Sunday, March 8, 2009

Updates and the Banya

First, check out this video from my friend Dave's English club. . Because I have dialup, I haven't yet watched it myself, but he guaranteed its awesomeness. And please leave positive feedback if you can. They worked really hard on it.
Second, Happy International Woman's Day! Somehow this isn't a holiday really in America, but it is everywhere else.
Third, this post was written like two months ago, so a lot has changed since then. And I haven't even read it lately. So...yeah, enjoy.
Fourth, last night I made veggie sloppy joes and french fries with my host brother. I think that's what Peace Corps is all about.

I apologize if I have already written a banya post. I don’t think I have, but I have been intending to for a while, so I’m not sure if it ever made it online. I think I was waiting for a really good banya story to happen, but so far that has still not happened. So I figured I should just go ahead and share this amazing part of Kazakh/Russian culture.

The banya is that it is a sauna type room in which the majority of the population prefers to wash. Showers are not very common in this country, and when a house has them, it seems to be because they don’t have the space to accommodate a banya (like in an apartment complex). The banya itself can vary in size, accommodations, and features. Often there are at least two rooms: one for the steam and the heat and one to change clothes in. Better banyas even have a third room between the two as an intermediate step where you can bathe and wash, but it’s not a necessity.

My first banya experience was at the end of PST at Christina’s house. Jamie and I had psyched ourselves up for banya-ing with Christina’s brother and father. However, when they actually sent us in alone we found ourselves pretty clueless. Of course, we had some general ideas of what to do. There is a pile of rocks generally heated by a furnace. There is a hot water spicket. There is some cold water. There are elevated wooden benches at different heights. You pour water on the rocks to make steam and the room really hot. Sweat, clean, call it a day. And Jamie and I did the basics: some steam, some suds-ing, some beating each other with birch branches. We thought we’d done an okay job. But really, we were so off.

It wasn’t until three weeks at site that I had the chance to banya again. I had been bouncing between host families right before banya every week, but one Sunday I finally managed to stay long enough for the family ritual. After dinner, they told me to go out to the banya. I was worried I would once again have no guidance. So there I went. I stripped and entered the room. This one was smaller, maybe five feet by six feet, and a ceiling at about six feet as well. I put on some steam and started to lather when my host brother finally appeared. Finally, I thought, I’m going to learn how this works.

The first thing he did was pour a lot of water on the rocks. I had made the room slightly hot, maybe bordering on the warm side. He made it HOT. The air was burning and my face felt like it was on fire. We then stood in there for a good while just savoring the heat. And then popped in my host dad. And the three of us stood in there for maybe ten minutes. It was a small room. A little cramped, but hey, it’s Kazakhstan. Of course, with the room that hot, we all started to sweat, and that’s the point. You sweat and sweat and then rub your skin to really exfoliate it. You also hit yourself with a birch branch, I think for the same idea.

After sweating it all out, we went in room two to do the actual bathing. We filled up some basins and washed ourselves soap and water. And washed with soap and water. And washed with soap and water. I usually feel pretty good after one go-over. I pride myself on being a quick showerer. In and out in under five minutes. Here though, that doesn’t fly. I’m not sure what the marginal washing benefits of the repeat lather are, but I decided to just follow the locals. And then, we did it all over again. Just when I thought we had finished. Steam, sweat, rinse, lather, rinse, lather. We went back in the steam room and sweated some more. And then rinsed and cleaned again. Needless to say, I felt amazingly clean after all this. Almost like I had new skin. I loved it.

My next local banya experience came about a week at my new site. My host family had said their banya was broken, but I could go use someone else’s. So I gather my things and we head out around 6:00. At this point, I realize that I could be going to a public banya or to a friend’s banya. I really had no idea. And when I get there, I am greeted by someone with a hearty, “Michael!” Only I don’t really remember who this person is. I meet a lot of people, especially my first week at my new site. So I go with it. He introduces me to his dad. We wait around a while, and then we all enter into the banya together.

Now maybe its just stupidity on my part, but at this point I still don’t know what’s really going on. Is this a public banya? Is this their banya? Is it a public banya that they own? So I just follow their lead. And another interesting twist is that they start the banya with their underwear still on. I’m thrown for a loop. Is this discretion around the new American? Proper public banya etiquette? Just their personal preference? So I just go with it. We steam up. We wash. We steam. We wash. They let me use their birch branches. I’m still confused about the extended amount of time all of this takes. I think I need to shift my mind from this as a shower substitute as something entirely different that should be enjoyed for its own sake.

Anyway, I manage to hang out for like an hour going between the rooms. Shampooing my hair. Lathering and rinsing. Sweating. Dousing myself with cold water. It was pretty fun. And once again, I felt awesome afterwards. I love banya. (Turns out it was a public banya, 200 tenge for an hour, they just happened to be using it as well.)

But for good or for bad, my host family has fixed our banya. This means that I don’t have to pay to use the public banya, but I am now banyaing adeen (by myself). Its good for a shower substitute, but it misses out on the communal experience of hanging with the guys. (Our banya has now broken again, and I am back to the communal banya.)


Richard Morgan said...

I only banya-ed once, and by myself. Look at all the interesting things I missed out on by wussing out.

Oh well. I love my new job.

Happy Womens Day.

Richard Morgan said...

And tell Dave that was an awesome movie.

Kyle said...

Great stories! I also don't know why it takes so long to banya, but it's one of the most interesting experiences here!

Christina said...

You just look forward to the "Slokeem Parom" afterwards...admit it! :-)