Some thirty Kazakhstanis and four Americans were in charge of our training in a village near Almaty, home of Kazakhstan’s international airport. But first, we had to get there.
The Peace Corps brought us to Washington DC for a three-day “staging” at a Holiday Inn where we met our fellow volunteers, or “trainees,” as I was corrected to say. We’d not be official Peace Corps volunteers until we’d completed our training and been officially sworn in.
Our group — nicknamed KAZ15 because it was the fifteenth group to serve in Kazakhstan — was whiter and more middle class than I’d expected. But with the exception of the few hours I spent at a D.C. doctor’s office having a Chincoteague-born tick cut out of my right buttock, that June weekend in 2004 was pleasantly predictable.
There were a few get acquainted exercises and addresses from various spokespersons, including a woman from the Kazakhstan Embassy who spoke to us about corruption in her country, pleading to “help us change this.” I vowed to take her at her word. Then there was the recommendation to repack and leave our non-essentials behind.
We sat through the former and complied as best we could with the latter. Between us, Woody and I’d packed six months worth of Citrucel, Zocor, Prilosec, Actonel, and Poise pads — as Peace Corps had asked — to deal with our “middle-aged issues” of irregularity, high cholesterol, reflux, osteoporosis, and incontinence: things the twenty-somethings probably didn’t have.
We’d brought clothes for four seasons, enough to ensure we’d not need a washing machine for many weeks. We’d brought books to read, photographs to share, and gifts to give. In short, we’d packed like typical Americans. The Peace Corps expected this. Hence, the presence of multiple cardboard packing boxes made available to us.
We repacked half of our medications and some “non-essential” winter clothes into two large Peace Corps-provided boxes and mailed each to a friend to forward to us once we were settled. We’d not yet learned the meaning of non-essential.
After a routine flight, including a three-hour layover in Frankfurt with most of the forty-two of us milling about the airport in a pack, we landed in Almaty near midnight, local time. My body ached for the twelve hours it had lost en route.
When we landed, we met the well-oiled machine that was then Peace Corps Kazakhstan. Bused off to the nearby mountains, we were tucked away for three days in an old, somewhat neglected sanatorium while we recovered from jet lag, continued the endless series of inoculations we’d begun in DC, and got our first taste of Kazakh culture and Russian language.
The inoculations came while walking single file between two Peace Corps medical officers who stabbed our arms. Over the next ten weeks, we’d continue this routine, ultimately defended against hepatitis A and B, TB, rabies, measles-mumps-rubella, meningitis, diphtheria, typhoid and polio. Now that the Peace Corps was fully responsible for our health, they didn’t want us sick.
In addition to the shots, these first three days were filled with lectures, language classes, non-descript meals, and an afternoon being introduced to the culture of Kazakhstan. This they did by bringing in young costumed dancers to sway to the music of the dombra — akin to a two-string banjo — and having us sample fermented mare’s milk (kumis) and fermented camel’s milk (shubat).
Kumis is considered the national drink. And, I later heard (somewhat jokingly), if the horse had been recently pastured among over-ripe grapes, kumis became the national wine.
While the sanatorium was downright primitive, the lush green countryside surrounding our hamlet was spectacular, with enormous mountains surrounding us on all sides. Welcomed breezes kept the summer heat at bay while we had short classes learning the Russian version of “Hello, my name is ___. What is your name?” and other useful phrases.
In our small group, two local teachers, one Russian and one Kazakh, tossed a large beach ball back and forth to each of us standing in a circle as we responded appropriately.
Catch the ball. “D’rast v’witchya. Meenya zavoot Janet.” Throw the ball. “Kak vas a voot?”
Gulshat had the round, tanned face of the native Kazakh while Lyudmila, of Russian decent, looked like any American WASP, any heavyset American WASP.
That they were here, together teaching us common Russian phrases, was quintessential Kazakhstan History 101.
Gulshat’s people had roamed the land for thousands of years and were here when Lyudmila’s people arrived.
Lyudmila’s ancestors might have come directly from Moscow or its outskirts sometime after the late 17th century. They may have felt pushed to emigrate by desires similar to what sent so many Americans westward in the same era: free land and the promise of opportunity.
Or, they might have come crammed into a cattle car, forced from their home somewhere within the vast empire that Stalin controlled in the 1930s and 40s.
In either case, Gulshat’s people welcomed the Russian newcomers with food, temporary shelter, and friendly smiles. That much I am sure. Kazakhs, I was to learn, know no other way.
Lyudmila threw the ball to me, with a simple “Meenya zavoot Lyudmila. Kak vas a voot?”
I caught it easily and out came, “D’rast v’witchya. Meenya zavoot Janet,” as smoothly as anyone could want.
Then I tossed the ball to someone else and let flow, “D’rast v’witchya. Meenya zavoot Janet. Kak vas a voot?”
This went on with more or less success with the other phrases we were to learn. “Where are you from?” “How old are you?” And my all-time favorite for sheer length, “Hello, I’m an American Peace Corps volunteer. The Peace Corps is an American organization that places volunteers in countries that invite them.”
For the first time in my life, I was in a foreign language class and not hamstrung by stuttering.
I liked it.