Tuesday, May 31, 2005

the end of the game

My students graduated last Wednesday. I took a lot of pictures, but I probably won't get them on my site until July. The ceremony was very quaint and included a lot of awards for all the best students. After that there was a concert in honor of the graduating class. There were many skits, some of which were very funny, some very sentimental and touching, but all represented the hard-work of all involved. Each class performed their own sort of tribute to the graduates. The teachers all became the unexpected participants of a skit in which all the teachers were arrested and put on trial for the torture of the 11-grade students, included me. The teachers played along, each in turn saying something in their defense. That we did it for their good made no difference; that we gave them (in many cases undeserved) good grades, made no difference. They were inconsolable and unreasonable. But we humored them, and our reward was conviction and a tiny bag of dried bread crusts, I suppose for food as we rot in prison. In my defense I merely said, "I don't even know why I'm here on trial. I demand a translator!" Svetlana (my counterpart) was the home teacher of the 11th grade, and had been since they were babies in the 5th grade. She delivered a moving tribute to them, saying how she would always love them and miss them, calling them all by name and saying something about each of them. The girls were all crying, and some of the boys were teary. Fat lot of good it did her! She was convicted too! After that, the students left the school to while the time away until the party that night where they would all get drunk, and their mothers (and one father, because they were probably working) had a party with Svetlana. For six hours we sat in the classroom and made toasts to their children until they were lit enough to burst into song, which could be heard for 200 meters away from the school. I finally couldn't stand the noise anymore and I left, but they stayed for two more hours. I played frisbee instead with some of my younger kids, who were walking around the village. School is over! Except for the 9th and 11th graders (yes, the graduates aren't done with school), because they have exams the first week of June, and until then they have to take a class a day in each of Russian, Russian Literature, Kazakh, and the class of their choice. Some students chose to take the English exam, which is necessary for some if they want to study language at a university. To show you another example of how liberal the school system here is, some of the 11-graders essentially failed, and their "last chance" is to somehow get a 3 (approximately a C) on the exam in order not to get held back. Good luck to them. I wish them all the best. And pray that they never aspire to come to any American or European Institution.

banyas and martinis

Kazakhstan is separated from all oceans by thousands of kilometers of land. And Ust-Kamenogorsk is almost in the center. The climate is what's called "Continental," which means it is really cold in Winter, and really hot in Summer. If it is as hot in Summer as it is cold in Winter, I think I might have found hell on Earth. I've heard that in direct sunlight it can reach almost 50 degrees. (That's about 120 degrees fahrenheit.) Nothing is impossible. Really, if I have found hell on Earth, then it freezes over every year; anyone who uses that reasoning, now has no crutch, and can't say, "Yeah, I'll give you $1,000...when hell freezes over!" "Sure, I'll cook you breakfast-in-bed, do the dishes, and rub your feet...when hell freezes over!" Well, I'm sorry, but there'd better be some breakfasts-in-bed and feet-rubbing going on; and you can send the thousand bucks to my address. The cold and heat isn't that bad, however, because it is dry. Texas is right next to the Gulf of Mexico. My first trip to the banya reminded me of what Galveston feels like on a unusually hot day. Though a traditional banya can feel a whole lot more uncomfortable. There are (I think) three different styles of banya that are popular here in Kazakhstan: the Russian, the Finnish, and the Turkish. Russian banya is your meat-and-potatoes banya; typically men prefer it to the other two, but this is the standard. This is the routine: First, you strip. Second, you sit in a very hot dry sauna. Third, jump in a cold pool. Repeat steps two and three ad nauseum. Fourth, take a shower and clean yourself. Fifth, drink a beer or shot of vodka. Repeat step five ad nauseum, literally. There are various knick-knacks and accoutrements that can be instituted as the second stage of the banya, among them, a felt hat and gloves for the die-hard veterans with molten lava for blood, birch leaves soaked in boiling water, and a fat Russian or Kazakh man hitting you with said birch leaves while grunting a deep-bellied chuckle. I don't usually opt for the latter. The amount of scalding steam increases linearly with the amount of people in the banya with you, because each person adds a cup of water to the coals when they come in; and exponentially with the age of your banya-mates, because the older they are, the more completely they have fried their nerve endings that sense heat. You can usually tell upon opening the door to the sauna if you can handle the heat, typically with the tried-and-true test: if your eyes don't shrivel and your face melt off, you'll be okay for up to 10 minutes, unless someone comes in while you're there. You occasionally find steam baths here and there. They are very hot, very wet saunas. It's like a hot swamp or something. Other than that there's not much difference between Russian and steam baths. In the south, Turkish style is popular, but it's usually only for women. There are too many frills I suppose. In this banya, you strip, douse yourself in water, and lay on heated stones, then you could sit in a hot tub, but after that it's like Russian banya. If Russian banya is, let's say, a vodka martini, then a steam bath is a gin martini, and Turkish banya is a mudslide, all smooth and relaxing.

In the south, when I went to the public banya, it was separated by sex. It's generally the same everywhere in Kazakhstan. Even in the north it is not common to be mixed, the European way. No one here has the same reservations about nudity; in a banya, everyone is VERY naked. Bathing suits and modesty get in the way. And what's the big deal anyway? People go to banyas to relax, enjoy the heat, and get clean, not to look at dirty, fat men (or women). I admit that it was a little strange for this southern boy to strip down to his skivvies around other strange men. It's something I'm just not used to, but after a while I felt liberated in more way than one. American conservativism is good, but it comes at a heavy price: nudity can't just be nudity, it always has to be sexual. So something as mundane as taking a bath becomes perverted. I remember one of my girl friends in college said one time that she didn't want to go see a particular movie because there was a small scene with a naked woman in it. "What's the big deal for a girl to see another naked girl, I mean, especially since you are a girl?" I asked. She said she just didn't want to see another woman's breasts. Well, I don't really want to see a naked man either, but I'm not going to pass up a good movie because of it. I go to see the movie. Same thing in this situation: I go to take a bath.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

One-sided conversations

Hello, everyone, and welcome. I saw several other volunteers using this blog site and thought it would be good. After almost a year of writing journal entries on my site, I've grown tired of not have reciprocal messages, and I want to know what you think. Hopefully, my journaling can spark some conversation. I feel like I speak to the void. I shall also try to become more diligent on checking this blog, since I know more people will be reading and responding...well, that's the idea anyway. I have a new post saved on my computer and will upload it on Tuesday.