Thursday, January 13, 2011

Characters on the Train

Riding the train in Kazakhstan is a great cross-section of the local populace. You never know just who you’ll end up sharing your space with. I’ve had experiences ranging from the enjoyable (a 14-year-old who was finally able to help me understand the Russian card game “Durak”) to the annoying (grandmothers pushing their unmarried grandsons on me) to the painful (drunk men who just won’t leave you alone.)

This last trip found me spending 27 hours surrounded by three very different “babushkas,” or grandmothers. They politely asked me about what I was doing in Kazakhstan, if I like it here, if I was married, and how much money I make; basically, the same questions everyone always asks. Then, they delved into their own conversations, leaving me to read my book in the corner and surreptitiously make completely biased and probably incorrect assumptions about them.

I started with their tea. Since we spent the whole time on the train either sleeping or drinking tea, you can understand that there was a lot of tea drinking going on. I formed a theory that each particular type of tea reflected on each (completely biased and probably incorrect) personality that I had formed for each woman. The old Kazakh babushka across from me drank traditional Kazakh tea from a traditional Kazakh keshe, or handle-less tea cup. She took a handful of granular black tea and in a separate mug brewed a batch of very strong tea. Then, in her keshe, she poured a small amount of milk, a little of the strong black tea, and then filled the rest of the cup with boiled water. She must have downed at least 4 or 5 cups in each sitting. From this, I determined that she is a traditional woman who likes to maintain her Kazakh culture; she preferred to speak Kazakh rather than Russian, and kept her headscarf on the whole time.

The other babushka across from me was a Russian woman probably in her early 60s. She had an industrial metal mug that was probably from the mid-1960s. In it, she sprinkled loose green tea leaves. I connected this to her constant references to healthy eating and eastern medicine and decided that she was a health nut who loved to give other people advice about alternative medicine options.

The third babushka didn’t look more than 40, although she said she had several grandchildren. She was wearing a fashionable jacket under her fur coat. Her tea was also green, but she drank it from a brightly colored mug with two cubes of sugar. All day long, she only ate 2 cups of yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal, plus at least 10 pieces of chocolate. Therefore, I judged her to be a fashionable fad-dieter who really needs to read a good nutrition handbook – or to listen to the too-readily offered advice of her fellow green tea drinking companion.

The food that was spread out during our meals was also a great excuse to make snap judgments that fit nicely into my stereotypes. “Kazakh Babushka” ate exactly what a traditional Kazakh matriarch should eat: chunks of boiled meat with the fat still clinging to it, boiled potatoes and bread. “Medical-Advice Babushka,” on the other hand, proved a bit hypocritical in her meal options. For breakfast, she had an entire half of a meat and onion pie. For lunch, she downed bread with caviar, potato salad and some sausage. And for dinner, she enjoyed fake crab straight out of the package. She offered me some, but I politely refused. (I did eat a piece of Kazakh Babushka’s potatoes, though, after she insisted that I eat some at least 5 times.)

Their topics of conversation, when I bothered to listen (they talked the entire train ride, except, of course, when they were sleeping, which was a significant portion of the day), were just as interesting as their food choices. They got into a lively debate about which region of Kazakhstan has the best tasting potatoes, decidedly concluding that it must be the north. They complained about the number of foreigners in Moscow, especially how many blacks there are. And they complained for at least an hour straight about how expensive medicines are, and how everything was so much better during the Soviet times because everything was free.

I wonder what completely biased and probably incorrect judgments they made about me? You can try, if you want: I drank rooibos tea and ate sausage with bread plus my grandmother’s dried apples that I got in my last package from home. (I also offered these to my train mates as a sign of solidarity, but they were all much more interested in the Ziploc bag than they were in my food.)


  1. Did they all pack their own food and tea for the train? That's pretty interesting that they liked the Ziploc... what do people normally put their food in there? Is it normal to ask how much people make? Do you think that complaining about foreigners in front of you mean that you're not a foreigner?

  2. The train is one giant moving picnic! They put their food in non-zipping plastic bags or, more often, glass dishes from home. And yes, it's completely normal to ask how much money people make, followed by "How much does your father make? How much does bread cost? How much does a car cost?" I wonder if, since I speak Russian, they consider me "one of their own?" I think it might just be more of a disconnect, and they don't realize that I can understand what they're talking about even when they're not talking to me.