Gone

Original post here: http://www.registan.net/index.php/2011/11/20/leaving-kazakhstan-a-pcv-perspective/. 116 comments, and counting.

I’m not really sure what to write. I’m not really sure I even want to write. On Wednesday afternoon, standing coat-less in a soft snowfall, I learned that I would be forced to leave Kazakhstan in but a handful of days. The voice on the other end of the line, a voice tired and scratchy from relaying the days’ news to countless volunteers sequestered in North Kazakhstan, told me that after 18 years of work, Peace Corps would no longer be serving Kazakhstan. That next week, we’re gone.

As it is, we’re departing only eight months into a 27-month commitment. Projects are still fledgling. Integration is still incomplete. Language skills are only just sticking, and our teaching impacts are only just sinking in. We’ve just finished our second round of trainings, learning how to parse grant options and further implement community projects. We’ve just finished learning how to manage both schedule and expectation as English teachers in the Kazakhstani school system. We’re only, just now, beginning to make a legitimate impact. In a sense, we’ve only just begun. And now it’s all being wrested from us, halted by a slew of suits who believe they know what’s best.

And maybe they do. They’re the ones, after all, who’ve compiled both numbers and stories. They know how many of us have been attacked and assaulted – according to our Country Director, Kazakhstan has earned the highest rate of any country in Peace Corps – and they know exactly what pressures have begun emanating from oblast- and national-level governments. Volunteers will never be privy to all of the information, but we have enough of a patchworkk network that we can piece together a picture of what serving in Kazakhstan is like. KNB agents sitting in classrooms. Upper-level ministers all but booting volunteers from numerous oblasts. Questions of espionage and revolutionary tactics. The shooting in Taraz, which saw eight Kazakhstanis die, taking place only a block from two volunteers’ houses. Brass knuckles, attempted break-ins, bizarre opium plant-and-frisks – to say nothing of the near-daily harassment, and worse, for the female volunteers – all added up to a setting those DC-based officials deemed far too dire to pursue.

And so, we leave. Eight months down, and none more going forward. Bolda. Fsyo. Peace Corps, finished in Kazakhstan.

* * *

Before arriving last March we’d read that Kazakhstan maintained a manageable and enviable stability, serving as an oasis of tranquility among its besieged neighbors. It stood out among the ‘stans for its balance of temerity and growth, for its ability to manage disparate populations and divergent neighbors. It managed, as the billboards state the country over, 20 Years of Peace and Unity.

And it did, really. The ‘90s threw it, wrung it of infrastructure and population, but the mixture of Caspian oil and capital investment – and Nazarbayev’s magnificent handling of ethnic relations – put Kazakhstan on a path of sustained growth. Despite the imagery of Borat, the last ten years in Kazakhstan have been among the brightest of any nation.

Tengiz. Astana. The demise of irredentism, and the ascension to the OSCE chair. Staking deep oil-fields, and buffeted as it was from the subprime and Euro crises, we arrived in a Kazakhstan sated in promise, into a land as self-assured and self-reliant as it had ever been. Twenty years in, and the future was as bright as you could find in the post-Soviet world.

Then, something shifted. This summer provided a sort of hinge, a passage from a much-lauded stability to something far … less. Reality began settling of a nation post-Nazarbayev. The nation’s largest strike – and the myriad beatings attached – revealed the sinister sides of a promising energy sector. Religious restrictions found both legal course and fatal response. Discussions of sovereignty bubbled once more, as Putin floated, and then cemented, the idea of a Eurasian Union, all while dozens of prominent Kazakhs called language allocations into question. Toss in a handful of seemingly disparate cases of terrorism, and Kazakhstan’s stability looked both farce and façade.

And amidst it all, Peace Corps volunteers turned up harassed, beaten, and raped at a rate far higher than anything one could reasonably expect. For the first time in nearly a decade, the rose-colored image Kazakhstan maintained turned a darker hue. And we, and those teachers and school-children with whom we worked, are the ones who now pay the price.

* * *

The Kazakhstani education minister has claimed that, due to his nation’s development, Peace Corps’ departure was a “logical step.” Christ. If you’ve worked for one week in a Kazakhstani school, if you’ve seen the faces of colleagues light up at your mere presence – and the tears that stream when you tell them you’re leaving – you know that your presence in these classes fills a marked vacuum. Part of Nazarbayev’s 2030 goal is a “Trinity of Languages,” in which every Kazakhstani has achieved fluency in Kazakh, Russian, and English. A constituent part of this goal is the presence of native-speakers. And while some volunteers are misappropriated, the majority of us are both feted and needed. Peace Corps still filled an enormous void in the Kazakhstani educational system. That’s not to paint us as some kind of ubermensch teaching corps; rather, it’s to simply show that there was no logical outgrowth of the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. The minister’s line of reasoning is naught but a PR pitch, spin for an event that blackens all parties.

Likewise, while the recent surge in Islamo-inspired attacks may provide an easy excuse for both US and Kazakhstani governments, that reasoning seems far too facile. Colin Thubron once wrote that Islam rests lightly on these people. I would argue that it still does. Those members of Jund al-Khalifa have targeted neither infidels nor foreigners; rather, they’ve gone after ministers and officials, using Islam as a vehicle to express anti-government sentiments. Plus, Peace Corps countries – Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan among them – have suffered much worse, and still maintained a volunteer presence, at least in a limited capacity. There’s no reason to think Kazakhstan shouldn’t be able to do the same.

In the end, it was neither jihadist bombings nor logical progression that is forcing us to leave. It was the multi-level strains – from the KNB’s growing surveillance, to the impunity with which the drunks attacked us – that drove us from Kazakhstan. It was averaging one rape or serious sexual assault per month since June. It was school administrators allowing KNB agents to sift through both belongings and apartments. It was appointed government officials refusing to meet with Peace Corps administrators, out of either pride or contempt or grand-standing. It was these dozens of seemingly unrelated incidents – that, yes, were set amidst a backdrop of terrorist activities – that now tear us from our new homes and drop us back in a jobless line we’d thought ourselves fortunate to escape. It was a series of degrading relations, arising from both parties, that keeps us from showing this Soviet land that not all Americans are impudent, imperial assholes.

The reactions I’ve had have been diametric. I’ve thrilled at finding a new home, either in America or abroad. But I’ve also carried knowledge that I’ll likely never see my Siberian hermitage of Presnovka again. I’ve realized that I can finally reacquaint myself with ESPN and Mexican food, but I’ve also grasped that those I’ve come to love within my village – my counterpart, my schoolchildren – are people I’ll see only now see through photo or memory. I see an opportunity to forgo the minus-40 winters set to fall, but I also no longer have an excuse – “need that winter fat!” – to gorge myself on pechenyas and barsak. I swing from waves of relief to waves of melancholy, all because of a bizarre confluence of events, a confluence threatening enough that some DC official decided it was time to close shop.

Our service is cut, and our program is shuttered. I’m leaving Kazakhstan far earlier than I ever wanted. There’ll be no Nauryz in Shymkent, no Kreshenya in Petropavlovsk, no summer camps at Balkhash. I’ll neither climb Baiterek, nor stroll the esplanade in Pavlodar, nor see the marine graveyards of the receded Aral. I, and all of my fellow Volunteers, don’t get to see any of those plans through. And I don’t get to show these nationals how much I appreciated their hospitality, and how much I’d grown to love them through the last eight months.

Since 1993, Peace Corps has served in Kazakhstan. Volunteers have helped guide small business, have aided in orphanages and special-needs homes, and have, as I did, taught young Kazakhstanis English. All work came at the specific request of President Nazarbayev, under whose reign we arrived and now depart. All work was sorely need in a still-fresh nation, among a people now opened to an entirely new way of economy and education. All work – our work – is still required. And we won’t be here to provide it.

It is, as the Kazakhs would say, maskhara. It’s a mark of shame for all parties involved, and I can only offer my thanks, and my regret. My time here was too short, and my experience in Kazakhstan far too stunted. I’m going to miss this country – this hard, wind-swept land; these genial, weathered people – for years to come. Someday, the sting will dull. Someday, I’ll be back. Someday, I’ll know what to write. But all I can do is leave, and wait for that day to come.


Kaz-spook-stan

As you can tell from the world-class title, this post’ll be about our Halloween escapades, which took place last week. It kills me that I can’t upload any photos on here – the only thing more repressed than WordPress in Kazakhstan seems to be religious freedoms – but I’ll point you over to Facebook once more to see what kind of boil-and-trouble we found. And that’s the last spoonerism (spookerism?) I’ll use this afternoon. Promise.

When I studied abroad in Australia in 2008, one of the few disappointments – other than never figuring out the didgeridoo – came on Oct. 31. It turns out that the Aussies don’t celebrate Halloween quite the way we Americans do. It’s one of the few traditions that hasn’t crossed the Pacific, and it took some Yankee organization to get a party of any portion going that evening.

Because, of course, where you find an American, you also find a compunction for Halloween. For myriad reasons – the costumes, the candy, the hormones that come with being a teenage boy – Halloween has long been my favorite holiday, regardless of age or location. In grade school, I could finally be Batman. In high school, my friends bonded in haunted houses. In college, I passed out at 11:30 p.m., still swaddled in Mario trousers. Halloween has provided some of the best (and most embarrassing) moments of my life, so it should come as little surprise that I came to Kazakhstan with every intention of seeing that scary/smutty tradition continue.

But then, be it during training or at site, word got round that we wouldn’t be allowed to have anything Halloween-related in our extracurriculars. I’m not sure if this was due to backlash or fear of distraction, but whatever the reason, Halloween parties at Kazakhstani schools were officially forbidden. A sunk feeling, another bureaucratic road bump, resonated with volunteers. No Halloween. No Mexican food, and now no Halloween. Kicking us when we’re down, right in the costumed crotch.

But being at site, away from the bustle and take-out and WiFi of Almaty, does things to you. The isolation inserts a certain independence, a certain frontiersman attitude that results in damning directive and taking what you want. Red tape can only stretch so far. Thus, when a pair of your top 10th graders come to you asking for help in organizing a Halloween party, the voices of impertinence and regulation fade into the background, and where once stood finger-wagging disapproval now danced ungainly skeletons and grime-streaked zombies.

And so we went to work. My partner in this chillingly entertaining crime was my counterpart, Roza Amreshovna (who may have felt a bit of pressure from her 17-year-old daughter, Malike). Together, we cobbled together a few dozen fall-colored balloons, some Kleenex ghosts, and 15 of the largest apples in Siberia. We employed those same 10th graders as our marketing crew, sending them off with 100 tickets to disperse at 25 tenge per head. A week later, with tickets all sold and Halloween lurching toward us, we steadied ourselves for our little monsters.

After all, these kids had never experienced Halloween. They’d never known the joys of tricking-and-treating, never dodged traffic with a sheet covering their entire body, never superglued a pair of Franken-bolts to the sides of their necks. They’d never chugged witch’s brew, never slurped (gummy) worms, never gored Butterfingers with fake vampire teeth. To them, Halloween was just an idea. It was a carry-over of dubbed American Pie films, something that looked fun and new and wait-we-want-this-too. And we were tasked with giving them something that lived up to it all.

In order to satisfy all of our constituents, we decided to split the parties along class lines.* While all students have the same reasons for loving Halloween – wearing costumes, late-night mayhem – those reasons carry connotation based on age. As such, the 5th-8th graders would get first stab with a pumpkin-carving party on Thursday night, while the 9th-11th graders** would get Friday evening, right before the school’s auditorium turned into the town’s lone discotheque.***

*Economic humor!

**Kazakhstani schools only go until 11th grade, meaning the main culprit of slacking over here is junioritis.

***Don’t care how many times you ask me, guys – still not going to the discotheque with my students, even if it means staying in and watching the pilot for Zooey’s new show for the 17th time.

The pumpkin-carving was as to be expected: filthy, loud, and hazardous. Kids were tasked with bringing their own materials, but, being kids, only a few saw fit to follow instructions. As such, among the 60 students jostling for space, there were only about 20 pumpkins to go around. (To their credit, no knives were used in deciding which students got which tikva.) Teams of three and four went to work, hacking out toothy smiles and triangle eyes. A few decided that the pumpkins would need to be disemboweled (the better to help the pumpkin stand?), and one group thought that football-stitching would look great for the cheeks, but, on the whole, the students understood the mechanics of pumpkin-carving. After 45 minutes of slicing up their homegrown gourds, the kids gathered in an unlit hall downstairs and stood proudly by their Kaz-O-Lanterns. Pulling the pumpkin goo from the floorboards wasn’t a perfect end to the evening – at least I found my misplaced red pen while cleaning – but the kids, stashing their pumpkins in the teachers lounge, prefigured a successful Halloweekend.*

*Come on. Give me just this one. Please.

While the younger kids were a manageable miasma, all giggles and eagerness at being out past bedtime, the older kids, I knew, were a different breed. It was only a few years back that I was caught in their tangle of adolescence, and the memories of teenage interaction were fresh on my mind: all the social cues, all the clique-ish posturing and cross-gender attractions, all of it boiling to a frustrating froth.* That’s was the stitch in my tiny, gauche high school – I could only imagine it a thousand-fold at a larger public school, be it in the States or in Siberia.

*I can’t say this word without thinking of Dan Savage and Rick Santorum. Google at your own risk.

But then, if all my assumptions are based on SuperBad and Selena Gomez, I have a worse idea of high-schoolers than these Kazakhstani kids do. For interacting with these older students at the party showed me, if nothing else, that all those zit-and-testosterone stereotypes about American teens may not necessarily translate into students of Cyrillic. I mean, maybe it’s the language barrier. Maybe it’s because it’s only been two months at school. Maybe it’s because I’m the wayward American, and the kids only want to put on their best (ghoulish) faces for this dashingly handsome stranger. Whatever the case, it thus far seems that these Kazakhstani teenagers, the ones roiling in hormone and cracked voices, are far more of a polished product than their American counterparts. While they’re certainly less easy to … coax than the younger kids, the older students I’ve thus far interacted with have been breaths of fresh air, and while their foreign language skills have almost entirel regressed, these kids haven’t carried any of the petulance that so often sullies a teenager’s good name.

And so, our Halloween party went through without a hitch.* There was my director, Alexander Valentinovich, a man grand in both heft and voice, booming his Russian laugh as a pair of 11th graders twirled into toilet-paper mummies. There was a gaggle of ghosts – some students, some teachers – running from Human Brains to Pumpkin Tosses to Pin-the-Warts-on-the-Witch. There were the kids from the Kazakh school, trekking over to my Russian workplace, mingling with the kids from across the tracks. There were my 10th graders – those students who express, on the whole, less interest and aptitude in English than my wunderkind 6th graders – dressed up as dead brides and bloodied Minnie Mice, cackling and posing throughout the night. There were the younger kids, filtering through the open door just to get a glimpse at the ghouls and zombies and terrors of Thriller flitting across screens and dance floors, all those dank creatures coming to life in costume and charade. There were dozens of kids, experiencing what they’d only seen in movies, or heard of from friends and family who’d somehow crossed the steppe and seen another world. There were these kids, finally celebrating Halloween.

*It started a bit late, but that’s only because I asked Roza to apply a bit of purplish lipstick that I thought would make my zombie outfit even more convincing. Turns out it only made my lips sparkle. I was the Dolled-Up Dead.

The night was a pumpkin-smashing success, made all the more because it was a sort of bottom-up approach – the kids asked, and helped us deliver. The parties helped me carry forward a tradition I’d long enjoyed, and allowed me, though preempted by those American Pie flicks, to share a bit of the brighter (darker?) side of American culture.

There was nothing profound in the parties, nothing summing up any narrative of cultural clicks. But then, there didn’t need to be. It was simply a Halloween party, for a grip of school-children, none of whom had ever experienced an actual Halloween before. And if I could share something I loved with them, and see a few smiles crack their skeletal face paint, then, hey, I’ll take it. Sometimes it’s fine just to dress like the Living Dead, and have a bit of fun.


Fashion, Part II

Before I begin, I just want to say that blogging is far more difficult than it needs to be when WordPress is blocked, as it’s been for the last few weeks. #Occupy WordPress is on.

There’s no small secret that I carry a torch for Zooey Deschanel. I’m only a 20-something American male, after all. Her movies and her music – her entire manic mantra – are pitch-perfect, and I won’t hesitate to talk up her chops or her vocals or her dimpled charm. She’s adorkable, in the utmost.

Still, despite the dozens on comments adorning my Facebook wall now that her new show’s been released, it’s not as if there are other actor-singers I enjoy hearing-watching more. Zooey doesn’t stand out because of her artistic credentials, or because her voice sends me into some whirling, retro-pop tizzy. Likewise, and while I’d never call her* anything less than attractive – she does carry 98% of the male population, after all – it’s not as if there aren’t more beautiful women out there.

*Or any other woman, of course.

Nah, it’s not her voice, and it’s not her looks. It’s not the whole Katy-Perry-does-Patsy-Cline routine. It’s not even, because everyone associates me with anything Zooey, that I encounter her every time her career takes a turn. No, there’s only one thing about Zooey that keeps me coming back for more.

Those bangs. Those damn black bangs.

There’s no logic to the attraction, no Neanderthalic push, that would make Zooey’s bangs any more alluring than, say, a bowl cut, or a mullet, or a lower-back rat-tail.* There’s nothing that, evolutionarily, should generate such appeal. But there it is. Like corduroys or Chinese food before them, I’ll follow bangs to uncomfortable measures, and have neither compunction nor filter when writing about them.

*All of which are far more popular with the men in this nation than I’d like to acknowledge.

Now, you may wonder why I’ve elected to begin this post talking about Zooey Deschanel’s best assets, what the headwear of the headliner of She & Him has to do with a steppe-set life. Firstly, I’d offer that it’s my blog, so be thankful I haven’t written about her in every post. Secondly, this self-serving* preamble is actual a segue into one of the more appealing aspects of the fashion mode we’ve encountered in Kazakhstan. Because despite the dearth of Zooey fans in Siberia, the women of Kazakhstan have all decided that, truly, there’s no better look than a set of straight-drawn bangs.

*No better way to gear for writing than Googling pictures of Zooey Deschanel.

Everywhere you look, from the boutiques of Almaty to the janitors of Presnovka, women in this country have opted for the eyebrow-length bangs that Zooey has presented and perfected. None of that side-swept stuff some Americans offer – the bangs of Kazakhstan are straight and true, lined to immobile perfection. The women walk en vogue, their bangs slung forward as yet another asset in their myriad outfits, yet another way to distract Peace Corps volunteers from the job at hand. All but the wrinkliest of babushkas have decided that bangs are necessary. And I, likewise, find myself in slack-jawed agreement.

But where I would find a society without fault, it didn’t take long to realize that the bangs of Kazakhstan carry a double-edged sword. With a fashion-consciousness that most Americans – or at least those of the #Occupy protests – do without, the men of the Soviet sphere refused to let the women alone enjoy the perks of bang-dom.* As such, for every female you see in Zooey mimicry, a male follows not far behind, his forehead draped in similar fashion. Ethnicity is immaterial, as is age. Men who knew Stalin, boys who know SpongeBob – both will sport an inch (or more, in a few unfortunate cases) of starched hair, pointing straight down to their brow.

*That is the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written.

And that’s fine. Again, I couldn’t give three shits what kind of hair your sported, so long as you bathed regularly, and said thank you whenever I held the door for you.* But it’s just, on the guys … it’s not for me. It’s one thing to lay the feathered looks of Zac Efron and Justin Bieber – it’s another to take a fine-toothed comb and place Every Single Hair on a parallel plane directly toward your eyeball. It’s just not something I need in my life right now.

*Roza, if you’re reading this, remember to always thank someone in America when they hold the door for you. None of this stare-down-walk-past-because-apparently-the-door’s-magically-open crap. Don’t be грубый.

As it is, I don’t quite have the language faculty to get that idea across to the barber set around town. Their smiles disarm, and their prices – $2 for a haircut, plus a pair of free washes* – are low enough that I’d take a front mullet and be happy with it.

*This triples my weekly efforts at cleaning my scalp.

Which, in the half-dozen instances I’ve gotten a cut, I’ve done.

The first cut came some months back, tromping through the slush-mud to the only barber in Belbulak. As the scissors sheared their way across the top, I became lost in deciphering the nearby shampoo poster, wondering what both the Cyrillic and the product had to do with the topless woman eying us through her curls. Feeling the barber pause, I swung my gaze back to the mirror, and caught my reflection.

My pupils, meeting, swelled. My fingers curled round the armrest. My eyebrows jumped, losing themselves in the jungle of low-hung hair now mopping my forehead. I saw what I now was.

Bangs. Nothing but bangs, swishing across my forehead like unleashed rags in a carwash.

Before I could mouth a plea, before I could sputter anything in Russian to slow the process, the hairdresser pulled a white canister off of the table in front of us and, for a an added guarantee of you’re-gonna-love-your-new-look!, sprayed a layer of liquid plastic over the top. The mist fell slowly, like toxin from heaven. Suddenly, in lieu of the softness my weekly wash had just allowed, I was now sitting under a coat of plastic hair. Where my bangs once swished, they now hung erect. I looked equal parts Three Stooges, Jersey Guido, and Jim Carrey circa Dumb and Dumber. I looked like a frightened LEGO character.

In the five, six times I’ve gotten a haircut since, the process has not gotten any better. The reaction’s softened a bit – I’ve resigned myself to two years of these helmet-hard bangs – but that doesn’t make it any easier. After every cut I still end up walking home, praying for a spate of rain to wash the synthetic hold from my hair.* And while I’ve managed to waive the plastic sheet on a few occasions, that doesn’t make the bangs any less present, any more palatable.

*This actually happened once. Unfortunately, I overlooked the fact that bangs are the perfect path-holders, and rivulets of rain poured straight down, burning my eyes with all the fluoro-carbons a boy could ask for.

Of course, the palatability of those bangs – hanging like shredded, abused curtains – is entirely subjective. Walking through town after a fresh haircut, I find myself begin to blush, only to realize that the passersby pay no attention to the hair clinging to my forehead whatsoever. (Or, at least, the pay less mind to my hair than to the fact that my backpack has a small stain on shoulder-strap, which they find unbearably embarrassing for all parties involved.) I find myself under the same mat of hair that every other man, Russian and Kazakh alike, relishes. I find myself … fitting in.

Now, I’m not going to post any photos here, if only because WordPress is currently blocked in Kazakhstan, and the proxy site will not allow me to upload anything. But suffice it to say, I don’t yet have the self-confidence to share my bangs with the entire blogosphere. My forehead’s not been this covered since my high school days, when I wore a helmet of hirsuteness that ran from eyebrow to shoulder. Those are days that don’t need revisiting anytime soon. Nor does my current haircut need to waltz through the internet anytime, ever. And until the day comes that I share my haircut – which won’t be for a long, long while – I’ll spend my time walking around in my new rabbit-lined hat, and catching up on Zooey’s first season on TV. Because if I’m ever going to get used to these things, I’m going to need to see how she wears them. Suppose I should get back to Googling pictures of her now.


Fashion, Part 1

Feelin' Ukrainian

As anyone who’s ever seen a photo of me can attest, I don’t really give two shits about fashion. I care about how I look like a blind man cares about road maps. The most expensive shirt I own is from a Tom Petty concert, and the only suit I’ve bought came five years ago, its half-hung buttons attesting to more tear than wear. I rock the same three pairs of pants ad nauseum,* and the calls to end my stripe-on-stripe outfits ring as fruitless as the calls for me to sing at local festivals.**

*I brought three pairs of (near-)identical brown corduroys to Kazakhstan, in the multiple hopes that there’d be no pretty girls I’d want to impress. And then I found one who, somehow, liked them. That was cool.

**This has happened more than once.

See, fashion, in and of itself, is worthless. Like manners or a philosophy degree, fashion is little more than airy semantics, a bygone of classism, posturing, and those who’ve been suckered in by marketing and egos. Fashion is important only for those who don’t have a whole helluva lot else going for them. If you’d rather spend $400 on a new shirt rather than a pallet of new books, or if you’d rather spend time at outlet malls than an orphanage, it may be time to look in a mirror, and not simply the one in the changing room. For any designer to ever be lauded as “brave” or “daring” or “that Tom Ford – so hot right now,” is an affront to veterans, NGO operators, and people who, as it were, actually make some semblance of difference within peoples’ lives.

In the end, fashion is a farce. And it’s also one of the most fascinating things about the people I’ve met out here. Continue reading


Northernmost

I’ve mentioned a few times just how far north Peace Corps has dropped me: spitting distance from Russia, snowfall in September, men (and some women) splitting birch from sunrise to sundown, as soon as the first spring leaves have sprouted. And that’s fine imagery and all, but perhaps doesn’t quite capture exactly where I am. As such, with the departure of a Kaz-21 a few weeks ago, it’s now official:

I’m the northernmost (male) Peace Corps volunteer in the world.

There’s a caveat in there for gender because we have a female volunteer, about an hour’s drive away, who lives in Mamlyutka, which hedges about .2 degrees north of me. And while I have indoor plumbing and an older woman who dotes on me to no end, the Mamlyutka volunteer had to deal with outhouses and self-sustenance during the 2010-11 winter. Somehow, she survived. Somehow, she still smiles.

Still, I can stake a claim that no man in Peace Corps puts up with the weather that I do. What’s funny, though, is that despite the title, and having now looked up exactly where I lie on a Google atlas, I don’t feel quite as accomplished as I originally thought. Presnovka rings in near the 55th longitude, grazing the border and still stuck in the lower half of Siberia. But the 55th parallel also contains parts of Irish beachhead, a bit of Germany, and the birthplace of Ridley Scott. To be fair, it also contains lower juts of Alaska and one of the funniest sculptures in Russia. But to hear that I’m as far north as Amstel drinkers and that guy who directed Alien, well, the title loses a bit of its luster.

Of course, none of those Europeans get to swagger around in a giant rabbit-fur hat or see haggard Kazakh men chasing down buses with vodka spilling from shot glasses, so at least I’ve got that going for me.


Soviet Summer

Nearly five months after putting in the initial request, I’ve finally received internet at my house. This, of course, goes completely against one of the more fringe goals I had at the outset — that is, to pull myself from the gravity of Tweets and status updates, of blog snark and Hypem. As such, I figure I can start sprucing things up over here with more than just adjectives and gerunds and junk. Words are nice, and essays are fine, but photos of the muddied roads will always add something that thesaurus.com just can’t quite capture:

Walkway at twilight

Continue reading


September Snow

On Sept. 23rd, not 36 hours after summer had officially ended, Presnovka saw its first snowfall. While two years ago I’d been swimming in sweat to and from class at Rice, and last year saw a bank of Portland clouds stretching the horizon, I spent this Sept. 23rd huddled in a drafty bed, curled up with Steinbeck and The Simpsons, and sipping chai like my life depended on it.

The snow whipped horizontally outside, sending the flakes past my house and toward the nearby lake. The direction and speed made it seem like the house was in the center of a snow-globe spun one too many times. My house, its paneling pushing up against the innards of the home, groaned and clunked like a rusted Transformer.

As I didn’t have any lessons that day, I had to venture out only once, to grab beer.* I tucked in my long underwear, grabbed the hunting gloves my mom inexplicably bought for me, and tossed on a peacoat and a Mariners sweatshirt. As soon as I stepped out the door the wind butted me like a heifer. It skimmed right along the side of my house, and the open door-frame only provided another avenue for it to pull through. I somehow managed to get the lock settled seconds before my Ducks hat flew into the garden, and, saying a little prayer to the gods of REI,** began my march. Continue reading


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