I can write about so many experiences from the past couple of weeks, experiences that I will certainly look back on with nostalgia as I now look back on my high school years, college years, and even my first months in Kazakhstan. Nostalgia is so bittersweet- filling you with warmth and happiness that you yearn for and hope you find again someday. Fortunately, it seems to me that we do keep finding new, amazing experiences, places, and people. Consequently, we look at photographs, smell an old aroma, or hear an old song only to be confused - does this warmth, the fullness in my chest, the tears in my eyes mean happiness or sadness?
On May 1st I went to the mountains with my favorite ninth grade class for a picnic. Kazakh picnics are a bit different than American picnics. On previous picnics I have usually taken a sandwich, some apples, and water. That's about it. Kazakhs go big or go home. They brought their huge kazan (basically a big, heavy wok), 10 kilos of potatoes, half a sheep, 20 loaves of bread, ice cream, tea, wood, an ax, and the standard jug of cooking oil. Besides the ridiculously large amount of food consumed and the not so traceless disposal of certain items, the rest of the picnic was pretty standard. The reason it is noteworthy, though, is because of the water fight: Miss Jennie vs. too many students. The boys all stripped to their underwear to swim and play in the nearby stream. When their turn was done, the girls were supposed to go play in the water, so the boys dressed and left the stream. The girls stood at the edge of the water, sticking their toes in and screaming. I tried to convince them to come swimming- I mean the boys stripped down, why shouldn't we? That didn't fly, so I waded in to my knees and one other girl came with me. For some reason, a boy showed up and pushed the girl into the stream. She freaked because she couldn't immediately touch the ground and started flailing around like a dog thrown in water for the first time. Honestly it was hilarious, but I couldn't just stand there watching her, so I had to wade further into the water to help her stand up. I ended up wet to my armpits in all of my clothes. To her credit, she gained her composure and walked right back into the water, she was soaked too. We took this opportunity to splash the girls squealing on the edge of the water and this well-known mating noise was all it took to get the boys running back to the water. They saw us splashing around and jumped back in the water. We targeted the people standing on the edge for a while, but the students figured out that ganging up on Miss Jennie was way more fun. Indeed it was more fun and I had the time of my life! People were splashing each other, dunking each other, tackling each other, and dumping water on the observers. It was classic and wonderful and indescribably happy. As my brother Jason would say, I was livin' the dream. We all dried in the sun before boarding the bus and I couldn't stop smiling the whole way home; hair frizzed out, skin pink from the sun, clothes crisp from air drying, the smell of nature filling the bus.
The day was so great, I thought about writing a blog about it, but then I had another great day. I came home this Wednesday to find my family weeding our garden and finally planting tomatoes and cucumbers. I changed my clothes and dug in; it felt so great to get my hands dirty and bond with the family. As my real family knows, I don't exactly have a green thumb- I have been called "the black thumb" in fact, but pulling weeds is something I can do, so I was having a great time. It was such a great evening; the whole family was outside. No TV, no cell phones, just gardening. Wait- it gets better! In November, I learned that many Kazakhs sleep outside on raised, wooden platforms during the summer because it is so hot and I have been looking forward to this since then. I also learned we cook and eat food outside all summer, so being outside all the time makes me really excited. About two weeks ago the platform was constructed. I soon discovered that this fabulous gardening Wednesday was also the debut of outdoor eating! They made the tea in a traditional "samouryn" with a little fire and we set up a Turkish-style table (low table with no accompanying chairs) on the sleeping platform. We all ate, drank tea, and watched the sun set, staying out there in the bliss until darkness came. I breathed in the moment, soaking up the summer air.
I thought about writing a blog about that day, but today I finally decided what to write my blog about. I have been going on evening walks with my host sisters pretty regularly for a couple of months. We always walk to the nearby university because along the path there are many trees and it almost makes you feel like you are in a beautiful garden. In fact there is a garden on the right side; the left side looks pretty desolate- the only thing growing from the dry, brown steppe are dry, brown houses. As you walk along this path, the beautiful garden on the right, you wonder- why are there fences and locked gates keeping me from actually walking through the garden? Well, today I was walking with all three of my host sisters and one of their friends (my student) when we saw a man on the inside of one of the locked gates. I asked him if we could go in and surprisingly he let us. With such fencing and gates, it seemed like something either really important or dangerous was in the mysterious garden, but it was very easy to just ask and receive permission. And man do I wish I would have known that earlier. We timidly walked along the path you can see from the sidewalk because the girls were sure there are hoards of rabid dogs lurking among the trees. The longer we walked without seeing Kujo, the more confident we grew and we realized that we had stumbled upon the gold mine of pure, clean, magnificent nature somehow hidden in Turkestan's otherwise bleak landscape. The mysterious garden turned out to be the most luscious, wonderful smelling, surprisingly refreshing forests that I have ever had the pleasure of strolling through. Really, you can be in this place and forget you are in the middle of our dusty city. It is like walking into a Narnia that smells like a little boutique at Christmas time- beautiful green plants and trees of all types radiating a cinnamony, natural-pine, crisp-air smell. I don't know how this forest exists or how these four girls have lived all their lives five minutes from it and not known of its existence. I do know that I have found a haven that will now be my destination for picnics, reading, walking, jogging, and camping (if they let me). I am in love.
So this is what finally made me sit down and write a blog. Term tests be damned, tonight is about breathing in the nature that continues to surprise me. Tonight is about recording experiences that will be turned into memories, doing my best to describe what I am feeling and thinking now so that I will look back with decidedly happy nostalgia. I know that someday I will miss these moments, but this is also a reminder that if you are loving life, there will always be nostalgia. The pang of sadness is a small price to pay for living in the moments that are worthy of nostalgia.
Happy spring and as I tell my sister: We only get one life, so live it up!