Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
The Onion Harvest of Kazakhstan
   by Joshua Abrams (Kazakhstan 1996–98)
Read other short works about the Peace Corps experience

THE WALK TO ALEX’S HOUSE has become a familiar ritual. The bus drops me off on the wide twoPrinter friendly version-lane street, potholed and empty of traffic. I cross the street and climb up a cracked road bordered by walled courtyards and fruit trees. At the corner with another narrow lane I greet the old Kazakh woman who sells sunflower seeds and chewing gum from an abandoned concrete block.
     I turn the corner and walk past mortar-and-straw houses. The Muzhiki, the Men, are already at their places, arranged around a bench in front of one house, grizzled and middle-aged, already drunk at ten o’clock in the morning. I stop and greet them, shaking hands with each. I put my hand on my heart and refuse a shot of vodka and excuse myself.
     Alec is almost ready to go when I knock on his courtyard door. “It’s about time,” he says, smiling. I am half an hour late. We shake hands, my soft palm crushed by his calloused paw. He is shorter than I but wiry and strong.
     We finish hitching the wagon to his horse. Alec lays blankets on top of the wagon for us to sit on. He brings out a lunch of fresh bread and a bag of boiled potatoes for us to eat on the road. I take out two bottles of vodka and a box of cigarettes from my backpack and hand them to him. He tosses them into the wagon. We climb aboard and set out for the fields.
     Alec’s wagon is hand-built of wood with two rusty metal wheels rolling on a wooden axle. We sit on either side of the rim on blankets, twisting our bodies to face the road. Alec holds the reigns loosely, whistles and clicks his tongue tchk tchk at the horse to keep her on track.
     The horse takes us to the town’s edge and we exit the village. We climb over a rise and an empty, rolling expanse stretches over the horizon. The late October sky is a uniform gray. My hands and nose are cold but the slow bob of the wagon, the chilly air thick with smells of earth and sod, distract me from the chill. A soggy wind passes over us. In the far distance to the south, the jagged silhouette of mountains is visible.
     Other people are out today, other wagons trotting along the rutted paths through frosty vegetable fields, on their way to buy winter supplies or on their way home, wagon beds stacked with sackfulls of vegetables. It is onion-harvesting season and we are on our way to buy our winter’s supply. Alec invited me to come along with him last weekend, the last time I was visiting from the city. “It’s cheaper than buying them every week at the bazaar,” he explained, “and you’ll have onions all winter long.”
     No matter that I live in the city and have no place to store a season’s worth of onions. I will keep my sack here in the village, in a shed with my friend, Aaron, another American, and bring some back with me every time I visit.
     Alec and I are friendly through Aaron; we are not close but he is an easy man to be around and I always enjoy his company. Whenever I come to visit Aaron Alec is there, helping him to chop wood or dropping by to watch television in the evenings. We are the first foreigners he has ever met but he accepted us right away with a shrug and a smile, viewing Aaron simply as his neighbor and me as his neighbor’s friend, without the undue giddiness that many here show before the Exotic.
     The horse walks at a slow trot around a small hill. We pass fields of cabbages. We pass fields of carrots. We pass barren apple orchards, peach and pear orchards, many of the trees reduced to stumps, chopped down for firewood. The whole of southern Kazakhstan is close to bankrupt, unable to pay its bills. Gas has been turned off; blackouts plague the cities and villages. There will be no hot water this year and no heat. The villages are a little better off, with their wood-burning stoves left over from the days before municipal gas was piped in. Back in the city we suffer in cold apartment houses, families forced into the courtyard to cook over open fires. As people search for fuel, the orchards suffer.
     We turn the hill and a chill breeze hits us. “It’s getting cold,” Alec says, pulling a wool hat out from his coat pocket. “That’s bad.”
     Alec points past the hill, to the distance in the Northwest. “I have some land over there,” he says, smiling. “I got it when the collective farms shut down a few years ago. I’m dreaming about the day when I can start farming it.”
     “Why can’t you now?” I ask.
     “I can’t afford it,” he says, unperturbed by his hard luck. “I don’t have the equipment. And I have to help my family with their land. And I still need to get married.”
     “I thought you were engaged.” Alec has been courting his girl for some months and will marry her as soon as she turns eighteen.
     “I am. I’m negotiating with her family right now. We’re thinking that I might just steal her. That way we can avoid an expensive wedding.” Stealing brides is coming back into fashion in Central Asia, an old practice banned under Soviet rule. A girl who worked at the local state store was kidnapped a few weeks ago and has not been seen since. One day she was there, the next day she was gone. “She’s married, now,” the old, gold-toothed Tajik woman who worked with her giggled, when I inquired where she was. “She put up a good fight,” she added. If a man kidnaps a woman and forces her to spend the night in his home, that’s it, they’re married, and her family would refuse to take her back if she refuses. If a girl is unlucky enough to attract the wrong kind of suitor, she can find herself grabbed and thrown in a car, forced into marriage, her life in an instant changed. Alec’s version is more civilized, a kind of eloping, a romantic, practical form of marriage agreed to by the woman. Others, like the girl from the store, are not so lucky. Consent, while ideal, is unnecessary.
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