Kazak Kronicle #5

DSC02066Astana, Kazakhstan

June 7

People, this is a strange place. I feel bad leading with those words. I mean , like the whole point of applying for the scholarship and raising my share of the money and enduring my self-criticism about not doing my homework and trying to remember how to spell KazakHstan and pushing through to finish the patio-that’s what I went through prior to getting here. Now that I am here, I’m looking around and saying to myself, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” in KAZAK.

Don’t misunderstand me, please. I am glad I came and find this place fascinating. I told everybody before arriving that I didn’t know what to expect and now I see that I was right. Truth is, l had an inkling that it would be more yurt-like and horse-heavy. It ain’t. I assure you. There’s some art around that throws a bone to the nomadic-herdsman culture, but so far, it’s not been a big deal.

Other things are a big deal. The university where I stay is big deal. The new part of Astana where we are for the next 10 days is big and has big, tall, and new shiny buildings. The flatness of the steppe all around me is big deal. The wind blows and it feels big and menacing and not in a very good  mood and I just want to go find my yurt and crawl under the yak blanket with…ah…. my hot yak milk chocolate and enjoy the sound and marvel that my yurt construction skills were good enough to keep me from being hurled off the planet.

Astana is the capital of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union went away. This, in and of itself, is pretty amazing, because, if you are like me, and grew up during the Cold War and understand what nuclear winter and SALT II talks and the word proliferation and what a low-burn trauma that was, at least for me, you can’t get over the fact that there is no USSR. Indeed, there are new maps to prove This is a  very big deal.

When it was finally over in 1992 and there was no USSR to be back into, everyone looked around and had a conference call and decided what to do. Folks decided that since the USSR and Leningrad and important statues were gone, they should pretty much stay put and stay where they already were. Whether Russia, or Poland or Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, or Berkeley, folks just went on with their lives and took back the names and languages of the places the acronym tried to cover up. Once the abbreviation was gone, they thought to themselves, shit, we have to think about autonomy and other important things. Well, this little realignment did not go well in parts of the former acronym. In places like Bosnia, Serbia– the Balkans in general– folks suffered immensely and genocide raised its ugly  head yet once again.

I’ll stop there regarding those particular troubles and admit that I don’t really understand what went awry. I’m discerning my fellow Fulbrighters don’t hate me and have begun to extend their tongues toward me again, following the near-death experience we all had with the Turkish police due to my fondness for electronics. Maybe, ll find the cajones to ask a few of them to help me understand. We are teachers for crissake. There’s no such thing as a bad question. Right?

[ A few days later. I’ve had some technical difficulties]

I feel better. Mostly, I feel better because I’ve seen some kids and hung out with them and got to be a rock star for a few minutes where I taught English and they taught me some Russian. They are much further along in English than I am in Russian. We met at the top of the Golden Sphere where anybody can place their hand in the golden imprint of the President’s hand and hope for the best. I placed my hand there and wished for two things: One, that I could fulfill my dream of riding on Air Force One, and two, that the ride on Air Force One wouldn’t be an emergency extraction from Central Asia for writing flippant blogs. I can just imagine sitting in President Trump’s private, airborne office, and the President looking at me saying, “Mr. Polley, you should be more careful about what you say.”

I think that given the particular context of my imagined rescue, I would try to control myself and not respond to his slight chastisement, with, “Really? Coming from you, that’s quite an admonition.” I would do that in order to find my way back to Bisbee safely and to avoid being restracted onto the steppe with only my parachute and guitar I have yet to buy here but want to.

I am learning Russian. And it’s not muy facil. In fact, it’s muy duro. The letters of the alphabet are very hard to decipher. They are upside down, have some squiggly things going on and don’t make the same sounds that I expect they are supposed to make. Some of the Cyrillic letters look like my letters but they don’t do the same things and that’s hard to accept. I’m a talker, but in KazakHstan, I’m a pointer. I keep forgetting how to say things. Many of you that know me might be happy to hear that something has finally shut me up. If you’d like that continue upon my return, I suggest you all learn Russian because I don’t see myself getting very far with the language. Hopefully, there is no exit exam to pass when it comes time to fly away.

Today we  will have another class with our Kazak teacher. She’s very cool and knowledgeable and I’m hoping that she will let her hair down some more and fill us in with information that our other classes haven’t touched upon. I’m fascinated with the political structure of the country. President Nazarbayev has been KazakHstan’s only president. He has announced that he will remain president for life. Word has it that our own president has had some informal talks with the KazakHstan president to see how that can be done. Stay tuned, people, anything is possible.

I’m just going to stop here and send this your way. If you hear from me, then it’s okay. If not, somebody get on the phone and see if there is a plane available and some bored special forces guys looking for an adventure.

It’s been great to be in contact. Thanks for the feedback. I’ll talk soon.