“Why is he following me?” I thought with my heart rate increasing rapidly.
Not only was he cloaked in dark colors but the hood from his sweatshirt masked his face with a menacing shadow. The worst part was that I watched him pause, change directions, and trace my exact steps.
As my pace sped up, so did his.
Trying not to panic, I pulled my camera tightly towards my right hip and my backpack towards the other. I repeatedly turned my head to let him know that he was not being very discreet. Despite walking in an incredibly vibrant and populated area, there was an eery feeling as though we were alone.
“What do you want?” I snarked practically feeling his breath along the back of my neck.
I spun around surprised to see that it was I who had frightened him. He pulled his hood down revealing two startled, blue eyes. “I…uhhh…” he stuttered, frozen as though he were a deer in headlights.
“Do you speak English?” I confronted him, still mildly agitated. “English? Angliski?”
“Uhh… English little,” he responded through a thick, Russian accent.
“Well, where are you going?”
“Your camera, are you tourist or student?”
“I am a photographer. I play futbal. I live here.” I spoke every word slowly but sternly.
“I like photograph.” He responded. I quickly realized that he was referring to photography.
“Me too, but where were you going?” I inquired, my arms crossed defensively.
“I was at work.” He replied.
“Where do you work?” My interrogations continued.
“I work in a hotel.”
“Okay, but why are you following me?”
“In my work, I find my expectations were not met,” he spoke, concentrating on every word. “I cannot do that job that does not bring me pleasure. I will devote more time to studying, but I wanted to ask about photograph.”
While his approach could use some work, or a lot of work, I did sense his honesty. We spent the next thirty minutes talking about school, photography, sports, and other related topics. It turns out that Jon is studying to become a chemical engineer, has one little brother, and trains daily for decathlon competitions.
“Wait!” He exclaimed as we were saying our goodbyes. “Souvenir.”
He proceeded to remove a small pin from the left strap of his back pack. Even though a black bear wearing an olympic shirt did not relate to anything we had talked about nor Shymkent, Kazakhstan, it was a very kind gesture.
The next day we ended up grabbing pizza with my American teammate, Brooke. We made it through lunch with a lot of help from google translate and a series of conversation topics that he had prepared from his English phrase book. After an amazing meal, he introduced us to a local candy store decorated from top to bottom with candy and chocolates.
As Brooke and I rode off in our taxi I could not help but feel guilty for my initially aggressive behavior. Sometimes I forget how highly regarded westerners are to Kazakhstan natives. It’s not uncommon to have people stop you, ask for pictures, and shout the one or two English words they know as you walk by. Considering most locals have lived in Shymkent their entire lives, many just want the opportunity to learn more about countries that they have only dreamed about visiting.
Of course the world can be a scary place no matter where you go, but if you ever find yourself wandering through the streets of Kazakhstan, don’t be alarmed by the constant turning heads and curious stares. It takes a lot of courage to introduce oneself to a stranger, especially in an unfamiliar language, but the reward can be limitless. You never know what new friends you may acquire along the way.