As I looked down at my sore hands, I realized they were slightly swollen and purple from boxing. I was sitting with my temporary host family around our enormous dining room table, and we were all holding our hands in front of us in prayer, listening to the man to my left sing in Arabic. It was close to midnight and we were just starting to eat, two hours after I wanted to go to bed. It had been another day of decadence; eating, reading, running, eating, boxing, eating and more reading, but for some reason I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to pull the comforter out from under the couch and bury myself in sleep. I didn’t however, because I was not prepared to risk offending the family who was generously letting me crash at their house while I looked for another place to live.
While I looked at my hands, a calm feeling started from my bellybutton and streamed out through my whole body. Something about the music and prayer got inside me, and it hit me that this moment was reality, and it was good. As the imam moved from song into a fast chanting prayer, I let my mind flow to what was good around me: the beautifully creased face of the grandmother, the proud faces of a mother and father with their newborn son, the happiness of my host family.
Were were having a Ramadan dinner on Friday the 19th of August, 2011, exactly one year after I arrived in Kazakhstan. As I reached my hand to the center of the table and took a greasy circle of horse sausage in my fingers, I tried to think back on what was going through my mind that night in the airport. Not much coherent I think, I was slightly drunk, sleep-deprived, and regretting my decision to join Peace Corps. I do however remember looking at the seventy or so other volunteers standing around me and thinking how they all really looked like they were meant to be there, and knowing that I, on the other hand, had got on the wrong bus.
I grinned/groaned inwardly at the dinner table, because I realized that one year later I still had no idea what I was doing, was homeless, and had Russian language skills that would make me a precocious three year-old. I folded baked dough between my fingers and thought about the intangibles. Friendships with volunteers, students, and random people, that’s probably the biggest. Then piano, something to pass the time that has become something more. Literature, a winter in Siberia provided me with a platform to catch up on most of the books I thought I’d never read and highlighted how little I’ve actually read. Made me a snob. The biggest thing though has nothing to do with Peace Corps, it’s just been another year to ask questions and live, and for that hippie ass shit, I’m thankful.
After dinner I relaxed into a semi-bliss, leaning back into my chair cushions with the host-father, his brother, and the Tajiki Imam eating homemade rasberry jam and drinking tea. It was a great time, good conversation, fantastic food, and a brotherly atmosphere. I chalked it up to a few things, no alcohol stronger than fermented horsemilk (like wine), better Russian, and good people. After dinner I struggled to my room, used my final bit of energy to get out the comforter and pillow, and collapsed into oblivion.
The next morning was cool and gray, perfect sleeping weather. Sometime around ten I rolled out of bed and hobbled to the bathroom, grabbing pastries on my way. I directed my stream with one hand while holding pastries in the other. Going for a long run seemed like a terrible idea; my whole body still ached from Friday, and it felt like I ate enough for a pro football team. It took three cups of coffee, more pastries, and a few more trips to the bathroom before I was awake and digested enough to even consider an extended period of perambulation.
The wind was cold, and five minutes after leaving the house my legs and arms still felt like lead and my gut was misbehaving. I decided to go fifteen minutes out and then decide from there. So I pathetically plodded on, food baby-bump bouncing uncomfortably. Feeling a little better at fifteen, I decided to stretch it to thirty and run a road straight south out of Sergevka that I’d yet to explore. At the intersection at the edge of town, the south-bearing road seems a sort of highway; wide and well-paved, it runs along the dammed section of the river that looks more like a lake, and is framed by poplars and grass on both sides.
The highway feel gradually melted away as the asphalt narrowed and disintegrated until finally at the bottom of a gradual downhill, the road morphed into a sparingly paved narrow single-laner, hooded by ten to fifteen foot high brush. Something about this road got to my bones. When the brush parted enough for me to see what was beyond, all I saw was thick greasy swamp, creepy quiet, no wetland animal sounds.
Those moments are good though because they offer you a choice, embrace the adventure (well, not really in this case), or turn back. At this point I usually stop and think; if the fear seems irrational, I go on and feel better. If it’s rational, I go on and try not to think any more. Either way, it’s more fun when you envision yourself as a romantic hero instead of some sweaty dude running through a swamp. Besides, my body felt great, like my cells were alive with energy from the tonnage I consumed the night before. Ten minutes later the swamp sloughed off behind me and the brush opened up to a golden shimmering steppe.
I’ve talked about the running through the steppe before, but Sergevka is more like a borderland, we have some prairie, but its dotted with poplar groves. However, what lay in front of me at the edge of the swamp was pure unfiltered prairie, golden grasses stretching until the horizon curved out of sight. On the edge of the prairie to my right, there was an old soviet trailer with a dilapidated fence around, imprisoning some hobo sheep. I’d just made it out of the swamp of death though, so not even the Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe of the little hovel, or the outline of a head peering through the window could keep me from having a religious experience.
I ran straight into the prairie. Everything was different; the feathery grasses danced in the wind, there were birds, and even the air smelled different, fresh and clean. I ran over broken grass where some vehicle preceeded me, but the grass all around me was high and wild. I ran further to where the grass was cut down, and I saw huge piles of it that dotted the land like weird alien mounds. I felt amazing, but experience convinced me to turn around, knowing that even though my body felt fantastic after hour of running, it would eventually crash from lack of training.
Between minutes 60 and 100 on my way back, I thought about the coming year, so as to distract myself from my crashing energy system. Minutes 100 to 120 my eyes were glazed, my tongue hung out, and it was all I could do to repeat the mantra soft step, relax shoulders.
It’s funny how you can have this one idea of yourself, and then one comment will completely derail it. Two summers ago I ran a qualifying half-marathon in Redwing just before doing a cross-country road trip with my brother. My goal for the race was to run at my goal marathon-pace and stay relaxed. Everything fell into place and I found myself at the end of the run in a pack of guys a little older than me. Youth has beauty and fast-twitch muscles, so thinking I looked like a running god, I smoked the pack in the last quarter-mile and finished smug. Then my little bro came up to me as I was congratulating my running partners, saw my sense of self-satisfaction, and said to me approximately this: “So the first guy came in, I think he was African, and he looked smooth, like a gazelle. The next thing I know, you’re coming around the corner looking like something between a tank and a rhino.” The thing was, I actually thought I looked smooth and antelopesque; moral of the story, I look ridiculous when I run. Very tense shoulders.
Between minutes 100 and 120 I was in a place of absolute mindlessness. This speaks to my running shape, which is very very rough. I knew it was coming though, and I wanted to be in that dimension of complete physicality, the place where you understand that you are just blood and bones and meat. Once you’re there, it either scares the shit out of and paralyzes you, or releases you into reality. It’s stopped scaring the shit out of me. Between minutes 100 and 110, my eyes were blinking strangely and almost continuously, but between 110 and 120 everything went dead except my core and my legs. All I thought, body up legs go, body up legs go.
I got home, took off my shoes, and zombie walked to my room past the host-father who was watching a Steven Segal marathon on the couch. He looked up at me, grinned, and said Molodietz Steven Segal! (roughly, Good job Steven Segal!), in the same way he always says Molodietz! and then the president’s name. He’s a smart guy, and I was all messed up, so I attributed this to my drugged up brains and shuffled past him smelling like cat piss. Later on that day though I realized that no, he actually meant it the way I interprated it.
Going back to between minutes 60 and 100. I used this time to think, and thought hard about this place and why/if I wanted to stay here. There have been some awful things that have happened to volunteers in Kazakhstan, especially female volunteers. No one deserves what these women have gone through, and the character I’ve seen in these women humbles me. I look around and see all of these women and girls, Kazakh and American, and in so many of them there’s this light, this beautiful light that people have when they see life as joyful and good. The kind of light I want to inspire in my students, tend to in my future wife, and create and protect in my daughters some day. To think that someone would put that out, would hurt someone to that ultimate degree is incomprehensible to me. Anger, no rage, is what’s left once the thinking goes.
At first thought I want to give this whole region the two-fingered salute and go someplace that doesn’t combine first world money with tenth-world gender culture. Then I realized something, sixty some percent of the population here are suffering from this shit, and the seeds of violence, disrespect, and brutality are sowed in childhood. And I’m a teacher. So fighting that culture of disrespect and brutality is something I can try to do. Fuck cultural relativity.