Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two Weeks Notice

I had began a couple other blog posts while I was at site, but unfortunately I left my flash drive with my director. So rather than try to re-write them, I’ll just post some entries about what happened a couple weeks ago, a couple weeks from now. I usually try to make ever entry a story. I like writing them, and hope you enjoy reading them, but I have a lot to cover, so I’ll do more updates than narrative this time.

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

A Taste of Home II

So this afternoon, I thought that I noticed an empty pan on our kitchen stove and my eyes lit up with excitement. Normally, my host mom does all of the cooking here. Sometimes the food she prepares will last a couple meals, sometimes a day and a half. And I always want to offer to cook, but there’s only one pan, and when there’s still food in the pan, there’s no need for me to cook. So today, when I saw it barren, I thought, finally, here is my chance!

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

Back at Home

Today was our first day of classes after our OJDA site visit. It was a good day, but everything felt different. Now that we have gone away and come back, we walk with a little more swagger in our step. It’s obvious that we all feel a little more condfident in our abilities to survive and succeed in this still foreign country. And while we have a few more weeks left in town, we are all thinking ahead, to the two years we will spend at our permanent sites.

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

A brief story from OJDA OR R. Kelly’s Next Single

The highlight of my first week at site was probably bringing Internet to a small village in Kazakhstan. As noble and sexy as that sounds, it really means I just reinstalled the drivers to a modem that had not been functioning since August. Two months of broken Internet service and reinstalling the drivers is all it took. (For any non-tech-savvy people, that’s pretty much step three to fixing any computer problem after restarting the computer and checking all required connections.) However, as much as I enjoy telling that story, it is not the one that people seem to enjoy hearing the most.

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

92,746 + 1

This past week was OJDA which is the site visit time. I have a lot of stories to tell. And I’ll write more of them later, but right now I’ll tell about one of my week’s highlights.

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 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

Counterpart Conference

This week was the Counterpart Conference for all of us new OCAP volunteers. That is when we get to meet an actual person from our site in Almaty and spend the week with them. We try to fish out information about our city, our organization, and anything else that we can discern from our limited Russian abilities. Next week we then go to OJDA where we travel with them to our site.

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

A Taste of Home

We’ve been in Kazakhstan for just over a month now, but already life is becoming more routine. I feel comfortable walking the streets of my town, riding the bus, and shopping at the local bazaar (or bizarre). I’m even adjusting to the food (which I’ve written about before). It’s different than in America, especially what I’m used to. There’s usually only one main dish with bread as opposed to the meat, veggie, and carb combo that I always strive for in my meals. There are also a lot fewer spices. Salt, pepper, sometimes. Mostly not. The food has its own natural flavor, but not much kick to it.

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

Yurt Search

This is an updated version of the site announcement post from last week. Site announcement is a big deal. Up until now, we have had no idea where we would be going in Kazakhstan. And Kazakhstan is big. The farthest sites from Almaty are up to 40 hours away by train. The staff in country takes our group of volunteers, looks at our skills, looks at all the organizations that want volunteers, and then matches us up. This process can take weeks, and while some site placements are obvious, other ones are up in the air until the day they announce them.

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.

Site Announcement

PC likes making big announcements. They send you your country placement in the mail. They don't tell you before on the phone or email, even when they know. And once in country, where you are going is still a mystery until site announcement day. That was today. Where I am going for the next two months is now known. Or at least, know better. I have a name, but not too much information about my actual place.

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.