-liters of soda.

After twenty minutes of walking, I found myself in this little clearing of a beautiful birch forest right outside of town. The kids set a blanket down, and the girls started in on the chips and soda while the boys found rocks and wood to make a fire pit. I wasn’t sure what seventh graders would bring to a picnic, but it didn’t surprise me that it consisted mostly of chips and candy. To be fair though, they also brought tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and some meat. We roasted potatoes over the coals from the fire, and cut off the burned skin to the most delicious tubers I have ever eaten. After eating for a bit, they all wanted to play games. They roused me from my sloth on the grass, and taught me to play a couple of group games: ‘Hunters and Ducks’ (basically souped up dodgeball), and a Kazakh version of ‘Red-Rover.’

I’m not joking, they packed food, made a fire (without paper), got along with each other, and then played group games. In seventh grade. So the kicker was that the situation was actually as utopian as it seemed. It was probably about seventy degrees with a light breeze, no bugs, beautiful sun, a beautiful forest, and a group of kids entertaining themselves in an almost comically wholesome manner.

It was porridge of all things that finally got the best of me. Since I’ve come to Kazakhstan, I’ve prided myself in eating everything that’s put in front of me; this includes: horse, sheep parts (brain, liver, guts, errthing), tons of fat, kumis (fermented horse milk), shubat (camels milk), and even accidentally yesterday’s trash (early morning mistake when it was placed on the stove and looked like stew). Big moments however come at unexpected times, and little did I know that the innocently bowl of what looked like Cream-o-Wheat would be the foe that vanquished me.

My host brother and I both sat down to lunch, equally starving, and both quickly burned our tongues on the porridge in front of us before biding our time with white bread and butter. When it seemed like the porridge was ready, we both dug in furiously. As often happens when you inhale food, the taste didn’t catch up to me for a minute or two, but when it did, it almost knocked me out of my chair. It tasted like someone had turned the smell of the Minnesota State Fair horse barn into Malto-Meal and then added a few drops of pig sweat for relish. I suspect the homemade milk from a certain one of our neighbors. Anyways, the struggle was epic, but in the end, I only managed a few more bites before weakly offering the excuse that I wasn’t used to the taste, but it was vkusna (tasty), and filled me up.

Keeping to the subject of food, I feel compelled to qualify my previous comments about our school cafeteria. I’m not going back on my statement that the food is so awful that I’d be leery handing it out for free to the drunks roaming our streets, but I want to briefly shout out to one of the women who work there. I used to get my daily sandwich from a broad smiling, blue-eyed girl about my age, and it was consequently the pleasantest part of my day. Sometime during the winter however, she was replaced by a dour older woman. We didn’t exactly hit it off. First, she didn’t believe me that I got a free pastry for lunch, and because I felt awkward, it was at least three weeks before I was able to get free rock-hard-bread-things again. The point of the story is though, that the issue must have been that we were both too shy to acknowledge our true feelings for each other, but now I know better. She still growls at me and makes me wait unnecessarily long for my food, but I’m starting to think she kinda likes me. I’ve noticed that she picks around for the softest and freshest hard-bread-things and she even went out of her way to put napkins in my little plastic baggie. I have a feeling that this might be the beginning of something special.

Sometimes things and people don’t turn out like you expect them too, like my lunch lady friend, sometimes they do, and sometimes they just surprise you. In the past week I’ve had two very different experiences with old (street) guys, one that was funny and one that was humbling. First funny.

I was sitting on a set of steps outside school during a free period, enjoying one of my pastries and reading Henry Miller on my Kindle. Those stolen moments are the best, I feel practically feline as I feel my face relax, stretch my back, and turn towards the sun. Often however, I end up talking to students,groups of roving delinquents, and rando’s, none of whom seem to appreciate the idea of private space. This particular day, I was approached by a hammered old man who was testing the laws of motion, but with a look of determination on his face that let everyone know that no amount of trickery by the careening earth was going to stop him from getting where he wanted to go.

When he finally made it to me (I was able to almost get through a chapter from the time he saw me thirty feet away and when he arrived), he unleashed a monologue that was surprisingly comprehensible given his inebriation and my Russian.

  • Son, son, blya, son. Got a smoke, blya? Got a light. Son, blya, I need to smoke. Got a light?

This went on for a while, and my response that I lacked both didn’t do much to deter him from asking again and again and again. However, when he realized that I wasn’t from Sergeyevka, it did add a new element to the conversation.

  • Son, I’m German. Russian too blya. Sorry to bother, but blya I need a smoke. You got a light? Oh, blya that’s good. Smoking’s bad. Sorry if I’m bothering you. Wish I could go back to Germany, better people blya.

Again, this part of the conversation lasted a while, and was entertaining until it wasn’t. He was one of those happy, vague drunks, so I humored him longer than I do most. After five minutes though, I was ready to be done, so I told him that I wanted to keep reading and that my book was very interesting.

  • Blya. Okay, so sorry to bother you. You don’t have a smoke do you? Son, you’re a good guy. I’m a good guy too, and blya I can see that you’re a good guy. I just need a smoke right now. Son, you’re a good guy, I’m sorry to bother you. We’re okay right? You don’t happen to have a light? Blya, that’s okay, you’re a good guy. Goodbye blya.

He would say all of this, and walk maybe ten feet, and then come back and say it all again. The hold time we would be shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. Again, this was a strange situation for me, because usually I just tell people to beat it, but there was something kinda sweet about this guy, and I really wanted him to go on having a pleasant day and enjoying his buzz. He eventually made his way to wherever he was going and I went back to reading my book, but I was glad, because I can’t find life like that in my book, talking with a drunk old German man in Russian and shaking his grimy hands and slapping his dirty back, that’s life.

The other moment came when I was sitting at our bus station, listening to music, and reading suggestive texts messages that were being sent to me from the group of volunteers I was going to visit in the city. An old man in a thick ragged coat and a cane was begging for changed, and after getting turned down by the well dressed couple in front of me, he shuffled over. This smell of piss and other things was overwhelming, so I wanted to give him change quickly and end our interaction as soon as possible. This was weak of me. Religious or not, there’s something divine about the story of Jesus kissing the leper, and moments like that are the moments I believe that truly test you as a human being.

I gave him the change in my pocket and quickly looked back down at my cell. He tried to say something to me, which I thought was thank you, so I said your welcome and looked down again. He didn’t move and continued to hold out the hand with the change in it. I looked into his face and saw that one eye was a milky blue and the other was too bloodshot to tell if it matched. I wondered if his shuffling gate had to do with eye problems, but this reflection was cut short by his muffled voice again asking me something that I couldn’t make out. I told him the truth that I was out of small change, but he shook his head and repeated what he said. It looked as if he was holding his money out to me, and then it hit me. Do you want me to count your money? He nodded to me and so I took the change out of his horny palm and counted his money for him out loud. I handed it back to him and he shuffled away, just like that, leaving me sitting on my bench wondering what happened.

People are more complex than I give them credit for, and it scares me that I miss that when I just go through the motions. I’m SLOWLY learning how to be a better teacher, and this is a huge part of it. Trying to learn where students are at, and then doing my best to meet them there. At first I was always shocked when certain students didn’t respond to what I felt was charisma, and then I realized that they had bigger shit to think about. Humbling. I need more patience. And time. And intelligence. Damn I respect the good teachers I’ve had. So, I’ll finish with a shout out to my mom, the best teacher I’ve ever known. And mom, because I love you so much, I’ll put down in writing that yes, even though I hope that I can find peace wherever I am, I won’t truly find peace unless your grandchildren live within driving distance of you.

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