Sometimes I wander aimlessly through the streets. People stare as though I am an alien of some sort. An alien, or a very, very lost tourist. Clearly I don’t blend in. Despite the wide-eyed audience, I wave a friendly hello. Rarely do they budge even the slightest muscle to reciprocate with a wave in return, but no matter, I continue on my walk anyway.
When I feel that my venturing is complete, I turn around and strategically walk the exact same path. I anticipate that by now, my alien novelty has worn off.
I repeat the same hello. This time, their stunned faces are now painted with curiosity. They gesture me towards their home and ask the most common question: “Where are you from?”
The younger girls hide behind their mother’s legs and the boys observe from a distance. I explain that during the hours that I am not training for football/soccer, I enjoy wandering through the local villages in Kazakhstan.
“Do you like Kazakhstan?” Is the question that always follows.
“Of course, very much.”
This honest answer leads to an invitation into their home. I politely remove my shoes at the front door and the children guide my hand inside. The houses are very quaint. Usually consisting of only one or two large rooms with minimal furniture or decor. Vibrant, hand-stitched rugs pile in the corner ready to be sprawled on the floor at any moment.
“Kelli!” The children shout having already forgotten my name, “You sit here!”
I willfully obey.
At this point, any lingering reservations have vanished. Young hands claw at my camera and rummage through my backpack. Their need to analyze every foreign object can be quite overwhelming. The girls argue over who gets to play salon with my hair and everyone is excited to practice their school taught English. The three phrases, ‘hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ and ‘how are you’ repeat throughout the evening with an occasional bad word finding its way into the mix. Kids just being kids, I suppose.
The mother returns bearing an entree of assorted delicacies. Freshly baked Kazakh bread, sugary sweets, soup, crackers, and watermelon. She asks if I would enjoy a refreshing glass of Kumis. Kumis, fermented horse milk, is Kazakhstan’s national drink. I politely decline, praying that my no is acceptable. Sometimes the families insist, leaving me no choice but to smile as I swallow a drink resembling sour milk and pickles. A taste that I have yet to acquire.
After maybe an hour or two, my brain is exhausted from translating so much Russian and Kazakh. Before my departure, the girls decorate my wrists with homemade bracelets. Their way of making sure that I do not forget about them.
My walk back is never more than ten minutes, but I am always provided an escort of some sort. Sometimes it is the children on their bikes or sometimes it’s a ride in the family car.
Saying goodbye is the hardest part. The young children shed a few tears, begging that I return. Our long-term training schedule is unpredictable so it’s nearly impossible to guarantee a date or time. I tell them soon, I hope.
As my time in Kazakhstan nears its end, I think what I will remember most are the people. I have been here for nearly a year now and the hospitality I have experienced never fails to amaze me. I have been showered with kindness, curiosity, and excitement. Of course, it hasn’t always been perfect, but what country is?
The world can be a scary place, terrifying actually. Embarking on an career as a professional athlete in a country with the word ‘stan’ naturally raised a lot of uncertainties and concerns. My initial reservations enclosed me in a perceived comfort zone longer than it should have, but now, those fears have vanished entirely. Although I haven’t ventured far, I now find myself hiking through the mountains, touring Kazakhstan’s most sacred mosques, and enjoying meals with different locals. More often than not, I am the only one who speaks english, but am always greeted with smiling faces and open arms.
My gratitude, appreciation, and excitement to explore the world is at an all time high and to be honest, it all starts from a few, very simple reasons: The people that I’ve met, the friends that I’ve made, and the families showering me with their most generous hospitality.
Now, I find myself constantly anticipating my next adventures in Kazakhstan.