On the Road

On the Road: 2002

Eat My Shorts!
7 July 2002

The hair got cut this week. The whole "to blend in or not to blend in" thing became a moot point when it finally got on my nerves. It was at that length.

Sure, getting a haircut is normally not a big deal. But this was probably the best cut I've ever had done. It was immaculate. My stylist's name was Aslan, a man who might follow the stereotypes of male hairdressers everywhere, but I'm reluctant to go that far. He did wear tight blue jeans, though. He wasn't there simply to do a job and make a tenge or two. He was there because hairdressing/haircutting is an art form. When asked what I wanted, Gulmira explained my hopes to him and he was quick to call it the "Classic Cut."

My hair has never received such attention to detail. At one point, Aslan even framed my head between his fingers as if he were an "air photographer" taking a picture. His methodology was unlike any I've experienced elsewhere. He would comb my hair back and out of the way while he focused on cutting each section of hair. It was a process that took far longer than what I'm used to (the quick 8-minute chop at the local barber).

I actually think our lack of conversation went beyond the language barrier. He was a nice guy, but a man who was intently concentrating on the mess of hair before him. The cut and wash was 900 tenge ($6 US), which Gulmira commented was higher than the other hairdressers. But... he was "The Master"! I can't remember the last time I got my hair cut for six bucks.
There are no maps of Atyrau, at least I haven't seen one yet. There are no postcards. And there's no welcome information to be had, not even at the Chagala's reception desk. So that means there's no way of knowing what's around you unless you talk to the locals.

Once again thanks to Gulmira, I was treated to a tour around town. There's an Amusement Park down the river, a good 45-minute or so walk from the Chagala. There you'll find Disco Fantasy, a small rollercoaster, the Space Gun (kind of a salt and pepper shaker ride), and a tiny rendition of the Eiffel Tower. Behind the park is a World War II memorial complete with an eternal flame commemmorating Russians who sacrificed their lives in the conflict against Germany. On display, out in the open, are original tanks and even an airplane from World War II.

During my hike back to the Chagala, I finally heard the "Mosque Man" singing Islamic tunes. It was kind of like a riverside serenade from afar. The sound of his voice could carry a great distance from the mosque - and it was 11:30 at night. I'm sure the non-Muslim neighbors are thrilled.

I confirmed my observation that men simply don't wear shorts is part of the old Soviet culture that still hasn't petered out. So it is a lot of visitors come and feel compelled to follow the lead of others and not wear shorts. At one point I was befuddled because of the grief I was getting about wearing my shorts. It was pub talk, but disturbing nonetheless. It's like gradeschool peer pressure. Sure my legs aren't stellar, but geez! I need shorts in this heat and if you have a problem with that, well, then eat my shorts!

As it turns out, it's all because people are following the lead of the "Old School" folks who think shorts are for children. It's not a religious belief, but a leftover tradition from a by-gone era. Women and children wear shorts, but men for some stodgy reason think they should wear pants at all times. Even if it means sweating in the suffocating heat of the mid-day sun on a Saturday afternoon.

I had to fly three quarters of the way around the world to do it, but I am now a certified bad apple. Mr. Mattphisto is not Old School.
Happily, there are no Burger Kings or even a single McDonald's here, a welcome change from The Netherlands where almost every block had one of the two chains. A kind of scary site, though, can be found in The Market: Painted on one of the display windows is "McMagic" with those world-reknowned golden arches.

However, Pepsi, M&M's, and Pringles are readily available and reasonably priced, even in Atyrau. As a bonus, Pepsi is currently running one of their sweepstakes, with football prizes up for grabs. The only difference is I'll need somebody to translate my game caps and let me know if I'm a winner.
What are the odds? Two of my bags of M&M Peanuts contained only purple M&Ms.
While channel surfing, I found Aljazeera TV, the famed network serving Arab/Muslim nations. They're the first to get new videotapes from Osama Bin Laden. Now, though, they're running a lengthy report on George Michael's new video and "anti-U.S." song, "Shoot the Dog." Apparently even Aljazeera has slow news days.

It's interesting to watch stations like that, though, in part for the production values and in part for the content. They're not as glossy and primped as TV news in the U.S., but I can't vouch for the value and quality of the news content on these foreign language networks, obviously.

After being very disappointed with the BBC, SkyNews, and CNNI on this European jaunt, I'm sure they all serve the same level of warmed-over and watered-down content as in the States by now.
No wonder space is so tight: X has converted an entire wing of rooms in the Chagala into offices. Those rooms will free up when X moves into its own brand new building in September... ish.
There are many, many interesting people out here.
For example, Peter Meier. He's a Dutchman on regular rotation between The Hague and Atyrau. He has his opinions and he most certainly flipped me a lot of grief (particularly about my shorts and my lack of singing ability), but he's by-and-large a good bloke. Thanks to him, I had many a Guinness with a Vodka chaser. It was his version of "Train the Trainer."

The term "get Meiered" was coined after the man. The phrase might appear in conversation as follows: "Did you get Meiered last night?" It's a slang way of asking, "Did you go out with Peter Meier last night and get totally trashed with a mix of all sorts of alcohol and been given grief over whatever topic met his fancy?"

I was Meiered a couple times. But I survived.

A new recruit arrived from Ireland, another Peter. One night at O'Neill's, we were both delighted they were playing a great mix of U2 tunes. He very proudly told me of his having had the privilege of seeing U2 live in Belfast and Dublin. I unwittingly created a conversation-stopper when I told him I had seen the guys at both Slane shows last year. With that, he invited me to shut up and take my shot at the pool table. Good thing I didn't mention the nine other times I saw them in the 12 months prior to Slane. Another good Joe; we swapped "fish out of water" stories since this was the first visit to Kazakhstan for the both of us.

There's Mario, from South Africa. He left in 1972 to go on a seven-month backpacking trip and returned 28 years later. He lived through some fascinating times. When he was in South Africa, the fact that he had white skin was enough to get him a job. No CV necessary. His friends would think a person was a boring loser if they stayed at the same job for more than six months instead of flitting around from place to place.

Mario's father left South Africa when Mario was a teenager; he never returned. The only family member still there is his sister. He visited her in 2000, during his first trip back in nearly three decades. There were many changes to take in. The territories have moved around. On one end, what was once prime white man property has changed hands and, on the other end, different cultures have migrated into the slums, adding new ingredients into the melting pot. Mario thinks the place is probably going to blow up at some point with all the political and racial tensions still in existence.

Having been around enough of these oil projects in the past, Mario seriously questions if the project will still be running after the five-year contract with the Kazakhstani government expires. Under similar circumstances in other developing coutnries, the government will fine or tax the company right out of business and take over all the assets left behind.

Then there's Gianni, an amiable Italian. Perhaps in his 50s, he's well-tanned, hefty, and sports salt-and-pepper colored hair (heavy on the salt). Mario told on Gianni to me, explaining that Gianni's a bit of a wildcard. He'll show up at meetings in Bautino, spout off, then disappear mid-meeting, never to return. It would be a challenge to keep him engaged in software training, a whole new world for people on the oil rigs. English is his second language, so he would go through a mental translation of all the information and then proceed with the instructions. He could be cantankerous, but for every jab he'd also give a wink to let you know he's only messing with you. It was highly amusing when he shouted out, in the middle of training, "Mama Mia!" when things got complicated. The thought of having to enter a 16-digit account number so the accountants back in Atyrau can make financial sense of it all yielded a loud, "F@*K!"

How about Penny? She's an Englishwoman who's spent the past six months out here working solid, eight days a week. She has a new home back in England, but she's spent only 15 "sleeps" there. She still has to ask her husband where everything is when she's back there. For now, she thinks of "home" as her apartment in the "Pink Palace," Chagala's apartments for those on long-term rotations.

My friend Gulmira spent a year studying in Montana. She found it beautiful but boring. I'd have to agree. It all depends on what you're looking for.

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