Friday, August 22, 2008

Acclimating to the culture

Close to a year ago, I wrote about my experience going to the bazaar to buy a new pair of jeans. At the time, it was a rather traumatic (albeit amusing) event. It was the first time I had been faced with trying on clothing in such a public environment, since there are no changing rooms over here. Instead, the merchant might hold up a sheet to block you from view of others in the bazaar. Then again, the merchant might not offer such an amenity.

The first time I bought a pair of jeans, I bought the first pair that I tried on. Fortunately, I liked them—because I did not want to go through that experience for quite some time! Today, I realized that the situation has changed significantly. I will soon be leaving Shymkent to travel around the country and do some fieldwork, and needed to find an outfit or two that were both professional in appearance and that would travel well. It is always challenging to find something appropriate at the bazaar, particularly since many of the outfits that are suitable for Kazakhstan are a bit over-the-top for the US. At home, most of the outfits that would be considered everyday wear in Kazakhstan would be worn only for special occasions—such as holiday parties and weddings.

It can certainly be a challenge to find appropriate dresses in Kazakhstan—and when you do, it is yet another challenge to ascertain whether the merchant has your size. There is nothing quite like being told repeatedly that “we don’t carry large sizes” or “that wouldn’t fit you/look good on you”! You quickly have to learn that these comments are not meant to be insulting—most (younger) Kazakh women have very slender builds and the majority of merchants carry the more common sizes.

When I eventually found some dresses that I liked and that appeared to be my size (you can’t tell by looking at the tag—I have tops that are 4X and others that are XS. Seriously!), I realized that none of the merchants offered the amenity of a sheet to change behind. Instead, trying on an outfit entails taking off your shirt and pulling the dress over your head—while groups of young teenaged boys observe. Any misplaced sense of modesty can result in buying an outfit that you later realize doesn’t fit properly or look that great when worn. On the bright side, it is easy to tell whether a dress looks good—and you don’t even need to look in the mirror!

I guess I have become accustomed to life in Kazakhstan—because I still need to buy one additional dress and will have no problem going back to the bazaar in a few days to see what else I can find. That is something I never would have done a year ago!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Weddings in Kazakhstan-pictures

Yesterday, while walking through Panfilov Park in Almaty (in the center of town), I was absolutely delighted to encounter one of the most entertaining sights I have yet seen in Kazakhstan. There were at least a dozen wedding parties having pictures taken at the Glory Memorial in the park--cars were lined up at the entrance, decorated with flowers and ribbons. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a very clear picture of the cars--and I really wanted to get a picture of the car with the 2-foot tall bride barbie tied to the hood. It was klasna, to say the least!
In the park, wedding parties were vying for position to have their pictures taken. At one point, I counted at least 12 groups, but there were likely more (see how many you can count in the first picture). These pictures fail to capture the full effect--but hopefully will give an idea of what I was writing about in an earlier post. I'll be back in Almaty in a few weeks to do some interviews for one of the new Fulbright programs--hopefully I'll have some time to go to the park and take some more pictures.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thoughts on a year in Kazakhstan

In a few hours, I will be heading to the train station to travel once again to Almaty. As I was packing up a few things this morning, it occurred to me that by now going to Almaty has become almost routine. I know exactly what I will need for the train (travel mug, tea, noodle bowl--the local equivalent of a cup-of-soup--purel, sleep mask, earplugs, and a banana and yogurt drink for breakfast). The only real similarity between a year ago and now was the knowledge that it would take 15+ hours for the trip--and that doesn't seem very long anymore!

A year ago, when I thought of travel to Almaty, it was with a sense of excitement as well as trepidation. I was to be away from home and halfway around the world for over year. I didn't know what to pack and what I might find when I arrived. All I knew was that the embassy was arranging to have me met at the airport when my plane landed in the early hours of the morning and bring me to a hotel. When I eventually got to the hotel, I recall how happy I was that there was a functioning shower WITH hot water (I had been warned that this might not be the case). And then I had to figure out the phone to call home--not something you want to do when severely sleep deprived! It took about 30 minutes to make the call, which lasted for about 30 seconds, and then I fell asleep until late afternoon.

When I eventually woke up, I decided to brave this new exciting and, yes, frightening city. I recall walking around the block, looking at all of the stores and signs in Russian and wondering if and when it wouldn't feel so strange. There were so many things to get used to--trees that were all painted white at the base, cars everywhere, women who were dressed MUCH less conservatively than I expected, strange smells, and different languages everywhere. Hearing Kazakh for the first time was fascinating--the cadence and tone is so different from Russian.

I remember feeling incredibly adventurous after this brief trek out from the safety of my hotel. Those first few days, everything felt adventurous. Until I fell ill, that is! By then I was staying with another Fulbrighter (Sarah, whom I had met briefly at orientation and who is by now a great friend), and all I wanted to do was stay in bed and sleep. Within a week, I was settled in at my own apartment. Imagine my surprise when I started exploring the neighborhood and realized that I was less than a block away from my original hotel! What had seemed so foreign and frightening at first quickly became my home.

Today, when I leave for Almaty, it is with entirely different expectations. I will arrive by train--and fully expect to be hassled by the train conductor either because 1) I am foreign and a woman traveling alone or 2)someone without a ticket has paid him and he wants me to give up my lower berth for this individual. Because being foreign and a woman, clearly I will agree. Oddly enough, this knowledge does not bother me. It is just how things are here--but I also know that I don't have to go along with it! I will keep my lower berth, read my book, have some tea, and relax as much as possible.

My arrival in Almaty will also be different from last summer. This time, I will haggle with a few taxi drivers who will probably try to charge me too much to drive from the Vokzal (train station) to my old apartment. The apartment is about 5 minutes away, but the drivers will tell me that it is very far, gas is expensive, and that their children need bread. To which I will reply that it is not very far, 300 tenge is the going rate, and that if they don't drive their cars at all they won't have any money so their children won't eat. We'll probably agree on a price of 400 tenge, and everyone will be happy (1USD= 120 tenge).

I will spend a little bit of time with Lyudmilla (my friend/former landlady) when I get into the city. I haven't had a chance to sit and talk with her for a while, so it will be nice to catch up. She took her kids to Moscow this summer-I'm looking forward to hearing about the trip. Then it will be off to the shopping areas to pick up a few things that can't easily be found in Shymkent, and then to the embassy. I have a little bit of work to do there, printing out some paperwork for Fulbright-related issues, and then I will go to the Altyn-Kargaly sanatorium just outside of town for the night. On Friday, I will serve as a panelist for the closing debate of the American Studies Summer School run by the embassy. It is a great chance to interact with students and to encourage them to further their education. I really love these opportunities!

Of course, soon after the debate ends, I will have to leave for the Vokzal to travel back to Shymkent by the night train. Almaty is no longer an exotic destination--but has become someplace that I go for a brief trip or to work. I suppose that means that Kazakhstan has also become home.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Weddings...Kazakh style!

After a late night yesterday, staying up well after midnight to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies live on EuroSport, it has taken a while to get into work mode today. It was well worth it, though, if only to hear the comments that the Russian announcers were making about all of the different teams as they entered the stadium. My personal favorite was the commentary on Italy's tough immigration policies! exactly does that relate to the Olympics?

By the time I finally woke up this morning, it was too late to go for my usual walk around Shymkent. Once the temperature hits 100F, I usually stay inside and enjoy the air conditioning until the sun starts to go down. At least tomorrow we are expecting some cold weather--the predicted high temperature is only 86F!! People will be out in sweaters, I am sure. Much of the day has been spent inside, working on the latest section of my UNESCO report--untangling governmental expenditures on education. After several hours of going over the latest figures from the Ministry of Finance, I was more than ready for a break and decided to treat myself to a new movie from the local video store. As I probably have mentioned, my life here really is not THAT exciting!

Leaving the video store, I was suddenly reminded that today is Saturday. In Kazakhstan, particularly in the warmer months, that can only mean one thing--wedding parties are everywhere. These are not wedding parties like you seen in the United States, either. This is Kazakhstan, where there is no such thing as being over-the-top or tacky. In fact, there is not even a word for 'tacky'--although it has been suggested that possibly 'klasna' (classy) could be an acceptable substitute.

Exciting the video store (which is in a new shopping center that closely resembles an American mall), I was nearly run over by 2 wedding parties that were entering the building to take pictures. Lest you start wondering why on earth a wedding party would want pictures taken in a mall, I should explain something about weddings in this part of the world. After getting married in the local municipal wedding office, the bride and groom embark upon a tour of the city, having their picture taken in front of any building or monument that might be of the slightest significance. The entire wedding party (usually about 15-20 people) accompany them, and they all travel in cars that are decorated with flowers and streamers. You can usually tell the car with the bride and groom by the huge gold interlocked wedding rings attached to either the hood or the roof of the vehicle. The cars race down the roads, honking their horns to inform everyone else that they have the right of way.

Arriving at the desired location, the wedding party crowds around and ensures that they have the best possible access for pictures. If it is an expensive wedding, there will also be someone videoing the entire process. It does not matter if there are other people visiting that particular monument or park...the wedding party essentially pushes them out of the way (this has happened to me on more than one occasion.) The bride will usually then strike her best supermodel pose, resplendant in her sparkling white gown. Yes, I said sparkling. Without exception, the dresses are a brilliant white with either shimmering threads or some sort of beading/sequins. There is one basic style, too--a fitted bodice with a full skirt that strangely never moves or changes shape. And the more ruffles and sparkles, the better! Klasna.

On Saturdays in the summer, there can often be two or three wedding parties having pictures taken at the same time in the more popular locations. I don't know how many sites the wedding parties will travel to, not having bothered to follow them around the city--but I suspect that there are at least 5 or 6 different locations. Eventually, the wedding party will arrive at a reception hall--where the toasts are lengthy and the vodka flows liberally. If the bride is the daughter of an important official, there will also be 'gifts' presented to her father. A friend has told me that at a recent wedding, these gifts were a minimum of $500 per person--and there can be hundreds of people at the reception. Yikes!

So, after a day spent looking at budgetary figures, it was highly amusing to see two of these bridal parties entering into MegaCenter (the location of the videostore), jostling each other to see who would have the better positioning for pictures--or to see who would have their pictures taken first. I should have waited to see what they used as the background--the escalator (a novelty over here) or the ice-skating rink. Maybe next Saturday I'll spend some time at the mall to see what people prefer...

(I should note that I would have taken some pictures myself, but cameras are actually not allowed in MegaCenter. Wedding parties seem to be exempt from this rule.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Reasons not to travel in Kazakhstan in the summer

Originally, Sarah and I had planned to spend this time doing research on nomadic and rural life in Kazakhstan. Much of the preliminary work had been done: checking out which locations would be best, making contacts with individuals and organizations who might be of assistance, improving our Kazakh, and ensuring that we had adequate equipment. After our experiences with giardia, however, we agreed that we would have to be completely healthy in order to spend a month traveling between rural areas and going to the mountain pastures where people still practice some elements of nomadic life.

Eventually, we agreed on a plan that would take us down towards the Uzbek border, to an aul (village) where our friend Sayat is originally from (Sayat now lives in the US—we met him through the Fulbright associations over here, as his wife was one of the Fulbright Scholars working in Shymkent). Almost anyone working in Kazakhstan will tell you that the most difficult part of the research process is gaining access to individuals and having people talk with you. It is a very closed society overall, with family (and perhaps clan, but that is hard to ascertain when people don’t talk to you) being of paramount importance. Sayat was tremendously helpful letting us know where we could go for our research, and offering his assistance in making the necessary contacts. The added advantage was that his aul is not far from Shymkent, so that in the case of illness Sarah and I could quickly return home.

Of course, nothing ever works out the way that you intend over here. Both Sarah and I were pretty ill and agreed that we needed time to relax and recover. Physically—and mentally—we were just not ready for the rigors of traveling between villages, likely having to eat suspicious meats and drink unpasteurized milk products (a recipe for disaster!). Any question of this travel ended last week, when Sayat called from the US to say that we should NOT go to his village under any circumstances. A relative of his had just died from anthrax, and about 60 others were being treated for possible infection. Oddly (?) we had not heard of the anthrax outbreak here in Kazakhstan. It had not been on the news or in any of the newspapers I have seen. After some research on the internet, I finally found 1 article that mentioned the outbreak. If Sayat had not mentioned it, though, we would not have known. So…needless to say, I will be spending the month of August in air-conditioning in Shymkent. With temperatures above 100 F every day, it is a much more pleasant way to pass the time! I will be heading out for survey work in a few weeks, traveling to Aktobe, Atyrau, and Aktau before returning to Shymkent for a few days in September. After that, I will be in northern areas of Kazakhstan. At least that is the plan—we’ll see how it all turns out!