Monday, August 27, 2012

Stuck on the Steppe ... again

I guess it's a given, if you live in a place like Kazakhstan, which is mostly vast, desolate flat grassland, and you ever travel, then at some point or another you'll find yourself stuck on the steppe.  And so it was that for the 2nd time in my nearly 4 years that I found myself, and Sophia, stuck outside Astana, surrounded by tall yellowing grass and underneath a deep blue sky.

This time I was with A., who was my assistant the last two years at the school.  (She's still at the school, but I switched to teaching 3rd grade instead of Intensive English.)

At the end of June, before leaving for the US, I drove my cat to a village located an hour north of Astana, on the road that leads to Borovoe (the mountainous resort town).  A co-worker's in-laws live there, and were willing to watch Balthazar over the summer.  They have several cats--village cats that come and go as they please.  These cats usually roam and hunt during the summer, and stay inside during the winter.  The in-laws were willing to watch another cat for a few months, and willing to keep him indoors.

My co-worker and his wife moved to a school in China, leaving me with directions on how to pick up the cat.  Actually, they forgot to give me the directions, and I forgot to ask, until right before I left the US for Kazakhstan, which was around the same time that they left, with their 1-year old, for China.  So in the hectic hassle of moving to a new country with a tiny kid, it took them over a week to respond to me with directions.  By this time, Sophia and I had been in the country for a week and were dying to get our kitty back!

But then, a wonderful Russian co-worker offered to take my car into the shop, where he got bad news--the brakes are in dire need of repair, as are the suspension and shocks.  So instead of rushing off to get Balthazar, I had to wait...

This past weekend the car was not yet fixed, but it also wasn't in the shop, so I decided just to drive extra-cautiously and go and get my cat.  I took A. along just in case I needed her, and am so grateful I did!

We drove north out of Astana, past the outdoor bazaar, and up a long, dusty road, heading towards the freeway that leads to Borovoe.  I was getting low on gas, so once we exited the city limits (quite a ways from the actual city), we saw a gas station and stopped.

I've only gotten gas twice in Astana, and those two times were in June, and A's never gotten gas, so we pulled up to a pump and asked the attendant what to do, clarifying how to go inside and pay.  (They have attendants here, you don't pump it yourself.)

We went inside, paid for a full tank, and then returned to the car.  I turned it on.  The engine sounded funny and we drove for a few meters, but it just felt funny--like the brakes were still on.

I turned it off and tried again.  Still funny.  After a few tries it just sputtered and died.  I tried again and again.  Dead car.

Oh no!

If I hadn't had A. with me, I very well might have cried.  Luckily, it was mid-afternoon, beautiful sky, sunny day... And I knew that since I have a 20-year old car, problems might occur!  Might as well occur on a pleasant afternoon with a Russian translator.

She asked some other drivers for help, they looked inside and said we needed oil.  We were completely out of oil. But... they had no idea what kind.  So we went inside and looked at the oil and tried to call people to find out what to do.  A. got hold of one guy who said that it wouldn't be the oil, it's probably something else.  But we decided to try the oil, and luckily, as we were trying to figure out how to pour it in the car, a guy called out, "Pomosh?" or "Can I help you?"  Two girls and a kid with a broken-down car.  We sure looked like we needed help!  (Sorry for the stereotypes, but in this case, we fit the stereotype of girls not knowing anything about cars.)

So he helped us.  But no avail.  The car wouldn't start.  One of the attendants came up and tried.  His guess was the gas pump.  He said he'd get off in 20 minutes and then would help.

We were very grateful but then I finally got V. on the phone (my Russian co-worker who helps me with my car).  He said not to trust strangers with my car, it was much safer just to call a tow-truck to bring it back to the school, and tomorrow he would get someone to bring it the mechanic that he trusted.  So... no chance for getting my kitty.

A. called the tow truck--8000 Tenge! (over $50).  Then the attendant got off work, and he and a security guy came to help, and we couldn't figure out how to nicely tell that we didn't want any help.  Then, as A. was describing what had happened, the attendant and the security guy jumped in shock.  "Diesel!!!" they shouted.  We'd pulled up to the diesel pump and had put diesel into the car!!

They seemed shocked and rather angry at the attendant who had given us diesel.  Why on earth had he done that?  Sure, we'd pulled up at the diesel pump, but did our car look like a car that used diesel?  Did we look like girls who knew what the heck we were doing?

So... they pushed our car out of the way and then began to get the diesel out of the car.  Now this is a VERY long procedure, especially if you have a full tank.  They had to open the front hood and keep turning the car on, while it made this awful sound, and the gas leaked out.  After some time our battery died, so they had to go get another... and another!

We were there for several hours, and even though the sun was warm, the wind was fierce and cold, and poor Sophia was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  I have no air conditioning in my car, and even when it's slightly cool outside, it gets warm in the car.  And I hadn't expected us to be outside much!

At one point the security guy asked my friend for her phone number.  At another point, they both sat inside the car, discussing it and how nice it was.  A. asked them if it was worth $5000 (the price I'd paid) and they said, definitely, yes.  So, expensive for buying a car in the US, but not in Kazakhstan!

Finally, at around 6 pm (we had left Astana around 2), the car was empty, and they rolled it up to a regular gas pump and put gas in it.

They tested it, and the attendant rode it around really fast while my friend yelled out to him in Russian, "The brakes don't work well!"  At one point he wheeled quickly towards the security guy, who, instead of getting out of the way, leaned over to look under the car as it braked in front of him.  He's lucky he didn't get his head chopped off.

Finally, we paid the men what they asked for (5000 Tenge, about $33), and we were off.  I was desperate to get my cat back, although I knew I was risking it!

We had no further problems on our trip.  When we arrived at the house, it looked deserted, which greatly worried me, but they were home.  Balthazar was curled up on a couch, near the other cats, and he was quite content.  He had grown over the summer and his fur was thicker.  In general he looked healthier.  I thanked them profusely and then we returned home.

We had left at 1:30 pm and returned at 9:30 pm.  The village is only about 60 kilometers north of Astana.  Most of the day had been spent stuck on the steppe.

And now my car is in the shop and it will be some time and quite a bit of money before I see it again.  But I'm okay with that.  I've lived in this city for 3 years without a car, I can live a few more weeks.  As long as I have my cat.

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