Friday, December 11, 2009

Lonely Planet Readers Pay Money for This

The Lonely Planet guidebook dedicates a grand total of ½ page to my region of Kazakhstan. Half of that page is descriptions of rundown Soviet hotels you don't really want to stay in, and how to catch the bus or train to another town. The other half is more encouraging, however. There are several “ecotourism” villages in the area, where you can pay to spend the night with a local family in their home. As Lonely Planet puts it, “The main attraction here is the experience of village life amid unspoiled countryside with lakes, woodlands, rocky hills and walking and riding routes, green from spring to autumn.” Well, I don't know about the rocky hills, and it's definitely not green right now, even though it's still officially autumn, but other than that it's a pretty fair description of the trip I went on a few weekends ago.

Nazgul, my counterpart at school, invited me to spend the weekend at her parents' house is the village of Karatal. The village school has 99 students in grades 1-11, so that tells you about how big the town is. It wasn't one of the villages mentioned in the guidebook, but it should have been. It was everything a Kazakhstani village should be: rutted dirt road with geese scattering across it as your bus clatters over the ice, run-down houses with leaning wooden fences around them (but you know they're pristine if simple inside), and a forest of birch trees at the end of the road. And I didn't have to hire a guide or pay money for my room and board! I just had to bring some chocolate bars from the states as a gift, and be willing to butcher the Kazakh language as I made friends with the family.

Kazakhs are renowned for their hospitality, and Nazgul's family was no exception. They served tea with cookies, candy, salad and bread at least four times a day, and made sure to cook me the Kazakh national dish, besfarmak. Kazakh hospitality is different from the American ideal, however. Kazakhs will never begrudge you a place to sleep or a meal, even if you show up unannounced. They always have lots of food, and they never let the guest do any work. (I knew, even as my American politeness offered to help wash the dishes, that I shouldn't offer because it was almost offensive to think that a guest should do work.) But Kazakh hospitality does not necessarily involve entertaining the guest. If people are busy, either cooking dinner or cleaning the house or doing one of the multitude of jobs that needs to be done, they may very well leave the guest to themself, often for long periods of time. I've learned this is not rude, nor does it imply that they aren't happy to have you around. People just don't have the leisure time like we do in America to drop everything and spend the whole day talking to you. If they were required to do this, maybe guests wouldn't be as welcome as they are.

Therefore, I watched a lot of tv while I was in Karatal. But you know, Indiana Jones is still interesting even when you don't know what anyone is saying.

My counterpart Nazgul, on the right, and her friend in front of the Karatal school.

I also got a chance to go to a party with some of Nazgul's friends from high school. One of their classmates had just returned from the army, and so they were having a celebration to welcome him back. (Military service is mandatory for all males in Kazakhstan.) Everyone spoke in Kazakh, so I didn't understand much of what was going on and didn't say much. One guy spent about 5 minutes having me translate words into English, and then repeating them back and laughing. (This makes up the bulk of my conversations here, after “Do you like it in Kazakhstan?” and “Are you used to our weather yet?”) My other main contribution to the festivities was when they had me give a toast.

Everyone was giving toasts to the returned soldier. Fearful that they would call on me, I formulated in my mind what I hoped was an acceptable toast, then waited to see if I would be required to use it. It looked like I was going to get off free, until, almost at the end of the evening, they called on me. Feebly, I raised my glass of orange juice and said (in broken Russian), “May you always have friends as good as the ones you are surrounded by now.” I thought it was a very valiant effort, even bordering on eloquence, and was just settling back in my seat, very satisfied with my toast-giving skills, when everyone started crying out, “That's all? More, more!!” Well, I hadn't prepared for more! And on the spur of the moment, eloquence always flees me. All I could think of was the formulaic toast, “to love!” which, considering how many marriage hints I've been getting recently, did not seem like a good idea. Then, another toast we learned in class came to mind. “Za udacha!” I said, and, for good measure, followed it up with, “To everything good!” By this time, everyone was chuckling and repeating “za udacha” and chuckling more, so I clinked my glass with everyone else's and settled back to figure out what I'd done wrong. I realized later, the toast I'd been searching for was “Za uspeha,” which means “To success,” but instead I'd said, “To good luck.” No wonder they were chuckling. I must have sounded like I thought he frequented the many casinos here.

You can't find a weekend like that in a guide book.

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