Sunday, November 23, 2008

Carpooling with strangers

When you travel to most foreign countries, one of the first rules you learn is DON’T TAKE UNMARKED TAXIS. Just imagine in the United States, if someone pulled up next to you on a curb and offered to give you a ride. You don’t know who they are; they don’t know who you are. You might be a bit sketched out. In fact just last month, Peace Corps sent out a worldwide email about safety in cabs and had this as one of the precautionary measures.

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


Kazakhstan is a big country. Larger than all of Western Europe. Maybe like four times the size of Texas or something. But people still need to get places. The most popular way is by train. Of course airplanes are better (but more expensive), and buses are cheaper (and faster, but more uncomfortable), but trains seems to be the way to go.

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

Becoming a Real Volunteer

Friday was the culmination of our Pre-Service Training: the Swearing-In Ceremony. Volunteers all over the world go through the ritual of gathering at a ceremony to take the oath that officially makes someone a volunteer. (It?s the same oath the president and army officers take, isn?t that neat?) Each volunteer also got to bring two host family members as well, which is a great way to say thank you for all that they have done for us during our first three months at site.

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.

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Week One

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.

Welcome to site

Friday, November 7 happened to be a cold and rainy night in southern Kazakhstan. I had just finished pre-service training and I was riding on a train with about a dozen other volunteers headed to our respective sites. I was scheduled to get off the train in Taraz at about 1:00am and was meeting my counterpart/director Almas at the train station. Why Peace Corps bought a ticket for Taraz is unknown to me, as my town has its own little stop, and getting off early would just mean a more expensive taxi.

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

The Language Test

One of the most dreaded experiences for any Peace Corps trainee may be the language test. The first three months of service are dedicated to training, and that is mainly designed to teach volunteers the language. If you can?t communicate, you can?t work. And if you can?t work, then there?s no point in being in the Peace Corps. Thus from day one, you wonder what will happen. Will I pass? Will I manage to cram enough of these nonsense words into my head over the next three months?

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.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Election Day

Living in Kazakhstan has a way of distancing you from current events, but we all knew the election was coming up soon. Absentee ballots had been received and sent back, and for some people their votes would actually matter (Georgia tends not to be a battleground state for many elections these days). But whether or not we had a real say in the matter or not, we were all excited for the presidential race. Obama or McCain? Who would be leading our country for the next four years?

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.

Now at site…blogs may continue

I have been lucky enough to have a training site that had three computers with high-speed access to the Internet. However, I am now jumping between two small towns in Southern Kazakhstan, and that luxury is not available. Therefore, blog posts may become more of a rarity. If you want to make sure you get all of my rants and stories, I encourage you to sign up for the email subscription on the right side of the page, as that’s probably the best way to stay up to date with my infrequent posts.

I am also going to try out a delayed emailing service called 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

KAZH 98.2

I was just about to fall asleep on my trip to Almaty this morning when my ears heard an eerily familiar sound. The stark synthetic notes of Europe’s (the band, not the continent) biggest hit came out of the car’s speakers. Yes, they were playing “The Final Countdown” on Kazakhstani radio. Memories of playing with the Gnomes and watching seasons of Arrested Development with friends came flooding back. Excitedly, I texted news of this event to my friend Jamie in the van ahead of us, and he responded appropriately, “WHERE ONCE THERE WAS A YACHT, NOW THERE IS NAUGHT.”

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?”