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. :)
Sunday, September 7, 2008
While my family does have hot water (thankfully) and a TV (although no cable), they do not have a washing machine. Some volunteers have host families that do have washing machines. For them laundry is only different because there are no dryers. (Dryers, by the way, may be the most inefficient machine ever invented. Clothes dry. It's what they do. All you have to do is hang them up. But we found a way to use up power and electricity just to make it more convenient.) Anyway, it got to the point where I needed to do laundry. I was fine wearing my shirts over and over again, and my pants as well. But once you run low on socks and underwear, you don't have a choice.
I had broached the topic with my host brother on Thursday of last week, mentioning to him that I would need to do laundry. While I was wanting to do it on my own, a small part of me wanted to be faced with the hospitality that some of the other volunteers had, i.e. their family insisted on them doing it rather than the volunteer. My family, which gives me quite a bit of autonomy, was not interested in this. Rather, my host brother was pretty much like, okay. This was a problem, being that I didn't have any idea on HOW to do laundry.
Fortunately, I had enough essentials to last until Saturday in which our language teacher had promised a laundry training day. I was eagerly anticipating this, as I was quickly reaching the critical stage of garment options. Saturday came and we combined with another language group to learn this critical, developing world skill. We divided between men and women and raced against each other, each washing one piece of clothing. We learned how to soak, scrub, rinse, and dry. (Of course, the women won, partly due to the fact that one of their members routinely hand washed their clothes). But the more important victory was the knowledge of knowing how to do this myself.
That afternoon, I was ready. Instead of asking for instruction, I merely had to ask my host family where to wash. I asked them where I should and they gave me the tazik (tub) and told me I still needed soap and detergent. I was happy to buy this from the store, as I enjoy interacting with the local magazine (how to say store in Russian, think Army magazine) workers, mainly practicing the question of how much does this cost and getting a string of numbers back so quickly, that I don't actually understand them (I can county to 999,999,999,999 in Russian now, but it's just hearing it that is the problem).
Anyway, I get the soap, and the detergent, and my clothes, and I'm ready to go. I soak, and scrub, and rinse for about an hour and a half and get most of my clothes done. I was really feeling like I'm in the Peace Corps. So maybe I don't have to heat up my water on the stove or take malaria pills, but I'm hand washing my clothes. I even managed to rub a sore on one of my knuckles, from what I'm assuming was poor beginner's technique.
After rinsing the detergent (or at least most of it, who am I kidding, some of the detergent out of my clothes), I hung them off our fifth story balcony to dry. I wasn't fully thinking this through, but I only hung some article by one clothespin. This was due to the limiting number of clothespins and my large amount of clothing articles. I wanted to maximize the amount of clothes I could dry at one time.
I then left to hang out with some other volunteers and watch a movie. (We tried watching Aladdin, but had to settle for Just Friends instead. Major downgrade there.) I come back about three hours later to find that most of my clothes had already dried. But some of them weren't there. Having forgotten about the huge wind gusts that often go through our fifth floor apartment, I had not really considered how precarious my clothes were just hanging by one clip. A quick survey showed that my pants were still there, as were my shirts and there were an even number of socks. The gaps must therefore be from fallen underwear. Awesome.
I break out a flashlight and shine it down below. On the clothesline below ours I see two pairs of my boxer briefs just hanging there. Great way to meet the neighbors, I thought. Embarrassed, but seeing no other solution to my problem, I told my host brother the problem. He informed me that the apartment below ours is actually vacant. So no need to worry about someone awkwardly finding underwear hanging outside their window, but bad news for getting it back. Almost unfazed though, my host brother fastens a hook out of some twine, a nail, and some metal. He then dangles this hook off the balcony in order to get my clothing back. Did I mention this was all happening at about 11:30 at night? The first pair was a success, but the second was too close to the wall to get a good angle on it. He ended up knocking them off the line, and I was excited to see they cleared the clothing lines of the third, second, and first floor apartments as well to land safely on the dusty ground below.
I'm pretty sure my family will enjoying sharing that story for some time to come. And from now on, all my clothes get at least two clothespins. Minimum.
Monday, September 1, 2008
I'm in the OCAP training group, and we are in a town about half an hour outside of Almaty that has about 50,000 people. I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building with a sweet host mom and a host brother (who speaks some English). There's a host sister too, but she's at school during the week. In more recent news, I'm trying to do Ramadan with my family, as they are practicing Muslims. It's only day two, but so far, it's not that bad. We wake up at 4am to eat a hearty "breakfast" (meaning leftovers from the night before, so it's not typical breakfast food), and then we go back to bed. How you're supposed to fall asleep immediately after four cups of tea, I'm not sure yet, but I think I'll catch on. Then we get a big meal as soon as the sun goes down. They seem excited that I'm doing it with them, and I'm all about trying to integrate as much as possible.
More stories will come soon, as I have more time on the computer. Expect hearing about my first laundry experience and thoughts on Kazakh professional dress. I don't get to check my email regularly, but feel free to email me. I'll get to it eventually. :)