Thursday, November 24, 2011

Peace Corps Kazakhstan is closing

Peace Corps Kazakhstan is officially suspending the program. This week all of the volunteers left their sites to gather in Almaty. I think they will be leaving the country before the end of next week.

The reasons for this have not been stated officially. Generally, it seems to be a combination of security concerns and growing government resistance. My friend Becca does an excellent job writing about the closing of the program here which goes into a better explanation of the situation.

For me, hearing the news of the closing was particularly tough. I just left the country two months ago, and I had to leave suddenly. I had intended to stay until December; I guess even had I stayed there, I would not have met that original goal. I know what the volunteers there are going through in some way. Imagine you are living your life. You have friends. You have a job. You have plans for next month, for next spring, even for next year. Then someone tells you that you have to leave. You have a week to say goodbye, and it is likely that you will never come back. All of your plans, all of your life, you just have to leave it behind. That feeling of loss and sadness is what most of the volunteers in Kazakhstan are facing. It's something most of us probably never thought of when we entered the Peace Corps. I knew there would be challenges, but I think a sudden departure was probably the least expected and most difficult of those challenges.

I don't know the exact reasons that the program is shutting down. The ministry of education is spinning it. The embassy is spinning it. One goal of PC is obviously diplomatic, so neither side wants to make the other look bad. The Ministry of Education has said that Kaz income has increased greatly over the past two decades, and PC leaving is a natural progression. However, this is really not true. The urban/rural divide is still a huge issue in Kazakhstan, and rural schools are bad. This problem isn't unique to Kazakhstan. Schools in poor neighborhoods in America are also generally bad. America is one of the richest countries in the world, and we still have a gigantic problem with the quality of education.

This past year, the Kazakhstan government began hiring more foreign teachers to work in the best schools in Kazakhstan. The salaries for these teachers is reportedly as high as $60000 a year. That is crazy money in Kazakhstan. Despite the hiring of these teachers, some Peace Corps volunteers were working in these same schools. Is Peace Corps needed if the government is willing to pay that much money for teachers? Probably not. BUT, those are the elite schools. The best of the best. Once Kazakhstan is willing to invest the same money in the village schools that the majority of volunteers are at, then the ministry's statement becomes credible. Until then, why turn down FREE native speaking English teachers?

Either way, Peace Corps is leaving. Is it a good decision? Maybe. Honestly, it was always a hostile environment. I never realized this until I was talking to an RPCV friend from Ecuador. Apparently, it is not necessarily a global volunteer phenomenon for everyone in your community think that you are all spies, to worry that your phones are tapped, and to have the state police regularly calling your boss to inquire about you. In some countries, they just accept Peace Corps without a Soviet-influenced mentality. Of course, every country has its challenges. In Kazakhstan, dealing with state police was one of those challenges. However, if a volunteer got to go to a country where that was not an issue, that'd probably be better.

I was rather surprised that they are pulling out all the volunteers. Once government resistance increased, I thought they would just phase out the program. If someone were to ask me if KZ was a good place for a new volunteer, I would have to consider the other possible countries the volunteer could go to. If in those other countries, the volunteer was less likely to be forced to move from their home community, have the police break into their apartments, or be accused in the media of being spies, then I'd have to go with the other countries. If someone were to ask me if the volunteers should all leave immediately, then I'd have to weigh the cost of those risks with the pain caused by sudden departure. I assume that PC considered that, and it still chose for the volunteers to leave early.

Right now is a tough time for a lot of people in Kazakhstan associated with Peace Corps. Host families and workplaces are left confused. PC staff must now find a new job. Volunteers must say goodbye to the country they had probably fallen in love with. My heart goes out to all those people.

Knowing that in the almost two decades PC was there, it made a real difference in the lives of some of the citizens of Kazakhstan makes the feeling of sadness a little easier to stomach.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Trains in America vs Trains in KZ

Trains are the way to travel in Kazakhstan. Planes are too expensive. Buses are uncomfortable. If you want to get across the vast lands that are Kazakhstan, you are probably taking a train.

Trains are not the way to travel in America. Most people go by cars. If you travel long distance, you are probably going to take a plane. There are certain places that use trains to travel (New England, East Coast, around Chicago maybe, West Coast?), but for the majority of the country, trains are something from the past.

But how do trains here and there compare?

Trains are cheap in Kazakhstan. The cheap class of a ticket for a ten-hour train ride from Taraz to Almaty costs about $10. So a 24-hour train ride is probably about $20. Trains in America are not cheap. The 24-hour train from Savannah to Boston cost $125. This was equivalent to the cost of a plane ticket. I took the train because it was easiest to ship my bike. Cost is a big problem with trains in America. If trains and planes cost the same in Kazakhstan, people there would also not take trains.
Winner: Kazakhstan


Amtrak has much cleaner bathrooms. Amtrak has bathrooms you can use all
the time, even when you are passing through a city. Amtrak bathrooms
have a light to show you someone is occupying it. Kazakhstan's bathrooms
are dirty, sometimes closed (since you don't want to open the hole to
the tracks in a city), and have no occupancy indicators. It seems like
Amtrak would be the clear winner, right? Wrong. Kazakhstan bathrooms
have a much better set up for long-distance train rides. They have a
drain in the middle of the floor. They have lots of hooks you can hang
things with. They are practically made so you can shower yourself in
there. And yeah, you don't really want to hang out in them, but why
would you ever want to hang out in a train bathroom. I value
practicality over comfort, and Kazakhstan trains win hands down. Winner:

Lightning Round

1. Air-conditioning: Amtrak has it. Kazakhstan does not. Sometimes the windows do not even open. Winner: Amtrak.
2. Lights. Amtrak never turns the lights off. Kazakhstan does. Winner: Kazakhstan.
3. Food available. Amtrak has food available on the train. Kazakhstan has food available at every stop along the way. Amtrak's food is boring and standard. Kazakhstan has melons, smoked fish, shashlik, fresh fruit, etc. Plus, babushkas will usually give you food for free. Winner: Tie
4. Buying tickets: Amtrak let's you do it online. Kazakhstan lets you do it online. Winner: Tie.
5. Seats: Amtrak has comfortable seats. Kazakhstan has beds! Beds! But sometimes people sit on you when you are lying in your bed. Hmmm.... Winner: Kazakhstan by a hair
6. Customer Service: Amtrak was awesome when I was shipping my bike to Boston. They were not good when my bike didn't show up. Kazakhstan train customer service usually ranges from bad to average. Winner: Kazakhstan.

Total count: 5 for K, 1 for A, and 2 ties

In short, if you can't tell, I love trains in Kazakhstan.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Home in America

I left Kazakshtan on September 10, 2011. I've been home now for about three weeks. I don't know when I'll be back. I enjoyed my time there. I met great . I saw a lot of interesting things. I came back with amazing stories and friendships.

I'll post more about Kazakhstan eventually. There are always more stories to be told. But for now, I'm moving on. I am living in Savannah with my parents and I have begun the process of "looking for a job."

However, while I was in Kazakhstan, I happened to meet a lot of people who were touring the world on bicycles. It started with Michael from the Czech Republic, followed with Stellen, Stephen, Koen, and countless others. I'm not adventurous enough to tackle the globe, but I've decided to go a bike trip before entering the world of work. I 'm going to be going from Boston to Savannah (approximately 2000 KM). To record this adventure, I've started a new blog. I'm going to try out wordpress and see how I like their platform. You can find my new blog at

Monday, September 5, 2011

Heading East: Career and Leadership Camp!

They decided on the rock and roll faces while I was setting up the self timer

I haven’t been everywhere in Kazakshtan. I never made it west past Kyzlorda, so I never saw the Caspian, the Aral Sea, or any cities out that way. I also never made it to Pavlador or Kokshetau. But this past week, I was finally able to cross off Ust-Kamenogorsk from my list. It will most likely be the last new city that I visit in Kazakshtan, since we have travel restrictions placed on us the last three months of our service. (Understandably, they want us tofinish strongat our sites.)

Back in June, a volunteer in Ust sent out an email saying she was doing a camp on leadership, careers, and international education. When boiled down, that’s really been the focus for the bulk of my service. I couldn’t imagine a better camp, and it would mean work travel to visit East Kazakhstan Oblast. I’d like to imagine the competition was stiff to claim a spot at her camp, but really I have no idea. She said I could help out, and I had to rearrange my summer schedule to make it fit.

Ust is a long way away from Taraz. I left last Thursday on a midnight bus to Almaty. I was looking to go cheap, so I grabbed a seat in the back row. It had been a couple years since I’d done that, and I had forgotten how uncomfortable that row makes the ten-hour ride. I was a zombie all day in Almaty before boarding my 23 hour train to Ust that set off at 10PM. The train ride was much more comfortable though. I was able to catch up on my sleep and finishThe Big Shortwhich was excellent, and anyone interested in the financial crisis and wanting an interesting story should find and read it. Saturday night I was able to hang out with my old friend AC and Sunday Meriah showed me around the city.

Ust is the capital of East Kazakshtan, but it is not the oblast’s only city. A few hundered kilometers away is Semei, which was home to Abai and also housed Dostoyevsky for a while. I would have liked to visit it as well, but I’m out of vacation days now. Ust is famous for itsstrelkawhich means arrow. This is the city’s riverwalk. It is call an arrow, because two rivers meet at a certain point of it. Overall, Ust was a lot prettier than I imagined. I had heard that the city was very polluted because of its large industry sector (there’s a lot of mineral processing done there), but that didn’t stop them from having a very nice riverwalk and some nice parks. The smoke stacks from the factories were very noticeable on the city skyline though, and they seemed to be located in the center of town rather than on the outskirts. Also, much like people in Taraz will quickly mention their city is the most criminal in all of Kazakhstan, the people of Ust were quick to say our ecology is horrible. However, they didn’t have any pride in this fact.

Aside from the parks, the rivers, and the smokestacks, the next most noticeable thing in the city was a chain of cafes called Pizza Blues. They seemed to be everywhere. In Taraz, we have a lot of cafes, but we don’t have any major chains. In Shymkent, they have about five Madlens, so maybe that is comparable, but there seemed to be way more Pizza Blues than that. We eventually got to try it out, and the pizza was horrible. I would rate it below a Totinos pizza in terms of taste. It was somewhat cheap though, so it had that going for it at least.

The camp itself ran from Monday to Friday. It was located about 80km outside the city at a camp that the university owned on a small lake. The setting was gorgeous. Small rock mountains surrounded the lake which were great for doing some short treks up and down. Melissa had picked 18 of her best students, all of them being girls because no boys applied for the camp. During the four days, we had them write resumes, statements of purpose, and prepare for a mock interview. I was surprised by how much work they put into it outside of the sessions. In their free time, they may have been sitting down by the lake, but they did so with their resumes and statements of purpose. We also did some teambuilders and leadership activities with them, which they had lots of fun with. In the evenings, we did evening activities, which included me finally using the karaoke program that Ken gave me years ago.

For me, the camp was just awesome. The students were so enthusiastic and engaged. My favorite memories include our talent show at the end (I juggled volleyballs, or at least tried to, while the other volunteers sang Lean on Me), karaoke (the most popular song wasMy Heart Will Go On”), team builders, mountain climbing (Jenny, Elena and I actually made it to the top!), and yoga (yeah, I even did yoga for a whole week.) The other volunteers were also great, and amazingly there was someone from Kaz 20, 21, 22, and 23. Now I’m back at. I have thirteen weeks left in Kazakhstan, That’s like a college semester or so. I know it’s going to fly by. I just have to try and hunker down now and finish strong.

Camp's location

Sunset over the steppe

First take
My favorite teambuilder

Our beautiful lodgingTrust fall with the students

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Continued thoughts on Georgia: Civil War

In 1991, Georgia announced independence from the Soviet Union. And soon afterwards, they went to war. Two of its regions wanted to secede from Georgia: Abkhazia and South Osseida. They had been part of Georgia during the Soviet Union, and they were historically parts of the kingdom of Georgia on and off again for the past two thousand years. However, there were some reasons for them to want to be separate. I don’t know much about South Ossedia, so I’ll focus mostly on Abkhazia. (This is what we may call interpreted history rather than objective history. I am repeating what I was told, so in some ways this is the history that exists in the minds of at least some people in Georgia. I must admit that this is a one-sided story, but unfortunately that’s the only side I got to hear. I hope that reading this will encourage some people to look up information themselves and find out more.)

Abkhazians have their own language. They are also mostly Islamic, while Georgians are Christians with a capital C. However, in 1991, only say 20% of the population in Abkhazia was actually Abkhaz. Georgian (or Mengrellian, but they consider themselves Georgian). So 20% of the population said, we want to secede. And 80% said, what? And then the minority said, get out. And the majority said, what? And then war started and 200,000 people fled Abkhazia for Georgia. The Abkhaz with the Russians helped kick out 80% of the population and then declared independence from Georgia.

A new country and a new economy are hard things to manage. Countries all over the Soviet Union went into chaos in the early 1990s. Imagine everything depending on the government. Your job, your healthcare, all your utilities. And then one day, the government stops existing. It’s hard to imagine. People don’t get paid. Things don’t get made. Utilities don’t work. People have no heating in the winter. It was tough times. In Georgia, these were exacerbated by a civil war. Not only was there a sudden lack of government, there was a war and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing people during my trip, and it turned out about a dozen or so of them were refugees. Through a friend of a friend, I met up with Irakli and his family in Zugdidi, which is the city closest to the border with Abkhazia. Of course, the fighting has been over for 15 years now, and they are living a normal enough life. The government gave them an apartment to live in. Irakli and his brother both graduated from university. His father has a small business making bags for food products. But they long for their old life. Irakli grew up in a town on the coast of the Black Sea. Their house was only 30 meters away from the water. His parents grew up in that town. That was their life. And now, they are forbidden to go back. And with a mere percentage of the original residents, their house has probably been looted and now sites abandoned. Sitting there, 30 meters from the water, empty.

Irakli and his family live in a normal, although modest, apartment. Some of his relatives still haven’t received normal apartments. They live in a converted preschool. It’s not bad, but for them, it still didn’t feel like home. Soon though, seventeen years after the war, they are going to finally get apartment in a new city and somehow try and start a new life there.

August 2008. For me, that’s when I came to Kazakhstan. It’s also the Beijing Olympics. I remember because they started on my birthday. Maybe you remember another event that happened around that time. Russia invaded Georgia. The way I remember it being presented, Russia was the bad guy picking on little, innocent Georgia. They wanted to disrupt some pipeline or get land or something. In reality, this was a complicated situation. I don’t really understand what happened, but it wasn’t just a flashfire event. It had been building up for years and fighting had been escalating for months leading up to the incident. The wikipedia page on it presents an interesting story, although it is flagged for questionable neutrality (although I’m not sure from which side; it presents both in a negative light). It seems simple to conclude though, that both sides were at least partly responsible.

My new friends briefly recounted some events from the first war and the 2008 war. When I was riding around in Irakli’s uncle’s Zhugili (an old Soviet station wagon type car) he joked that it was his tank. It’s what they used when they were fleeing Abkhazia with eleven people and everything they could bring with them crammed inside. A small shell actually hit the top of it, but it was stopped by the luggage they had on top. Their tank, indeed. In 2008, everything happened quickly. Russian jets were flying everywhere. They apparently bombed the Borjomi region which started some serious fires. There were civilian casualties, including at least one foreign journalist. Peace Corps volunteers were also affected. I heard they called their Safety and Security Office saying, “Uh… there are Russian troops in my yard. What do I do?” (Since then Peace Corps rules in Georgia have been extra strict. They are issued cell phones. They get free minutes on all calls between Peace Corps phones. And you MUST have your phone with you at all times.) But the war was a short one, and a tentative peace was made. However, a war only increased incentive and justification for Russia’s presence in the disputed territories.

The refugees know that the process won’t end soon. They certainly don’t expect to go home tomorrow. But I think they have hope. How can they not? In their minds, that is their land. Their houses, their belongings, they are just 100 kilometers away, but across a distance that cannot yet be crossed. They talk about Abkhazia fondly. The beaches butt up right against the mountains. Not like Batumi, which is flat. They long to go home; they hope one day they might be able to, but until then, they are living their lives in other parts of Georgia.

Two incidents were interesting to me. One, when we were going to a cave city about 70 km away from Borjomi, we brought along a young boy of about eleven years old. He was Abkhaz, but he was visiting Georgia. The other travelers were me, and four refugees from Abkhazia. They spoke about him as if he was a novelty. Look at us, four refugees, an American, and an Abkhaz. What a crazy bunch! It seemed like they were slightly jealous of the boy, and why wouldn’t they be. He still gets to live there; and they can only dream. At one point, he was saying how beautiful Georgia was, but how Abkhazia was even prettier. The four other people with us jokingly said, we know, we lived there our whole lives!

Another time, someone was telling a friend news of Abkhazia they had heard from the boy’s mother. Apparently, Russian tourists were trying to go into the region, but they had trouble because police enforcement is rather lax there. My friend became slightly incensed, why were Russians going there? What were they doing there? There’s no reason for them to be there? And I could only think that I’ve heard constantly about how it’s amazingly beautiful, why wouldn’t they go there if they could? But that logic wasn’t in the mind of my friend. That’s his home, what right do people have to go there when he himself can’t. I assume that’s what he was thinking.

For me, it was fascinating talking to the people of Georgia about what had happened. Never in my life had I talked to refugees before. In development, you hear a lot about them. Refugees. Refugee camps. But then to meet someone who had to leave their home and couldn’t go back. To change their whole life due to war. And I longed to hear the other side. I know what I heard had to be at least somewhat biased, but honestly no one spoke badly about anyone else. If there were any bitter feelings, they did not share them with me, their guest. They only spoke about their land which is now unreachable for them. The beauty of it, and how much they miss it. Either way, it was quite an impressive display of forgiveness or restraint. And a reminder that things are never as simple as they seem.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Drinking in Georgia: A Beginner's Guide

One of the joys of visiting Georgia is the wine. Georgians love wine. They love to drink it. They love to make it. They love to toast with it. But people there don’t just sit and sip on their wine. They toast and then they guzzle. That’s one reason why they drink more white wine then red wine. Sure, they make red wine, and they love it, but they admit guzzling glass after glass of red wine in a night is a lot harder than white wine.

So let’s say you sit down at a Georgia dinner, and you are poured wine. What’s the proper etiquette? You must wait for a toast. Who gives the toast? A special chosen person called the tomador. This is the table commander. He is the man in charge. He also has a second in command, but I don’t remember what that guy is called. So the tomador will say a toast about something, and then the second guy will elaborate on the toast. Then everyone drinks their glass of wine all the way or almost all the way. Don’t sip it. Down that thing. If the toast was to something normal, you can leave a bit left in your glass (friends, meeting, country), but if it something very important (to the dead, God, etc), you should drink the whole thing. Then they fill your glass back up and you wait for the next toast. There’s no drinking it in between toasts. (However, in my experience, albeit limited, we were allowed a glass of juice or water as well that we could drink from freely.) How much time is there between toasts? Sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes five minutes, sometimes longer. It depends on the tomador. Are you allowed to say your own toast? Eventually, but you better wait for a bit, and then you have to ask permission from the commander.

The toasts are usually from a set list. There’s the normal toast for meeting, for friends, for the dead, for God, for women, for peace, for etc… For me as a visitor for only two weeks, this was pretty fun. I don’t know how I’d feel there as a volunteer there for two years though. Maybe I’d get sick of the repetitiveness, but I think a lot of it depends on the table commander. Generally, they should be gregarious and interesting.

Where do they get all of this wine from? Often, they make it themselves. The eastern part of Georgia are where most of the vineyards are, but many people also have some grape vines growing in their own yards. The harvest season is in September, and apparently September and October are the times visit because Georgians celebrate this time of year (it’s also not 40 degrees in Tbilisi like it is in August). Even the people who don’t grow their own grapes may buy kilos of it to make wine out of. One family I talked to bought about 500 kilograms a year of grapes. From this, he’s make about 300 liters of good pure wine, and 300 liters of good, watered-down wine. (I am not really sure how accurately I remember the numbers, but it was a lot of grapes and a lot of wine.)

Wine is not all that they drink in Georgia though. They don’t just throw away the grape stuff after they extract the wine. They distill it to make a drink called chacha. Homemade liquor. Usually above 60 proof, possibly much much higher. Not being content with just this, they also make homemade vodka from other fruits like plums. My friend Irakli and I actually ran into his uncle distilling some vodka in the apartment lawn on my birthday. He invited us to sit down and try it. Later he measured it with this floating gauge to find out it was about 65 proof. The homemade pickles helped get that stuff down. Oh, you toast chacha and vodka the same way as with the wine.

How to make vodka

They also drink beer, but they don’t toast it. You can casually drink it like you want to.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fill up your bottle

Georgians are proud of their water, and they probably should be. They have some of the most famous mineral water in the world. The main brand being Borjomi, whose bottles may be in a nearby supermarket. It’s the one with the funny squiggle writing (aka Georgian). This company started bottling the salty, fizzy, mineral filled water from the town of Borjomi 120 years ago (as billboards there now commemorate). However, Borjomi is not unique in Georgia. Many other places also bottle the water that springs up from the ground, and in Georgia it seemed like some other ones were more popular.

Of course, there are tons and tons of natural springs through out the country, and a trip to Georgia is not complete without stopping numerous times during any trip to drink from natural springs that now have pipes and spickets coming from them. Going to Kazbegi, my marshrutka stopped twice so the driver and passengers could enjoy the spring water.

This water did not taste good.

Other trips were the same. You just stop the car, get out, and have some fresh mineral water. Sometimes this water tastes great and sometimes the water tastes like its full of metal. Either way, the people here love to drink it.

This water tasted great. It was near the town Rustavi

This water at the Green Monastary near Borjomi tasted pretty good

The line was too long, so I didn't try this water.

Borjomi is the most famous though, and the park in the center of town contains a fountain where you can fill up cups and drink the mineral water for free.

Me filling up a cup with FREE Borjomi water

Another spring nearby has cold water that is better. And this creates the interesting phenomenon of vendors selling empty plastic bottles. Never have I seen person after person selling empty plastic bottles.

The water’s free, but you have to buy the bottle

When we filled up at the Borjomi spring, some people were filling up to ten liters of the spring water.

In a somewhat ironic twist though, two of the places I stayed at in Georgia only had running water a couple times a day. There is water everywhere, but they don’t have the infrastructure to keep it pumping into their houses all day.