Monday, December 29, 2008
1. A guy shows up at my new office and asks if my boss/counterpart has faxed anything to him yet from another city. I tell him that I don’t know what he’s talking about. And my counterpart didn’t say anything about a fax to me (and we had spoken five minutes before on the phone.) The guy seemed frustrated, talked with some other people in the office, and then left.
2. Business plans. That’s what I do now apparently. Everyone in the office knows it. I hear it all the time. You do business plans, right? Yeah, I reluctantly say. Somehow, that makes sense to everyone else. Business plans. No direction on how many to do. Who to do them for. Etc. Just business plans. This is completely vague to me, but it’s so obvious to everyone else, they don’t even understand when I try to tell them I don’t understand.
3. Computers. That’s my other job. Although I am no computer whiz by any means, I would say I know more than average about most of the machines. (Highlights include fixing a scanner here, fixing the Internet (okay installing modem drivers), and installing printer drivers. Failures include two scanners, a printer, and an operating system crash. Sometimes it’s the Russian; sometimes it’s the hardware). Anyway…one of my new coworkers asked me about an accounting program and a video card. There were some other words in the sentence, but those were the main ideas. Accounting program. Video card. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how they would ever go together in the same sentence. Maybe when my language improves, I’ll understand what he was asking; I’m excited to know.
4. I had the following conversation with my new workplace today:
Me: Okay, say I want to open up a new business. A discoteque here. How can the business center help me?
Business Center: Right now, we don’t have any money to give out. We only have funding for our salaries. So we say, sorry, we have no money.
Me: So what help can you give me? I want to open a business.
BC: We can give you information.
Me: What information?
BC: Information about how to write a business plan.
Me: You mean, I could give them information. The information I wrote about business plans last week.
So I still don’t understand what they do at the business center. Or maybe I do understand. And my brain just refuses to accept it.
(Written several weeks ago. Some of these have been cleared up. I help anyone out with business plans when they show up. One person has come. Once. The business center also gives out gifts to certain business men at the end of the year.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
In a way that almost makes it worse, New Year’s here is kind of like Christmas. They have a Santa Claus (Ded Moroz (Father Snow)) that gives presents to children. They put up yolka (New Year’s trees) with ornaments on them. They give small presents. They have friends and family over. But Christmas? It is not Christmas. So when I explain Christmas, I can’t begin to capture what it really means. The complex religious and secular struggle that occurs every year that ultimately results in a spirit of giving and charity whether its for the right or wrong reasons. I don’t know how to express that yet in Russian, and even if I ever learn, I don’t think people can really understand how much it permeates the culture of America. For them, they hear Santa Claus, trees, gifts. Oh, like New Year’s. And that’s their association.
But when you aren’t there, you realize what Christmas is. It’s an industry. From Thanksgiving until December 25, America focuses on Christmas. The outward appearance of houses changes for weeks. Stores decorate. Commercials incorporate holiday images. Store displays have to have red and green. Churches schedule events and nativity scenes. Charitable giving increases. There are holiday parties for the office, for the schools, and for the needy. Hundreds of songs are written, records are produced, and radio stations change their entire programming. Some (maybe most) of it is commercial, just another part of American marketing taking an idea and milking it for capitalist greed. But despite that, the “spirit” of Christmas is hard to avoid. The idea that this is a special time of year for giving and family and thinking of others. And this season lasts almost a full month. That’s about 8% of the year. Which is really a long time if you think about it.
And really, I think it’s great. And I miss it. I’ll probably buy a New Year’s tree tomorrow. Decorate it Christmas Eve with my host family and give some presents to my host-niece Toma. And it’ll be great to share “Christmas.” And I’m sure they’ll love sharing in this American tradition in a novel sort of way. But they won’t understand. They can’t understand.
They say that living in a new culture often teaches you as much about your own as it does about the one you are exposed to. And I’m definitely beginning to believe that’s true. I can’t help but think of that ridiculous song about African children knowing whether or not it’s Christmas. They probably don’t. And Christmas there wouldn’t mean what Christmas mean in America. It’s gone beyond religious and secular; it’s something that’s cultural. And while it can be easy to share culture, it’s a hard thing for others to really understand.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
See my organization was a great organization a few years ago. It won grants, did projects, had an office, etc. However, then the people who worked at it moved to a new city. Organization put on hold. The people who had worked there heard about Peace Corps though and had some experience working with a volunteer in another town. So they applied for a volunteer at their old organization, and they got one. Namely me. Problem is, that’s it. Me. I was working sami (by myself), and the whole point of the Peace Corps is to collaborate with local people. So Peace Corps said that had to change.
So now I am at the business center in the town’s city hall. I am supposed to help write business plans and develop small business in the region. It sounds like a good overall plan, but I am not really sure how it will all work. My current impression is that the business center does not do such projects, and it may be me once again doing projects all by my lonesome. I’ve only been here three days, so there’s still a lot of information to learn. Hopefully, I will have some sort of good work plan established by the New Year though.
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
This was the first time I was away from my family on Thanksgiving. The day itself came and went rather unceremoniously, but I did celebrate in a number of small ways. One. I printed out little cards in Russian saying that today was a holiday in America and I was thankful for all of the hospitality I had received in Kazakhstan. I gave out small pieces of candy with this note, possibly forever confusing Halloween and Thanksgiving in the minds of dozens of Kazakhstanis. Two. I smsed Thanksgiving notes to other volunteers with text from someecards.com, which is how I celebrate holidays back home. Three. I made mashed potatoes, with lard substituted for butter (making me realize what that distinctive taste in all of their food finally is).
However, for me the real holiday was celebrated on Saturday. And it was awesome! Six of us PCVs gathered in Taraz to put on a Thanksgiving to remember for ourselves and about a dozen locals. Dave managed to buy, kill, and clean about a ten pound turkey. Susanna cooked apple and pumpkin pie, as well as took care of cooking the turkey and the stuffing. Jenny made some glazed carrots and whole grain mac and cheese. Matt cooked some amazing fish cakes and corn bread muffins. Jamie covered the mashed potatoes, tomato and cucumber salad, brownies, and pumpkin bread. I made a Hotard casserole and sweet tea. Each of us spent time over the hot stove and used the oven in shifts to get everything ready.
Seems pretty authentic, right? Well, we were missing football. Until Jamie remembered she had the Fiesta Bowl game between Oklahoma and Boise State saved on her computer. Not just a football game, but maybe one of the greatest football games ever played. The game finished as the guests were arriving, which allowed ten locals to watch me freak out over a game I had already seen. Part of the emotion was real, and part of it was trying to recreate what I had felt that first time watching the game. I wanted to expose them to what watching football was like in America. Not a single one of them had any real idea what was going on, nor why the hook and ladder play was just ridiculous. They did understand the proposal at teh
After the game ended, we finally got around to eating our feast. Amazingly it really felt like Thanksgiving. The food, the football, the friends. And everything was really good. There honestly wasn’t a weak dish among the bunch. Apparently, we have some good cooks down here in the Zhambyl Oblast.
In order to spice up the post-eating party, we decided to play a few rounds of Bear, Ninja, Cowboy. Except someone wanted to make the game more seasonal, so we played Bear, Cowboy, Indian. It’s a variation on Rock, Paper, Scissors in which full body motions and sound effects are required. Then finally, pie was eaten, food was gone, and the guests all went home. And we were left there with tons of dishes and the immense satisfaction of having done Thanksgiving right. It felt great.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
However, one of the first things you learn in (Southern) Kazakhstan, is that this rule need not apply. In some cities, the only taxis available are these “Gypsy Cabs.” (I’m personally not a big fan of the name Gypsy Cab, but that’s what they call it. I think the Roma people get a bad rap too often.) Gypsy Cabs can be anyone that has a car. Sometimes people work as a Gypsy Cab driver to make a living, but other times it is just someone that is driving somewhere and wants to pick up a few extra tenge for benzene.
I think all of us trainees were a little uneasy with this idea when we first heard about it. From young children, we learn not to get into cars with strangers. And from going to South America, I learned anyone that is not a taxi driver who offers to drive me somewhere really just wants to kidnap me and steal all my money. Or kill me. Do something bad at least. But nope, down here in Southern Kazakhstan anyone can be a taxi driver.
There are some rules that apply to Gypsy Cabs in order to ensure your safety though. First, you can wave on any car that you don’t want. Don’t feel pressured to take the first broken down Volga driven by the town drunk. Based on the short interaction of opening the passenger side door and asking the price, you will be able to discern whether or not you want to ride in that car. It’s all about gut instinct. Is this car reliable? Is this man drunk? Do they plan on robbing me? Somehow you are supposed to be able to tell these things from a five second conversation.
There are actually some rules that are good though. If the car is full of people, you may want to pass on it and take the next. If there are seatbelts, then that’s like a plus plus for that car. And once you find a driver that you like, you can get his (I’ve never seen a woman cab driver here) number and call him when you know you need a ride. Also, feel free to get in the backseat rather than the passenger seat. And you can choose to have a conversation with the driver or not; generally, I find being friendly is more fun.
I have to admit that I was at first a little nervous about the Gypsy Cab, but I have grown to embrace them. My village is about a kilometer out from the next nearest village, and if someone see you walking down the long, lonely road, they generally let you hitch hike for free. In fact last week, when I was hopping between sites, my plan was actually, get a ride on the bus to the highway. Then stand there until someone picked me up for 300 tenge. And it worked out just fine.
In addition to growing more at ease through the experience of riding in Gypsy Cabs, seeing the issue from the Gypsy Cab perspective has also helped. While I cannot drive here, I have been a passenger when my friend desperately wanted more passengers to pay for gas. See, twice a week I commute between two small towns down here. My counterpart’s brother is nice enough to drive me for free so far between the two sites. So after picking me up, we don’t just hit the open road. We go to the bus and taxi station and wait. Sometimes it’s five minutes. Sometimes, it’s fifteen. We are looking for anyone headed our way. We may only get just on babushka (grandmother, generally an old woman in Kazakhstan), or we may cram three other people in the backseat with me. And I’ve never once been asked if I mind being squeezed against a door for half an hour; it’s so normal that they just assume I’ll be okay with it.
I remember one morning when we doing going to Shymkent. We were at the taxi station for maybe ten minutes before a mother and her two young girls showed up. There were three guys sitting in the car: me, my counterpart, and his brother. I don’t know if they mother knew them or not. Maybe. She negotiated a price, and then the two young girls ages like six and ten got in the car. We then drove them an hour or so to a different town where they had school. I assume they did this nearly every day. And it’s okay. It works. Somehow they aren’t kidnapped. They get to school and they get home.
I must admit, it is a pretty efficient system. Maybe instead of hitch hiking, I can think of it as carpooling with strangers. You want to get somewhere, they are going somewhere. It only makes sense for you to go together. Imagine if you wanted to get from Savannah to Atlanta and you could just stand by the on ramp to I-16 and catch a ride. Or Athens to Atlanta, and you just waited around the Wal-Mart parking a lot. It’d be great!
At the same time, it does however completely ignore all safety factors. Unknown information is a huge cost that is hard to quantify. Even the small potential of someone exploiting the system and the resulting kidnapping or robbery or death has a high expected value because the cost is so large. But for now, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Kazakhstan. People trust strangers enough that I don’t even know if that thought crosses their mind.
So for now, I’ll just keep standing on the side of the road with my hand out waiting for whomever to come by and pick me up, as long as it’s a pretty classnaya tacha (cool car), of course.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
My only experience so far has been in the “kupets” wagon of a train. I had never ridden overnight trains in America, so I can’t really compare. But here, you have a little room with two sets of bunk beds: four beds in total. There are about ten of these rooms on the wagon, all on one side of a hallway stretching its entire length. At one end of the wagon there is a place where you can get free hot water. And at both ends, there is a bathroom (where the cleanliness is about what you would expect on a train.) The compartments with the beds aren’t large by any means, but they are suitable.
I should probably say that I am one of the least qualified volunteers to write about trains, because my trips have only been twelve hours long. Some volunteers have forty hour train rides. But I rode enough to observe the at least some of the more important cultural aspects. To prepare for a train ride, you first need to get food for the train. Of course, they sell food on the train, but it’s expensive. And they also sell food at the train station, but it too, is expensive. Thus, your best bet is to buy it before and bring it from home. Boiled eggs and potatoes make great train food.
And of course you need chai (tea). As an American, you may think just bottled water would be good. Nope. You are in Kazakhstan, and you need some chai. Don’t worry too much about bringing your fine china though, as you can sometimes borrow a tea pot and cups from the conductor in the wagon. (She/He’s the train employee that works in each wagon. In addition to answering questions, loaning out dishes, and locking the bathrooms when you approach train stations, he’s the one you pay if you need to ride and you don’t have a ticket.) Having chai is actually a really fun part of the train experience. There you are rattling along, the train swaying on the tracks, and you and your kupet-mates are sipping on scalding black tea. It makes the trip feel more like home.
After you gather your train food, you need to pack your train clothes. So far, I have failed in this aspect of train riding. While Kazakhstanis put a huge premium on public appearance, this goes out the window on the train. Honestly, some of them are going to be hunkered down for thirty-plus hours. You don’t want to be unnecessarily uncomfortable. So you go down to the bathrooms and you change out of your fancy clothes into a jump suit, sweats, or shorts. The first time on the train I was not aware of this custom and had to wear my jeans the whole time. The second time, I just couldn’t manage to find a way to make “train clothes” accessible in my bags of luggage. For my next train ride though, I’m looking forward to being able to look a little grungy and have it be okay.
Once you have your food and your clothes ready, you’re pretty much good to go. Cards are also a good addition to play some durak with the locals. You can also bring on beer, but apparently liquor is prohibited and you risk being thrown off the train for having it. Oh, and toilet paper and hand sanitizer, but those are givens for where ever you are traveling.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Halfway to Almaty, with the bus full of trainees, host family members, and an obscene amount of luggage (as many of us would be leaving right after the ceremony), our bus had slight mechanical problems. We pulled over to the side of the road as our driver opened up the back hatch and started working on something. I was excited about the fact of possibly missing swearing in altogether. It would have been a fitting way to close out a PST that began with a ten-hour delayed flight from Frankfurt. However, our driver did manage to fix it, and we continued the journey into Almaty.
I?m glad to say that the ceremony itself combined elements of both American and Kazakhstani festivals. Meaning it was a little hectic, not completely rehearsed, but overall entertaining. I am now officially a ?volunteer,? (because apparently when I was working in the community before, I was only a ?trainee,? whatever that means. You can expect a rant on how calling us volunteers when we do get paid confuses the idea of volunteerism that we are trying to promote here in Kazakhstan.) Our whole OCAP group also butchered a song written by our language LCF Dasha. There was a video taken of it; I hope it ends up on YouTube one of these days.
But for me, the most exciting part of the swearing in was the wonderful spread of food at the reception. Free food. And lots of it. And good food. And fruit. Oh, it was glorious. While most people were beginning to scour the tables for goodies to take home or on the train, I was still going strong on the current meal, maybe helping number six or so.
Too soon perhaps, but inevitably, we had to say our final goodbyes to our host families and other volunteers as we headed off to the train stations. PST had ended. Our little American bubble of friends was coming to a close. I was excited. The Real Peace Corps was about to begin.
Scheduled with Time Cave (http://www.timecave.com)
Subscribe for $12/year to eliminate these short "message tags" and the
2-message-per-day limit. You can subscribe at the following URL:
The first surprise of week one was that the host family I chose during my site visit would no longer be hosting me. Surprise number two was one that I was expecting and not altogether looking forward to. I would be living in two different towns for about the first five months. Monday through Wednesday I am going to live with my counterpart in one town and Thursday through Sunday I am going to live in the town (40 km away) where I was originally supposed to work. (Splitting hairs, but I was actually supposed to work in the center of the region, which is in a different town, and I only first really got to explore this afternoon. My conclusion though is that there isn’t really much to see there either.)
So I am blessed with the opportunity to get to do everything twice. Two communities to integrate into. Two workplaces to get to know. Two host families. It’s really double the fun down here in southern Kazakhstan.
At site one, I live with Almas and his family. He and his wife have three young, rambunctious boys all under the age of five, and another child on the way in a few months. My main jobs right now are finishing up an English information brochure that another volunteer started and teaching the guides at a nearby nature reserve enough English so they can interact with the tourists. The guide allows me to play with photoshop a lot, which I’m happy about. The English teaching is not as exciting (as I am not a TEFL volunteer), but at least I can see how it is a useful job skill.
At site two, I live with a great family that was gracious enough to take me in when the original choice fell through. There is a mom, dad, son about my age, and a young grandchild. Site two work is not as great as site two host family though. Right now, I am working on a presentation that I am going to give to the community about myself, and working on projects from site one. There is potential for more work, but I need to meet more people in the community, and that takes time. For now, I kinda feel like I’m just treading water here, but hopefully it will pick up in a few weeks or months. To add to the fun of site two, I don’t actually work at my organization’s office, because it is not heated in the winter. Instead I am at a school in my village (adding to the confusion that I’m a TEFL volunteer). So I sit either in the computer lab or the teacher’s lounge/office and try to work on my projects.
I feel like it’s been a slow week, but I am excited to have at least the guide book project to keep me busy for now. I’m still not altogether sure what I will be doing here, but I’ve learned to have a little more patience about those sorts of things. There’s a strange balance between taking the initiative and letting things develop, that I don’t think I’ve quite mastered, but I’m sure I will get plenty of practice at over the next two years.
But as the scheduled time came, I gathered up my luggage (all five bags) and woke the other volunteers to say my final goodbyes (for at least a few weeks). Then I dragged my luggage down the narrow hallway probably waking up half the kupets as I clinked and clanked against their doors. And just as I got to the exit of the train, I see Almas standing in the doorway with a large grin on his face and a even larger furry Russian hat on top of his head. Confused at first, he waved me back on the train. He too did not understand why Peace Corps had bought me a ticket to Taraz. It turns out we would just pay a little extra and ride along to the stop in my town. Although, without an actual ticket, neither of us could lay claim to any of the seat in the kupets. As we sat in the cramped hallway of the train, the hours passed slowly as I mostly failed to show excitement for arriving at site through my increasingly tired demeanor.
A couple hours later, we did reach my town and we quickly exited the train (only three minute stop here). As aforementioned, it was raining. It was cold. And at 2:30 in the morning, the only thing on my mind was getting sleep. I didn’t expect to actually go to my host family. That would be too normal an experience for my site. But I expected a bed. Remember Peace Corps rule number one: Don’t have any expectations.
We walked up to the road to wait on a taxi. There were none. “Are there usually taxis?” I asked. Almas confirmed that there were. But on that Saturday morning, there were none to be had. After standing outside for maybe ten minutes, we headed back away from the road into the train station, which was just an average sized room with a row of waiting chairs stretching down the middle. We put my bags down and we sat there and looked out the windows. Still no sign of taxis. The minutes dragged on. It was getting to the point where all I could do was keep my eyes open. Eventually I gave in. I pulled my bags close to me (although there weren’t any other people in the station, I still wanted to be safe), wrapped my arms through as many straps as I could, positioned myself as comfortably as possible (which wasn’t very, but it didn’t matter at that point), and I fell asleep. I would awake occasionally to see Almas either staring out the windows, scanning for a possible ride, or also napping a few chairs away from mine.
At around 8am (having spent five hours in the train station), we did manage to catch a taxi to take us the 3km to Almas’s family’s house. And after eating some breakfast, I did finally get to sleep on a bed (or rather mats on the floor, pretty much equivalent) for a few hours. But night number one was definitely spent in a train station. Welcome to site.
Friday, November 14, 2008
I had been worried some about the language test until I went to my site visit. Then I realized that everyone speaks Kazakh anyway, and Russian was not going to be the best for me. I also realized that I was on a level in which I would be acceptable on the test and then I have two years to improve. Yes, I could have studied a lot more than I did. To be honest, I stopped copying my notes every night after about week five. And after about week seven, I stopped making flashcards and reading outside of class. In fact, as the test day approached, I began trying to imagine ways to make the test more fun. Brainstorming with the other volunteers, we assigned points for using nicknames, speaking in third person (using said nicknames), and making references to B-list actors (mine was Gary Coleman; Dave had Dustin Diamond).
The test was scheduled for October 30th for our group. If it had been a day later, I would have been able to do it in a cow costume, and possibly have been the only PCT ever to make that claim. But luck did not play out that way. The test itself is just a conversation with a trained native speaker. They ask questions; you answer. You ask them questions; they answer. Simple. Sadly, I was nervous enough to forget about nicknames and Gary Coleman. But I did get to ask if the tester knew who Michael Jackson was. (One day I?ll post about Michael Jackson. Yeah, you don?t even know. No, just wait. You don?t even know.)
Afterwards, I felt like it had not been my best Russian, but I had done okay. I conveyed all of my thoughts but messed up on a lot of the endings (stupid Russian declensions!). And when the results of my test came back the next week, I had tested where I thought had. A lot of us in OCAP aren?t sharing our results to decrease competitiveness, but I did well enough.
So in summary, language test not really all that bad. And for any future volunteers that may be reading this, Showtime hopes you talk about Lou Diamond Phillips when you have the chance.
Scheduled with Time Cave (http://www.timecave.com)
Subscribe for $12/year to eliminate these short "message tags" and the
2-message-per-day limit. You can subscribe at the following URL:
Thursday, November 13, 2008
And even the local Kazakhstani citizens had begun to take notice. At dinner one night, my family asked me who I supported. They knew it was mainly a race between Obama and McCain, but somehow thought that Hilary was still involved as well. They were staunchly for Barak. In fact everyone in Kazakhstan seemed to be so. I haven’t found one local McCain supporter, and I am really not sure why. McCain didn’t seem to be all that bad of a guy. I’m not sure how the press portrays him and the race over here, but everyone seemed to want someone new, someone like Obama.
And like the good globally aware citizens Peace Corps volunteers typically are, we had voted to awake early on Wednesday (Tuesday night in America) to watch the election results from the Peace Corps Headquarters. They have CNN on the cable there, so we could watch Wolf, Anderson, and the rest of the crew break down the coverage LIVE from the other side of the world. (I loved, we are about to make a PROJECTION. Just stay with us, after the break, we may be making a big PROJECTION.) We were also getting texts from friends and family back in the States as each state was called one way or the other. And to top it all off, we made pancakes in the PC kitchen, a real treat when the usual breakfast is either what you had for dinner or what you will be having for lunch.
I actually had some meetings to attend when they declared Obama the winner, but we were able to take a break for the speeches from both him and McCain. Most of the volunteers were happy with the results, as was I. But I wish there had been some more outspoken McCain supporters among us to argue the benefits of his medical plan or something. One-sided politics gets a little old in my book. But I think I’ll remember that day for a while. A group of thirty or so Americans huddled around a TV watching our home country decide its fate for the next four years. Even though we were so far away, I felt like we were all a part of something bigger. America in not just its borders, but its ideals as well.
And it really made me hate the Electoral College all over again. If you think it’s confusing enough, try explaining it to people unfamiliar with a federal system in Russian. Ugh.
I am also going to try out a delayed emailing service called timecave.com. I should be able to upload a lot of posts at once and have them posted over a few days rather than all at once. That makes reading them more manageable and enjoyable. Although, they may be a few weeks behind what I am actually doing.
So thanks for caring enough to read what I have to say. As always, I enjoy your comments. Hopefully, I’ll have even more stories now that I am leaving the safety of PST and entering the unknown realm of actual Peace Corps Service.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
While I was still in awe of hearing this song not only played on the radio, but on the radio in Kazakhstan, I heard the familiar notes of yet another one of my favorites. Just two songs after Europe came Juanes’s “Camisa Negra.” This was probably the biggest hit in Latin America when I was traveling in Ecuador, in 2005. But this array of songs is actually pretty routine for Kazakhstani radio. Much like the culture and ethnicities of its people, the musical preferences in Kazakhstan encompass almost everything. The radio seems to have a massive playlist full of old and new American classics, Russian pop songs, Kazakh pop songs, Indian pop, Turkish pop, and American hip-hop.
Russian pop is a teffific genre on its own. And the music videos for these incessantly overproduced, beat-heavy songs are equally incredible. Maybe these fit in the wider genre of Euro-pop. But I’ve never been to Europe. The sound of these songs are pretty unmistakable though. And a plus comes from the fact that many of the artists proudly sport mullets as if they were in style. (Wait, maybe they are in style here. Secondary project: mullet hunting.)
Kazakh music is fun because it is such a dominant part of the culture here. The most famous instrument is the dombra, which is a two stringed instrument about the size of a mandolin. However, the most common instrument is probably the voice. Every Kazakh I have met can sing, and I have heard most of them do it at some point. At almost any Kazakh party, someone at some point will bust out into one of the well known Kazakh songs and most of the party will join in. We even spent a number of hours practicing these songs in our Kazakh language class. And while most of the class scoffed at this idea, I am convinced that if I learned the words to one of these songs, I would be absolutely adored by the Kazakh people I meet. Say a toast in Kazakh, zharksa (good). Sing a song, woote woote zharksa (very very good).
The language of Kazakh is can actually sound like music sometimes and ever has a law of harmony in which all of the vowel sounds in a word must match as hard or soft. Anyway, the point is that music is a strong part of traditional Kazakh culture. And then, BAM, it collides with Euro-pop to make an interesting blend of old music and new pop songs. There is a heavy background beat with featured stars tearing up the dombra like they were Jimi Hendrix or something. (Andrew’s host brother can play the instrument behind his back.)
But the best part about the Kazakhstani music is what they seem to pick out from America. Maybe it’s due to marketing, maybe it’s due to a randomness, but they usually pick out the worst stuff America has to offer. If they like it here in Kazakhstan, it is probably on heavy rotation on Delilah, Linkin Park, or hip hop. (Truth: I once caught my host brother singing the chorus to “I just called to say I love you” at dinner. A week later, a street musician was playing it on a saxophone in Almaty.”) Okay, so none of these are automatically bad, but they ignore a lot of pretty good genres. Children can also be seen wearing t-shirts featuring the faces of famous rappers from both now and in the past. (One soccer game we played with the locals had the following exchange: “Wait, who’s on my team?” “You guys have Tupac and G-Unit. We have Eminem.” “Oh cool, I thought we had Eminem.”) People here love Eminem.
Despite an affinity for American pop and hip hop, the lyrics to these songs are not understood by most of the locals. Even if they can sing along to the words, they may miss the underlying cultural context of what the song actually means. This lack of understanding led to one of my favorite conversations with my host brother…
One day we were listening to a music CD he had recently gotten from one of his friends, when Puff Daddy’s “We’ll be missing you” came on. I began singing along to some of the words and bobbing my head. My host brother could clearly tell I knew this song pretty well and asked me what it was about. I began to explain, “Well, this song was written about the death of one of his friends. Biggie Smalls. See like back in the nineties, the East coast and West coast of America had this rivalry going on. Different record studios. It got pretty violent at times. I don’t remember who was killed first, but the two biggest deaths were probably Biggie Smalls on the east coast and Tupac on the West Coast.”
Given the stunned look of surprise on my brother’s face in response to this story, I realized I may have been just brought decade-late breaking news to Kazakhstani music scene. Olshaz simply responded, “Wait, you mean Tupac is dead?”
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Life is back to normal, but slightly different. I don’t know if it is because we are back from our sites or we are just adjusting to life here, but we all have more confidence. There have been more nights out at cafes and just hanging out with the other volunteers. I’m enjoying that time together, and the fact that we only have ten more days or so before we are scattered across one of the world’s largest countries is on my mind. I’m also enjoying my time with my host family. I even bought a DVD at the bazaar to share with them, which my host brother and I are enjoying together this week. I also finished Stephen King’s IT, and I have moved onto some non-fiction in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Up after that is some Amartya Sen and maybe Henry Miller. I imagine this winter I’ll get a lot of books read. Maybe I’ll ever tackle War and Peace.
Not in Russian though. I mean my Russian is coming along, but I’m not reading Tolstoy or Dostoevsky quite yet. It’s strange because it was such a progression, I don’t feel like I was all that much better than yesterday, and yesterday I didn’t feel like I was all that much better than the day before, and so on. But I can speak Russian now. Not a lot, but I can stop someone on the street and ask for directions, navigate stores, describe myself, my friends, and my family. I can ever retell funny stories that happened to me (yeah, my host fam laughed at my being locked in an outhouse too). And to really impress people, I just whip out a little Kazakh.
Once I get to site, I am really not sure what will happen with my language though. Everyone at my site speaks Kazakh. Peace Corps assures me that Russian will be fine, but I’m not so sure. I know that I can work in Russian, but I have to live in Kazakh. I can’t imagine living somewhere for two years and not understanding the conversations that are going on around me. So once again, I plan to take advantage of the winter and learn two languages. I imagine the result will be me speaking neither one particularly well, but if all else fails I’ll just fall back on the universal language of dancing.
Which I haven’t gotten to do much of here in Kazakhstan. But Saturday night I did. This past weekend my ideal night would have been to go to a café, meet some locals, and just talk to them in Russian. I had begun to notice that I have been here for two months and I have almost no host country friends. I’m not worried about meeting them at site, but I think that just illustrates how different PST is from the rest of service. Anyway, Saturday a few of us went to a café I’ve been wanting to check out. It’s in a small, dirty, white building next to this really nice building. It looked as close to a dive bar as I’ve seen here, and my hopes were high. It did not disappoint. We hit the dance floor and boogied with some local Kazakhstanis. It was just the dose of dancing that I needed to re-energize and get excited about parties here again. We got to practice our Russian, got to dance, and had an awesome time. I got to bed late (11:30!) and had to wake up early the next day
To go to the canyon. I wished I remembered the name of it. But I do not. They claim it’s an important canyon, but it’s not listed on the wikipedia canyon page at all. My hopes were not high for a hole in the ground, but it was actually really impressive. I plan on posting pictures soon in order to give a completely false representation of Kazakhstani geography. But to get to this canyon you drive along the highway away from Almaty for a while and then there is a billboard and you take a left. It’s on a road, kinda. Mainly dirt, mostly rocks, and you bump along there for a few miles until you come to a guard stand and a gate. You then bump along some more until you reach the canyon. There are no tourist shops. No restaurant stands. There are some ironic signs indicating parking (but really you can park anywhere; it’s a huge open plain.) There is an outhouse and a yurt with a ranger living in it once you hike a ways into the canyon. (And yet despite this seeming solitude, there is still trash.)
Two weeks until I leave for site. We still have a couple trips to Almaty, Halloween, swearing in(!), a presentation on leadership, a report to write for Stevenson Center, and a lot of other things. I’m trying to enjoy it while I can. Part of me thought all the goodbyes ended when you left the States, but I guess I knew that was never really true.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I asked her if I could cook some time this week. Despite the empty pan, I did not actually expect to be cooking tonight. But she enthusiastically got two onions out of the fridge and asked what else I needed. I thought the easiest dish for me to start with would be good ol’ spaghetti. They have noodles, tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc. All they need to do is combine them the right way. And in fact, they often combine all the ingredients needed for spaghetti but with such large quantities of oil and small proportions of everything else, spaghetti never seems to materialize. Tomatoes are also dirt cheap here (about 15 cents a pound), so I figured I could make my own sauce from scratch.
Problem number one was tomatoes were dirt cheap. But now its cold. And we didn’t have any fresh tomatoes in the house. Nor in the three stores on my street. One store did have a jar of tomatoes though, so I bought that along with a jar of tomato paste. I combined those with a carrot, three onions, and two green peppers. My host mom was shocked at how little oil I used in to cook the veggies (see previous posts about cooking. And possibly future post about the oil discussion I had with my host family tonight.) But everything was looking great. And then problem number two arose as I was about to spice the sauce with my lovely Italian seasoning, garlic powder, and garlic salt I had been sent from home (thanks, Mom and Dad!). My host mom said she doesn’t like spicy foods, so asked me not to put those in the sauce. So I had to spice my individual serving. Not bad, but not ideal.
Once the meal had finished cooking, I found myself a little nervous as I sat down to eat the steaming bowl of spaghetti that was in front of me. While I do enjoy cooking, I never claim to be a good cook. And I readily admit that many of my kitchen adventures (sweet potato cakes with pickles for instance) are more learning experiences (i.e. abysmal culinary failures) than delicious meals. However, how could I really screw up spaghetti? I wrapped the noodles around my fork and took a bite. It tasted like spaghetti. Like America. Not great, definitely under seasoned. Could have used some black pepper, more garlic in my mind. But I thought it was pretty good.
Thankfully, my host family seemed to enjoy it as well. While I’ll never really know if they liked it or not, all signs pointed to an affirmative. They did eat all of what was in their bowls. They told me they enjoyed it, and they even thanked me for cooking. Though perhaps, the most telling sign was the compliment my host mom gave me as we were finishing up. She said I cooked like a girl.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
After lunch today, all of the volunteers met at our hub site for an official debriefing. The desks in our classroom had been arranged in one large circle and we all got ten minutes to tell what we had done over the past week. All twenty of us. In total, that would be about three hours. And while normally that may seem like forever; today, the time flew by. Some stories were funny like Andrew’s director reading him Russian bedtime stories or Kyle showing a local dog who was boss or Megan or Nadia and Aaron finding twin bed after twin bed in every host family they visited. And while listening to everyone retell their stories from the past week, I found myself recognizing how close I’ve grown to these twenty people over the last two months. And today was maybe the first and last (for a while) time that all twenty of us have really sat down as one big group to share stories and laughs. All twenty. I wished we did it more often.
And all twenty of us had such different experiences. We have shared so much in these first few months, but from here on out, it will be a totally different Peace Corps. Still firmly believing that you ultimately decide what your experience will be, you can’t change the fact that you live in a village or a city, or your house has only an outhouse or three indoor showers, a basement, and a Jacuzzi. (Yeah, one of the other volunteers has a sauna/Jacuzzi room; another one will live with a family that has a personal driver, cook, and housekeepers. As we like to say in Kaz 20, “Peace Corps’s hard” (said with whiny intonation). Some of us will be at organizations that expect us to work 9-6 six days a week; some of us don’t actually have organizations. Some are in the city, some town, some village. All of us will freeze for at least a few months, some for a few more. But I know that no matter what, we’ll be there for each other. Within are group there are definite friendships; some people are closer to others. But I feel we are a solid group, and we all have each other’s back. And when we have our close of service conference two years from now, I hope that all twenty of us have made it through our full service. And I will find myself in a familiar situation, sitting in another big circle just like today, sharing memories and stories and laughs with this amazing group of people.
Update: After I wrote this post (on Monday) one of the trainees decided to go home. Andrew decided that Peace Corps wasn't his calling anymore. I wish him the best of luck, and I will miss him.
Monday, October 20, 2008
That story occurred on my very first day in my village. I had been reading inside when I felt the need to use the bathroom. I asked my new host family where the toilet was and they pointed to the small shack in the back of the yard. I had suspected it, and my suspicious were confirmed. I had an outhouse.
Seeing that its door was open, I knew that the facilities were free to be used. I walked up to it confidently, closed the door, and did my business. (Not that business; that would come later in the week. Way too much information, but I would say the first time one squats in a squatter is a proud day for any Peace Corps volunteer.) I turned to leave and pushed the outhouse door open. Or rather pushed against the door. It didn’t open. It would budge, but it would not open. Something on the other side was blocking it. I was trapped in an outhouse.
I stood there wondering what exactly I should do. It was not comfortable in there. It smelled (obviously). It seemed dirty (obviously). And it was rather cramped (again, obviously). I pushed against the exit again and tried to peer through the small crack that I could make between the frame and the door. I saw that half way down there appeared to be a piece of wood preventing the door from swinging open. I pushed harder, but still, nothing. I tried to figure if there was a way I could reach what was blocking the door, but not surprisingly there wasn’t anything I could find to accomplish this task. I really was trapped in the outhouse.
I did not want to ask for help from my new host family. If there is anything more embarrassing that dropping your underwear off your fifth story balcony, it may be being trapped in an outhouse. However, after finally acknowledging there really was no way for me to get out of the outhouse by myself, I accepted the fact that I would have to call for help. I stood on my tip toes and peered over the top of the door into the yard, just half of my face visible between the door and the top of the frame, my eyes scanning. No one was there. I lowered down back on my heels and stood there. I again raised myself on my tip toes and scanned the yard. There. My new host mom was visible bringing in some clothes from the line.
I raised myself a little higher on my toes so my mouth would be above the top of the door. “Pomogite, pomogite, pomogite,” I said. Help, help, help. I managed not to yell, but it had to be loud enough to hear from across the yard. She looked up and saw my face peeking over the top of the door. She quickly rushed over and undid the latch that had been holding me captive. I was free!
Later I realized that what had kept me locked in this outhouse is an outside latch that is used to keep the door shut while no one is in there. Keeps the smell in; animals out, I guess. And I had closed the door with such force that it had shook this latch into falling down, thus locking me inside. I can only imagine the horror that this latch has brought countless siblings in Kazakhstan who have tried to use to the bathroom only to discover their older brother thinks it would be a great joke to lock the door from the outside. Or maybe this is avoided by the simple fact that the older sibling must eventually use the same outhouse. Regardless, my simple advice: Never slam the outhouse door.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Saturday was homecoming at the University of Georgia. And although, a trip back to the United States isn’t really possible (even for a game between 2 SEC east leaders), a call to the US (using the amazing service called call2.com that lets you call the US from Kazakhstan for only 10 cents a minute) was feasible. Many of my old college buddies were going to be gathering in Athens for the Vandy game and I planned on calling them while they were tailgating so they could play the game of pass the phone.
Well I called around 10am Athens time and got to talk to Amy and Chad, but the whole crew wasn’t quite around yet. My next opportunity was around 12 o’clock, which was going to be around kickoff. I didn’t even think I’d be able to get through to my friends, but somehow they heard the phone and answered. It was surreal to actually be able to talk to so many of my friends for the first time since August. And then the kickoff ceremonies began. First, with the alma mater (which I proudly sang along with in the middle of a train station in Taraz, Kazakhstan. Quietly, but still singing.) Yeah, I actually know all the words without the help of the jumbotron.
Then we began to board the train and I had to say goodbye. But as I was about to go, Brad told me they were about to play the Battle Hymn of the Bulldawg Nation. This is pretty much my favorite part of pre-football game festivities and it usually gives me chills every time I hear it. Brad graciously held the phone up high, and from the upper deck a lone Redcoat member played those sweet notes that were soon accompanied by the whole band. I felt the familiar chills and almost had tears in my eyes. Even though I was almost as far away from Athens, Georgia as one could possibly be, I felt like I was back there with all my friends, just another Saturday afternoon between the hedges.
Friday, October 10, 2008
So Tuesday comes (the start of the conference) and everyone is excited to meet their counterparts. I show up and am told that I do not have one yet. Because of problems at site, no one was able to make it. I was fine with this, but I had been looking forward to learning more about my organization. I had shaved, washed my hair, and even worn my nice tie. But alas, I had no one to meet.
The next day I did have a counterpart, but it’s not my official counterpart. See, here’s the lowdown. I am working in Baurzhan Momush Uly for the Ecological Center. But really, I’m working for them, the schools, a nearby nature preserve, a business center, and everyone else that is in around. So, my counterpart from this week was from the nature preserve, but technically my counterpart is from the ecological association. She was helpful in telling me about the site and her organization, but I still have so much to learn at site next week. I feel that this was a good introduction, but I am still not sure at all what is going on.
Next week will be fun though! All 20 of us spread out across the Kazakh countryside by train, bus, and taxi. I’m taking a seven hour train ride tomorrow night, and I will end up in my town Sunday morning. I will spend the next week meeting all the important people, seeing my office, seeing various projects, (probably) teaching random English lessons, and struggling while everyone around me speaks to me in Kazakh and I speak back in broken Russian. But I think I’ll have a much better idea of what I will be expected to do, what I can actually do, and where I will be figuring it all out. I also get to meet two or three potential host families and decide between them. Maybe that could be a new reality TV show of some sort.
Overall, this was a good week. A busy week. Somewhat informative. Other highlights which I don’t have time to write about right now include reading more books, celebrating Christina’s birthday, receiving mail and packages, and amazingly fun bonding experiences with the other PCTs during the van rides to and from the conference.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
I’ve always liked ethnic foods (always being like for six years, since before that I was one of the pickiest eaters on earth) with a lot of spices (e.g. Thai and Indian). However, during my year in Illinois, I began to like more spice in my foods. It started with adding crushed red pepper flakes to most things, and then turned into a deep infatuation with sriracha sauce aka hen sauce aka cock sauce. For those of you that don’t know what this is, I’m sorry. You are truly missing out on the new condiment that is sweeping the US. Imagine ketchup, but much spicier, with a hint of sweet garlic. You can put it on pasta, eggs, hamburgers, French fries, bread, vegetables, stir fries, etc., etc. etc. During my final months living in Illinois, it was pretty much my go-to ingredient to make an ordinary plate of white rice turn into an extraordinary dish of white rice with heaven mixed into it. In short, I love this stuff.
In our long packing list sent to us by Peace Corps, one of the things they told us to bring was our favorite spices. But they warned us to not use it too early, as we’ll wish we had waited for later. It was one of the last things I added to my luggage, but I managed to squeeze a bottle of sriracha sauce in there. And even more impressive is that I managed to not touch it for the first six weeks that we were here. During this time, I even purchased some red pepper at the local bazaar to add spice to my food, but in the back of my mind, I knew the solution was locked away in the closet under my clothes and next to my external hard drive.
And then Ramadan came, and I decided to set a date for breaking out the sauce. I would end my month of fasting by unsealing my dream condiment and slathering my food with spice for the first time in weeks. This past Monday was the end of Ramadan. All day, I was excited. Strange, yes. But I think other volunteers or even just people who have traveled can relate. You are fine not having peanut butter or bbq sauce or hoppy beer or sweet potatoes (oh, how I miss sweet potatoes!), but part of you deep inside never forgets the taste. And when the opportunity arises to quench this deep-rooted desire, you face food with a strange excitement. It’s not a ravenous frenzy, like a starved dog tearing into a fresh steak, but rather like an artist looking at a beautiful sunset. You appreciate it and realize you appreciate it and you can’t get enough of it and you can’t really describe it adequately, but it is, and you are. And you savor it, trying to relish every possible sensation and taste.
That’s how Monday was for me. And more than that, the taste brought back home, memories of life in America. The meals that I made, the meals that I shared, even shopping trips with my friends. And I was able to share my culinary joy too. My host brother was curious to try this American sauce. He put some on his food, took a bite, and immediately noted how hot it was. But he said he liked it, and put it on more of his food. (Later in the week, he gave it to his friends, and he said their common reaction was pretty much: take a bite, then “Shit,” that’s hot. Sorry for the vulgarity, but that was my host brother’s word, not mine. Just wanted to be accurate.) And so far, I keep forgetting to bring it to other volunteers, but there are quite a few that are excited about sharing it as well. And I’ll be excited to share it with them, not just a hot sauce to add to their Kazakh dishes, but a small tangible taste of memories for them to savor and enjoy.
Friday, October 3, 2008
But today was the day. We arrived at our hub site (where we have classes together) at 11:00. All of our training staff, including the country director and some other PC staff was there as well. In the middle of the room was a large table covered by sheets of paper, under which we could see there was a map of Kazakhstan and miniature souvenir yurts. We all sat on one side of the room and the program began. First, an introduction by CD John, and then Karen introduced the regional managers we will be working with. Then Nina and Dinara each gave short presentations. Then the moment of truth.
They pulled off the sheets of paper. The map was now obvious and the yurts were scattered all over the country. Some were in the south. Some in the north. A few in the center. And one lone yurt out in the west. Melanie was the first to go. She stood up and walked to the map to find her yurt. As luck would have it, she was the one in the west, all by herself. I think most of us were relieved when that one disappeared. After Mel, each of us walked up one by one to find the slip of paper and yurt that indicated our future home for the next two years. By the time I went, there were about seven yurts left, half in the north, half in the south.
I found my yurt in the south. I couldn’t read my city name (it was long) and I saw was working for the ecological association. Immediately, I wondered how I was qualified for that, as I am one of the least outdoorsy people that I know. But mostly, I was happy to have a name and a place. I can figure the rest out later. After all of us finished the yurt search, we received folders containing more information about our site and our organization. My folder was pretty empty. As in, only two sheets of paper on my site and organization. Reading it was slightly relieving, although not altogether illuminating. I know there are two people in my organization, it has been around for five years, and their main activities are a sewing center and leadership. I’m not sure how ecology fits into either of those right now, but I’m okay with that. I’m the first volunteer in my organization and in my town, both of which are exciting. Lots of attention and no legends to live up to.
While I didn’t find out a lot of information about my site or organization, I do know some. My town is smaller than Issyk, has the district’s Akimat, and at least one good café. Also, my organization has its office in the Akimat. There is a nature preserve that claims to be the original home of the tulip not too far away. Both of the staff for my organization are teachers. One of them is pregnant. I am in the South, so it won’t get cold (or so I’m telling myself, even though that’s not true). I am in the South, so it will get very very very hot in the summer. I’ll have to pick up more Kazakh, or I should try to at least. I’ll be working with youth, and maybe farmers. I’m near Aaron and Nadia in Taraz, and Joe and Britt in Shymkent. And supposedly my town is in a wonderful part of the country with mountains and trees and green things. (Trees!)
But despite the festivities and the hype, today wasn’t all that exciting. And I think it showed on my face and in my reaction. Some people were very excited to be where they were, but when you don’t really have any preferences or expectations going into it, it’s hard to be really excited about where ever you end up. Peace Corps stresses that it’s not the site or the organization that make your experience, it’s you. And I truly believe that. I believed that when I chose to go to UGA to go to ISU and to accept my invitation to Kazakhstan. A place is just where you are, where you get to do what you do. And your job matters a lot in the Peace Corps, but knowing the name of the organization and a short summary of its activities doesn’t tell me what actually working there will be like. What my actual job will be, what the staff will be like, what challenges I’ll face. Counterpart conference where I meet my counterpart (half the staff or my organization) and site visit will be a lot more exciting to me than today was.
Another trainee commented that this morning she thought about the fact that it was the last time she would be waking up in Kazakhstan not knowing where she would be for the next two years. It’s true. Now I have the knowledge of where I’ll be doing, but I don’t feel all that different. Yesterday, I didn’t know my town. I didn’t know my organization. Today I do. But yesterday, I was the same person I am today. And come November, I’ll be me no matter what I had found out today. And that’s what matters to me.
I will be in a town between Taraz and Shymkent working with the Ecological Association. Currently they have two staff members and a swank office in the Akimat (City Hall). Right now they mainly do a Sewing Center and Leadership Development, but they are looking to branch out into teaching farmers business plans, working with youth, English clubs, and working with local teachers. At least, those last four things are what I'm supposed to be doing at site.
More soon on A Taste of Home and Yurt Searching.
Monday, September 29, 2008
I played a pickup game of ultimate. In Almaty. In Kazakhstan. Sure, it was six on six. And there wasn’t really a stack offense. But there were stall counts, brick rules, and even travels called. More on the backstory….
One of the Kaz-18 volunteers (Nora) had told me about pickup on Sundays in Almaty. Almaty is the major city in our Oblast (like a state) and is only about an hour away by bus and only costs about 1.15 to get there. Last Sunday, I was stocked to go, but decided to stay home because my family was having guests over. This Sunay, my afternoon was entirely free, so I jumped at the chance to play Ultimate on the other side of the world.
I left my town and traveled into the city alone. The directions I have are worth quoting: “Take a bus to Ramstore. Walk back down the hill and take a right at the big TV screen. After about 100 yards, turn right. It will look like an alley. There will be a gate with a star on it and a guard. Frisbee is through the gate and up the hill on the left.” I may have accidentally entered a military location at first, but eventually I found the fields.
I was there early, but after about half an hour I saw two girls show up carrying the familiar site of a white Ultrastar. My heart leapt with joy. A few minutes later some more guys showed up, and I introduced myself. There was one other American, Jason from New York who had been in K-stan for a few years. The rest of the crowd were local Kazakhstanis! Crazy.
We started with four on four and eventually made it up to six on six. We only had a dirt field to play on that we drew lines on, since they don’t have cones in Kazakhstan (according to the people playing). I played with them for about an hour and a half. Some of them had solid flicks. Cuts were okay, but not really that great. Defense was basic man-to-man. Stall counts were done in two different languages (and I thought about adding in some Kazakh as well, but always forgot to do it.) It felt surreal to be playing with my new friends, using primarily a different language, in the middle of a huge city, in Central Asia. My mind could barely wrap itself around how awesome that was.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
There is a web site: http://www.sms.one.kz/
You can go there and send me free text messages. Any time. All the time. All you have to do is click on the 777 and then type in my number: 3238192.Then type any message and hit OTPRAVITb. You can copy news headlines and send them. Sports scores. Funny jokes. Whatever. If you're bored at work or in class, then just send me a line. :)
PREVIOUSLY PLANNED BLOG POSTING
We talked about branding this week during our technical training sessions and it got me thinking about the Peace Corps brand. When people think Peace Corps, what usually springs to mind? Adventure. Service. Culture. Excitement. That’s what I think. I think that’s probably what most people think. At least the good stuff. Some people may think hippies. Fun in the sun. Language training. Frustration. Probably some other stuff.
Well, some of that’s true. Some of it’s not. At least not in the first four weeks of being in country. And of course a lot of it depends on site assignment. Peace Corps training at least is work. Lots of work. Lots of studying. And there’s not a lot of free time for crazy adventures around the world. I’m sure (I hope) there will be more over the next two years. But I’d like to compile a list of some ways my life has changed so far:
I’ve started text messaging.
I iron my clothes.
I shave three times a week.
I take my shoes off every time I enter a house.
I wear nice clothes every day and tried my darnedest to keep them as clean as possible.
I don’t greet people on the streets.
I try not to talk too loudly on buses.
I make my bed every day.
I keep my room cleaner than I have in the past ten years.
I read leisurely read books in the evening.
Is that adventure? Maybe not in the traditional sense. Life is certainly different. And that’s a biased list. I am learning a lot about a new culture, learning two new languages, having to negotiate prices at the bazaar, etc. But the focus of this post is on to discuss some unexpected aspects of Peace Corps in Kazakhstan.
Ultimately though, when I really think about what Peace Corps is, I think cultural exchange. And it would be stupid to think there are only two cultures out there: American and non-American. There are hundreds, thousands, millions. Every country, region, city, family has slight variations in culture. And one of my main goals as a Peace Corps volunteer is that I want to experience a new culture. And not just observe it. But live it. (With my yellow sunglasses still on, for all PC people out there.) So yeah, people may think Peace Corps. Oh mud huts, walking to get your water, mosquito nets, no cable TV. And in some places that’s true. But that’s not life everywhere. And that’s not life in Kazakhstan. Life in Kazakhstan is formal, indirect, subdued, and not completely impoverished. Is my lifestyle here what I expected when I signed up for the Peace Corps. No. Am I having to “manage my expectations?” Yes. Is it disappointing? No.
I am here to experience Kazakhstan for whatever that means. And if part of that means eating candy and cookies at every meal, well then, I guess I’ll just have to suck it up and dive right in.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Back to news from Kazakhstan…
As part of our technical training, we OCAP volunteers have a practicum at a local (or somewhat local) NGO. Each NGO has two or three volunteers assigned to work with it. We go a couple times a week and are supposed to work on various projects, some Peace Corps assigned, mostly whatever they have us to do. The NGOs range from schools to two person groups to a nature reserve. I am working at the Local Community Fund with Aaron and Christina.
The Local Community Fund is an interesting organization that is rather unique in Kazakhstan. In my mind, it’s like a small United Way. They try to collect funds from large donors, small donors, whomever really, and then give them out to local NGOs. They are like a middle man between people with money and small, grassroots organizations. Our NGO has more technical training than some of the smaller NGOs in the area, so they are more capable of doing the reports and technical things.
Working with our NGO has been a great learning experience. We have helped them with a volunteer project, practiced some English teaching, and gave some technical computer assistance. All of this will be things that I will definitely do in Kaz no matter where I end up. However, until this week, their role in the community has been pretty abstract. They told us about their numerous projects, but a lot was lost in translation. We didn’t, or couldn’t, really know their impact.
This week we were working with them for a whole day just once, rather than twice a week for half a day. In doing so, we were able to actually visit some of the sites that they gave money to. We began the day at a site for disabled children. They can go there and get physical and speech therapy. Before that, they were pretty much stuck at home all day. In many smaller cities in Kazakhstan, the school system is not capable of accommodating children with special needs. The place we visited fit a large community need and seemed to be doing it very well.
The second place we visited was a club for sport orienteering. The grant from our organization allowed them to buy equipment for the children so anyone can participate. And the guy who ran the club was one of my favorite people in Kazakhstan. He’s a 65 year old retired farmer who has been doing this for over thirty years. He spoke really loudly all the time, and really cared about the kids in his club.
Then we were treated to a great lunch. Even though it was Ramadan, I broke the fast for that day because my NPO had put an amazing spread of food on the table. I know I could have refused, but I wanted to be a good host to them. I tried Manti for the first time, which is great. And they were impressed with the way I really cleaned my plate. It’s true, that one skill I definitely have is the ability to eat.
Finally, we went to a school for a festival where some other volunteers were. The festival was delayed due to power outage. But eventually they were able to put it on, and it was like a huge school talent show. Lots of singing. Dancing. Some dombra playing. Oh and, the whole thing was to celebrate the accomplishments of a high school girl working with disabled youth all summer. It was her own project that she started that our fund had given money to.
Anyway, this post is getting long, and probably boring. I’m bored writing it. It’s just a jumbled description of various things. Overall, the message is: We got to see some local NGOs in action. We got to see good things happening in Kazakhstan. It was a refreshing sight. And hopefully a taste of what to come. Occasionally. Over the next two years in Kazakhstan.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
We began walking around the Lake and quickly found out that the trip did not go all the way around. We had to choose at a fork: up or down. We chose up (me, Jamie, and Dave, that is. We had left the other volunteers taking pictures a few hundred yards away).
So we went up. Some on paths, some just following the path of least resistance.
And we had an amazing view.
And to top it off, it was Dave’s birthday!
We could pretty much see Kazakhstan.
And we climbed. Until we thought we had gone as high as we could. And then we went higher. Not like crazy high, but we hiked up for about an hour.
And then, there was about an hour left before we were leaving, so we decided to go down. down we went. Mostly walking. Some sliding. We got down in about fifteen minutes.
We finished walking around the lake, hopping through some small streams, and eventually making it back to the group of volunteers we had left.
Joe had been waiting on me to go swimming, but eventually went without me when I took so long. Jamie, Dave, and I did brave the cold waters for a brisk dip. (To give credit, Andrew, Meriah, and Joe went swimming as well).
We dried off and posed for some pictures.
And we showed our battle scars from our day’s hike.
Overall, it was an amazing day. I almost didn’t bring my hiking boots to K-stan, because hiking isn’t really my thing. I’ve probably hiked like four times in my life-total. And even though this wasn’t the most extreme hike by any means, it was a lot of fun. It was the first time that I felt like I was doing something on my own in Kazakhstan. Well I guess, it was a continuation of the day before in Almaty. And this feeling of independence and capability has continued over the past week as well. But this blog post isn’t so much about self reflection, as the chance to show off my sweet pics!
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
After learning some recipes on Saturday, a group of us ventured into Almaty. Melanie, Megan, Sean, Andrew (the Kansas one, not the NC one) decided to attend mass. We are officially allowed to leave our training site by ourselves, but we had not done so as of yet. This was going to be our first trip into the “big city” without our teachers. Just our wits and our broken Russian to get us to our desired destination.
We were a little delayed leaving our town, but caught a marshutka (van) headed into the city. These cost a little more than buses, but they are well worth the extra 45 cents in my opinion. We arrived in Almaty no problem and walked to the bus station area. There we stood around as I eagerly tried out asking for directions in Russian, and then thanked the helpful pedestrians using one of about five Kazakh phrases I knew. This put us on bus 65 to pretty much the other side of the city. Of course the Catholic church would not be close to anywhere we would ever want to be, other than the church itself. So we get on the bus, and I’m feeling good with my Russian. I asked the conductor if he’ll tell me when we are near our destination (not the church, but rather a more well known location near by). But the actual question was more like, Please speak to me when near bus station. Anyway, he nodded, and I felt good.
However, then Andrew decided that we didn’t actually want the bus station. So we got off despite the warnings of my new friend. This meant I got to practice even more Russian as I asked every stranger we passed were the church was, how to get there, or how to get to the street it was on. We eventually stopped at a supermarket Ramstore to find a map. Megan tried asking if they had a map and immediately the store paged their English speaking employee to help us. It’s times like that when language training is frustrating. Fortunately, this employee walked to the street, flagged down a cab, negotiated the price, and sent us on our way. I mean we could have done that for ourselves, but we were ten minutes from the start of mass and an unknown distance away. We ended up making it just in time.
Mass was eerily similar to the US. It was in English. Same songs and everything. They did intinct for everyone though, which was bizarre. Afterwards, we had wanted to make the symphony, but that was starting in twenty minutes, and all we knew is that we were not near it at all. We abandoned that idea, and just decided to head back to Issyk. Overall, we felt accomplished and fulfilled. It was a great trip.
And that was just the start of our weekend. Sunday was equally awesome.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Now onto something fun!
I’ve gotten quite a few questions about the food here in Kazakhstan. For the most part, the food is nothing too exciting. There is the occasional goat head (which I got to eat), but a lot of it is based around noodles or rice. They eat a lot of tomatoes and cucumbers. And there is always cookies and candy sitting out on the table. (If you try to explain this is strange for the US, the response is usually, but what do you eat with you hot tea. Try explaining that you don’t drink copious amounts of hot tea with every meal, and well… you might be there for a while.)
We had another cultural day in our language class. Last time we learned to do laundry. This time we got to pick out a few recipes and cook them ourselves. Most of us don’t get to cook anything at all. I guess I haven’t tried to ask really, but the host mom does all of the cooking. Guys don’t really work much in the kitchen. I will eventually cook something (especially at the end of Ramadan), but until then yesterday was an amazing treat to be standing over a hot stove stirring seasoning into a sauce. I thought I’d post the recipes of what we made in case anyone in the States would like to try out some traditional Kazakh dishes. Or at least common ones.
While technically an Uzbek dish, Plof is big here in Kazakhstan. I’m not too impressed with it, as to me it seems like rice with carrots, meat, and onions. I mean, its good, but its not spectacular. The recipe we used was:
1. Cut up carrots and onions. I’m not really sure the amount. It seemed like a few of each.
2. Cut up chicken.
3. Pour a lot of oil into a pot. This can be modified. But they use a lot of oil. All the time. For everything.
4. Sautee the veggies until they get soft.
5. Add the meat and sautee as well.
6. Add equal parts water and rice.
7. Bring to a boil.
8. Let simmer for fifteen minutes.
9. Turn off simmer and let sit for fifteen minutes.
2. Stuffed peppers
My family hasn’t had stuffed peppers yet, but apparently they are popular with some other PCTs. The recipe was a lot simpler than I expected. If I were to make it though, I would modify it with more seasoning and probably bake instead of boil, but they are all about the boiling here, so maybe there’s a reason for that I just don’t know about.
Pour boiling water over peppers to cook them slightly and soften them.
Cut off the top of the peppers and clean out the inside.
Cut up an onion or two.
Combine onion and ground beef in a bowl with seasoning. We seasoned very little, but I would have seasoned more.
Stuff raw meat and onion mixture into peppers until they are full to the top.
Put peppers in a large pot.
Make sauce by cutting up some onions and carrots.
Sautee onions and carrots in a heckuva a lot of oil. Once again, probably best to be modified, but if you want authentic, you should have at least a centimeter of oil in the pan.
Add about half a cup of tomato paste.
Add some flour to thicken the sauce. Just some sprinkles.
Add water to the mixture to triple the amount of sauce or so.
Pour this sauce over the peppers in the other pot.
Add more water until all of the peppers are completely covered. It helps if the peppers fit snugly against each other so they aren’t floating.
Bring to a boil.
Let cook for 40 minutes.
We also made pizza. But that’s nothing Kazakh really. Just wanted a taste of home.
4. Kazakh koolaid.
I don’t remember the name in Russian, but it was a fruit-flavored, sugary drink mix. I didn’t get to try this though because I was fasting. My host fam said they would make it some time.
5. A Pie with dried apricots.
Megan and Dasha made a great pie. They made the crust themselves and then filled it with dried apricots. I would have melted the butter some instead of working with a cold slab like they did, but maybe it helped with the dough more by working it all in by hand. We also decided it would have been better with a filling that was not just dried fruit, maybe some sort of jam as well.
If you decide to make these, make sure you eat them with hot tea and small pieces of candy afterwards. If you do so, you’ll enjoy a real Kazakh meal!
I’m going to try to write about the amazing hiking that I did today near Lake Issyk(sp?). Jamie and Dave (who is celebrating his 23rd bday today) hiked up a ride and got some awesome pictures. I’ll try to load them soon, along with some other shots of my daily life here in Central Asia.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Well Ramadan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramadan) was set to start on September 1, and for practicing Muslims, this means a month long fast. While the sun is up, you are not allowed to eat any food or drink anything. This lasts for about a month, which ends with a series of feasts. (You apparently have to visit either 7 or 49 homes to celebrate. Even though most Kazakhstanis don’t participate in Ramadan, you can bet they take part in the feast. Think Easter without the Lent.)
In order to bond with my family, I asked my host brother if I could participate with them. I didn’t know what this would entail exactly, but I thought it would be a great way to bond with my fam and experience a new culture. So for about the past two weeks, I’ve mostly stuck to the day-long fast of not eating or drinking. I wouldn’t say it has been fun, but I am excited to be a part of such a global event that is essential in the lives of so many people.
Just because we are fasting though, doesn’t mean that we don’t eat. You eat when the sun goes down. Exactly when. One time I had class during that time, and I figured I would just eat when I got back. Instead I was sent out of the house with bread, dates, and an egg to eat exactly at 7:40. Usually, we break the fast with a prayer, some dates, and some chai. Then host-mom and host-bro go pray for about twenty minutes, and then we come back to the table to eat dinner number one. Sometimes there is also a dinner number two, and even a dinner number three.
Then in the morning, you chow down before the sunrise. Sunrise starting at 4:40 or so, means waking up at 4:00 for breakfast. Which is really a repeat of dinner. Or at least is like dinner in terms of food type and portion. And that’s just me waking up at 4:00. I am not quite sure what time they wake up beforehand to get the meal prepared by 4:15. They also only drink about 4 cups of hot tea in the morning. I average probably about 5 plus a Nalgene of water. How they are not incredibly dehydrated (maybe they are?) continues to amaze me.
According to my host brother, many Muslim countries slow down during the time of Ramadan. Work hours are shortened. People take vacations. Due to the fasting, they try to rest during the day. However, most in Kazakhstan don’t seem to be so lucky. My host mom still works and I have about nine to ten hours of classes a day. It can be exhausting at times, but I’m stubborn enough to try and stick with it until the end of the month. I’m almost halfway there. For concerned family and friends though, if one is sick, then they don’t have to fast. And if I were to get sick, then I would stop fasting and eat and drink during the day.
Also, thanks for all the comments from my previous posts. :)