A Life of Sacrifice and Hardship?
- Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Kazakhstan
Most of my friends who graduated from college with me moved to New York or stayed in Washington, DC, to work at entry-level jobs and share a cramped apartment with enough roommates to cover the rent. They share an impression of my Peace Corps service in Kazakhstan as a noble sacrifice of a good job in a big city in favor of a tough job in a land of hardship. I beg to differ. Sometimes I joke to myself that I am living better in Kokshetau than I would in America as a recent college graduate. For example, my best friend pays half of her salary for a tiny room in Brooklyn. I sent her a gift of a woven tablecloth, and when she replied with thanks, she added that she didn't have room in her apartment for a table to put it on, but she thought that it would look nice on the wall.
While Kokshetau doesn't offer all of the conveniences of New York or Washington, I'm not suffering here. I live in a spacious two-room apartment with a good-sized kitchen and a walk-in closet. There's even a balcony (although it hangs too precariously for me to feel comfortable lounging there). I have so much extra space that I deliberately take things out of my walk-in closet and place them in stacks throughout the apartment to make it look less empty. There's also very creative furniture. I don't have a bed, but I made myself something resembling a bed using an old door, some useless speakers, and a couple of mattresses. Two broken old televisions function quite well as tables, cardboard boxes make fabulous shelves, and stacks of pillows covered with a blanket pass for a chair. It's rather charming, I think.
My apartment has its drawbacks, of course. My Peace Corps-issued space heater is constantly on throughout the winter, when the drafts sneak in around the edges of the window frame. (I stuffed the cracks with cotton and tape to avoid such drafts, but I may need to try the potato-starch recipe for window-stuffing, as I've heard it's more effective.) When my neighbors don't pay their electricity bill, I work by candlelight. One week, the neighbors to the left were late with their payment, and the neighbors to the right were on time, but since I'm in the middle, my payment didn't matter. The neighbors to the left lost their electricity until they paid. With them, the entire left half of my apartment was out. Water is at times an issue as well. It alternately leaks and erupts from the pipes, depending on which neighbors, above or below me, clogged their drain.
My apartment building is a testament to the sometimes awkward transition Kazakhstan is going through from being part of the former Soviet Union. My building, with about 70 apartments, used to be owned by the government, as were most city buildings. Now, the building isn't really owned by anyone, although you could consider the current tenants the owners. This lack of ownership becomes most problematic when there are buildingwide concerns, like a leaking roof. It's an interesting study in community motivation to see someone in the building finally declaring "Enough!"and attempting to organize a group effort to replace the roof.
My medium-sized town boasts countless cafes, plenty of shopping centers, and a large bazaar, with fruits and vegetables and meats and cheese wheels all ready to be bargained for. Where can you find such a bazaar in New York City?
And we have nightclubs. There are two of them. One is called Harley-Davidson and has an unconvincing plastic motorcycle as the dance floor centerpiece. Soon, there will be a bowling alley. In other cities bowling alleys have taken off as social hotspots and hangouts for only the coolest people in town. You can bet I'll be there.
We even have 24-hour convenience stores! I know this, because I live directly above one of them, and I am the nightly witness to its stream of customers. Maybe it's not exactly like the American Walgreen's, glowing with lights and inviting sliding doors into the wee hours of the morning, but if you need something in those hours of the morning, and you can bang on the door loud and hard enough to wake up the staff sleeping inside, the store works at any hour. Judging from the extremely insistent banging that regularly wakes me up at night, the store does fairly good business.
I live in the center of town, within walking distance of my school, my secondary project, and all my friends. On the days when there is a buran—an unforgiving wind that sweeps through the city from the steppe—or on days when the temperature is flirting around the minus 30 range, or on days when I just don't want to walk, I can take any one of the local buses, which serve virtually all the areas I need to go in town. Some buses are nicer than others; some are actually quite new, while others reek of exhaust and have icy floors. If I ask nicely, the bus drivers will even let me out in between stops. No driver in Washington ever did that for me!
At school, although the heat sometimes doesn't work, I enjoy the basic comforts one needs to exist in an academic setting. This isn't a one-room schoolhouse by any means. It is a good-sized building with spacious classrooms and plenty of desks and chairs. We have regular faculty meetings, and the school organizes interesting concerts and programs for the students. My director and supervisor are extremely supportive of me, and they make many efforts to make sure I'm content in their school and community.
Life in Kokshetau is far from boring. I have enough friends to keep me occupied when I'm not working. There is a family that insists I eat with them once a week, the mother scolding me for losing too much weight as she scoops a large spoon of butter onto my plate of variniki—boiled dumplings usually stuffed with potatoes, cheese, cabbage, or meat. "Eat!"I'm told. There is a family in a nearby village who invites me weekly for a banya, or a Russian steam bath that I take far too much delight in, and that I will miss when I return to America. My supervisor invites me to her apartment every week as well, where she generously offers me the use of her washing machine, a rare treasure in Kokshetau that makes my life much easier (and gets my clothes much cleaner than my rudimentary attempts at washing my clothes in the bathtub). In addition to these friends, I have enough site mates to keep me from missing America too much. We get together regularly to cook pizza or hamburgers, watch a movie in English, or just hang out.
All in all, life here is not bad at all. The winter is frustratingly long and bitter, yes. Sometimes I can't shower when I want to because the water is shut off, this is true. But, compared with life at home, my life is not shockingly different, nor is it filled with sacrifice, in terms of creature comforts. Kazakhstan is a developed country far from the impoverished image many of my friends have of this place. Its major challenge is trying to take the development of the Soviet Union and maintain it under a different system. People are working very hard at this transition, as I witness with the ongoing saga of my building's leaky roof. My neighbors in their frustration often declare that Kazakhstan is a miserable place that will never achieve the prosperity of America. I never hesitate to tell them, "My life in Kazakhstan stands up proudly in the face of my life in America, and in many ways, Kazakhstan offers more."