Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Picnic at the Lake

Last Saturday was the school's 2nd or 3rd annual end-of-the-year staff picnic at a lake. The lake is outside a village, about an hour's drive north of Astana, where the parents of our secretary live.

The school provided a van for those of us without cars; we all brought a food dish and boarded at around 10 am.

We drove north out of the city, onto the steppe, amazing in its dullness and beauty--flat land, greenish grass that goes on and on and on and on and on. Every now and then we'd see a flock of birds or a herd of cattle--"Oh, look! Cows!" someone would cry and the children would squeal.

A co-worker commented that we could be in the middle of the United States, judging from the view.

After a while we took an exit and went through a tiny village, mostly small one-story houses, with random animals hanging around. Dogs, goats, geese, chickens, other random birds. We even saw a bunch of baby chickens or ducks, fluffy yellow.

We still didn't see a lake.

We exited the village and rode on a dirt road through a vast, grassy field--no lake in sight. The road was more of a muddy path made by the wheels of a car. (It's been a rainy week.)

We passed some mounds of dirt with a few people hanging around. It looked like it might be the village landfill.

Still no sign of a lake.

We felt like we were going to tip over, the road/path wasn't easy for a large van to navigate.

Finally, we saw a small "forest" of dozens of funnily-bent, white-trunk trees. We pulled up in front of that.

In front of us was a steep hill, an embankment, and I guessed correctly that beyond was the lake.

We got out, some people started a fire to make shashlyk (kind of like a Kazakh kebab), and Sophia, a co-worker and I wandered through the trees. The grass was tall and the ground was littered with feathers (and bird poop). The birds' cawing was extremely loud. When I looked up, I saw dozens of birds' nests.

Then we went up the hill to see the lake, not a very large lake, but pretty nonetheless, the sun shining on it, dark clouds hanging in the distance--and children already splashing in it, swimsuits on.

But then we heard thunder, and so we told the kids to get out of the lake.

As soon as we'd started our picnic, the rain started. Sophia and I, and a few others, headed into the van, while others stayed outside. The rain lasted for about an hour; we ate and talked inside, while some people remained outside through it all. Finally it ended, and the world was soaking wet and buzzing with flies and mosquitoes.

Sophia and I went back up the hill to the lake.

The steep path up the hill was pure mud now--some of the teachers slid down it barefooted as if on skateboards or surfboards. My sandals picked up new layers of mud every time I stepped down. At the top, we realized that others were going swimming, so I went back down to get Sophia's swimsuit.

Sophia and the other children (teacher's children, plus two friends) and a small group of teachers went swimming. The children stayed near the shore. Three teachers swam rather far out. They said that it got rather deep, but you had to go quite far to get away from the seaweed. They also said that it was very cold, but not ice-cold.

To get to the lake you had to go down a small embankment--extremely muddy of course. One of the kids discovered the pure joy in trying to climb up the muddy path. He couldn't, but refused to take an easier path. Scrambling up a path made of pure mud is fun! Soon, the kids were turning the path into a "mud slide" and throwing water onto it and having a contest--who could get up it on their own?

The mud slide turned out to be more fun to make than to slide down. Sophia was the first and last to slide down--she went too fast and at the bottom of the slide were rocks that she slid over. She wasn't happy, to say the least.

Sophia's teacher spent most the time sitting on a rock with her 2-year old (who went in the water for a short while). Sophia's teacher is rather artistic, and she noticed quickly that the mud was very clay-like, and so she sculpted a few animals out of the clay-mud. She had her husband put a bunch of the stuff into plastic bags to take home, to use as clay.

Finally, the grown-ups left the water and the remaining grown-ups got tired of watching the kids. So we told them to clean up and helped them up a less-muddy path. I cleaned my sandals as best I could.

Some teachers were playing catch with the kids; some more were eating & talking; another was taking a nap on the picnic blanket.

Soon it was time to go home, we loaded back into the vans. If the way in had seemed a tad iffy, the the way out was plain treacherous. The path was much muddier and more slippery than before, and quite frequently we felt that the van was going to tip over. It was safer, too, to drive off the path than on the path.

We passed through the village again and back onto the freeway.

What a wonderful, pleasant day! And Sophia had a ton of fun too, of course!
Photos: All the mud! and the picnic and trees as seen from the top of the embankment; the lake; the treacherous ride from the lake to the village; the village

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