Kazakhstan

Valentine’s Day is a tradition that travel enables me to avoid. Although its roots are European, it was the American version I was happily hiding out from in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

I’m not sure I even knew the date as I navigated the wide Soviet streets towards Almaty’s commercial center. My main mid-February concern was finding something lightweight and typically Kazakh to bring back for a friend in New York. As I pulled open the glass doors to Алмалы, the city’s largest shopping mall, a booming voice swelled up the escalator to meet me.

The voice belonged to a man with a microphone gathering volunteers for a couples dancing contest. From there, it was a familiar jumble: Paper cupids and foam hearts; Red roses; White doves; Pink martinis handed out by women in lace; An unseen sound system serving up syrupy smooth jazz. I searched for clues I was still in Kazakhstan, my little-known host country whose holiday calendar melds Persian, Russian and historically Kazakh traditions in pursuit of its own post-Soviet identity. The only sign I stood anywhere in Central Asia was my American friend who burst out of the crowd grinning:

“They announced a party game, but I didn’t catch the name in Russian. Let’s watch, maybe we’ll learn something!”

On cue, one of the ubiquitous hanging red hearts was lowered into the crowd, its crepe paper trim fluttering against the updraft of excitement from below. For once in a sea of Russian speakers, I was the first person to figure out what was going on.

“My god, it’s a piñata.”

The rules were explained to a brave volunteer, who was ceremoniously blindfolded and spun around three times. No one seemed to be familiar with the protocol for this scenario, but a few dizzy, blind swings of the bat convinced the crowd to clear a space around him. Finally, he made contact with the piñata, dispensing a treasure trove of brightly wrapped Rakhat confections—Kazakhstan’s best chocolate.

Young children stared at the candy on the floor and turned beseeching eyes to their parents for permission.

“Go ahead, pick it up!” goaded the emcee, unleashing the stampede.

As children fought over the sweets, my friend and I turned to the question of a Mexican party game at a Valentine’s Day celebration in Kazakhstan. Local friends had assured us that Valentine’s Day wasn’t much of a thing, with the bulk of the nation’s flowers and chocolate sales landing squarely on International Women’s Day instead. Was a tradition being born? Could we really argue with the universal joy of hitting a thing with a stick until candy comes out?

I had come to the shopping center in search of the manufactured authenticity of a tourist souvenir. Instead, I was plunged into a cultural mash-up of traditions from home, but which weren’t the least bit intended for me.

I wanted to ask “How did this get here?”, but the better question was clearly “How did I?”

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