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.

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