Friday, June 17, 2011

Mountain Tops and Small Victories

Let me start this post with a short apology; I'm sorry for not posting blogs more often. The main reason for my delay is that my transition to my permanent site has been a real challenge, and I had reservations about posting blogs that were anything but entertaining, uplifting, and resounding with positivity about my experience thus far. I had the idea that I could only post about my "mountain top experiences", because no one would want to hear about the valleys. But guess what I've discovered? When you move away from home, family, and friends, and when you are stumbling your way through a language barrier, and when you are confronted with cultural differences every day that push you out of your comfort zone, those mountain tops are elusive. I e-mailed a friend about my frustrations and that I felt I had nothing to write about on my blog, and he suggested that instead of searching for the mountain tops and being disappointed when I can't find them, I should write about my small victories- the little things that keep me going from day to day. What a concept! So this post will site some examples of the small victories that keep me going through even the toughest of times in Kazakhstan.


Many of you know that my transition to my permanent site has been difficult. I am adjusting to a new host family, the absence of my friends from PST, and the inadequacies of my Kazakh language skills. June 15th was the first month-iversary of my arrival in Saumalkol, and frankly, it was a tough month. The morning of my month-iversary was spent helping out at the summer camp at my school, which I've done every morning for the last few weeks. Usually when I "help" at camp, I sit with the kids while they draw pictures or try to keep them from killing each other while they play outside. Regardless of the fact that I don't feel like I am really much of a helper at camp, it is always nice to see the kids and know that they are glad to have me here. After camp, my site mate, Anna, and I walked home together and enjoyed the sunshine and topped off the walk with samsas (little Russian dough pockets filled with some kind of meat…mysterious but tasty!) and freshly made ice cream (always a highlight in my day). When I got home I cooked French toast for lunch (familiar food made by my own two hands is a rarity here), had a nap, and went for a run. In my village life, any afternoon where I get to cook for myself, take a nap, and go for a run is a pretty productive day, and on top of that, I mastered the clothes agitator/centrifuge machine and did my laundry all by myself! Later in the afternoon, I even got to talk to my dad on the phone, and any day in which I get to have a conversation with my loved ones is a good day in my book.


In the evening, I was invited on an excursion with Anna and her host brother and sister. We hitchhiked our way to the next village, which has a population of about 1500 people, one school, a beautiful saltwater lake, and a camel farm. That's right, a camel farm. Not only did we get to pet the camels and play with their botas (babies), but we got to watch the evening milking process and were then treated to as much shubat as we could possibly drink. Shubat is fermented camel's milk that's a huge favorite of the Kazakh people. I first sampled this particular beverage about 3 months ago in Almaty, and it was…less than tasty. What we were given at the camel farm, however, was surprisingly drinkable—we were told that shubat is best when the camels have been eating very green grass (it's similar to the way the soil in which grapes are grown will affect the taste of wine, only instead of wine, we were drinking a salty, sour-ish, frothy, milk product…made from camels). 


After we had our fill of shubat, our hosts took us on a tour of the beautiful lakes of the area. The lakes are surrounded by rolling hills covered in forests of birch and pine intermixed, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the area reminded me of home, and of so many family vacations to Washington and Oregon. And the armies of mosquitoes that emerged at dusk reminded me of nothing more than summertime in Minnesota. We left the lake and headed back to our host's home, where we were served mounds of food and gallons of tea, in the typical Kazakh fashion of unending hospitality. As if that was not enough, Anna and I were then handed the traditional Kazakh wedding costumes of a husband and wife, complete with the small whip that every Kazakh man is given on his wedding day to "keep his wife in check"—and yes, this traditional whip is still given to newly married couples and is proudly displayed in traditional Kazakh homes. Of course, we put on the costumes (Anna got the whip) and took plenty of pictures, to the great delight of our hosts.


After we were given a ride back to our village and I was reflecting on my day, I realized that not only was that a wonderful day by my standards for Kazakhstan, but it was a wonderful day by any standards. In the morning, I did my best to help the kids at our camp. In the afternoon, I had some personal time and I overcame a challenge (I mastered the clothes agitator!). In the evening, I learned all about camels and Kazakh traditions, and regardless of my poor grammar and limited vocabulary, I spoke and spoke and spoke with my hosts and was treated not as an outsider, but as a neighbor—sharing food, transcending cultural barriers, and even laughing at the same jokes. I was invited back in a month (when the camels will be done shedding their winter coats) to ride a camel, drink more shubat, and have a picnic at the lake. Let me tell you, I can't wait for July 15th!


Here's the best part: I started writing this blog post to provide you with a few examples of the small victories that carry me from day to day here in Saumalkol. But upon finishing this post and looking back on the events of June 15th, I now realize that while the day was, indeed, overflowing with small victories, it was more than that. I now realize that without trying to, I spent my first month-iversary on a mountain top.