Archive for the ‘Travelogue’ Category

Aktau – Part III

My two months in Aktau brought a question into perfect focus, “WHERE do i want to be?”

It sure wasn’t Aktau. but why? What did i need from a place?

So, yeah, i was teaching in Aktau. It all happened suddenly and i’m still not entirely sure how. A Russian guy who was starting his own language school contacted me. The American who’d screwed over the first school had been planning to partner up with the Russian guy and defect to this new school with all of the first school’s students. But like i said last time, instead he fled the country and left the Russian guy in a lurch too.

So the guy asked me if i’d fill in as the native teacher till they found someone else. As with many things in Aktau, one week turned into two, then eight. Eight hours a week turned into ten into thirty. I gave them a month’s notice that i was leaving, but in the end they were still scrambling and asked me to stay longer. “ostavaĭsya! Ne hodi!”

I can’t believe i actually considered it. It would have been a nightmare, but i had to fight through my overly-helpful Midwestern tendencies Even though i was REALLY over Aktau, i was still sorta sad to leave. I grew attached to my students.

Most of the fun in Aktau involved my students and, believe it or not, some of the more fun times we had were bowling. I don’t think our students particularly loved bowling, any more than we did, but there really wasn’t much else to do. I’m a terrible bowler, but (same as in America,) i just focus on the most ridiculous way to throw the ball. Hitting the pins is a bonus.

I’m still not sure why my students liked me so much. I’m really not sure if i was a great teacher or not, but i think they primarily kept coming back because they though i was funny. On my last day they took me out to dinner and then we all walked on the beach. A number of students took me aside and said they thought i was kind and positive and that they’d miss me, a lot. “Any future teacher will be measured against you.” I nearly cried.

I hate leaving people. The worst part of traveling is not being able to take anyone with me. I suck at saying goodbye. Honestly i’d be most happy if the folks i love would just agree to follow me around the world.

Annoyingly, people seem to have lives and other things to do with their time. I’ve been chatting folks whenever i can, a little obsessively, not knowing when i’ll get to see someone again. It’s always bittersweet to connect with people on-line, but i’ll take it over losing contact with them entirely. Traveling is amazing, and sometimes it’s lonely.

It’s also hard on my writing. The combination of stress and lack of structure and additional time commitments kills my ability to focus and produce. I did manage to get twenty stories in the mail last month, and even rewrote a few things, but i desperately need to finish the final polish on my last novel, just so i can call it done and move on. I currently have in the queue: a four issue comic i’ve only finish one issue of, a new YA novel i’ve been thinking about for half a year, but have only written 4000 words, and a good fifteen short stories that either need to be rewritten or finished. I also have about five shorts that are plotted out but need to be written. Aside from all that, i want to get back into finishing a new short every week or two and to maintain everything in the mail. My last book has been circulating the agents for the last few months. I’m hoping to have the YA novel circulating along with it within the next six. Sometime soon i’ll have to ask one of my comic-published friends how best to get the comic script around. I suspect i should be hitting up my artist friends to see if we can get a package together to pitch to comic publishers.

So anyway, Aktau. It wasn’t a bad place. It definitely wasn’t right for me, but i met some lovely people and experienced things i never would have experienced otherwise. More importantly, it gave me important clues as to what i DO want. When i’ve thought of places to be before, it was always focused on people. I moved to Eugene for people. Every day i feel it calling me back.

So, people are important, probably the most important thing in the world, but Aktau taught me to care about WHERE i live. I figured out things like: i really care about trees and climate and beautiful places. I love mountains and ocean. I love having variety in my food and potential to do different things.

All things considered, i have no regrets. Aktau taught me a lot.

Aktau, in spite of everything i’ll miss you. Thanks for helping me on the path toward figuring out what i want.

Next: Turkey! Istanbul! Samsun! The Black Sea!

Aktau – Part II

A theme that has come up over and over in my life is, “Where do i want to live? Do i really care?”

I care mostly about people. When i’ve tried to think of places to live, i’ve often drawn a blank. Do a want a place that’s beautiful? Full of fun things to do? I dunno.

There wasn’t a lot to do in Aktau. We watched a lot of television and read our few books over and over and over. Being so stressed and sad killed my motivation. I barely wrote or played music.

I only practiced mandolin sporadically, but i did make a little progress, mostly by plotting out the fretboard on paper and figuring how various chords worked. I worked out a number of scales: Persian, Gypsy, Celtic, Raga. Hopefully i’ll memorize them. I did make up this goofy little pseudo-Greek melody i played over and over till my housemate wanted to stuff the mandolin up my nose. I think once i get the scales down, i’ll probably teach myself some covers before i try to compose original stuff. I’ve never really played covers before, always thought of it as cheating, but i think i can live with doing ironic mandolin covers of punk songs.

I put up a Couchsurfing.com ad and soon acquired these friendly British guys, Jack and Jamie. Both were nineteen, in college and taking an extended “off year” by driving a jeep all over eastern Europe.

Many of their stories involved being arrested in countries where no one spoke English. Often they escaped by singing the officers Elvis tunes. Jack’s musical talent was awe-inspiring. After noodling on my mandolin for half an hour (an instrument he’d never even heard of) he was quickly playing songs.

Jamie was mad for cricket and carried a “stone” and bat with him everywhere. They’d already taught a number of Kazakhs across the country how to play and would have taught us if we’d been more game. They’d originally planned to stay with us for just a day or two, but the ferry (steamer ships, really) from Aktau to Baku, Azerbaijan were infrequent and random.

On their fifth day with us we suddenly received a frantic call, “Port! Chto vy!! Chto vy!!” They threw their stuff together and blazed off to spend 18 hours on a steamer ship and get arrested multiple times in Azerbaijan. Last we heard they were on their way from Georgia to Turkey.

I also met these amazing crazy French guys who are WALKING around the world. They were very calm and centered, which i guess they’d have to be. Their group had started with eight people, but most of them quickly burned out or bristled at the self-imposed rule that they never use cars or planes. The two remaining guys stayed with us for five days while they tried to secure a camel (their rules indicated they couldn’t RIDE the camel but they needed it to carry water as they WALKED across the Kazakhstan desert.) When they left, they still hadn’t gotten a camel, but decided to forge ahead anyway.

The visitors were a nice distraction, but it felt like life always fell back into feeling tedious and stressful. Not speaking Russian was seriously isolating. For the most part, people were nice and tried to accommodate us, but we weren’t ever entirely happy. I think part of it was just how aesthetically different it was from what i’m comfortable with. No trees. The buildings universally soviet bloc concrete boxes, just depressing in and of themselves, but stuck in the middle of a dessert, which made them surreal and accentuated their … wrongness. Aktau didn’t have much, in food, in electronics, books, anything. I don’t think of myself as a huge consumerist, but i was struck again and again when we needed a cable or writable discs, or light-bulbs, or missed fresh vegetables, or were DYING for something new to read. We just weren’t prepared for how isolated we’d feel.

OMG, and the food. I think Kazakhs are used to working with no fresh ingredients and not even many spices. I’m crazy about spicy food, rich foods, sauces, anything. So i went a little nuts. It was also really hard to be vegetarian. Nuts are extremely expensive and they don’t have much in the way of beans. I eventually gave up and started eating chicken, which sometimes made me sick, though I got very good at making chicken burgers.

To fight the language isolation, I practiced with Rosetta Stone and took Russian lessons. I found a really nice Russian lady to teach me (she normally taught children. She’d regularly yell, “Nyet!” When i got things wrong.) But I didn’t find her till my last three weeks there, which was a too little too late.

Honestly, most of our problems came from my housemate’s job. The guy who hired her lied about EVERYTHING: living conditions, pay, Russian lessons, everything. Then he fled, leaving her, and her company, to pick up the pieces. The company wasn’t great, they still promised things and didn’t follow through, but many of my problems in Aktau I can attribute to this one guy who lied to everyone.

But, you know, it happened and I dealt with it. The two months weren’t always easy, but I made friends and definitely experienced some things I never would have otherwise.

Tomorrow: Teaching, missing people and writing.

Aktau – Part I

Aktau was a mixed bag. Honestly i was generally pretty unhappy most of the time.

Partially because i missed so many people, partially from stress and disappointment, partially … i dunno, probably still because i was still mourning the transition in J and i’s relationship and ending contact with A. Most of the time i carried around sadness and stress, but a few times the city gave me little gifts of joy.

One night i was walking home from teaching and passed a yurt constructed in the middle of a sandy playground. It was spitting rain, which felt gentle and pleasant. I leaned over to look inside the yurt and saw the floor was covered in Indian rugs and there were long tables with candles and flowers. Later when i passed from the other direction, in slightly more rain, the yurt looked even more peaceful under a pattern of taps played out on it’s roof. Outside a barbecue pit spat and steamed and inside children whispered while candlelight created dancing shapes on the walls. I felt like i’d glimpsed something special, but was never sure quite what.

People say that it used to never rain in Aktau. Never. I guess global climate change reshuffled things because we’ve had three major rainstorms in the last two months. Since they never used to have them, the city is completely unprepared for rain: no drains, roads flooded, the dirt lots turn to quicksand and caverns form as the rain flows away. Each time it rained the streets flooded, the sidewalks flooded, everything flooded. The lights failed.

Most days were hot and dusty. Very little grows. When i went out, i walked through dirt lot to dirt lot, from our flat to the school where i worked. In the rain, the dirt lots became quicksand and the weird combination of clay and sand and dirt became slick as ice. Secretly i kind of liked it.

The flat itself was crazy: 30s wallpaper applied incorrectly, a picture of baby Jesus in our living-room, Christmas decorations used as design elements. It took us weeks to figure out our washer and the refrigerator knocked all night. Almost the biggest challenge was our flat itself. They were doing construction on the flat above ours.

Everyday. Eight to ten hours a day for MONTHS.

They repainted the hallway, which helped with the concrete-prison-feel (a bit,) but the paint was so toxic that we had to flee the flat all day on two separate occasions. Our water died twice. We lost electricity four times. Lost internet connection countless times and when it did work, it came in a trickle. At times it was funny, we’d smirk at our eastern block apartment and say to each other, “What’re we doing here?”

But other days we’d already have had a hard day and losing electricity or water was the last straw. We’d sit on the couch, practically in tears, and seriously wonder, “What ARE we doing here?”

My fastest route to work included a tight-rope walk along the top of a long wall next to a school. Once i was balancing along when a cloud of butterflies lifted from a nearby tree and circled me. I was late that day because i couldn’t leave till they were done.

Tomorrow: music and visitors and why you probably don’t want to live in Aktau.