February 2007: A Day In The Life

February 2007: A Day In The Life
Well, friends we’re in the middle of a heat wave here. It was 35 F last week. If you don’t think that’s warm, remember it was -40 F last year at this time, so we’ve gained about 75 degrees. To illustrate how unseasonably warm that is, think about it being 105 F in Michigan right now.

Thanks again for all the Christmas packages and cards. We very much appreciate and use everything we get. If you sent something to us we sent a letter back, just be patient as the post is going really slowly right now. Boxes are doing about 5 weeks. Letters are slightly faster. If you sent something surface or M-bag they’re taking four months or more. Remember, we love to get letters, and that’s only 84 cents. People all too often say they haven’t got anything to say. Keep in mind our options are your letter or Kazakh weather reports. If you can beat the weather, we’d love to read it. Yes, we’d love to hear about your goldfish.

This month Amy has written “a day in the life” part II, this time for days we’re traveling to and from that Mecca of Pavlodar Oblast, Pavlodar.

9:00 am Awake. I stretch luxuriously in the hotel bed and look around. Ah, thank goodness for quarantine. Once a few students got the flu we knew it was only a matter of time until the other students figured out that if they stayed home too the school would have to close. So here we are, a whole week of freedom. I try to shower quickly, but it is a pleasure that I can’t quite seem to give up when I know I have to go back to possibility of banya once a week.

2:00 pm Bus. After a few quick errands, including a stop at the meat store to grab some ground beef (a newly discovered luxury), we hop on the bus to Bayanaul. By now we know all the drivers well. We are also accustomed to pushing our way onto the bus. For some reason all the people who are seeing people off or waiting to buy tickets stand directly in front of the bus door so no one can get on. I made the mistake before of patiently waiting for these people to move and was yelled at by the conductor. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Waiting to get on the bus,” I said. “Then get on!” she yelled. I indicated the people crowding and pushing their way on already. She frowned at me, shoved two people aside and pushed me on. Apparently ticket holders have precedence and need to assert it. Once on the bus, we also have to push our way down the aisle to get to our seats. In the beginning I tried saying, “excuse me” to the people standing in the aisle, but only got nasty stares. Now I shove the people aside and they seem much happier with this arrangement. Finally the bus takes off, and we are swung out of the big city into nothingness. It is not like the nothingness of Ohio freeways with small farms dotted along it. It really is nothing. No farms, no villages, no anything. After the first 20 minutes, not even any trees. Upon seeing this view for the first time, our friend Andy who came to visit this summer from the UK, exclaimed, “Wow!” I wish I could share his enthusiasm. While many people have extolled the wonders of endless land and a horizon that stretches on forever, I just don’t buy it. I try to sleep on the bumpy road, but give up and start watching for animals. I do miss the Ohio landscape with the possibility of seeing deer. But on this journey I almost always see red fox. I’ve also seen mountain hares (almost as big as foxes themselves) and lots of different kids of birds of prey. One time I even saw a steppe eagle. It swooped down right next to the bus, its wings spreading at least five feet if not more. My newest sighting was a snowy owl we saw last month. He was amazing.

4:00 pm Maikaieen. I awake to realize we’ve arrived in Maikaieen, the only village stop along our route. Twice the size of Bayanaul, Maikaieen was once a thriving gold mining town. Now most of the inhabitants have left and the empty shells of apartment and factory buildings attest to its lack of resources. During the Soviet Union, the people of Maikaieen supposedly could see the nuclear bomb tests hundreds of miles away in the Polygon. Ah, the beauty of that endless horizon. The bus pulls out of Maikaieen and we are again on our way. There are a few more stops along the road, but no towns in sight. I see signs like “Berlik, 10 K” and watch people hurrying down the narrow dirt roads, laden with packages. Though we can’t see any towns, there are more signs of life. Cows block the road as the amble slowly home. Sheep scurry here and there, their huge fatty butts that they are bred for flopping up and down. Horses jump their way along the street. (To keep the horses from running away their front feet are often tied together so they have to sort of hop and shuffle to move.) I look ahead of the bus and finally begin to see what I’ve been waiting for. Out of the flat, empty steppe, there suddenly rises what could be confused for a small bump, followed by another. After a few minutes, we are unmistakably traveling over small hills, and there in the distance towering above that relentless horizon, the highest peak of Akh-bet. The mountains of Bayanaul are hardly majestic, but after the steppe they practically take your breath away. Craggy and pine tree covered, they signal that we are finally arriving home to our little “oasis surrounded by endless steppe” as one of my students called it.

5:30 pm home. By now we are beyond begging and bargaining for someone to take us home from the bus stop. Without a word the bus driver heads towards our house and stops right outside. We scurry over the snow drift in front of our house and are greeted by the neighbor’s dog, a border collie mix (every dog in Bayanaul is a mix), who has adopted us. In a world without garbage disposals, this dog, Dik, has become a good friend. We open the front door and are surprised at how warm the entry way is. I guess all the meat we just bought is going to have to be eaten right away since this entry way also serves as our freezer. We drop our bags and Jack heads out to the coal shed while I hit the outhouse. It’s funny how normal these actions seem by now. On the way down our path through the snow, we see Dik has left us a present. For some reason he likes to drag his food into our yard to eat it, and then he leaves the bones. Today he has left the remains of a horse leg. I will eat horse meat now if I must, and I even like it, but this reminder of where it came from is too much for me.

6:30 pm water. One thing we have never been able to get here is fire wood. We have asked all sorts of people where to buy wood, and they never seem to know, even though they have stacks of wood themselves. Usually we just try not to let the fire go out, but Jack has become a champion of starting it from just a cardboard box (or once even chopsticks). He talks to it and coaxes it into existence while I start researching dinner. I had fun coming up with creative dinners months ago, but now in the dead of winter, when we can only get potatoes and meat, it is a bit more difficult. We decide on spaghetti, but when I reach for the water I realize we are out. We gather the buckets and head off down the street. Jack rigs up his special system of attaching the bucket to the end of the well chain, while I arrange our various containers. Jack gets us started with a few buckets. Crank the bucket down, let it sink, crank the bucket up, pour it into another bucket. And down we go again. At least today the weather is warm, so the chain doesn’t freeze. On colder days as soon as you start getting water the drips on the well chain freeze and make each consecutive bucket that much heavier. I take over bringing up the water while Jack starts making trips to the house. We have five buckets, 6 five liter bottles, and a 50 liter tank in the house. Jack brings back empty buckets that he used to fill the tank and we start again. The whole process only takes about half an hour, but it really makes us long for the days of turning on the faucet. This water will last between one and two weeks depending on how conservative we are, and if we do laundry.

The inset picture is our "sink." You put water in a small tank at the back and it flows down into the bucket, which you can barely see below.

The large white container is where we keep our water. It takes about three trips with two five gallon buckets to fill it.

7:00 pm dinner. We return from getting water and I put a bucket on to warm. Holding my breath as I always do I insert the metal rod into the bucket, clip it on the side, then plug it into the socket. It actually works great, but since the metal rod only cost about $3 it makes me nervous. It would make me feel safer if something like that cost about $50. How’s that for a very American comment? Actually, there is such a difference in the quality of products here, that it usually is better to buy the more expensive products. In America you can find the best deal, and congratulate yourself for it. Here, if it’s too cheap to be true, it definitely is. So we sought out the most expensive metal rod and gladly handed over the $3. Jack continues building his fire while I start the pasta boiling. Jack’s fire has caught, so he pours on a bucket of coal and stirs it around. The furnace itself just looks like a big rectangular box protruding from the wall that can be opened from the top or side. The top opens to put coal on, the side opens to take ash out. We both wrinkle our noses as the coals catches fire and lets off its strong sulfur smell. It will be an hour or two before it gives off any real heat, but at least it’s started.

Jack comes to help me with dinner. I may be the designated cook, but he is the pasta sauce master. While he gets the sauce ready I wash the few dirty dishes. I get my two large bowl-like plastic containers, and fill them both with a little of the heated water. Then I pour liquid soap in one of the buckets. I wash the dishes and one by one rinse them in the second bucket and put them on the drying rack. Sort of like a two sink system at home, only there is no opportunity for changing the water once it gets a bit dirty. Once the dishes are done, Jack takes the water outside and Dik comes running to see if we’ve thrown out anything interesting. Then, dinner prepared, like any good American couple we settle down in front the television to eat. For a minute we try to watch the news in Russian or Kazakh, then turn on the VCR and pop in one of the many BBC shows that Uncle Steve has taped for us. It is easy to get hooked on a show when you have the whole season in front of you and endless hours to watch it!

9:00 pm banya. Our host mom calls to let us know that the banya is ready for us. I consider it for a minute since it really is nice to go to our old house, hang out with our sisters, and get clean one more time. But we decide we are tired and tell her we’ll come next week. After all, for once we are actually already clean on a Sunday night.

11:00 pm bedtime. I head to bed with a book in hand, my 87th since coming to Kazakhstan. I hear Jack making his nighttime coffee. We’ve recently discovered that the price of Nescafe really is worth it. It is far superior to all the other instant coffees, though I do dream of my first cup of real coffee when we return. That time creeps closer, and we’re ready to go, but glad for the experiences we’ve had. The house is warm, we’ve eaten well enough, we’ve relaxed in the ways we would in America, and we’re really used to the way of life here. Four more months of school, our summer camp, a quick trip to see a few new places on the way home, and we’ll be back and this will all be memories.

Jack & Amy