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Erin Anderson

Kazakhstan Moments

My journey starts in Eastern Kazakhstan. I do not know how often this bus without a toilet will stop, and I do not realize the seat is missing what little cushion it ever had, so I do not anticipate how often pain will stab my butt in the next 22 hours. In the morning we watch South African comedies badly dubbed in Russian. The sound on the television suspended from the ceiling is distortingly loud, but passengers chortle as white supremacists receive blows to the head that would crush normal skulls. Around six o'clock, we stop at cement-block buildings crowning the steppe. Screened by green camouflage netting, people eat boiled noodles, onions and lamb. After dinner, I lose track of the stops, my exhaustion numbing my discomfort as I slip in and out of a fragile trance, the land slurring by. In early summer, the steppe lays itself out in fields still green, purple wildflower spires, and white-open petals. Atop skewed telephone poles birds rest their yellow bellies. And what I first take for a scrawny turkey is really an eagle, cooling its toes in a swampy ditch bottom. When the heat breaks, rain stripes the windows and lightning spears the horizon, igniting a brush fire that brightly zigzags towards the road. Our bus lurches by in time.

In Northern Michigan, I had pine floors I coated with glossy paint the color of rusty caramel. Thirteen years later, the marriage corroded, the farm sold, I found myself in Kazakhstan, and in my office and my apartment, my feet met my past on pine boards painted the color of rusty caramel. Time and space congealed. I stared at this destination in a journey to a flooring solution, a journey I had not made alone. I wished I could gain comfort like Frost's narrator in Tuft of Flowers, who, upon seeing a patch of uncut butterfly weed, feels a twinship with the mower, a shared love of nature, a common consideration for the refreshment of butterflies, "a spirit kindred to my own/So that henceforth I worked no more alone." But these floors simply showed the globality of the banal.

I eat my breakfast facing faded brick, buildings three stories high. An occasional car pulls into the alley and disappears into the courtyard. Dogs and cats meet and flee. A young man looks at the window above where a beautiful woman lives. It was probably he who sprayed desperate green graffiti -- I Love You! -- on the opposite wall. It seems a normal, albeit somewhat untidy, life. Then one morning a cat head pokes through the bottom of a door. A week passes and the hole gets bigger. Then, day by day, more wood disappears. Then the entire lower panel is gone. Then a chunk disappears from the middle panel. Then another. Each morning I witness the results of a daily dismantling. I think I see the fabric of society unraveling, until a bald two-by-four gets wedged into the bottom frame. Then another the next day, then another, and in a week, both panels have been replaced. I am not able to recognize such slow construction.

I am in bed reading when outside the thud-tinkle of a flung beer bottle breaks my concentration, and I realize this sound, so frequent here, still tugs at my nerves. This throwing of glass -- was it like other garbage, strewn automatically from unthinking fingers? Or was this real social engineering, part of the employment food chain, a way to keep the stooped orange-vested twig-broom ladies busy? A darker thought ignites when I leave the building and see the brown jagged cradles where cars sometimes glide, toothed traps for unsuspecting tires. Vengeance against the wealthy? As I crouch and pluck this crop of urban indulgence, I glance over my shoulder.

I sink into the winter heat for yet another nap, the cotton soft from my warm head on one of four bunks in a train compartment. This is a thirty-hour suspension from daily care, thirty hours of slow rattling along iron rails. In this vast flatness, edges wrinkled into hills or jerked into snow-peaked ridges, all trips seem long. Sitting upright on a bottom bunk, on a smoothed black and red wool blanket, we, four strangers, huddle around the small table jutting out from beneath the double-paned window. We make space for cups and plastic bags holding too much fried dough made by wives and mothers from wheat flour and mare's milk. We sip tea and coffee, the water from the end of the wagon, where a tank heated by burning wood is tended by the conductor. And as I get ready to leave the compartment to refill my thermos, I remind myself to slip on my shoes, because I do not want to touch my stockinged feet to the red carpet mossy with urine tracked in from the toilet, a metal bowl that flushes directly onto the blur of rails. My coffee does not keep me awake as it steams my face, so I stretch out my body once more. Waking, my eyelids open in the underwater yellow glow of the overhead light. A man leans in the doorway. His face studies mine, his features darkened with lust. In the bunk above me, the young Muslim who said he did not believe I was old enough to be his mother, tosses and turns. I close my eyes. When we all lie supine, the light extinguished, under the cover of my blanket and the clicking of the train wheels, I unleash my longing, reaching my own unscheduled destination.

There has been so much caked ice and sooty snow, and as the snow melts, garbage from the fall reappears among the weeds. But one morning my feet walk on cement that is dry. Fine grains of dust patterned by a broom stripe the pavement. I am shocked and grateful for signs of intentional order.

©2004 by Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Kazakhstan, working with Russian and Kazakh English teachers.

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