Monday, May 15, 2006

Horses, poverty, and cuckoo clocks

Saturday morning I sat in my room and read a book. And played some computer games. And, I watched a herd of horses being herded by a cowboy in real life. Right in front of our camp. It was one of the most colorful scenes I've witnessed since I've been here. Last fall, a man was herding cows on horseback, but this was something even more special. We've seen the horses out here before, grazing in the fields. There are no fences. None. The horses, the cattle, the goats, roam at the will of themselves and their keepers. Since their keepers are nowhere to be seen, it is mostly where ever the animals choose.

This herd was bigger than most we see grazing in the fields, so it may have been a grouping made up of the smaller grazing herds we see. "Davai, davai!" the horseman yelled. And some other things I didn't understand, and guessing from his tone of voice, it was probably just as well I didn't. They weren't behaving very cooperatively.

Nor were they particularly rambunctious. I can't imagine a herd of horse in the U.S. acting this calmly, but these guys are like they are on Valium. Calm is the keyword. A mare and her colt were in the roadway as a dumptruck barrelle along toward them. The truck had to stop before they decided to hustle a little and vacate the road. Another group of the horses were being uncooperative, and heading down a side road. I think they were going in the wrong direction.

I haven't seen anything this colorful since staying in the back-country in Mexico. But, speaking of third-worldness, there is another topic: poverty and rural life here. I've had a closer look now.

I'm doing volunteer help for one of my neighbors in Sovietskaya, the closest village. I chop her wood, she teaches me Russian words. It is actually quite fun. I guarantee you this, though: she is running a small farm, and she is poor. She only has a few goats and a couple of chickens to go with a garden, but it is a small farm. Lots of goat manure, that kind of stuff. But, this woman, and many of her neighbors, are living in real poverty. They may have enough to eat, but it is hard to come by. The haven't much to spend on clothing, and very little is new. When she needed a new axe handle, she made it from a birch log. With hand tools. The only people who've done that in the U.S. in the last fifty years have done it because they wanted to, not because they had to.

A couple of kids from the neighborhood rode their bicycles up while I was splitting wood. The saddles were pretty much trash. The cover material from one was gone entirely, exposing a felt padding interior. The other's cover was slipping off the metal frame. But, the chains were clean and oiled. These bikes probably could have been retired a generation ago, but they are still being serviced, and they are still useful. The kids were certainly in "grow-into" clothes purchased too large with the knowledge that they would grow into them. When I was a child, we had some "grow-intos", but we were the exceptions, not the rule, already. These people remind me of poor rural farm people of the fifties and sixties in the U.S. I'm sure that they probably more closely resemble even earlier times, but who knows. I don't.

I've said that there are more middle class over here than most Americans would think, and I do see that. The standards of living are much lower, and much different. Public transportation doesn't reach out here very well. These villages really do more resemble third world countries than anything else. I'd guess that the biggest difference is that there is an infrastructure. There is some electrification, and a public water supply. There are roads, even if they are dirt. There is a phone service, and it is more reliable than the ones I saw in Latin America, I think. It is a little better than that, but maybe not much. I am quite sure that education is still mandatory and universal - not something you'd find in a third-world country.

Another new thing has happened, also. The birds are singing. Remember I said that I didn't hear that many birds here? I hear lots more now. Must be because it's spring. And I've heard several birds I've never heard before. Including one that we all know well, and most of us have probably heard - as a clock. The cuckoo. At first I thought someone had a cuckoo clock, just like I have a wall clock that bongs. Early in the morning, when you can hear a lot, I would hear a cuckoo a few times. I asked myself if this could be a real cuckoo, and thought not. It was too close to the hour, and the calls were just a few, so it was probably just someone who'd gotten a cuckoo clock. I't taken to listening for it, but I couldn't hear anything to prove it one way or the other. Until this morning. While riding to work, and passing a wood, at least a mile from the nearest house, office or building of any sort, I heard the "cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo . . ." And, it went on for a couple of minutes, way past any clock marking the hour. Most amazing! They sound like a cuckoo clock! Or vice versa!