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.