A step up

Again I am an object of great interest. The recipe is simple. Take one foreigner, put him on a train to a place that foreigners normally only fly to with people who do not normally fly, and have him wander about the train (his compartment, other carriages, the restaurant car).

Even better if you can arrange it so that he does not actually have a ticket (and everyone knows this too). There were no seats available on this train. I met a guy at the station who said he knew a carriage attendant who could sell me one of the spaces reserved for attendants’ use. Cheaper than normal. Good air conditioning too. You often see people sitting in the compartments. A profitable sideline, no doubt.

At the stop just past I got talking to a woman who started her conversation with “ah, so you are the foreigner in our carriage”. Good news travels fast, clearly.

She was sharing her compartment with a pretty teenage girl and a man who was drunk. Is it a coincidence that every drunk person I have met says that they don’t normally drink?

Despite living in nowheresville, northern Kazakhstan, she has a child at an American college. Somehwere in Seattle. In fact, she wants all of her children to go and spend at least a year in America. And everyone in her family speaks good English.

She has just come home from 10 days in America. At first she says that she prefers Kazakhstan, but later it seems, from some of the things she says, that given a free choice America might be preferable.

The family is trying to decide whether to bring their son home from Seattle after one year, or let him stay for another. A simple choice to me. The stronger the links you can establish with another country, the more opportunities you have. Even if you decide later not to take up the option of living in America, it seems crazy to reject a little bit more experience of it now.

Drunk man is almost as funny as he thinks he is. Which is not bad (or normal) for a drunkard. Clearly he is a smart man. Pity about the vodka.
It is very unclear to me to what extent he represents normal Kazak views. But it is clear he represents traditional Kazak views. He sees relations between men and women as being very much best controlled by the man. His strongest analogy is that a family is like a government. Without a single strong head, nothing is ever done. I guess the idea of the balance of powers hasn’t really caught on in Kazakhstan. Even so.

We argue for a long time about the appropriate place of women. He says they should be quiet when a man is speaking, and they should always arrange themselves so that their heads are below that of any man around. I ask him what they should do when the man is talking shit. He says men are never wrong. Hmmm. Difficult to figure out where to argue with that position.

To their eternal credit, neither of the two women in the compartment agree with his views or respect them. And I rather suspect that a) his wife does not either, and b) he was putting a lot of it on, since once the two women had gone, he became less vociferous, and accepted that other views were possible. He was a little non-plussed at the idea of a country with a female Prime Minister (not to mention Chief Judge and Governor General).

I am still my strongest critic when it comes to Russian language. I find myself dissecting a conversation after it has happened and correcting myself. Sometimes I can not remember what I actually said (in terms of the details of word endings – which are the tricky bit in Russian), so I get to sigh at myself for having a crap memory as well.

Speaking of dissecting, although not really, I spent some time today looking at the soles of my feet (there is a mirror on the door of the compartment). It kinda surprised me, because it is something that I have never ever done before. Have you?

Mine are quite smooth and long, but they have three or four distinct bumps a few inches long running up and down my foot down near my heel. Kinda symmetrical, since I have similar things on both feet. I wonder what they are. Stretch marks?

There are heaps of police on this train. Because it goes past the Russian spaceship launch site. Or at least nearby. They check my passport a lot and write my details in exercise books. They do not listen when I tell them this has been done many times before.

Travelling without a ticket makes me a little more nervous about these encounters. Not that it matters. These are not railway police. Still there is no denying I am more nervous than usual. Which is saying quite a lot, since I am not one to be plagued by fits of fears.

I told the first police guy that I am in carriage number 3. This is not true, but I did not know (because it is normally written on the ticket and I do not have a ticket and I got on without looking). So now I tell them all that I am in carriage 3, just in case they get to talking to each other. I guess this is a lie after the point when I knew it was not correct. Would it have been a lie if I did not check what carriage I was actually in for fear of it not being 3? The limits of truth are so inexact.

Kazak people seem extremely friendly and helpful. Even the police officers. Everyone seems to expect things to improve in Kazakhstan, which is nice. Hope dies last, say the Russians. But they are rich in natural resources. There is no doubt.

Evening is coming. We have come to some stop. I can hear the tock tink as they test the train wheels, and the noise of the traders on the platform selling the usual icecream, bread, beer, vegetables and pastries, but also camel milk and smoked fish (so far from the sea). An announcement from the PA “Valued passengers” it begins, the rest lost in echoes. The night air is cool, and it is peaceful sitting here for a moment in the dusk without the noise of the train. People rush on, bags, children, bustle, hurried goodbyes. Come on, come on. And we are off again.

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