Thursday, September 23, 2010

Assimilation (part two)

I wrote a blog earlier about my “adaptation” to Kazakh customs. I got a rare opportunity to further my observations on this subject when I spent a week this summer with 14 other Americans running an English camp in a Kazakh village. You'd think that when you put 15 Americans alone in an apartment together, we would act like Americans. But I guess almost a year in Kazakhstan can change you, even when you're not trying to “fit in.”

For example, this apartment we were in was very small: a kitchen, a bathroom, and one main living room. (We did have another one room apartment, though, where half of us were able to spend the night.) However, other than a slight bit of concern about the ability to fit that many bodies in a prone position on the floor at night (we weren't sure we would have the other apartment until the day before everybody showed up), nobody was phased by the “crowding.” In fact, it was rather cozy.

Even the one bathroom was no big problem. When several of us arrived a day early, the hostess, Laura, told us with excitement that we could take a shower (and by shower, I mean bucket bath) right then because the water was on. (The water only came on for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.) But even after our hot and sweaty taxi ride, we shrugged her off. “Nah, we took a bath yesterday morning. We feel pretty clean, so we won't bother today.” And then we wore the same outfit the next day, and the day after that, and considered wearing it again the day after that, but admitted that four days in 100 degree weather was pushing it.

The one bathroom presented other issues. Of course, we knew the right questions to ask about these issues. It didn't even cross anyone's mind to query whether you could flush the toilet paper; of course that's what the trash can is for. But someone did remember to ask Laura if we could flush the toilet at all. The answer, by the way, was “yes,” using a bucket of water taken from the tub that we filled with water each morning.

And when the bathroom door didn't lock, no big deal. Of course, that didn't mean that we actually knocked before opening it. It just meant that when we opened the door and someone was in there, it was no big deal, you just closed the door again and waited your turn, no blushing or embarrassment required.

By the middle of the week, some of us did start to feel a little grimy. And someone had an amazing solution for this problem: banya! You'd think that a bunch of self-conscious Americans wouldn't be comfortable hanging out in a sauna naked together, but you'd be wrong. The excitement about the banya trip was palatable, and there was no awkwardness or hesitation as we stripped in the changing room. Someone even proposed a break for hot tea and cookies, but there wasn't enough time because we all wanted to sit in the steam room for so long.

Food was another area where we sometimes acted more like Kazakhs than Americans. Many of us wanted hot tea after every meal, even when it was 100 degrees outside. Laura didn't have enough dishes for everyone to have their own plate, so we all just ate out of the dish in the middle and drank out of the same bottle. We didn't even ask if we could, we just grabbed the bottle and chugged. And when it came time to do dishes, rinsing them off with cold water while running your hand over them was completely sufficient.

Gender rolls were firmly established in the Kazakh tradition; even the most ardent feminists in the room said nothing. When a heavy table needed to be carried up several flights of stairs, all the boys were asked to help. But when it was time to sweep and dust the house, the girls were the ones who stood up.

We spent long hours sitting around and talking. No one had a watch, and often we had somewhere to be, but no one was overly concerned. If we were a little late (which we were most of the time), the people we were meeting would probably be late too (which they usually were.)

Even the phrases of “Kazakhstani English” that we used sounded normal to us. I remember when we first arrived in country and some older volunteers asked us if you could say some phrase in English. We wondered, how could they forget their own language? But at this point, “tasty” comes out much more easily than “delicious,” and I cannot for the life of me think of another way to say “the nature.” In fact, when we were playing Catchphrase, someone gave the clue “the nature,” and the only guess we could think of was “trees.” (The answer, by the way, was “environment.”)

But here's one very American thing we did do: we made this list of all the Kazakh things we did.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Camp Seagull

I spent 10 days this summer in the woods at
“Lager Chaika,” or Camp Seagull. It was an overnight camp for kids from ages 8-16, on the shores of a lake in a National Recreation Area. They still call it Pioneersky Lager after the Pioneers, the Soviet youth organization (similar to the Boy and Girl Scouts) who used to run the camps. Before I went, I was a little nervous because all I knew was the day that I was supposed to show up, the name of the camp, and the name of the camp director.
Luckily, somebody had told them I was coming, and I got to stay there for free while helping out however I could. At first, they weren't sure quite what to do with me, and I would have one main daily task such as to lead one 10 minute game or to make sure the 11-12 year old girls didn't make too much noise during the afternoon nap. But by the end I was filling in for counselors when they were sick or needed to run errands. People there, both staff and campers, were really friendly and I had a great time.
The cabin where I stayed. There was a little room to the left of the main door that I had to myself. My neighbors were the 13-14 year old boys. I played thumb wars and uno with them, and answered all their questions about what kinds of cars they drive in America and whether I'd seen any movie stars, so we got along well.

Inside the boys' cabin. There were about 20
beds in each cabin, and 11 cabins, although none were completely full. There were about 150 kids total at the camp, divided into five “otradi,” or groups, by age. Each otrad had about 15 boys and 15 girls, and one boy counselor and one girl counselor.

The main path between the cabins.


 Neat “portable” teeter totter that the kids could play on.

Every morning after breakfast the kids had an hour to clean up their cabin and pick up trash around the camp.

Kibutsu Emblem
The first day one of the activities was to make an emblem on the main square to represent your otrad.  The emblems were made out of pinecones, moss, rocks, and sand.  This is the emblem for my neighbors, the 13-14 year olds.  Their otrad was named "Kibutsu," which I think is supposed to be Chinese.  Each otrad also had a "devis," or chant, that extolled the virtues of the otrad and that they chanted while marching around the camp or at the morning meeting.  For example, there was an otrad called "MTS" after a Russian cell phone service provider.  Their devis was:
We are mobile children
from the MTS team.
MTS is a higher class.
There's no one better than us in the world.
(Of course, the devis is in meter and rhymes in Russian.)


Campers gathered outside the dining hall, waiting to eat one of their five meals of the day: breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner, and second dinner. We ate a lot of kasha (porridge.) Even for lunch. And a lot of kutleti, or meatballs.

The 4th otrad eating lunch.

On the shore of our lake, with the “Two Brothers”
mountains/hills in the background. Everyday the kids got to go swimming in the lake, except for when it was too cold. But they went swimming in a very regimented fashion. Each otrad had a certain time they could go swimming. They would come at that time and line up one the beach for inspection by the sports director/lifeguard. He would blow his whistle, and all the kids would run into the water. They had about 10 minutes for swimming, and they would all have to get out again, dry off in the sun, and then march back to their cabin as a group to change.

One of our first days at camp, everyone climbed to the top of a nearby hill, one of the “Three Sisters,” to get a better view of the Two Brothers and the surrounding forest. There was a legend associated with these names that the camp director told the kids before the hike, but I didn't understand it well enough to repeat it back to you. Everything at the camp was in Russian, which was great for improving my language skills but not great for my knowing what was going on most of the time.

At the top of most mountains, or at the end of just about every hike here in Kazakhstan, there is a wishing tree. You tie a piece of cloth on the tree and make a wish. Unfortunately, the kids didn't have any pieces of cloth with them, so they took the plastic labels off their water bottles and tied those on instead.


A few days later we climbed to the top of one of the Two Brothers. The ascent approached rock climbing at certain points. Thankfully, we took a less treacherous route back down.

View from one of the brothers to the other, with the valley floor below.

Counselor Roma made friends with this little lizard, called a Yaisheritsa. He was trying to release it into the forest, but it liked him too much to say goodbye. If you can see, the end of its tail is a different color. That's because it can lose the end of it's tail to escape a predator.

My last day at camp we went into the woods to pick berries. The only berries ripe were these tiny little strawberries called “zemliniki.” They were delicious, but tiny. I decided they were too miniscule to merit the effort of collecting them, so I just ate everything I picked immediately. Yum!