There’s always a little something that disrupts peace and quiet; at the moment it’s the constant gunfire from automatic weapons being used to slaughter computer generated avatars on the computer in the room next to me. There are still places in the world where technology hasn’t infested every pore on society’s pockmarked face, but Kazakhstan is not one of them. Maybe no running water, probably no central heating, definitely poor nutrition, but (if possible) computers and TV’s. The family I live with currently is wealthy according to the standards of our village, and as I was crouched in our tub the other day trying to coax the tiny stream of water over my body, I fantasized about what I’d do with their money. First of all, I’d take the flat screen from the kitchen and put in a shower with decent water pressure. Then I’d trade the nice SUV and the gas that goes with it for nutritional meals. And finally, I’d trade the other TV for some decent-sized fans or an air-conditioning unit. Fo definitely sho though, I’d computer hammer the shit out of our desktop.
When the violence gets to be too much, I move outside for my daily protein. People put up mad talk about how Kazakhs eat more meat than anyone in the world, but what I’ve come to realize is that it’s more of an evolutionary feast or famine diet. Sometimes we stuff ourselves until we’re green, but usually all we eat is white bread and tea. Lately though, that’s not been a problem thanks to the bugs. I’m serious, I open my mouth and there are literally so many nats that I cannot help but eating them. The trick is to eat the nats while avoiding getting eaten by the horseflies. I know I make a sight doing my push ups and sit ups outside, down, up, down, jump and slap my back, down, up, slap my leg, down, up, down, cough up a fly, down, up, down.
On Tuesday I went for a long run down the river at three o’clock in the swelternoon. This is the steamiest hottest part of the day, and besides being stupid, I have a couple of reasons for making this my daily running time. First, the whole family is inside, so even if I stayed in the house, it’d be hot and uncomfortable. Second, I’m too lazy to run in the morning, and post-prandial digestion is pretty much optimal at three. Thirdly, I feel more badass when it’s crazy hot, and I like to feel badass. Anyways, I was running by the river, and the wind went from a slight breeze to a whimper before dying out completely. I turned around at twenty-five minutes and was pondering the run back, when I was assaulted by flies. It turned out that the fly infantry was merely a diversion for the horsefly who outflanked my swatting and chewed out a good section of my calf. What I’m trying to say is that horseflies can eat shit and die.
The bugs make reading outside unpleasant, so I tried reading in our large, airy, and impossibly cool kitchen. Then big auntie came and turned on the flat screen. I know need to chill out on my dissection of home entertainment technologies, especially as I type on one of my own, but damn, I can’t help but hate TV’s. And I used to love them, really slobber all over them. You’d turn on a TV and I’d be glued to the sucker until it was turned off; news, cartoons, Walker Texas Ranger, you name it, whatever was on, I’d let it take me in and slowly drug me down like a quality barbiturate. That’s in the past, now I just hate them with an impotent rage.
Where was I? Auntie came in, turned on the TV, and adjusted the volume to somewhere between a rock concert and a jackhammer. Reading in the kitchen rendered kaput, I decided to abandon literature for the moment and inhale some empty calories, so I grabbed a small spoon from the counter and sat back down next to our massive aunt to eat a loaf of white bread smothered in butter and jam. I’m not kidding, there is such little substance in our bread that you can eat an entire loaf and then go running twenty minutes later. That’s my main excuse, the follow-up being that it’s more or less the only food in the house, unless you consider the plates of congealed animal fat stacked in the refrigerator.
Halfway through the loaf I looked up to see the source of the assault on my eardrums. It appeared to be a Kazakh sitcom that took place in a banquet hall type restaurant. Something about it fascinated me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it so I kept watching, which meant that I was careless about the butter I was applying to my bread, and before I knew it, had actually run out of what I thought was more than a stick of butter at the start. Then it clicked, the people on the screen looked and spoke just like the people who I interact with daily, but there was something fundamentally different about them. They were smiling, joking, and being silly.
It was mesmerizing, the TV characters were laughing at everything, themselves, their seriousness, their traditions, everything, and it was the polar opposite of every interaction I’ve had so far in this country. I’ve never seen such a large swath of people take themselves seriously as in Kazakhstan, and that extends from the bazaar to the kitchen. Furthermore, anything regarding culture and tradition is approached with such seriousness that it would appear to be a parody to an outside observer. I know that this manic-silly exaggeration isn’t limited to Kazakh sitcoms, but the contrast was blindingly stark given the nature of this society. It had the same hypnotic quality of the Kazakh game shows and concerts that have riveted me in the past with their forced excitement and jolliness. Okay, maybe riveted is too strong a word, more like “momentarily fascinated” before I realize that I am going to die someday and I should find something better to do.
Which leads me to the last thing I was thinking about as I pounded coffee this morning and read outside before the bugs mounted their daily assault on my sanity. ‘Decadence is a state of mind.’ Yesterday, I felt deliciously decadent lounging in the early morning sun, drinking Nescafe, reading a great book. Then I felt decadent at the beach, floating in the cool water, shooting across the bottom of the sand, and splayed out on my baby blue towel. I ended up moving my towel and joining two girls who were sitting close to me and invited me over with their smiles. They assumed I was Russian like they were, but it didn’t seem to matter when I turned out to be an American. It was fun to talk to them, because it felt like one of the first normal interactions I’ve had in a while. They talked about how they come here every summer because they have family friends, and it gets more depressing each year as they watch the population of what was once a town dwindle.
It struck me when the older one said, This place is worse than a city because it has nothing, and it’s worse than a village because it has no charm. I opened my mouth to defend my new home, but nothing came out, she had a point. Then it hit me. Damn, if I can feel decadent here, then decadence is more than just having something, it’s a state of mind, it’s a choice. Not a very profound or interesting choice, but a choice nevertheless. When I logged onto the internet later on that day and saw a picture of Justin Bieber and his dad showing off their matching tattoos, I realized the same goes for cheapness. I then again realized that I’m going to die someday, turned off the computer, and biked down to the place on the riverbank where the lilypads open into a sort of channel to the main body of water. I swam alone , letting the soft current pull me on my back, enjoying the fact that I was completely alone and it was quiet. I’ve been told on many occasions never to swim outside the beach, but this place is too good to give up, I have a feeling I’ll be back. I swam back to the rocks to dry off in the hot sun, and I discovered my second gift of the day, amateur bouldering. You never know what Bieber will inspire you to do.