Sunday, August 13, 2006

I Left My Heart . . . .

Imagine Tony Bennett crooning, “I Left My Heart . . . in Kazakhstan.”

Cocky-what? Most Americans can’t pronounce Kazakhstan (Koz´ok ston), let alone tell you where it is or anything about it, although occasionally, someone remembers that in Air Force One, Kazakhstan was the bad guy. You can’t know how ridiculous this premise is unless you’ve been there and seen how the government operates and regulates, which, if one could summarize the government in a nutshell, appears to be facilitated by leaders who do not trust the whole “cause and effect” theory that some people (like the rest of the world) buy into. I won’t go further, except to clarify that I’m knocking the government, not the people.

Trust me, Kazakhstan could not ambush Air Force One because at any moment, the CB radios might go out and batteries wouldn’t be available and the would-be conspirators might suddenly “be inspired” hold a six-hour dinner to honor some important official who will pay people to come his party given in his honor. If all that confuses you, welcome to Kazakhstan. While you’re here, help yourself to all the mutton and noodles your heart desires.

Last week, I watched a movie trailer featuring a fictional Kazakh character, “Borat,” created by Sasha Baron Cohen (a British actor with a show on HBO). The premise is that Borat travels to America to do man-on-the-street interviews and is completely unaware that his backward and strange Kazakh opinions shock and embarrass his unwitting interviewees. Kazakhstan’s national government has previously censured Cohen for mercilessly lampooning their culture and defaming their country, but that’s his shtick. You can view it heretrailer but it contains a couple of offensive jokes.

Later, when I thought about the scene where villagers cheer Borat on as he leaves for the “U. S. and A.” in a strange little broken-down Russian car being pulled by horses, I remembered my own surreal moments there, and I found myself actually longing to be where I once thought I’d never return.

(Why the Borat movie has some pretty authentic scenes. This was taken by a student who just returned from Kaz.)

Those who have been to Kazakhstan will tell you that when you say goodbye, especially to the orphans, you leave a little piece of your heart there, and many do return.

I don’t recommend Kazakhstan (hereafter referred to as “Kaz”) for your next family vacation, no matter how adventurous you are. Africa is for adventure. Kaz is for fans of the TV show Dallas.

Even travel guides have a hard time recommending a visit. Here is a quote from an on line guide:

If you're not a fan of endless semi-arid steppe and decaying industrial cities, Kazakhstan (Kazakstan) may seem bleak, but those who enjoy remoteness, wide open spaces, lunar landscapes, long hypnotic train rides and horse sausage will definitely be in their element.

That would probably be an example of damning with faint praise.

For catching up on everything cultural you ever wanted to know about Kaz, I highly recommend Welcome to Kazakhstan. It’s not your same old same old country, for sure.

However, Kazakhs are determined to hang onto some of their oldest customs because their heritage and national identity were nearly snuffed out by the oppressive USSR. So here is the recipe for an ancient Kazakh drink called “kumys,” or “cumus,” (koo´mus), which is fermented mare’s milk:

Uyz is the thick milk of the female that has just calved. Kazakhs divide it into three kinds: kara uyz - black beestings (the milk just after calving); sary uyz - yellow beestings (the milk obtained after issue's feeding); ak uyz - white beestings (the milk obtained 24 hours after calving). Yellow beestings mixed with milk are poured in an animal's stomach or gut and boiled with meat. White beesting are collected in a bucket, boiled like milk and drunk.

It is made and drunk since olden times. To make kumys in the traditional way there are needed fresh mare's milk, a wineskin of camel's, horse's or goat's skin where fresh mare's milk and ferment are poured in. It is put in a warn place for 24 hours, then thoroughly beaten up. Usually fat dried kazy are put in the wineskin; they add to kumys a peculiar flavour.

In our days kumys is made under industrial conditions.
Kumys not only tones well up, quenches hint and has an agreeable flavour but also possess a number of healing properties: as well as shubat it is used to cure tuberculosis.

I don’t even want to know about the industrial conditions under which it is made in our days. That could mean “under” a tin roof over the sidewalk in the city.

One last snippet from a recipe for horse meat:

From the carcass of the slaughtered horse the ribs with flesh are cut off and the blood is let trickle down for 5-7 hours. The guts are washed well and kept in salt water for 1-2 hours.

So what’s the draw? The people. Now, humans will be humans. There are nice Kazakhs and not-so-nice Kazakhs, just like us. The majority I had personal contact with were timid at first but then open and engaging, were always up for orchestrating a bountiful feast especially for visitors, were curious about life in the U.S., and were family-oriented.

But the real reason for my return was the children. I taught at an English camp and spent a few days at an orphanage. I can’t go into detail about it right now, but I’ll insert a picture that will help express what captured my heart.

Imagine all these little ones without families. Where I visited, there was a cot for each child with a footlocker at the end of his bed. That was it. One small locker and cot to their names in this whole world. When I hear “Kazakhstan,” my mind bounces around absurd and surreal images reminiscent of the Borat movie, but it always settles on sweet little faces with giant hair bows, lining up to meet the Americans.

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