Friday, September 9, 2011

Fun Times in the Village

I know I’ve said this before, and I know I’ll say it again, but thank you. Thanks to all of my loving family members, friends, and community members from the various places I’ve lived. I couldn’t be here and do this work without your support and encouragement. I recently received an e-mail from a friend to whom I had been venting about some small frustrations of life at site. He gave me some much needed words of kindness, and then challenged me to think in another way. He said that instead of always hearing about the challenges of my life away from home, he’d love to hear about some of my favorite parts of life in Kazakhstan. He posed the simple question, “What do you do for fun?” And then I realized that this topic has yet to be seen on my blog! Let me enlighten you all about some of my hobbies in the village, and how I spend my free time.

Now that I’ve started teaching (huzzah!), I’ve got much less free time than I had this summer, which is just fine by me. Many of you know that I love to be busy, so teaching 20 hours a week plus planning for future extracurricular English clubs and summer camps is my cup of tea. But I still find myself with a lot of free time compared with my life in America. One PCV, when asked about what she does in her spare time replied, “here my hobbies are staring at stuff, walking around, drinking beers on my balcony, reading, banya, and walking around.”
Caitlin’s words are not only funny, but true. I’ve taken up hobbies in Kazakhstan that I never liked in America, such as running. When I have free time here, I’ll go for a long run in the forest around my house or on the road that runs out of my village and through the steppe. In America, I hated running. It was a means to a healthy body and cardiovascular system. In the village, running provides me with personal space, time to think, and a pleasant way to take in the area around Saumalkol. Six months ago, I never dreamed that I would one day describe running as pleasant.

Unfortunately, winter is rapidly approaching, which will put an end to my outdoor runs (I’m not brave enough to attempt to run outside during a sub-Siberian winter). But don’t fret, I have a plan. My host mom, Bebegul, knows how to knit! She knits clothes for my host sisters, sweaters for herself, and doilies for our kitchen table. I’ve already bought some yarn, and I have her word that she will teach me her skill when winter comes and I’m house bound. I’m not sure that knitting will provide me with the same satisfaction that I’ve found in running, but I’ve always wanted to learn to knit, and this winter will be the perfect opportunity.

I’ve never considered myself a bookworm because I never had enough time to read for pleasure in America, but I love to read, and I’ve found that taking in the written word has become one of my favorite pastimes here. I’ve been here for 6 months and I’m well into my 11th book, and I usually do a crossword puzzle every night (thank for the puzzle book, Mom!). Eleven books in six months is actually a fairly low number compared to some other volunteers, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve never had this much time to read. I’m so grateful for my kindle (thanks, Aunt Sherrie!), because with it I can access practically any book I want, and I’ll never run out of stories to take in.

There are also hobbies that I did a lot in America that I can still do here. For example, in the states, playing volleyball with my friends was one of my favorite activities. In college I was on an intramural team every year, and I played on a community team the summer after graduation. Well guess what? People in Kazakhstan love volleyball, too! The teachers at my school usually play once a week, and they are always sure to invite me to play with them (this is not because I’m good, mind you, but because I’m competitive and I’ve got a good 6” on many of the men here). This summer I spent many an evening playing volleyball with my host dad, sister, and cousin, all of whom love to play and never seemed to tire of peppering.

Speaking of pepper, let’s talk about food. The best part about food is that in one form or another, it can be found all over the world. In America, I loved to cook. I baked pies, I experimented with sauces, I helped with holiday meals, and I cooked with my friends. Food here is very different from food in America, but this hasn’t stopped me from cooking. If I ever find that my host family is gone and I have the house all to myself, I immediately head for the kitchen. I can cook if my host family is around, and I sometimes do, but I love the freedom of an empty house and a quiet kitchen where I can experiment and create anything I want. I’ve cooked for my host family on two different occasions, and the record stands as: Pizza- hit! Banana bread- miss (I tried not to be offended that they didn’t like my banana bread, which happened to be one of the best batches I’ve ever made). Next time I cook for them, I’m going to make tacos.

I’ve also cooked with my host family a few times, and every time it has been a wonderful experience. When Kazakh families have visitors over (this occasion is called a konak), there’s usually a lot of food provided by the women of the family for their guests. The first time my host mother asked me to help her cook for the konak, I took it as a real compliment because it meant that I was no longer thought of as a guest, but rather as a part of the family. Since then, I’ve helped prepare for several other konaks, which means spending some time with my host mom and host sister in the kitchen, cooking together. For a konak, my family usually makes several types of salad including shredded carrot salad (slightly tangy and very tasty), and an Asian rice noodle salad with bell peppers and garlic (one of my favorite foods in Kazakhstan), and monti is the always main course (these are steamed dumplings that usually have either pumpkin or meat, potatoes, and onions inside- the pumpkin variety is fantastic). If we’re expecting a lot of people at the konak, my host mother also prepares baursak, which is like small pieces of fried dough that taste very similar to funnel cake/elephant ears (or “scones” if you’re from Havre) in America. Since I arrived in Kazakhstan, I’ve learned how to make Kazakh salads, stuff monti and fold it properly, and fry baursak. Despite all of the differences between life in Kazakhstan and life in the states, food can be found all over the world, so I can enjoy cooking here just as much as I did in America.

As I have become more acclimated to life here, I have started to join in the activities that local people do for fun. When the weather is nice in Saumalkol, the most popular pastime for local people is to walk around the town square and eat sunflower seeds. They talk, they people watch, and they eat seeds. Kazakhstani people love their seeds. This summer I was invited to sit in the town square and eat sunflower seeds with a teacher from my school, and while I’ve never been partial to seeds, I gladly accepted her offer, because that’s what people do in the village. People here also like to konak for fun, so I do too. I’ve gone over to the homes of some teachers at my school to konak, I’ve gone konak-ing with my family to their friends’ homes, and I’ve gone on picnics with my family and other families (like a traveling konak). A Kazakhstani konak revolves around food, tea, and conversation, and can last anywhere from several hours to all day or night. At first, the idea of being surrounded by fast-paced, unintelligible Kazakh for several hours at a time was very intimidating, but as my Kazakh gets better and I am able to speak and understand more, I’ve come to look forward to konaks as opportunities to eat tasty food and meet new people.

Living in a new environment, far from home, family, and friends is riddled with challenges, many of which all of you have heard from me before. But the more time I spend in Kazakhstan, the more things I find that give me joy and help me overcome the challenges. I’m starting to feel like I’m no longer a guest here, and like this is not just a trip anymore. This experience—the culture of Kazakhstan, working as a teacher, building relationships with the people in my village—is finally starting to feel like my life.