Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February 27, 2013

I woke to another dreary day, the sixth in a row with not a single ray of sunshine. While having my coffee and trying to gather my thoughts, my phone rang and it was Zamira, the owner of the Real Knowledge NGO, who works closely with the embassy. She wanted to invite me to a birthday party celebration among her Dungan relatives to take place in Kazakhstan today and to a teachers’ conference in the same village on Friday.

I immediately jumped at the chance to be part of the celebration today, but informed her I was already committed to two other events on Friday and couldn’t cancel on either one. I asked her to give me a chance to contact Natalia to make sure I didn’t need permission from anyone to leave the country, even just for the day, and to get back to her as soon as possible.

Zamira had already contacted Natalia asking her to intervene so that I’d cancel the events on Friday and join her then. We both agreed that Zamira needed to get her act together and inform us about her plans at least one week in advance. Natalia said it’d be no problem for me to travel to Kazakhstan for the day.

As it is typical of her, she made me wait for about twenty minutes at the corner while she navigated the “traffic jam” she had encountered. We then picked up her sister Rima and were on our way traveling through the city of Kant to reach another one of the border crossings to Kazakhstan. It still took her over an hour to clear her vehicle through customs while Rima and I stood on the other side waiting. I was starving by then, but Rima advised me not to eat anything since there would be tons of food at her aunt’s house.

We traveled through another desolate landscape with an occasional dismal village interspersed here and there. The houses looked like ruined buildings just about to collapse on one another and there wasn’t a dash of color to be found anywhere.

We reached our destination close to three in the afternoon, and I noticed that both sisters promptly pulled a heavy scarf from somewhere and covered their hair before stepping out of the car.  We were ushered into room where a group of women were setting around a couple of low table already covered with a variety of dishes and a birthday cake. They had been waiting for us to bring out the main dish.

I was informed that the men were celebrating in another room; no alcohol though as they were Muslim, and the nephew, only a year old today, was not really part of the event. More guests, on the little boy’s mother’s side, were expected to come later on in the afternoon.

Three young women took it upon themselves to ferry in an extravagant line up of little bowls filled with innumerable dishes until the man of the house walked in with the piece de resistance: the beshbarmak dish cooked with beef instead of horse meat. Zamira confirmed that a cow had been sacrifice to celebrate the grandson’s birthday and now huge chunks of beef were being foisted upon us.

I was polite enough to take a little bit of the beshbarmak, but the fatty flavor was again a turn off. I asked for more of the cold noodle dish I have come to love, funchoza, and then mixed the two to be able to swallow it. After a bowl of lagman soup and some herring salad, I was completely satiated and just needed coffee, instant unfortunately, to make me feel quite happy.

I resisted all attempts to make me eat or sample the other bowls even though they looked so appetizing. The young mother turned out to be a student of Gulnara, from Forum, and spoke halting English at best. She was delighted to have a chance to impress her in-laws with her command of the language as her father-in-law is paying her tuition and had doubts as to her ability to become an English teacher.

The highlight of my visit could be said to have been the moment when they man of the house turned on the flat screen TV affixed to the wall and there we were treated to a Mexican telenovela, "Triunfo del Amor", dubbed into Russian with a soundtrack sung by Luis Miguel. Ironies of ironies, indeed.

She mentioned she could make $800.00 a month in Kazakhstan as opposed to the $100.00 a month in Kyrgyzstan. She accompanied me to the pestilent squat toilet built on the outer walls of the house next to the fields and gave me warm water and a dirty towel to dry my hands.

 It had started snowing while we were eating and two and half hours after our arrival, we piled into the car now accompanied by Zamira’s mother and aunt. I sat in the back seat wedged between Rima and the mother being unable to even move my arms.

With her vehicle registration now at hand, the border crossing was a snap and after dropping off her mother, Zamira took me to my flat. I had a bag full of leftovers the young boy’s mother had packed for me. I had to say that was one strange birthday celebration.

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