I’ve found that without a base (home) and without the permanent lack of a base, just the hint of a promise that it will come, I’m lulled into an aimlessness that limits my productivity to running, reading, eating, piano, and sitting on our pedestrian walkway watching jeans go by. I don’t like feeling like this, old and unproductive. Sitting down to write today was fueled by my stench of sloth, stimulants, and cloud cover that inspired me to take my netbook outside. Hoorah for Peace Corps baby.
I moved into a new family last Monday and am being fed well for the first time since coming to Kazakhstan. The family is unobtrusive, respectful, and pleasant, and the house is more than I could hope for, meat-butchering pullup bar included. Besides being closer to both my school and the piano school, the running is just as good as the first two homes. Problem is there’s not an extra room. As much as I like the host-brothers and try to be chill about sharing my space, having one’s own room is a mental health and legal necessity in Peace Corps. Unfortunately my counterpart informed my new family of this “revelation” before finding an alternative place to stay, and after failing at said task for the past five days, is now heading to Almaty for a Peace Corps conference. Patience she says, patience I think, patience I think again might be overrated.
So, I sit on a bench in the late afternoon wondering how writers in movies always seem to smoke their cigarets while typing, and how long my lungs will take my mornings of hour-plus runs at blistering paces done so I can strip my soul to see what’s going on, followed by evenings of cigarets, bad music, and weird books.
When I moved in on Monday, it was the usual bevy of introductions to people and family structures. The only people I didn’t meet were two swarthy guys wearing ragged clothes who were working outside doing something to the garage. One of them tried to ask me something, but didn’t speak Russian or English and kind of smiled and waved me off when I said in Kazakh that I don’t speak Kazakh and that I have a mother. I was reading outside on the next day when both of them came and sat down next to me. The taller one spoke some Russian and had the intangible ability to communicate. This ability to communicate has little to do with actual language and a lot to do with some nameless quality which I think involves listening and wanting to be understood. They both seemed nice and had an air of desperation about them that touched me.
The shorter one asked to see my phone and the other one asked my name. Their eyes widened when I told them that I came all the way from America and was living here without earning money. My eyes widened when they told me that they came all the way from Uzbekistan, were earning less than me, and were eighteen and nineteen. They laughed when I told them they were young and asked if I was married. I told them no and asked if they had girlfriends. The tall one said no, but that his friend was in love, said lover grinned at me showing me spaces where his teeth should have been. He looked at my phone again and said that it costs a lot to call Uzbekistan, and then the other one asked me why I was here. At this point I felt stupid because my reasons for being here seemed a lot less real than theirs, but I told the truth that I came for adventure and lack of anything better to do. They seemed to dig that, and being the age they were, I’d assume adventure played some role in their journey to too, even if it was mostly driven by need for money.
We sat and talked for over an hour, and when I told them that I was also a worker back home when I wasn’t a student, they laughed and said that I probably didn’t mix cement by hand. I never thought that skill would give me credibility, but I found myself bragging that yes I did mix by hand, and I was an expert wheelbarrower. I set my phone down and walked over to the garage with the tall one to check out their work. It was clear that they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. We came back and laughed some more about the eighteen year-old and his insistence that his girlfriend would stay faithful.
My new host-father came outside with a bucket of kitchen slop, and the two boys got up to feed the dogs. There are two dogs at our house, one at each entrance, a Saint Bernard named Sarah and German Shepherd named Muktar. My ten year-old host-brother’s arm and chest are criss-crossed with scars from the German Shepherd that his mom told me sent him to the hospital and left him weak and effeminate. I told her that in America that was a pretty legit excuse and the dog would have been shot. The Uzbek boys fed Sarah quickly, but took time with Muktar the Shepherd, playing with him and scratching him. I was under strict instructions to never come close to him under any circumstance. They said they’d been here a month, and that it had taken four days to touch him. We sat back on the steps and talked some more as the sun went down and mosquitos came out.
I was sitting in my room later on that night when it came to me to check my phone. It confirmed my suspicions that a call was made to Uzbekistan while I was inspecting the shoddy mud/cement plaster job that would come crumbling down the next day. I sat in my chair letting my anger sublimate into a mild dissatisfaction tempered by understanding. It was another hot night and my earplugs weren’t as effective as I wished in drowning out the nasal gymnastics performed by my host-brother.
The next morning the shorter one came up to me while I was outside finishing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. He said he wanted to make a call in Sergevka, and asked if he could borrow my phone which I’d left inside. I lied to him that I was out of minutes, and he said okay and walked away. I lied because I was mad that he used my phone the day before, and then I felt shitty about lying. I consoled myself that he was probably also lying and wanted to call his girlfriend in Uzbekistan again. It didn’t work and I felt shitty all around because not only was I for sure a liar, but I was sitting and reading while he was working and being a real person. We were friendly for the rest of the day, and the three of us sat down for a while in the evening, but it wasn’t the same. Something had been broken, and I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t the one responsible. I talked to Muktar a few more times, he stopped snarling.
That night at dinner I experienced that strange bigotry that seems to permeate everywhere, people picking another group of people and putting them down through generalizations for obscure reasons. The irony of this is that generalizations often function to display the stupidity of the speaker instead of reinforce their opinions. Anyways, after my host-family saw me sitting with the workers, they chose to explain to me the numerous ways in which Uzbeks are inferior to Kazakhs. Like dad always says, “Everyone will try to find a way to shit on someone else.” I don’t see that as a dour life philosophy, but merely an accurate observation regarding the weaknesses of human beings. The creepiest part of dinner was when the ten year-old started regaling the rest of the family with information about the deficiencies in character and work habits of the Uzbek boys. I wanted to throw my soup at the little ratter, but his parents encouraged him and asked for more. I felt sick because he’s only a kid, and those are the serious kinds of morals that you need to develop early in life.
The next day they were gone. No goodbyes, no anything. I came back from my run and noticed that the door to their little house was padlocked shut from the outside and they weren’t in the yard. I walked around to the front of the house and found the Russian “general contractor” who comes and smokes next to me while I do pushups, and asked him what was up. He inhaled deep, and the exhaled slowly saying that they didn’t work hard and didn’t have any skills. So they’re gone? I asked. Yeah, he said, That’s what happens when you get Uzbeks. I looked at him for a while trying to think of what to say. I wanted to say And the crumbling mud and block houses that make up this shitty little town are design specimens? Or comment on the architectual curiousity and questionable building quality in their beloved capital city. In the end I just said that I thought they did a pretty good job for being so young and far away from home, then walked inside.
Later that day I came back home from piano through the side door in the back of the house, Muktar’s door. He was laying outside his doghouse looking at me with his ears flat against his head, but he wasn’t barking. I walked up to him and stopped a few feet before the end of his chain like I’d been doing for the past few days. It was day 3, one day less than it took the Uzbek boys to pet him, and he didn’t look like he was in the mood. My heart was beating in my ears as I scratched the thick fur behind his head. He growled softly at me as I told him how bad I felt about what happened with the two boys. They always tell you that dogs can sense your fear, so I figured that if I kept talking I’d think about that instead of the way that he chewed on my host-brother.
I don’t even know if the kid made a call on my phone long enough to talk to his love. I don’t know where they’re working now. I just know that if I could do it over, I’d have given him my phone to use when he asked for it.