Last night the sky glowed a bright pink and Jamal told me today would be a good day for the beach. It is.
I leave after lunch when it’s warm and when Jamal feels better having fed me two square meals for my walk. Before long a group of Russian teenagers builds the courage to come over and say hello. One of them is 15-year-old Gallena who speaks fare English and takes on the role of translator for the day.
We arrive at the beach and it’s a postcard. The water on the north shore is shallow and turquois blue. You could imagine yourself on some Mediterranean shore if it weren’t for the wall of peaks that surround the lake, constantly shrouded in white puffy clouds. Just when you think a big afternoon thunderhead is going to make its way past the mountains it melts away and the sky above the lake stays perfectly blue.
We swim, chat, and enjoy the day. Slowly the word trickles down the beach that an American tourist is here and more come to meet me, some hazarding a phrase or two in English even. I figure it’s just a matter of time before the drunks join us and minutes later the huge hulk, Sasha, has his arm around me and is blowing cigarette smoke at me tinged with the smell of vodka. Sasha could tear me in half but I can tell he’s a jovial drunk by his hugs and dopey grin. I keep bracing for a kiss on the cheek but thankfully it never comes.
His friend Ivan comes over to meet me next and I can tell right away he’s the more cunning of the two. He’s short and stocky and his huge forearms are scarred. He chain smokes and always smiles but his eyes have trouble in their stare, like he’s always sizing you up whether enemy or friend. I stay on guard around him.
On cue the vodka arrives and we take a few shots and all swim again. I’m no slouch at vodka shots a Ivan seems sold on “the yankee.”
“We go…chu-chu(little bit) eat, chu-chu vodka.” As he says this he taps his throat, a gesture I learn means that anything but “a little” vodka will be drunk; a bottle each is more likely. Then he starts tapping his arms, turning to Gallena to translate.
“He asks, do you like narcotics?” Gallena laughs as she says this and I’m surprised by the casual nature of the question.
Ivan turns to me waiting for an answer. “Chu-chu narcotic, horosho? (good)” pointing back and forth between us. I look down and notice that above Ivan’s scars are track marks and I recall what I’ve read about Issyk-kul’s hills being covered in poppies in the spring and summer.
“Niet, niet.” I say. “Vodka chu-chu, horosho.”
“Narcotic no? Horosho.” They can tell I’m a bit uneasy leaving with them and as we depart Ivan says something to Gallena:
“Don’t worry,” she says. “They don’t kill you.”
Perfect. So with the worst case scenario off the table I follow my enebriated new Russian pals away from the beach to where I have no idea. It turns out we only walk 200meters to the trees where the whole clan is feasting on a huge picnic of borsh, carrot salad, coleslaw and chocolate cake. The kids all gather around me shouting their hellos and telling me their names. Grandma, whose beard rivals mine, thinks I look cold and promptly drapes her musty green sweater over my shoulders. I must look ridiculous.
Ivan shoves a spoon in my hand and never stops urging me to eat. More vodka comes and everyone drinks the bottle dry. More borsh, more cake, more offers to shoot up heroin, more of everything.
In public Russians are unfriendly and callous, but when they take you in as a comrade their hospitality knows no end. I find it difficult to leave but soon the picnic is all wrapped up and they drive me home just in time for dinner at Jamal’s house. I’m stuffed but do my best to eat more while recounting my day on the beach with the Russkies.