Going “v gosti” (in Kazakh, “konakka baradi;” in English, “visiting”) is an art here in Kazakhstan. You need only set foot inside someone's gate to be invited to “chai,” and then you're busy for the next half hour at least. Chai is the Russian word for tea, but we use it to refer to both the tea and the multitude of cookies, fruit, nuts, etc that is inevitably served with it. It is impossible to go v gosti without chai. And it is impossible to just drink one cup of tea and nip out after 10 minutes. Stopping by someone's house is, at minimum, a 30 minute and 500 calorie affair.
Only my second day in village I got my first chance to go v gosti. Although our village isn't that big, we still have to walk everywhere, so it often takes 15-30 minutes to get where you're going. When the PC staff came around to check how everything was going with our host families after our first night, they showed us where our nearest neighbors lived so we wouldn't feel too isolated. My nearest neighbor is Sidd, now known by his Russian name of “Sasha,” who lives only three minutes away. I was invited over to see where he lives, which (judging from American customs) I thought meant a quick stroll over to his front gate so I'd know how to get there. I quickly learned otherwise.
Sasha lives with an elderly Russian couple and their single 38-year-old son, Vasiliy. He has just started studying Russian, and so it's very difficult for him to communicate anything with his family. Because I speak some Russian, I got to be the translator of sorts. When I first entered their house, all three members of his family started talking at once, telling long stories that I didn't understand a word of. At first, I thought this was just their excitement at having someone around who could “understand.” I quickly learned, however, that they are like this all the time, and Sasha is constantly confused.
First things first: Sasha's mom served me tea, cookies, borsh, and salad. After we were stuffed full, she ushered us into the living room. Sasha is an incredible musician, and he was smart enough to bring his mandolin with him to Kazakhstan. He played and sang several songs for us, and though his family might be unable to understand a word that he was saying, the music was truly transcendent. Watching Sasha's host mom's face as he played made me wish I could play something more portable than a piano. She was completely happy and proud of her “American son.”
After listening to our mini-concert, Vasiliy offered to take Sasha and I on a tour of the village. Excited to see our new home, we agreed. We headed for the edge of town (5 minutes away) and then took a stroll through the countryside. At first we walked past a wheat field that had already been harvested, then crossed a river (very dirty drainage ditch/creek). We walked along the creek, through an area that Vasiliy said was a common space, so there were no crops growing there, just grass and some weeds. Some people had staked their donkeys and cows closer to town, but the further we went the more alone we became. It was a beautiful sunny day, and the majestic Tian Shan mountains rose up behind the village. Vasiliy kept us entertained with an unending stream of stories and information, ranging from the frequency of earthquakes around Almaty, to leeches in the lake we passed, to the problem of slavery in modern Kazakhstan. (I really wish I could have understood what he said about this, but since my vocabulary is so limited, I don't want to misquote him.) It was very relaxing and beautiful.
I've had the chance to visit several other PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) as well. At every single house, I have to have tea. Even when I went over to my friend Sarah's house to do homework together, her mom covered the whole table in cookies and fruit. They don't need any warning; for example, once my friend Denise and I walked another friend, Gambrill, home from an outing. Since Denise lives in a small apartment with a Russian family, she wanted to see how a Kazakh family lives. Gambrill brought us into the house briefly, just to show Denise the house. Gambrill's mom and sister welcomed us happily, had us sit on the couch, and promised us tea. Within 15 minutes they had brought out the table, covered it in melon and cookies, and had the water hot and ready. Then there was nothing we could do but partake.
It was on this same visit to Gambrill's house that I got to see my first goat's head. Her host dad and sister were in the back yard with the head speared on a stick, roasting it over a fire. They also had the goat's four legs speared on the four tongs of a pitchfork and were roasting those as well. Watching them char the head, I didn't mind that I was only staying to chai, not dinner. Only one of us so far has had the privilege of eating goat's head. Andrew, who's studying Kazakh with me, went to a big party on his first weekend in the village. A goat's head was served in honor of the occasion (it's a huge delicacy here, and a must for any big party). Luckily for Andrew, there were many elders at the party, so they received the more honorary parts, such as the eyes and brain. He was only served half the nose. I didn't get a chance to find out what it tasted like.
So far the food here hasn't been too bad. It's very meat and carb based, but since it's fall there's plenty of fresh fruit and veggies available as well. (Not that they make their way onto our dinner table.) I've eaten plenty of lamb, and plenty of chunks of fat that I mistook for potatoes. I've tried many different Central Asian dishes, including plov (lamb and rice), lagman (lamb and thin noodles) and the national dish of Kazakhstan, bisfarmak (lamb and wide noodles.) This is traditionally served on a big plate in the middle of the table, and everyone reaches in with their hands. Everything is served communally here; there is no such thing as a personal plate. Different dishes are put out on the table and then you stick your fork in and take a bite. Bread is sacred and is served at every meal. There's always a big basket on the table, and you rip off a piece and just set it on the table in front of you.
Ramadan just ended September 20th, so devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for a month. My host mom and elder host sister, Marzhan, both practiced Ramadan, so although they sat at the table when the rest of the family ate their “afternoon snack,” we didn't have our big meal until 8pm, after the sun went down. But they still sat at the table even when they weren't eating; everyone in the family sits at the table when it's time to eat, and they stay at the table until everyone is done eating and drinking chai.
It's customary to have at least three cups of tea whenever you sit down, and quite possibly more. Serving tea is a complicated process, normally performed by the eldest daughter in the house. First she pours milk into the bowls that Kazakhs use instead of cups with handles. Then she pours strong tea from a small teapot, followed by hot water from a larger pot. Whenever you need a refill, just hand your bowl to her. She pours out the little bit that may be left in the bottom (cold tea is bad) and fills your bowl again. A full cup is a sign that she wants you to leave, because by the time you get to the bottom of your bowl it will be cold. Half filled or less is the most hospitable cup of tea. And I’ve drunk plenty of those!