Throughout my travels I found the grand moments the least surprising. After all, they were on the agenda. And while the realities of these moments might have differed beautifully from my imagination, the experiences themselves were expected: I went to Botswana to see the Okavango Delta and then I did, even though it might have looked somewhat different from what I had pictured; I went to the Philippines to snorkel with Whale Sharks and then I did, even though I couldn’t have anticipated the feeling it evoked. These moments were undoubtedly fascinating, but their sober, factual existence in my itinerary was predictable.
"Throughout my travels I found the grand moments the least surprising. After all, they were on the agenda."
The unexpected moments were the little ones in all their arbitrariness and ordinariness and uniqueness. Taking the extra out of extraordinary often leaves you with more. Usually, it was the partaking in mundane local moments of a given people and country. Like playing board games at a bar with two young Kazakh women at 3am on a random weeknight in a frozen city in the middle of the steppe.
Let’s backtrack a little.
I had arrived in deep-winter Kazakhstan without any plan or reason. The Stan-countries were a part of the world I’d never been to and that was good enough. Arguably, winter wasn’t the most inviting season to stop by, but, considering that it is a large part of people’s year and life, it was authentic or something.
"That’s when Aida came to my rescue, riding up the escalator on a horse which we ate a couple of days later, but not all of this is true."
Riddled with too many stamps, my passport had died prematurely, and I was sad and proud at the same time and the eulogy should have been a beer but that didn’t cross my mind until just now. I set up camp in Astana (since March 2019 officially Nur-Sultan, named after Kazakhstan’s swollen-headed ex-president) for a couple of weeks. In order to get my papers in order, I needed some print outs, which meant trudging through the -30 °C winds to the nearest mall, where I had a hard time explaining my service needs. I asked around for a print store, but even Google Translate couldn’t overcome the language barrier between me and various clerks. After some time, I spotted a printer in a small T-shirt printing stall next to the escalators and tried to explain myself just as unsuccessfully. That’s when Aida came to my rescue, riding up the escalator on a horse which we ate a couple of days later, but not all of this is true. The young woman struck up a conversation in perfect English, helped me with my prints and invited me for later that night.
So there I was, having drinks over board games with Aida and Ainam till the early morning hours, while we played ping pong with questions about local customs and personal stuff. Aida had just started her own business and Ainam had a cushy job in Prague; she was in Astana to visit her family over the holidays.
Of course, meeting people doesn’t come as a surprise to a traveler and neither does the openness and friendliness of most locals. So why was this night so noteworthy, so spectacular really?
"I’m sleeping the dreamy sleep of unusual travel routine. But every now and then, I wake up to the absurd reality of a situation I never could have imagined, and the vast randomness of these instances does more than render them surreal from the outside – it makes me surreal, on the inside, my feelings, my thoughts, my being."
Years on the road can normalize these encounters and moments by assimilating eventfulness into an everyday travel life, and while that is beautiful in its own way, it dampens appreciation. In a way, I’m sleeping the dreamy sleep of unusual travel routine. But every now and then, I wake up to the absurd reality of a situation I never could have imagined, and the vast randomness of these instances does more than render them surreal from the outside – it makes me surreal, on the inside, my feelings, my thoughts, my being. It just hits me: never in a million universes would I have guessed that one night I’d be playing board games with two Kazakh women at a bar in Astana, but this is exactly what’s happening right now. Isn’t it? Sometimes I doubt it.
Somehow, Astana seemed like the perfect stage for such surrealism – a planned capital that had risen from the barren grasslands over merely two decades, fueled by oil, its architecture looked peculiar and oddly arranged. A bit as though a boy playing a board game by himself had rolled the dice once too often and erected nonsense all over the central section of the board, strange and overdone structures.
The most prominent landmark sprouting from the snow was Baiterek Tower, boasting a golden sphere that overlooked the city and the presidential palace. Putting your hand in the golden handprint of (then) president Nursultan Nazarbayev warranted good luck to the superstitious; for all others it was telling of the kind of president he was – corrupt and authoritarian, but that’s only according to independent observers. A wooden globe juxtaposed the golden hand, design-wise, mentality-wise, everything-wise. World religions squeezed into little metal plaques congregated on it most peacefully.
Over the next couple of weeks, I hung out with Aida and Ainam a bunch of times. One time, I accompanied Aida on a tour through her apartment building, where she knocked on dozens of doors on plenty of floors to ask for pots, blankets and other material donations to support the dog shelter where she volunteered. The shelter was a giant former warehouse without any heating or insulation that could have kept the inside any warmer than the unforgiving outside.
Aida pushed two wheelbarrows full of dog food and snow (water) along hundreds of kennels to feed the pitiful animals, while I took pictures to help her find foster parents for these orphan dogs. Soon, the frozen fingers that peeked out from my ripped baby-gloves were too numb to release the shutter, so I switched to feeding. But with my non-winter jacket I was ill-equipped for the entire mission and so I bailed before long. The rest of the afternoon I spent waiting in Aida’s car with the engine running.
Another time, I tagged along with the girls to Aida’s gym-pool-spa, where we tried different saunas, all of which much too hot for a sauna-noob like me. Afterwards, we hit the pool, where we produced an entire series of amateur underwater movies with Aida’s waterproof phone. Of course, diving expeditions in family pools are never without risk, as any experienced diver will tell you. I ended up with some water in my ear and little did I know that it would stay there until I’d see a doctor about it.
When my eardrum was still under water and my hearing impaired a day or two later, I ventured to the next pharmacy. The internet said that there are eardrops for pain and for unclogging, but contrary to the internet no one spoke English at the pharmacy and all labels sported Cyrillic letters. I never found out what drops I ended up with but that night I poured plenty of them into my ear. I woke up the next morning with an ear that was just as clogged, plus a cold. That day, Aida invited me over for a traditional horse meat lunch with her friends and grandma, during which I volunteered my story, and plans were made to take me to the doctor.