Dear Kaz 21s

At this point I’ve got to write something.  Not to write at this point would be tantamount to treachery – a treachery to myself above all others.  Things are changing, with the severity of goodbyes and the finality of lasts.  And they’re happening fast.

Two years ago I came to Kazakhstan with 66 other people.  Most of us were early twenties, most just out of college.  There were a few outliers, a few people who had worked awhile or even retired.  But we were all wide-eyed with dewy anticipation, many of us subtly scented with fear.  They gave us a number, to identify who we were and when we had come.  We were the twenty-first group of volunteers to come to Kazakhstan.  Kaz 21s.

Two years have gone by, and we are now  51.  Not everybody made it.  Some people got lost along the way, bogged down in the heavy weight of the Kazakh sun.  Others lost themselves in little internal combustions, the tips of their fingers too hot to hold on.  Still others were pulled by the magnetic voices of those they’d left behind, the siren song that had them crawling to splash overboard.

And none of those choices were wrong.  They were right for those people in those moments, at those times.

But 51 of us survived, and 49 of you will go home.  Or have gone already.  

I love you lot.  Thank you for the hand-in-hand fumbling and bumbling the last two years.  For the quiet victories and stinging lessons.

I will miss every darn one of you.

That’s all the drama I’ve got left in my veins, and all I care to say.

Lopa out.


There’s a meditativeness to riding the train at night.  The whole things sways and breathes and churns, the noise of track whooshing out from behind you, like the whooshing breaths of the people who sleep curled into berths.   You sway and breathe and woosh with it.

When you arrive, you bump past the other people, but you don’t mumble apologies.  They are in your way.  The train is about business, when it comes to getting on and getting off.  There are six berths in your little quadrat- two run along the side of the train, one up, one down.  The lower one has a little table that flips up.  The aisle also runs along the length of the train of course, along these two bunks.  Across from it there are four sandwiched in between wall-like partitions.

You heft your bags into the hidden cupboard beneath your berth, arrange the provided sheets and thin fabric mattress not according to how you like it, but according to tradition.  As the train begins to move, it is no longer business, it is chai.

Each quadrat has a hodge-podge family – whomever you are, where ever you’ve come from, whatever you had or didn’t have, you now have a family.  Your food is their food, their food is your food.  Your story becomes their story (because as time drags on down the tracks, they will tell your story a hundred times to anyone who will listen).  Their food becomes your food.  Their story is now tangled up in your own, a random arrangement of people who meet at a singularly precise moment in their lives, to live a handful of long hours together.

There are children, of course.  They race up and down the aisle, bumping into feet of sleeping grandmothers, squealing with delight.  Arms of women thrust deftly from the banks of berths to scoop them up, vigorously rub the rosily-dirty cheeks and then thrust the piglets back into the aisle.  You want to play too of course, except somehow it seems the cutest of them never speaks the languages you know, and for a moment you feel disenfranchised by the unluckiness of it all – and worse, that you are an adult.

The ultimate disenfranchisement.

A few words bubble up in the back of your mind, like people long forgotten – friends, ones you parted with on good terms, friends you’re glad to think of again.

You make a joke to one of the piglets when the train lurches.  ‘As-ta-roj-na!’ you intone,  ‘Be careful!’ and the child squeals with the delight of a child who understands that fear isn’t funny at all, but pretend fear is, and therefore hilarity is warrented.

Of course, now, for the next sixteen hours of the train ride, you will hear ‘Astarojna’ accompanied by peals of raccous laughter each time the train lurches.  At least once every 15 minutes.

You drink tea with your quadrat family, eat with them, drift in and out of conversations with them.  For a little while you find solace in your iPod, in Ingrid Michaelson telling you to ‘just keep breathing.’  Really, it’d be impossible not to.  You’ve become part of the organism of the train now, a tiny, interlocking part.  You have to breathe with it.  It’s a complusion.

Some men have formed a tight knot, and you listen to them talk about things they know nothing about, but assert with prowess of voice and fists that bash madly in the air.  It’s better, even, when they talk about the country you are from.  Your very presence in the train has provoked them, somehow unsettled this very local culture.  Women chime in, their mouths unwilling to stop, gossip and barefaced lies dripping from their chins.  The fumes from the ignorance are like pepper spray.  They think you don’t understand them, but you do.

One woman glances your way, and comments, “What a mess.”  You catch her eye, “Can I help you?”  Her eyes snap open, startled from the lull of comforting lies, and she turns to her companions.  “She understands,” she murmurs under her breath.

You have peace again.

And then comes the night.  You slip your feet from the tapiski, and pull yourself up and up into your top bunk bed.  Curling into a ‘c’ you sit there in the dark.  Swallowed whole by the train and the people and the woosh of the rails.

The baby breathes ”Astarojna’ and giggles softly.  The mother hushes.

The train lurches on and on.

Ingrid Michaelson is playing again, but this time only in your mind.

This is peace.

It’s an old story right?  Our hero’s superpower turns out to be his fatal flaw- because of his powers, he can’t be with the woman he loves without placing her in chaos and danger.  Or how about the man with super strength who has a heart of gold and a love for kittens and alas (!) every kitten within an 80 mile radius is terrified of the hulking green giant.

I have recently discovered my superpower.  My friends, I have learned to read the minds of locals.

You might be asking yourself how it’s possible to refine such a nifty skill.  Well, I can only recommend that you promptly join the Peace Corps, go through about a year of culture-spell-bound-wonder, and then extend a third year.  I promise, your eyes will suddenly become crusty and jaundiced.

Yes, when I see that woman glance askance at me in the bazaar, my finely tuned skills pick up exactly  what she’s thinking.

What is wrong with that girl?  She’s not wearing makeup.  Are those pants?!  Isn’t she a teacher??!  For shame!

Even more impressively than my mind reading is my ability to have whole conversations subconsciously with local people.

Oh my God!  A dog lives in her house!  It’s disgusting!

Well, I find the fact that you are powerless to control your expressions pathetic, and those shoes are awful.

She’s not wearing slippers!

I will bet you my income versus yours for the next twenty-five years that I’ll still be able to bear children.

The window’s open!

Isn’t it amazing I’m not sick?!

I know, right? I’m pretty much super-human.  Mind reading and telepathy.  Beat that.

Of course, there’s a decided problem with my super skills.

A few weeks ago, I went into Turkistan to meet some volunteers.  I took a taxi from Zhanatas, and the ride was astounding, seriously the most beautiful drive I’ve ever been on in Kazakhstan.  We whipped around sharp curves and descended into this amazingly beautiful canyon, riddled with lakes and rivers.

When we arrived I had time to kill, so I hopped over the nearest bazaar and decided to find something to eat.  As usual, a place with lagman- a hand rolled, amazingly delicious noodle- was in order and easy to find but not without the typical shoulder-to-shoulder push and shove of the busy, low-priced Skymkent bazaars.

Tucked into a dark little nook, the place was just opening.  Unobtrusive, I could sit there quietly and eat in a peace.  Sit a minute maybe.  Ooo, and drink some cold tea – the air was already warming up, I’d dressed to warmly for Turkistan’s heat.

I settled in and ordered in Kazakh to a startled looking waitress.

“One bowl of lagman please, no bread.  One bottle of cold tea.”

I could read her mind, easily.

What? What is this Russian woman speaking Kazakh for?

“I understand Russian,” she replied primly in Russian, clearly offended that I thought she was too uneducated to speak it.

“I don’t,” I responded firmly in Kazakh.  Her eyebrows rose up into her bangs, and she flounced off to find my lagman and probably spit in it.

I sat awhile, relaxing.  On Kazakh-time the food comes when it comes.  Sometimes it’s instantly, sometimes it’s an hour later.  I watched a fly buzz lazily around the incandescent light bulb, and then turned my attention to the Saran-Wrapped pictures on the wall (presumably to keep them safe from the inordinate amount of oil used in the kitchen, drunks and other nemeses to public health).

A few other groups of people straggled in.  There was group of four obnoxious young Uzbek boys, bouncing about in the little space of the cafe and laughing like hyenas.  (In this culture, I do honestly wonder if he who laughs the most annoyingly is somehow having the most fun, or winning something – they seem to make a sport out of it.)  Then a small gaggle of women wedged themselves together through the doorway, whispering gossip in Kazakh while looking down their noses as much as possible.

I of course stared happily  down into my freshly arrived bowl of hand-rolled noodles and delicious mutton-veggie broth.   At least, until that super power of mine started nagging at me.

First I felt the woman’s gaze, then I could hear her thoughts.

What is that woman doing here alone?  And she’s wearing pants and a backpack.  Shameless.

I continued to eat my noodles, but she kept looking over at me, her thoughts as clear as day.

Cold tea? On a day like this?  It’s insane! Didn’t her mother teacher her better?

I ate faster, becoming more and more irritated at the Kazakh woman who kept looking over and then turning back to her friends, murmuring beneath her hands.  I just wanted out of there and out from under the woman’s gaze.  Can’t a person get some privacy?  Can’t they leave me alone for a just a little while?

I called over the waitress, in Kazakh of course, and began to ask how much my bill was, when I was suddenly cut off by the gossiping woman.

“I know you! I knew I knew you!” She declared in a bright and boisterous voice.  “You were on TV! You’re thinner now, you’re more beautiful! Let me pay for your meal!”

I was shocked.  Utterly flabbergasted.

I fumbled with my money as the rest of the patrons turned around in their seats to get a better look at the apparent TV star.

“When you spoke, I knew it was you!  Your voice suits Kazakh so well- it’s so beautiful!”

The more she talked, the more like a jack ass I felt.

“Thank you, thank you for speaking our language in our country!  Some Kazakh people can’t even speak Kazakh!”

I waved slightly, mumbling a few embarrassed words of thanks and goodbye, and stumbled out into the bright light and heat of a main pathway through the bazaar.

Like I said, fatal flaw.

I think it’s time to retire my super hero cape.

As you may or may not know, I have had three dogs in Kazakhstan.  First there was Oliver, later Shoshka and after I lost them I got the dog I own now, Ioo.

Oh, and the two puppies that are currently curled up in my lap asleep.

My neighbor kids have apparently decided that since I am the only human being they know crazy enough to live with a dog (ew dirty!), my home is now also a home for all things wiggly, furry and cute.

There of course is a problem with this (in case you haven’t grasped that yet).  In Kazakhstan, land of the strays, puppies are pretty much constant fixtures.  What’s worse is the abuse they take- kicks, rocks, even being thrown against walls and buildings.  And of course they’re all thin, malnourished and dirty.

The bottom line is this:  I can’t save them all.

Training, walking, feeding and giving attention to one dog is hard enough.  Add in the fact that I’m traveling all over the place, and have to find someone in a dog-kicking-is-shcool culture to watch her, it’s really a bit of a headache.  I do it, and gladly- I wouldn’t change a thing, but it’s still a difficult thing.

But here’s the deal.  I take in these puppies for a night.  I wash them up with anti-lice shampoo, I give them nutrient packed foods like meat and milk, and I give them a de-worming pill and a puppy vitamin.  The next day they’ll go out with me on the way to school and I’ll leave them near the dump, where they will have the best chance of finding food.

I personally believe that the world will provide for me to the extent that I am willing to provide for others.  I’s like the old proverb, ‘You get out what you put in.’

I wonder what sort of dividends puppies pay.

Language Quirk

Just like in English, the Kazakh language differentiates between hair and fur.

Except, in the Kazakh language people have fur too.  Any hair on your body besides that which resides on your head is known as ‘June.’ or fur, in Kazakh.


Dear Kazakh Men Whom Try Seduce Me (and/or any other American girl),

First of all, never never compliment a woman’s arm ‘fur’, even if you’re saying is a really nice color.

Secondly, never never call a woman furry.

Huge mistake.


Good luck in finding the American bride of your dreams (FYI that’s not me),






Today as I was leaving my school the pre-school kids were also leaving en masse.   I let them overwhelm me, and when I reached the school yard there were only a few stragglers, the rest headed home on their stumpy, plump little legs toward a snack as fast as possible.

“Hello!” one little boy with a ridiculously huge hat beamed up at me.

“Hello!” I chimed back, flashing Hat a big smile. (Hey, I was excited about snack and home too!)

Hat turned to his companion Over-stuffed-backpack-kid and began to speak in Kazakh.

“Did you hear that? I said hello! To the American!”

Backpack looked blankly at Hat, then skeptically at me.

“Hello! I said ‘Hello!’ Don’t you understand hello!”

Backpack continued to look blankly at Hat, the word clearly not ringing any bells.

Hat appeared to be getting a little frustrated.  “Man, am I smart? How come you can’t understand hello!”

He jogged up to me, and slipped his little mitten into my hand, and grinned up at me.

“I understand hello.  I am sooooo cool.”


I couldn’t help but laugh.

First, if you don’t know much about the elections or election criticism  in Kazakhstan, I highly recommend you google it, or in brief, read this article and this summary.

My puppy is paper trained, but due to where I live currently, I do not let her go outside alone.  So, as I’m sure you can imagine, we go through an awful lot of newspaper.  I promise, I totally promise that this has to do with Kazakhstan’s presidential elections, which are being held today.  Just hang in there, the story is totally worth it.

Last week I hopped over the the local newspaper office in Zhanatas and met a fairly nice seeming guy who didn’t set my creep-meter off.  So, the two of us began chatting amiably in Kazakh while I held my squirmy puppy Ioo in my arms.

“I need newspapers please,” I explained.  “Old ones or misprinted ones.  I’ll buy them.”

“Oh, no no,” he said.  “You needn’t pay.”  (I’m sure he said that because I am so darn charming in Kazakh!a girl can dream, right?)
“Here.”  He proceed to pull three individual sheets of newspaper out of a stark doorless Soviet cabinet.

“Oh, no no no- I need many!”  I emphasized the many by juggling my dog and drawing one hand out as far as I could from the wiggling pup.

Ioo- the miscreant in question

Comprehension flashed on his face, and he nodded.  “Come outside, wait.”

I obligingly followed the man out to his car, where he retrieved a giant skeleton key, the sort you might imagine belonging to an old Victorian house, only way, way bigger.  He gestured to the back of the building, and since my creepy meter still hadn’t gone off, I determined it was safe to follow.

At the back of the newspaper offices, there was a very short door.  The man brusquely thrust the key into the lock, giving it a few expert jiggles, and the door swung inward and he ducked into the blackness.  I figured I’d followed him this far, what the heck, right?  And so I ducked to avoid seriously clunking my head, only to gracefully trip over the uneven floor and run smack into my newspaper man.

He laughed at me, taking me by the shoulders and righting my orientation, which had gone all kinds of wrong.  My eyes adjusted slowly and I let out a small gasp.

Three, count em, three printing presses crowded the space, the air ripe with the smells of ink and chemicals.  Two of them were clearly no longer in use – rusted antiquities from a time before this one.  Even the one that was in use looked like something out of the 70s – it was painted that strange metal toaster sea foam green.

I at once bent to examine the relics, exclaiming at this and that, wishing I had a more technical vocabulary.  I learned however that the newest was 30 years old – the rest were from before he’d worked here, and he had no idea how long they’d been sitting in this room, it’s walls blackened from ink and chemicals.

Seeing my interest, he promptly invited me to come to see the newspaper being printed next week.  I accepted his offer, accompanied by a giant pile of newsprint, and promised to see him the next week.

So, what does this have to do with the Kazakhstani presidential elections?  We’re almost there, hang on.



A few days ago I invited Chris (the sitemate) over for dinner.  He came, we ate and talked- it was nice.   We talked a little bit about the election, how it was being held, how the teachers (who are notorious for cheating on tests) were election proctors, and how there is no official ballot collecting process- the school is making it up as it goes along. As he was getting ready to leave I was replacing the puppy’s papers on the floor.

“Where did you get those papers?” Chris asked, his voice strange.

Ioo's opinion on the Kazakhstani elections (not mine! 😉 )

I of course, was obliged to tell him the aforementioned.

“Do you know what it says?”

“Of course not- it’s Russian.”  The huge stack of newspapers, probably 40 pounds of them, were all printed the same, like little booklets.  They read ‘ГЛВНЫЙ ВЫБОР СТРАНЫ!’ in all capital letters, clearly very important.

Chris explained what this meant.

It means ‘very important election papers.’  Or something like that.

And my dog, of course, continues to use them as she requires.

Oh, Kazakhstan.

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