First I bought a “fur coat.” This was back in October, right after I found out that I was going to Northern Kazakhstan. (Which, by the way, is the northernmost region in all of the Peace Corps.) All along I had planned to buy a winter coat over here, but somehow the prospect of -40 degrees gave the search a new urgency. I asked every Kazakh person I knew for their advice, and got mixed reports. My host family told me I needed to buy a “shuba,” or what we think of as a fur coat. But since these run about 80,000 tenge, and I was given a total of 25,000 tenge for all of my “settling in” allowance, this wasn't feasible. So instead, I took my Kazakh teacher's advice and searched for a coat with rabbit fur lining – much cheaper (20,000 tenge), if not as fashionable. As I walked through the bazaar, reaching inside every coat I passed to see if it had the desired fur inside, I felt a bit like a traitor to my liberal, Pacific Northwest upbringing – images of the protestors that always gathered around the fur coat store in downtown Portland flashed through my head – but the expediency of affordable warmth won in the end.
Upon arrival in the north, I quickly found my gloves wanting and bought a new pair. And the constant critiques of my plain, navy blue hat (“It looks like a man's hat,” “It's too square.”) led me to buy a rhinestone-bedazzled Kazakh wool cap. Now all that was left showing from America was my boots.
Despite the fact that I'd searched long and hard in the States to find warm yet fashionable winter boots (no small feat in rainy Oregon in August), and despite the fact that the reviews raved that my purchase would be “the warmest boots you've ever worn,” and despite the fact the I took to wearing 2-3 pars of socks every time I went outside, my toes would still get cold if I stood on the street for more than 15 minutes. (And, considering how often the bus is late, or just decides not to come at all, this is pretty regularly.) So, I finally broke down and bought myself a pair of Valenki, or, as the Kazakhs call them, Pima.
Fashionable they are not. But pima are so warm!!!
Pima were clearly invented by someone who shared my problem of cold toes and didn't care how incredibly unfashionable they had to be to solve this problem. Pima could best be described as “felted wool boots,” and maybe I should just refer you to the picture I've posted. They're quite funny looking, really, and considering how many women here totter around on impossibly high stiletto heels for most of the year, it's surprising how popular they are. The main wearers are babushki (old ladies), who share my love of comfort over fashion. But a fair number of younger women, and even men, also wear pima. They even make adorable children's pima for the concerned parent.
My quest started when I told my host mother that I wanted to buy some pima. She was thrilled. (She, along with everyone else at my school, seems to think that I am in distinct danger of shriveling up and dying from the cold, and therefore is constantly asking if I'm cold, and telling me to put on more clothes.) She said she would ask around and find out where to buy them. (Apparently, they aren't sold in the bazaar downtown, but in private houses.) Soon, the whole school knew that I wanted to buy some pima. “Did you buy your pima yet?,” the teachers asked me. “What color are you going to buy?”
One helpful math teacher pointed us to a place that sold pima just behind our school. My host mother and I trekked through the snow and entered the rundown-looking, unmarked building, me cautiously, her without the least feeling that anything was out of the ordinary. Inside, there was an entry way strewn with old tires and three men smoking. They politely pointed to a door with “entrance” written on it. Pushing through the door, it was immediately evident that they made the pima here as well as sold them. We'd come straight to the factory, as it were. The whole place smelled very strongly of sheep due to the large piles of wool lying in many of the corners. An open stove kept the place warm while ancient machines that looked as if they were from the dawn of the industrial revolution clanked in other corners. A lady ushered us into the “office” and set about finding me a pair of pima.
When I'd searched for dress shoes in the bazaar in Almaty, I'd discovered that, apparently, no women in Kazakhstan have feet larger than a size 39, or 8, and therefore no one sells shoes in larger sizes. I'd always thought of my size 9 feet as average, but I'm a Sasquatch here. When the lady brought out the largest pair of pima they had on hand, my toes were smashed in the front. And so I had to special order my pima in a larger size. Luckily, we were at the factory, so I only had to wait four days. When they were ready, the son of one of the workers, an eighth grader at our school, cautiously peered into the teachers' room and gave me the message, and I trekked through the snow to pick them up.
Pima are popular at any age.
My new pima were the talk of the school for at least a week. Everyone wanted to look at them and to complement me on how Kazakh I'd become. Even my Regional Manager from the Peace Corps, when she came for “site visit,” exclaimed over my pima and had me roll up my pants so she could take a picture. My pima even earned me an invitation to tea. News of my pima must have spread beyond the walls of the school, because the conductor on the bus (the lady who collects bus fares) wanted to know how I was liking my new pima. The lady sitting next to me was slightly confused by this question, until the conductor explained that I was from America. The lady immediately complimented me on my pima and began a five minute discussion of their merits as winter footwear. Then she told me she had lots of jam, and I should come over to her house and eat some of it. A few weeks later, I called her up to accept her invitation. It was a very nice visit; I got to eat pork for the first time in three months (even though my family doesn't practice Islam, they still buy halal sausage and don't eat pork) and watched rugby on tv. Unfortunately, she forgot about the jam.
My host father loves to tell a story about a famous cosmonaut from the USSR. This cosmonaut said, “The two greatest inventions of mankind are the space ship and pima.”
My warm and happy toes wholeheartedly agree.