Monday, December 28, 2009

MMCCRRHHZC 2009

Christmas seemed to sneak up on me this year. Last year, I remember longing for Christmas as soon as the month of January began. I wasn’t necessarily feeling the holiday cheer all around me, as no one else knew it was Christmas. But I was trying to spread the Christmas cheer as much as I could.

This year was markedly different, as my work decided to celebrate Christmas. We have had a really great Halloween party for a number of years, and they wanted to build on that success by having a Christmas party on the 25th. Awesome! Christmas at work. Thanks, guys! But they didn’t really know what Christmas was.

I guess it’s hard to really define the holiday. Do you start with the modern secular event and work backwards to the winter solstice celebrations of pagan times? As a Peace Corps volunteer, how much should I connect the religious side of the holiday with the celebration? Are manger scenes strictly religious or is there some cultural side to them. Somehow I managed to not really be in charge of the Christmas party. Ruslan took the responsibilities despite having never celebrated Christmas or really knowing what it was. But that’s okay, because a party is a party, and people here know how to plan parties. (Party means show/concert. Because you have to have the party filled with games and activities. To illustrate, Christmas party was supposed to start at 6:00. It’s 6:15 and people are already there eating and mingling, and my counterpart tracks me down to ask, “When should we start the party?” I look around, and swear that it’s already started. But alas, that’s not the party concept here.)

December flew by and all of a sudden the 20th was here. And I had committed to crocheting stockings for our six new volunteers and plan our Christmas gathering. Last year crocheting six seemed so easy when I had nothing to do after work except watch Kazakh television. This year it was hard to find the time. This year, they Christmas party would be different as well. Saturday would be Christmas Eve (although it fell on the 26th) and we would watch movies and sing carols and make cards. And Sunday morning (the 27th) would be Christmas morning and we’d do a gift exchange and open our stockings. With Jenny gone to America for the holidays, we’d have seven here, but then another American friend of ours moved to down so we were back up to eight!

Christmas Eve came, and it was one of the times I most missed America while I've been here in Kazakhstan. My work was gearing up for the party, but it all felt empty. We were practicing a Christmas play. We were hanging decorations. But no one got it. Some Christmas traditions people here just don’t know about: caroling, mangers, Advent, mistletoe, a Christmas Story, The Night Before Christmas, milk and cookies, any songs other than Jingle Bell and I Wish You a Merry Christmas. This is ingrained in us somehow over our lives, and it was strange realizing how cultural these things are. On the walk home from work that night, one of the youth we work with tried to cheer me up. But I didn’t need cheering up, I just needed Christmas. 

Then midnight came and I was excited about going to Midnight Mass. That helped a lot. It really felt like Christmas. Even Mark (who is not religious) came because he wanted to experience Christmas. And I saw AC there, who I haven’t seen in over a year. And Acela wanted to go. She’d never even been inside a church before. Even though I haven't been in a while, all the regulars who recognized me greeted me with warm, welcoming smiles. I was able to do two of the readings in order to incorporate some English into the service. I didn’t understand much of the service. Echoing Russian is still really difficult for me. And I didn’t recognize many of the song either. But it was really good to be there.

The next morning I opened up the presents my parents had wrapped and sent for me. New clothes, which I actually needed because everything I brought (literally everything) has holes in it by now. Then off to work. It’s so strange to work on Christmas. Russian lessons and then playing Santa Claus, then home to bake cookies and make frosting and other Christmas goodies for the party at work. The peanut butter cookies were a huge hit, although the frosting was pretty much untouched. 

Then 6:00 and off to the party. Which is really weird, because who has a Christmas party on Christmas. I never thought of that, but usually the holiday is over by like 3:00 in the afternoon. It’s big leading up, then morning of, then it’s already over. But for us, we were celebrating Christmas night. It felt strange. And then at our party we had a Santa Claus (played by Aidos), who made the children sing and dance to get their presents. Santa Claus doesn’t do that! But it did make for an entertaining two hours. And then we sang karoeoke, because someone had Wham’s Last Christmas (how did that because the only Christmas song to make it on karaoke albums). Then home and that was Christmas. 

And then the next day was Christmas Eve all over again! We titled the party a Merry Merry Cherry Cherry Rockin’ Rolly Holly Holy Zhamballin’ Christmas (MMCCRRHHZC). And we did manage to get through about three holiday classics (Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Love Actually, Die Hard). We didn’t bake cookies, but we did eat a lot of them we’d already made. And we made over 100 cards for a nursing home for New Year’s. And finished crocheting the stocking with Jamie’s help. Sadly, Laura and Chris couldn’t come because the road from their town to Taraz was closed. We wished they could have made it. 

Finally, sleep and we awake with eager anticipation. Mark made us pancakes. Jessica and/or Courtney made us eggs. And we opened our stocking. Socks! Socks! Cards! American candy! Kitchen sponges! A bottle opener/finger nail clipper with a Buick emblem! Underwear with the Kazakhstani seal on them! Everything I always wanted. 

Overall, it was a great three days. Tack on a really fun New Year’s Party with my colleagues Sunday night, and it was a weekend well worth remembering. But probably one of the strangest Christmases I’ll ever have in my life. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What I've been up to as of late

Things I have done the past few weeks:
  • Got a modem to set up the Internet at my house (Thanks Scott!)
  • Found out my friends Brad and Karen are getting married (and waiting until I get back!)
  • Met my girlfriend's mom (and cooked dinner for them)
  • Cooked veggie lasagna (delic! use brinza!)
  • Took Mark to his first banya experience. (I did ask him to wash my back, but there was no leaf beating-yet)
  • Started Russian tutoring again (four hours spent on handwriting though, maybe not all that useful)
  • Watched about eight movies (Lagaan almost made cricket interesting; Point Break undescribable.)
  • Finally finished Slaughterhouse Five
  • Took the "Spanish Train"
  • Made veggie tacos for some local friends
  • Ate kurduck, declared that was enough fried meat until April, and then ended up eating it for the next two meals
  • Played three ridiculous games at our Volunteer Day Party. One of which involved me and my friend holiding a piece of candy in our lips while dancing together.
  • Helped Jessica win a ridiculous game at our Volunteer Day Party by giving her my jeans.
  • Ate delicous Chinese food in Almaty (Thanks for the idea Kyle)
  • Received my Christmas package with the new Neil Diamond Christmas album (Thanks Mom and Dad!)
  • Put up my Christmas tree
This week plans are a birthday party tomorrow night, Christmas service Thursday, Christmas party at work Friday, Christmas party with volunteer Saturday, New Year's Party with my Office Sunday, New Year's Party at a nursing home Monday.

Happy Holidays! I'll write more cohesive posts soon.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Zhamballers Do It Again






I remember my first Thanksgiving in Kazakhstan. I was in a small village looking at an organization with no work. I went home and shyly asked my host mom if I could make mashed potatoes. I did. But she put in too much animal lard and runied the taste.

Then I was swept away to Taraz where we had a fabulous meal Saturday, met all of our new 'blasties, and entertained locals with the game of Cowboy, Bear, Indian. This year we (me, Jamie, and Jennie) felt like we had to live up to the expectations.

Although I had claimed the turkey responsiblities, Jennie was the one that came through. Apparently, Kulan is the turkey capital of Kazakhstan. She had no trouble finding and picking out a good-sized bird (4 kilos, about nine pounds). Our menu was elaborate and detailed. And then I was scheduled to work! A project we just started was launching and then the youth bank was having a crucial meeting. So I had to go in for most of the day. However, Jamie and Jennie was great in the kitchen.

We cooked for the whole day, and the newbies joined in as they arrived. Mark made great potatoes and Jessica handled the veggies. Courtney handled lagman. Laura and Chris came a little late but still brought apple sauce and squash. And then our local friends brought sushi, chips, and dessert. Overall, we had about 16 people (8 volunteers, 8 locals), and a menu of

Turkey
Stuffing
Mashed Potatoes
Hotard Casserole
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
Glazed Carrots
Macoroni and Cheese
Gravy
Sauteed corn
Salad
Fried lagman
Apple Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin Bread
Spice Cake
World Famous Morris Rolls
Chips
Sushi
Apple Sauce

We were all stuffed by the end of it, with the only problem maybe being a lack of leftovers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jaipur

I'm now in Jaipur. I've been here in India for over week and the first stomach problems are cropping up. :( But I guess they are unusallly inevitable. I don't have much time to write so I'll just sum up some hightlights I may talk more about later:

Meeting CS Vikram and having dinner with him
Seeing Octopussy in Udaipur on a hotel rooftop with an old Hindu temple nearby
Meeting CS Jai and his family
Playing cards on the sleeper bus from Mumbai
Swimming in maybe crocodile-infested Tiger Lake
Clubbing at Red Light in Mumbai
Seeing the slums of Dhavi.
Reading the Maraharabatabataa (sorry for misspelling it) while in India
Most of the food

Things I haven't liked:
honking horns
autorickshaw drivers
everyone trying to sell me something
evergreen hotel in Jaipur

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mumbai

So yesterday for those of you that follow Mumbai news, they were supposed to be hit by a cyclone (about equivalent to a tropical storm.) Somehow we missed this fact while we were on a 27 hour train ride and ended up getting a hostel right near the bay. But it was okay because despite canceling schools and closing offices, the storm never hit! it was just rainy in the morning and windy.

No pictures right now, but here are some thoughts. Trains in India are different (more on that later) than one's in Kazakhstan. There are way more men than women. Everywhere. It's strange. Food isn't as spicy as I hoped. Definitely not enough tears. I bought lunch for 60 cents yesterday and it was huge. People here who try to sell you things can't be trusted. Other people are nice though. Couchsurfing is about 0 for 20, but that's what happens when you have three people and wait until you are in India to ask for couches. We saw hard rock at a club here last night. It was very very loud. Oh and the Taj Mahal was beautiful.

Today: islands, beaches, and maybe a Bollywood film!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Vacation!

I'm going to India for a two week vacation. I spent the last week watching The Story of India made by BBC and dreaming of Indian food. I'm not going to speak Russian or think about all the work looming or the fact that I have to find and kill a turkey when I get back. Just India, Indian food, and hopefully warmer weather. I may blog from there but I probably won't.

Monday, November 2, 2009

40 Things to Do Before You Die

This list was compiled by my English speaking club a few weeks ago.

1. Clean the house
2. Travel the world
3. First Kiss
4. Say I Love You
5. Take a shower.
6. Go to the banya museum.
7. Help
8. Steal and fry a chicken
9. Parachute
10. Taste new foods (sweet potatoes, snake, Chinese food, human meat)
11. Buy presents for my family
12. Write a will
13. Change your style
14. Be emo.
15. Rob a bank
16. Get credit
17. Get a Korean BF
18. See sharks
19. Jump w/ a kangaroo
20. Be on the moon
21. Have a harem
22. See Lady Gaga, Rob Pattison, and Hollywood stars
23. Get a tattoo like 50 cent and Timati
24. Learn new languages
25. Speak w/ animals
26. Marry George Clooney
27. Be popular
28. Know English
29. Play ultimate Frisbee on a really soft field
30. See family
31. Find Alexandra parents
32. See old friends in S. Korea
33. Solve all the mysteries
34. Read minds.
35. Kill your neighbors.
36. Do a gobstop
37. Get a Michael Jackson coffin
38. See a demon
39. Get a Masters and a PhD
40. Read The Sound and the Fury
41. Have children.
42. Say I love you to my parents.
43. Be happy.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poquito. Make that poquitito.

I used to speak Spanish. Never great. I only took three semesters of it in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador and Peru for a combined total of fourteen weeks. Based on all of that education, I actually felt like my Spanish should have been much better than it was. I couldn’t read much. I couldn’t really watch TV (language still too fast), but I could have a general conversation and get by fine with life in those countries.

I’ve had a theory that learning Russian will actually help my Spanish. The third language will get me over some imaginary mental language hump and my brain will soak up future languages like a sponge. And after Russian, I could easily pick up Spanish again. I don’t know how valid this theory is, but looking at the complexity and insanity of Russian, I do long for the days of discerning por/para and trying to think when I should use subjunctive case.

Yesterday, I had a chance to practice my Spanish for the first time in a long time. I had a visitor staying with me from Spain. We talked mainly in English to start because Asela was also over for dinner and she doesn’t speak Spanish. But when Asela left, she told my guest (Maria) that I could speak Spanish. I was excited to try but also knew it wouldn’t get very far. Sometimes just for fun, I try to think of how to say something in Spanish, but my mind only produces Russian words. And when I don’t know the Russian word for something, Spanish still pops into my mind. And some words never seem to go away. (I am still more likely to ask for a servilleta than a salfectka (napkin). And I still think “Falta adeen chelovek” (missing (sp) one person (rus)).

It started out painfully slow. Maria asked where I learned Spanish.

V yniversidad. Nyet. No. No. En? En! En uiversidad. Ya. Yo. Yo. How do you say also?

Tambien.

Tambien! I was going to say tambien. Yo tambien. Zhil. Zhil. Zhil. How do you say live?

Viva.

Vivo!. Vive? Vivia? Yo vivia v no en Ecuador y. How do you say and in Spanish?

Y.

Y? I was going to say that, but that’s what it is in Russian too, so I thought it couldn’t be right. Yo vivia en Edcuador y Peru.

Que hiciste ahi? (Maybe she said something different, but it was “What did you do there?” and I think that’s how you ask that question.)

Chto? What? Ahi? Ahi? He znaiyoo eto slova. I don’t know that word. Ahi?

Ahi. Ahi. There.

There? What’s here.

Aqui.

Oh! Aqui. Alli. You’re saying a-yee. A-yee! Wait. You’re from Spain. No wonder I can’t understand you. It’s the accento.

So the first two exchanges took about five minutes. Where did you study Spanish and what did do there? But it was a strange feeling as Maria reminded me of the words I once could speak without hesitation. Because they were so familiar to me. They fit. It was like having forgotten an event, and you hear your friends describe it, and you’re like, yes. Yes, that was it!

Slowly I re-learned, but not learned, I was re-familiarized with the words for people, team, sports, men, women, children (gente, equipo, deportes, hombres, mujeres, ninos). They were all coming back to me. And then there were some strange words I remembered myself. Apodo (nickname) and cancha (court, as in a basketball court). But every time I had to say a number, I had to start at one. (Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis…) Seis hombres! At times I would cycle through Russian and Kazakh before finally settling on Spanish, my brain realizing that it was supposed to be a foreign language, but not really sure which one. (Da, ye, si! Si!)

And then I would try to conjugate Spanish verb with Russian endings. Played. Jugar. Jugali! Of course. I think my pidgin Spanish/Russian would be perfectly understood by many PC volunteers who are in the same situation as me. But for Maria, a lot of it was lost. However some words are surprising similar (noch, noch, night; palmedor, palmedor (okay, that’s Italian), tomato). And in the end, I just switched back to English and bitched about how hard Russian was to learn. (Yeah, those two glasses there. Those are stakani. But if I say two glasses there, I say dva stakana. And if there are five. Well it becomes pyat stakanov. Yeah, it’s awful!)

I was glad to have the chance, and I do long for the simple noun structure of Spanish. And I really do think that one day, I’ll move back to Latin America for a few months and finally commit to learning Spanish. But until then, I’ll have to change my usual answer when people here find out I speak Spanish. Yo hablo poquitito. (Ya govaroo covcem chut-chut. I speak a little little Spanish.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Angry Blog

(This was a couple weeks ago. Everything is fine now. We even got the original sent to us in the mail. Of course, DHL lost it for a few days, but sometimes those things just seem to happen.)

I’m angry. So we got this grant. I helped. But financial stuff, that’s not my stuff. I do content. Accounting is something else entirely. Not my problem. Well, tip for all future volunteers, it will be your problem.

So we had this agreement sent to us by the embassy about the money we earned. We signed it, and sent it back. Then they sent us the first installment of the grant to our bank account. Sweet, right?

Okay, so maybe I don’t understand banking here. Maybe I don’t understand banking for NGOs. But our bank had a problem with a large sum showing up in our account. We have to show them a reason why we are getting this money. Is that normal? My bank never minds when I deposit money in my account. They like it a lot. But this bank says we have three days to show them a document showing where the money came from.

So we do. But because we are working with a foreign embassy, the documents we are working with are in English. And the people at the bank don’t understand English. We don’t have the documents in Russian. Too bad they say. So we call the embassy and they don’t have the documents in Russian. This process is taking a few days so now we have one day to translate the documents into Russian and then get them notarized and then get them to our bank.

Why does this country work this way?

(And I won a new grant! Yay! Now I have a project to do. Good things the volunteer meeting is coming up soon too.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Paying bills

This week I tried to pay my bill for heating and hot water four times. Because here in Kazakhstan, you can't just send it in the mail, you have to pay in person for most of your utilities.

Tuesday 10:00. The lights are out at the post office (where you pay bills).

Wednesday 10:00. The computers are not working. Despite this there are already eight people waiting. No one seems to be being helped by a cashier, but they are waiting anyway.

Wednesday 16:00. The computers are still not working but people are being helped. There are eight people in front of me. And by in front of me, I mean sitting, standing, waiting anywhere. We know our place in line. Who is in front of us, and who is in front of that person. I wait an hour. Three people are able to pay their bills. This place closes at 6:00. I do the math and walk out.

Thursday 9:00. I go to a different post office and see only three people in line! Success! One woman pays. The next woman pays. Then the cashier says she is closing (breakfast break maybe?) and we should go to the other cashier. I hadn't seen this one obscured by a pillar across the lobby. Six people are waiting there. I go stand there, but now we are in the back of the line. I wait there five minutes and see our first cashier has returned and is once again helping someone. I go back over there. Wait behind one person, don't let the woman who comes after me succeed in her claim that she was before me, and finally pay! Success!

What do I miss in America? Checks.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Molodets! (?)

So yesterday my friends told me that smoking is now banned on the streets of Kazakhstan. I didn't believe this (given the amount of smoking here.) But I quick google search turned up this news article today:

Kazakhstan Bans Smoking In Public Places
ASTANA -- A law has come into force in Kazakhstan banning smoking in public places, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

According to the legislation adopted last month, smoking is now officially banned in schools, hospitals, clinics, cinemas, theaters, circuses, concerts, exhibition halls, sports arenas, stadiums, and other covered places used for public entertainment and recreation, including night clubs.

People will also be restricted from smoking inside airports and railway and bus stations.

Tobacco items will also not be available in shops selling goods for children.

Cigarettes can also not be sold to individuals under the age of 18.

Violators of the new law can be fined up to $500.

I also found this:

Kazakhstan bans public smoking, raises drinking age
(AFP) – Sep 29, 2009

ALMATY — Kazakhstan's government said Tuesday it would impose a total ban on smoking in public places and raise the drinking age to 21, a rare step in the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking former Soviet Union.

"We are now following the recommendations of the World Health Organization, according to whose data more than 30,000 people die every year in Kazakhstan from smoking," health ministry spokeswoman Agmagul Abenova told AFP.

"We also continue to struggle against alcoholism, and therefore have introduced new regulations against it," she added.

The new regulations, published in Kazakh newspapers on Tuesday, come into effect October 9.

Kazakhstan already bars people from smoking in public venues, such as stadiums and on public transport, but the new rules extend the ban to the Central Asian country's notoriously smokey bars and nightclubs.

Although many European nations have public smoking bans, few ex-Soviet countries have followed suit, and none besides conservative Tajikistan have raised the legal drinking age.

Kazakhstan's smoking ban does not match the strictness of neighbouring Turkmenistan where former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov barred smoking even on the streets.

Alcoholism and smoking-related illnesses are a major health problem in the former Soviet Union, which saw a huge decline in average male life expectancy following the collapse of Communism nearly two decades ago.

Kazakhstan's drinking age was previously 18.

I guess the real test will be how much these are enforced. It's strange to these things just seem to come out of Astana. I can't imagine laws like this changing in America without stories all over the news. Even smoking bans in Athens, created crowded city hall meetings. I remember the controversy. Here, I don't think anyone even knows.

And for the record, I'm on the fence about smoking bans in private establishments. It's good for me, but I think it infringes on the owner's ability to run the establishment like he or she wants.

Monday, October 5, 2009

No, but come to my speaking club...

English club is my life’s constant. No matter what projects I may be starting and stopping or seeking out, I always make time for Wednesday at 3:00. It’s a legacy passed down from generation to generation. Before me it was Hanman. Before Hanman it was Spry (I think. Colin maybe? Someone had English club here). Before them, it was… someone. There’s a strong pedigree here.

English Club is my hour to do whatever I want, and for some reason, people keep coming back. There are probably more effective ways to run English clubs. Our format is an hour-long discussion group. I act as a moderator and throw out questions on various themes: the crisis, youth issues, expectations, powerful women. To the dismay of many students, I come up with the theme at about 2:55 on Wednesday based on my life’s circumstances. Bad service at lunch, we’re talking about customer service. Had to wait a long time for a taxi, we’re talking about how you occupy the dead times in life (okay, we haven’t talked about this yet, but we probably could. Phone, think, read? It’s an interesting question.)

Sometimes we have visitors in English Club. Any time there is another volunteer in town, we invite them. This summer when student numbers were low and volunteer numbers were high, I think we had a one to one ratio. Susannah’s been here. Ken multiple times. Joe is no stranger. Scott the same. Justin’s made the rounds. And I’m sure many more. Couchsurfers also stop by. They have interesting stories and viewpoints and are living evidence of the website I plug about once a month in club. (Do you want to practice English, host a foreigner!) (Couchsurfing now limited by new in-country policy, more on that in another blog.)

Sometimes we have activities in addition to the discussion. Mafia seemed popular when we played it. (Did you know mafia was actually invented in Moscow? Check it out on wikipedia.org) Card games are fun, including English-teaching-modified Circle of Death. One time we played Post-secret, and the secrets they shared were actually really interesting. We come up with inventions, business ideas, and advertisements. One time we even trimmed my beard (after the group fortunately voted for me to keep it rather than shaving it.)

Lately English Club has been growing a little too big for its britches. (Have you ever typed the word britches before? That can’t possibly be spelled right.) Our largest classroom comfortably fits 12 people. We could rearrange it and have more space, but we don’t have anywhere to put the tables. Therefore it fits 12. Last week we squeezed twenty-two into it for English club. The week before we had twenty. Next week I expect thirty people with the Americans visiting. We may move it to the park across the street. They’re coming up with the lesson plan though, but I’ll be guiding the newbies along the road.

(Update: 31 people showed up when the new volunteers came. We moved into two classrooms. This week…. We’ll see.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Updates

I have become so bad at blogging. Quick updates. I'm blogging live, meaning I have the Internet running (costing me 120 tenge an hour).

1. I wonder if the woman next to me would be having the same Skype conversation if she knew I understood English. I'm trying not to listen to her, but she's confessing her undying love to a guy in America she hasn't seen in two year. Not listening. Not listening. Not listening. Not hearing her talk about her past life with him. Not hearing it.

2. I found a new apartment! It's awesome, but now I'm disupting the final bills with my landlord. He wants me to pay the bill that say "for October" for water and trash, because it is clearly for September. So this week, I'm supposed to go to the trash company, give them the bill marked "for October," and ask, "Now, is this bill for October." Knowing Kazakhstan, they may say no.

3. I went to the mountains. Pictures soon. So many blackberries. Awesome trip.

4. New volunteers came and so did Dasha! Dasha is my old Russian teacher, well she's not old. She's actually a year younger than I am. But the new volunteers are old. Not actually old either, but some are retired volunteers. They were cool because they actually have experience. The young kids were cool because they had a lot of enthusiasm. I think Dave, Susannah, and I managed to show them so good stuff in Taraz. It's too bad only one of them even has a chance of coming here (just one OCAP site opening within seven hours of me.)

5. I found a new apartment. It's worth restating. Cheaper, bigger, and with a balcony.

6. I have two more posts coming soon I already wrote, but they're left on my work computer for now. So be prepared.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Some notes

It's strange. In August I actually read some David Sedaris and then The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Very different books, but very inspiring for me to write more stories about Kazakhstan, and maybe try to actually write more "stories" than blogs. But since then, I haven't really written anything. I'd like to say it's because I've been busy, but I have managed to watch a LOT of movies lately. I have been working a lot though as well. Some things of note I in life or in general.

1. I started Russian tutoring. Yes, it's my second year, and I just started. But really, that's better than a lot of volunteers. The accountant that works with our organization teaches me for an hour a day for free in the mornings. The goal is for me to be able to read Russian. Like Tolstoy or Pushkin or something. Reading is hard because there a lot of words in books. I can speak just fine with people, but hardly know any actual words, especially concrete nouns. And I'm learning Russian cursive, which is incredibly useful.

2. I posted pictures on my picasa site. PICTURES HEREMost of them are also on Facebook, but for those without Facebook, you can see them there. Included is a picture of my girlfriend Acela. We've been dating for a few months now. She works at my organization as a volunteer and is studying to get a Master's in Ecology.

3. What do I do at work? It's hard to describe. But this week I led two English clubs, did tutoring on how to write essays, started a business English course, finished a grant application to teach English to impoverished children, helped with publicizing an exchange program, finished writing a script for an English play, and helped a guy prepare his documents for an American visa.

4. Last spring, I helped work on a book about volunteerism in Kazakhstan. I assisted with one chapter; my friends did a lot more. You can check it out for free here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/19492259/Kazakhstan-Volunteer-Handbook

5. I found out how extensive peacecorpswiki.com is. It has some interesting stuff about Peace Corps, including volunteer salaries (wait, we're volunteers, we'll call it a stipend then or a living allowance maybe) for countries all over the world and early termination rates for countries all over the world.

6. One of the more interesting articles was this one http://peacecorpswiki.org/images/LudlamHirschoff.pdf. Its a long document written by some former volunteers about how to improve the program. Included in this document is the fact that Peace Corps misreports the ET rate by using very fuzzy math. They report annual ET rates rather than cohort rates. So if I say 15% of people serving in Kazakhstan ET, you may think that 15% of the people who come leave early. But nope, they mean 15% of the people serving there in that year. So in reality maybe 30% of the people that come leave. I think it's ridiculous that they use these numbers, and really can't imagine how it is illustrative of anything.

7. The report also had this shocking (in my eyes) fact: "In FY 2008 the Peace Corps reports that it received 13,041 applications, but only 4,265 survived the medical and legal clearance process to become “qualified.” Of this pool, 4,123 were invited to training. This means that from this pool of “qualified” applicant, all but 142 or 96.7% were invited to training." And they claim that Peace Corps itself did not have this statistic already generated. I certainly hope that Peace Corps has some metric like this. To say that the application pool is competitive may be a stretch. I don't know if they tout a 25% ratio anywhere, but I don't think they say 96% of people who are in good health with a criminal history will be accepted.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Guest blogger: My mom

Savannah to Kazakhstan is a long trip. 21 hours. We left Atlanta on Sunday, August 9 and arrived in Almaty Tuesday morning. My first thought when we came out of the baggage claim was, Holy cow. All the taxi drivers were hollering, Taxis! Taxis! And then I saw Michael and hugging him was all I could think about. It was great to see him; it had been a year.
We stayed in Almaty for a couple days. We went to the bazaar. It was so different. They sold everything from spices to meat, all out in the open. The city was very busy and crowded in some places another other places were less busy. We met some of Michael’s friends and had a beer with them. They were very nice. I was glad to put faces on names that Michael has mentioned. We visited Silk Way, a square that reminded me a little of City Market in Savannah, with paintings, shops, and vendors selling food. We went to an American café. It was nice to have a cup of coffee.
Then it was time for us to go to Taraz. I was not so sure of this train ride (11 hours) to Taraz. Michael had told us a little about the ride. I could not imagine sleeping next to a stranger. I worried for no reason. It was not bad. We shared a platscart compartment with two Russian women and a grandchild. They were so friendly and we talked about ourselves with Michael translating (he would do a lot of that on the trip.) We shared our food and talked until lights out at 11:00. I was on the top, which was better. There are four beds: two on the top and two on the bottom. The train was very hot and crowded until the sun went down. It was very enjoyable.
We arrived in Taraz around 3am Thursday and I rode in my third taxi. They drive wild. Who would have thought I would ride in cars with no backseat seat belts. It was like Thumping, stick out your hand and Bam! a car stops and you give a price and off you go. We went to Michael’s apartment, very small. It might be smaller than my den. We three slept there, Stephen on the floor and Michael and I shared his futon. I haven’t slept with Michael since he was a little boy. We went to Michael’s work and met his co-workers. We helped him teach English Club. All of them were real curious about us. Everyone we met was so friendly. It was like we had always around. We did a lot of things in Taraz, like walking in the square, having an amazing meal at one of his friend’s houses, and gosting with his ex-host families (visiting).
We went on a picnic with his co-workers and English Club. We met by a park and rode on a bus to the lake. It was fun. We played games on the way. At the lake, people swam. We had some great food and conversation in both Russian and English. It was great fun. I was happy to see, and a little surprised at how everyone socializes together, young and old had so much fun together. It was a great day. Everyone was so nice and made sure I was having fun also.
We also went gosting to his old host family’s homes. The first house was near Almaty. We ate a dish a lot like chicken and rice. The second was near Taraz. We were treated like long lost family. We had a feast and I drank cognac for the first time and used an outhouse for the first time. I like the cognac, but not the outhouse. We had the pleasure of going to a Kazakh wedding. It was a lot of fun. Food, food, and more food. We also had a lot of toasts for the wedding couple. We toasted many times with wine, vodka, and cognac. We danced the Kazakh way, had a great time. We got home around 2am, and we slept until 11:30. Monday we went out and toured more of the city. It was a good day.
My Kazakhstan trip was amazing. I have to say I was very nervous. Me, Margie, in a far far country. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I ‘d visit Michael, but a year was a long time not to see my son and hug him. Everyone I have met from his co-workers, his friends, and the youth people in English club have been so sweet and friendly. I hope I have made many friendships. As a mom, I now feel that Michael is well taken care of. Everyone really likes him, and I know he is in good hands.
I loved Taraz. It was like my home. Not so busy and not so crowded. They have beautiful parks, and family with children are out at night. Everyone accepted me with open arms. I hope to keep in touch with some of the people I’ve met. Like Michael said, he wanted me to experience a week in his life. I have, and it was amazing.

Monday, August 31, 2009

2030

So a ton of places in Kazakhstan, you see billboards saying Kazakhstan 2030. No, it's not advertising a new sci-fi flick starring Mark Dacascos, but rather a reference to the government's longterm growth strategy. I actually admire that they have a patient plan for growth, and I hope that in the end it will pay off. (Resource rich countries have had a history of looking for short-term solutions with all of their wealth.)

So in my attempt to find the country's constitution in English (found: Constitution Good news: my reading of it seems to suggest I could eventually be President after turning 40, living here 15 years, and gaining "perfect command" of the Kazakh language). But I also stumbled across the 2030 plan (2030. And starts off with a quote from Virgil and then a few paragraphs later quotes Shakespeare. I didn't read the whole thing, but so I wouldn't be left in suspense, I did skim down to the end. And the final section is introduced by:

SELF-CONFIDENCE IS A POWER
Bowie.


What!? Bowie? As in David Bowie? Am I supposed to just know which famous Bowie this is referring to. A quick google search of that quote in quotations, returns...only the Kazakh 2030 plan the Kazakh 2030 plan. Expanding it to non-quotation marks and including bowie in the search yields..."I had a lot of self-confidence." -Bowie Kuhn. As in the former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn?

I don't know who wrote the plan, but they sure were well-read. I hope the next longterm strategy will contain a quote from Ziggy Stardust.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The little things in Almaty

After being here for a year, I was feeling like I had done just about everything. Life is becoming more routine. It’s now my second August here. I’ve done the weddings. I’ve done the gostings. Life is still an adventure, but some of the surprise seems to be gone. However, during my last Almaty trip I was happy to:

Meet the English theater group at KIMEP. KIMEP is an American-style university in the center of Almaty. All of the students are required to speak English, as the classes are taught in English. They have a library full of books in English. And because it’s a business school, they had a ton of economic books in English! I felt chills. And they have an English language theater group (www.kelt.bz). They were a lively bunch, and this year will be staging How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Grease: The Musical. I wish I could buy my tickets now, but I don’t think their available yet. From one of the students, I found out about…

Find a free Nintendo Wii in Almaty! Not free to take home. But free to play. It’s in Omega Zone on Gogol near Ablai Xan. It’s in the downstairs of this Internet café. They also have Rock Band and PS3 to play, but those cost money. For some reason though, the Wii is besplatno (free!). Maybe it’s not popular. And I guess for the crowd that would be attracted to a gaming center, it may not be. But after Ainalain had received a free Wii in July (but haven’t been able to get electricity until September), I’ve had a Wii craving. I just wish I would have known about the game selection before playing. Now I’ll always have something to do when I find myself bored in the city.

Find the Konaev Museum. After failing to find a museum with my family, I happened to stumble upon one myself while wandering the streets. It was small. And a typical museum in dedication to a person here. Lots of pictures of him. Some memorabilia. Little information on what he actually did. I need to brush up on my Kazakhstani political history. Konaev? He sounds important enough that a ton of stuff is named after him, but I don’t really know what he did.

Be in a commercial/infomercial/something for a Singapore technology company. The director of KELT told me her friend needed extras to play tourists in a video being made by the Ministry of Education. Turns out it was for a technology company whose products are used in Kazakshtani schools. I had to pretend to be lost and a young Kazakh girl gave me directions in English. Of course she was able to speak English because of the technology in the schools! Unfortunately, my friend was cut as they started the process after they sent her to change t-shirt colors. I don’t know who it will be broadcast for, but I hope I make the cut. Take that Krystal!

Meet the new trainees! Although my life is becoming normal, a new group of Americans just arrived last week. Sixty something young, middle-aged, and even slightly older new volunteers ready to change the world and have their dreams crushed. Or expectations lowered. Or managed. We even persuaded some to hit a nearby café for a few drinks. They were eager and full of questions. It’s hard to remember what I was like back then, but it must have been similar. I wish them all success, and hope the coolest ones end up replacing Dave and Susannah.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Family just left

So I'm sitting at an Internet cafe here in Almaty. It's 8:35 in the morning. I'm exhausted. I had a terriffic time with my brother and mom over the past week. I wish I could just go back to Taraz and crash for the weekend, but I'm supposed to meet with some English theater people here in Almaty. We want to build on a budding program, and figure why not talk to the people with experience.

So... their trip. I wanted to show them my life here. Not Kazakhstan and all its grandeur. So no Astana, no Berevoi. What it's like for me. So we started in Almaty, where all PCTs start. We hit up the usual sites for us. We gostied my host family in Ecik. Ate ploaf. Then we platscarted it back to Taraz.

The train was great. I has been worried. Platscart! people would exclaim. You're going to make your mom ride platscart. But I love it, I would respond. It can be so much fun. Admittedly, it's different for a younger woman than for a younger guy than for a middle-aged woman. But anyway, Stephen and my mom loved it. We met some fabulous Russian sisters who were about my mom's age. We shared food, stories, and laughs.

Thursday, I actually had to work. Note that Peace Corps, I will be asking for that Leave Day back if I can manage it. My family saw the office, met all my coworkers, and then went off into Taraz with Amina. They saw the museum. I've been there for three months in Taraz, nine months in the region, and I still haven't seen the museum. I had wanted to go with them, but that's what happens when your family isn't interested in you doublechecking your budget figures. Thursday night we gulyatted in President's Park and played some windy ping-pong. It's a nice place to just walk around. Peaceful, lots of families and some young people. I wish it was closer to me though.

Friday was even better. My work went on a picnic. Note work again. It was with kids in our English classes, so we were giving them all-day English language practicum at the river near Asa. Swimming. Eating. Laughing. And a crazy crazy game of keep-a-way which I'm surprised we all walked away having survived. That night we tried shoshlik as well. (So by now, my family had tried (in this order): lagman, ploaf, doner kebob, manti, shoshlik. I was betting on the wedding for beshbarmark.)

Saturday was a quiet day in Taraz. We mailed some postcards, I paid my bills. They took me shopping. I passed on the super sweet mesh hawaiann shirt, but did pick up the white pointy shoes. Like I care the season for them is practically over. I'll wear them until the snow falls and pick them back up in the spring. Back to work, and then over to Acela's for dinner (gellupsie, a national, but oft-forgotten in my book, dish. We also tried kurt! Umm... yummy. It really does help if you think parmesean before you take a bite.) After dinner, we taught them Durak and my brother got to keep the deck of Russian cards we played with.

Sunday we made it to Catholic mass then gostied my host family in Baurzhan Momushylu. Their house was under remont (repair). I thought maybe that meant painting the walls. Nope. Everything was outside, the walls were stripped. They were redoing everything. So since we couldn't eat there, we ate lunch in yurt. Yurt experience, check! Kyrduck was served along with some Kymis. Kurduck was voted to be okay, kymis was tried, and not liked. Then we had our Kazakh wedding to go to. The invitation said 8:00. I knew that would be too early. 8:30 maybe? Nope, we waiting for an hour and a half. It started at 10:00. That was fun. I don't think they tried the kaza I tried to give them. And then the beshbarmark came. Awesome! We left at 2:00 and took a taxi home.

Our plans to go to a nature reserve Monday were thrown off by sleeping until 11:30. Stephen began feeling the effects of the local cuisine, and my mom and I ventured off on our own to see Aisha Bibi, Textormas, and the Old Banya museum. That museum needs to be added to lonely planet, and I apologize for not telling all past couch surfers about it. It's actually a really cool place, much more interesting that the rebuilt mouseleums the city usually boasts. Afterwards, we made tacos and had a quiet night in.

Tuesday was our last day. We gostied Asa to buy some korpusheis from Ainalain. Then we gostied at Salavat's. More beshbarmark. And finally the tomato-fried eggplant things. My mom loved them and said she'd make them in America. I said the same thing when I first tried them. After Asa, we said goodbye to people at my work, I got a haircut (keeping the mullet for now), and then went out to eat at a nice Georgia restaurant.

Wednseday we took a taxi to Almaty. Drink some coffee. Sat in a park. Had a subpar meal at a cafe and then we waited in the airport for seven hours as their flight was delayed. But now, they are in the air on the way home.

So that's what we did. It was a good summary of my life here. I think my next post will be maybe about some of those things in more detail or at least fillin in the thoughts and feelings that went along with them. Oh, and look out for some guest blogging from my mom and Stephen about what they thought about Kazakstan.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Family is here

My family is here, so why am I blogging. We actually had a really exhausting day of Kazakhstani picnicing. So my mom is writing postcards and Stepehen is reading an excellent book on Islam. So far they have flown into Almaty. We saw the city as I know it, meaning: the park, the mosque, the bazaar, the cathedral, Ramstor, Kok Tobe, getting lost on buses, and walking around and not actually finding what you were looking for. Also, finally stopping at 4A. About the only Peace Corps-y thing they didn't see was the office itself.

We also gostied by original host family. That was a lot of fun and went a lot better than I expected. They had my host brother there and an aunt that spoke English, so there was less translating that needed to be done on my part.

Now we are in Taraz. We went on a picnic today with my organization, so I'm going to try and get my leave day back. It was with kids from our English courses, so it was like work all day. Who says work doesn't have to include swimming for hours at the river?

We have a busy schedule for the next few days, and I'm still trying to wrap up the final stuff on the grant due tomorrow. I'll try to write a really reflective ONE YEAR post next week. I have a lot to say about the experience actually, although maybe it will change by the time I write it. I'm on a PC life high right now, which is a lot better than I was last month. I think it's all about the attitude, but more on that later. I'm just so happy my family is here to visit right now too. Good luck to any new volunteers that may be reading this. Can't wait to meet you soon!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quick Summary

Usually, I like to write out what I post here at home or work and then put it up here. But someone was saying I hadn't posted in a while, so I'll give a quick update.

Wednesday...English club was epic. Although the Kaz-18 volunteer never came to club, Susannah, Dave, and I were all there. The topic of "Expectations" had some great discussion before we turne to hair care. We trimmed my beard, LIVE, in front of 18 or so stunned/horrified/amused locals.

Thursday...we met up to hear some local guys play guitar, then headed to a local night club for dancing. Fun times.

Friday...some volunteer came into the city and we went swimming with some people from my work. I saw my Russian tutor there and she asked where I had gone. Oops, I need to schedule an appointment. The park was awesome. It was a pond/lake. Some locals say it's dirty, but there were a lot of people there, and a pirate ship cafe. Afterwards, we went shopping for hours and then made frozen pizzas in the oven. Yep, my oven works.

Saturday...we went to Shymkent for Megan and Tyler's birthday. We went to a rock concert! It was awesome. I might write more later.

Sunday...two gosti experines with my old town after Joe made us delicious Scones. We wanted to see a soccer game, but Ken was sick and we had to take care of him.

Monday...Ken and I watched Dexter when our plan to walk around the city was ruined by a screaming five-year old sister that doesn't like her 22-year-old sister hanging around boys.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Slight changes

I made a few small changes to my blog since I've had a lot of free Internet time here in the PCHQ today:

First, I changed the main colors to blue and yellow in order to match most things here in Kazakstan.

Second, I updated the link where you can text me for free; the old link apparently had not been working for some months. But the new one does work, so text me whatever and whenever.

Third, I added a news gadget so you can follow a little bit about what is happening in country when you check out my blog.

Fourth, I addedlink to my twitter page so you can follow what I'm doing all the time.

Fifth, I added a search gadget so you can quickly search my previous postings.

More stories from Tau Samal and an incredible camping trip in Almaty coming soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tales from Tau Samal: American Superstar

It started as a joke. Myself and three other volunteers (one from Korea, Russia, and the Czech Republic) were supposed to be making a presentation about our countries for the kids at camp. We had originally intended to make a simple powerpoint with photos of our countries, their youth, and their nature. But the night before, there had been a concert with the theme of fairy tales, and the winning group had somehow turned that into a singing/dancing variety show.

“You know what we need…we need to add singing and dancing to our presentation.”
“Seriously?”
“Yeah, that’s how concerts work in Kazakhstan. You always have to do just random stuff.”
“What could you teach them from America?”

I thought for a second. I had already tried to do the electric slide. It was a little too complicated. The Twist too easy. The Macarena? Already known. What is something utterly American, that nearly everyone in America knows and does….

“I can teach them the YMCA.”

And with that idea, the second session of camp in Tau Samal was changed forever. We decided to put the song at the end of the presentation. We’d finish our photos, then I’d say that I wanted to teach them a song everyone in America does at nearly every dance event. I taught it to the other volunteers (who were unfamiliar with it) and we rehearsed it a few times.

Honestly, I was nervous. The dance was really simple. And sure, in America, it’s fun, but is it just cultural? Or is the dance actually fun? I could never detach myself to know.

The presentation went well. Some problems with the Russian, but nothing too much. Time for the dance. I introduced it. Got all the kids to stand up. The DJ started it. And the familiar beats came out of the speakers on stage. Da dadada da. “Young man….”

Our fingers started pointing. Our hips started shaking. And I looked out into the crowd. The kids were loving it! They were imitating all of our moves. Their faces were full of smiles. And then “Y---M----C----A!” Their hands weren’t quite in sync with the letters (for most, they had no association that they were supposed to be spelling out letters), but they were getting the general idea. 3 minutes later it was over. But oh, it wasn’t. They DJ played it again immediately. And we do it again.

Then every disco we do the song at least 3 times. In between the discos, we do the song. And each time I get up on stage, huge smile on my face, and soak up the joy. The kids are so excited every time we do it. Even the camp directors were getting in on the fun. It’s stuck in their heads for week.

There’s no feeling quite like being up on stage and watching 200 hundred Kazakhstani children imitate your every dance move with absolute joy. Absolutely awesome.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tales from Tau Samal: Daily Life

I just got back from a children’s camp my organization is assisting that’s about an hour away from the city. The camp runs four sessions, each hosting about 200 children ages 7 to 15 from children from cities from all over Kazakhstan. Over the next week, I’ll post a series of “Stories from Tau Samal,” but for now I want to give a summary of what the average camp day was.

8:00 Wake up.

8:10. Morning exercise. This is fifteen to twenty minutes of “Raz, dva, tree, cheterdee” activities (one, two, three, four). Like pumping your arms in the air. Touching your toes. Jumping jacks. Aerobics, but nothing too intense really.

8:35. Clean your room. Each room of about six to ten kids must be cleaned every day. All trash must be thrown out and all of the beds must be made. And it must be swept and sometimes mopped.

9:00. Breakfast! Of course its rice milk! Everyday. But it’s good stuff. Also, breakfast, like all meals is divided into two shifts. So while one group is eating, the other group of kids are….well, they are scheduled to be at breakfast. But since they aren’t there, they are doing the most popular activity of camp: just sit around and do nothing!

10:00. Clean the area of your group. Okay so there are seven groups of about 25 kids, and each has their space where they hang out. In the woods, on the soccer field, under the gazebo, etc. Each day this space must also be cleaned. The ground must be swept and sometimes mopped. All the trash must be picked up. In reality, maybe 6 out of the 25 kids do this, and it maybe takes them half an hour. What do the other kids do? Nothing!

11:00. The first day I was at camp, 11:00 was the beginning of organized structure for the kids. They could choose dance lessons, Korean lessons, soccer, Frisbee, basketball, etc. However every other day, 11:00 started a camp game. These games were like find the counselors who are wearing red ribbons, competitions with rival camps, or paint your face like Native Americans. For this part of the day, most of the kids were engaged in something.

1:00 Lunch time! Of course, only half the camp eats at one time, so during this part the other half is once again doing nothing. Soup and a main course with a mug of tea makes for a good midday meal.

2:00 Teehee Chas! (Quiet hour!) From 2:00 to 4:00 every day is nap time. This time is actually intended for the children to do nothing.

4:00. Pool time. From 4:00 to 5:00 the children get to swim in the pool at the camp. This makes all of the children happy and they actually do something.

5:00. Snack time! Snack time usually features cookies, fruit, and a mug of tea. Once again, the shift system leaves some groups with about half an hour of nothing time though.

6:00. Prepare for concert! Nearly every night there is a concert that the children perform in. The theme ranges from Mr. and Miss Tau Samal to KVN to “We are Kazakhstan.” Maybe 8 of the 25 kids in each group are interested in the concert (although this can range from 5 to 20 really). But for the other kids, they have two hours to sit around and do nothing!

8:00 Dinner! Dinner is once again on the shift system. However, because all of the groups are prepping for a concert, there is some structure to the time when they are waiting to eat.

9:00. Concert! A concert with one of the previous themes is held. They are actually rather entertaining, sometimes impressive, and always cute in some way.

11:00 Discothèque! That’s right, every single night they have a dance, but rather than calling it a dance, they call it a discothèque. It sounds much cooler that way.

11:00 Second dinner! Maybe hobbits help plan out camp, but I definitely don’t mind the five meals a day system. This is usually another mug of tea with some small pastry. Notice it overlaps with the disco though, so the children who are not eating are actually doing something with their time.

12:00 Bedtime! Children go to sleep.

Maybe from my tone, you can tell that the schedule of the camp was strange to me. I felt there was way too much structured nothing time for the kids. It wasn’t even free time. They had to stay in their groups. Sometimes they managed to acquire a volleyball or something, but usually they just had their own wits to find ways to entertain themselves for four or more hours a day. I wanted craft time, sports time, game time. Just some structure in which they could organize themselves. Maybe it’s just the American in me, but I think it’s more fun if you have something to do.

More stories from camp soon…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pizza Hut

In May, something happened in Almaty that will change the lives of nearly every volunteer in Kazakhstan forever. Pizza Hut opened its first store in Kazakhstan. On the corner of Furmanov and some street (in the direct center of Almaty, according to Kyle), a magical place has appeared reminding volunteers how good food can taste. Michelle and I ate there last week. It was amazing.

At first I scoffed at the idea. Pizza Hut? I didn’t even like it in America. Too oily. Too expensive. Give me a Little Caesar’s here, and I’ll be a happy man. But Kyle sold me on it. And after he visited Tuesday, I had to try it. He had said it was a green building with pictures of pizzas all over the outside windows. It wasn’t hard to find.

The first thing that happened when we walked in was the hostess asked us in English “Smoking or non-smoking?” What? Are we that obvious even in Almaty? I was too stunned by this astuteness to be astonished by the fact that I was just offered smoking or non-smoking. What? In Kazakhstan?

The next thing that happened was that on the way to our table we ran into Alex, a PCV from Balhash. I didn’t recognize him at first but he remembered meeting me in Shymkent at Nauryz. We said hi, chatted for a few minutes, and then Michelle and I went and sat down. Of course, we’d expect to see another PCV there. We didn’t even ask each other what we doing in Almaty. It just made sense. Go to Pizza Hut, run into some old friends.

The menu was limited though. No stuffed crust. Just Pan and Hand-tossed. And no Meat Lovers. Supreme was there, as were some odd selections. Shrimp? Barbecue? Hawaiian? They all sounded delicious actually, but I wanted American pizza. We went with the large pan pepperoni. And the sodas of course had no refills (oh America!) but the half liter of Pepsi was served cold (although with no ice).

The pizza was prompt, coming out within fifteen minutes. The service was polite. The bathrooms were clean. It was almost better than an American Pizza Hut. And the price? Okay, it was expensive. Well for Peace Corps. Our pizza was 1880 tenge, about $12.50. So about the same as in America, but of course, we don’t get paid like we are in America.

And on the way out, I asked the hostess in my bad Russian (since I forgot the word for delivery) “У вас есть delivery?” (Do you have delivery?) “She answered, “По поже, мы только что открылись.” (Later. We just opened.) Later? As in by the time December rolls around and we gather for MST, we can order some pizzas to room 32 at the sanitarium? Отлично! But for now, we’re stuck having to go there if we want to taste America. Sometimes, Peace Corps life can be really hard.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Chinese Trains

Chinese Trains

Last Thursday, my view on trains was rocked by a new discovery: The Chinese train. I don’t know if these trains actually come from China. After being raised with such Americans traditions as Chinese Firedrills and Chinese Freezetag, I am skeptical of this tag. Nonetheless though, these trains are much newer than the old Soviet things I’m accustomed to. The bathrooms are far nicer, and actually have a green/red switch that shows when the door is locked. However, platscart on them is covcem (absolutely) different.

Rather than the regular four beds in the room area and two in the hall, all six beds are in the room area. They stack three high on each side, leaving very little room for luggage. I didn’t like it. I felt like I was in an open, crowded kupets with no place to put my bag. There was no friendly atmosphere full of fun and excitement. If you ever take the Almaty-Aktobe train, really consider buying kupets.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Youth Bank Training

Thank you Pat and Vernon. I doubt they’ll ever read this blog, but last week they put on one of the best trainings I have ever attended. I feel like I’ve had a lot of training experience. I was a very involved student in high school, college, and now I’m in Peace Corps. I’ve been to my share of trainings, retreats, conferences, etc. Before this, I’d have to say LeaderShape was number one. And honestly, it still is, but this one was up there, at a close second.

Background. The Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia (www.efcentralasia.org) is partnering with Activ (www.activ.kz) to sponsor a Youth Bank project here in Kazakhstan. Four cities (five counting Ecik (shout out to my homies down there at Fund of Local Communities) being sponsored by Philip Morris) will have groups of local youth (17-24) giving out small grants (up to $500) to other youth to accomplish social projects. I will somehow be an advisor/mentor to the group here in Taraz. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m here for questions, guidance, or monitoring. I’m super excited about working with the local youth on this project. Basically, the phone call asking if I wanted to do this went like this:

“Hello Michael, this is Ilyas with the Eurasian Foundation. Would you like to be a mentor for the youth bank in Taraz and attend a training in Almaty in two weeks?”
“Yes! Wait… what does that mean?”
“You’d just help them. Be there if they have questions, need assistance.”
“Yes! Wait… do I have to pay for the conference?”
“Actually, we don’t have funding for the advisors yet. Can you pay your own way?”
“Uh… Definitely travel. Place, no. But I think I can find somewhere to stay. So…yes. Wait… How did you hear about me?”
“Paul with Peace Corps recommended you.”
“Awesome! Sounds great.”

While most of my group had arrived in Almaty on Sunday, I had stayed an extra day (see last post about water park!) in Taraz. So I arrived Monday morning and met Alina at the train station at 7:15. We picked up from kids from Ecik and then drove out to the conference.

Back to conference evaluations. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of local trainings lately, but this one was impressive in how thoroughly planned it was. Eurasian Foundation brought in two trainers from Northern Ireland (it was a treat to hear them talk all week), who have done trainings in the area before. 10 hours a day. Full schedule from the beginning. Props. Slides. Games. Tasks. Group work. Daily reviews. And Pat, who worked in our small group, was amazing at group facilitating. When we had conflict, he didn’t ignore it. He addressed it immediately, and we talked about it directly until everyone felt like it was resolved. He was positive about absolutely every response given and receptive to any idea suggested. It was unbelievable the patience he showed with the youth.

And patience was needed. Maybe some of it was the translation, because a lot seemed to be lost. Basically, the biggest differences I noticed were no understanding of time limits and no respect for a restricted discussion format. We constantly ran over on our work, because even when five minute warnings were given, no one seemed to hurry up. The same pace was continued. It was strange to see. I think it’s cultural that more time will be given maybe. Also, we had one part that was supposed to be a very organized discussion. Or actually not a discussion. Just report reading and voting. But it turned into a discussion. And this might just be me, but I don’t think you always have to share your opinion in trainings. Sure, it’s great to get a viewpoint, but when the facilitator says one more comment, and that comment sets you off, you just suck it in. Especially when its simply a discussion, and there’s no decision making to come afterwards. You don’t have all the time in the world to just debate the merits of something. But we tried.

The youth also went a little wild. I don’t know what they did every night, but few slept more than three hours a night. That’s okay. I’m a big fan of work hard, play hard. I’ve been there before where you meet these amazing new people and you only have four days to spend with them before you separate forever. But when you play hard, you have to work hard. And when 8 of 25 people are showing up 20 minutes late to the first session, that’s a problem and that’s disrespectful. Two people from my group skipped all of Thursday morning. Eurasia paid for them to come to Almaty, paid for their hotel, and paid for the training, and they have too much fun at night to do what they came there to do. I was seething on the inside because of that.

But for the most part, the training went really well. I think my favorite activity was analyzing the painting Guernica but Picasso. It somehow related to monitoring. I don’t know about that, but I think we should add it to our Pre-Service training exercises. Give out the painting and ask, what do you see here? How does it make you feel? And once all the trainees are done answering, tell them, “This will be your site. Enjoy.”

Another highlight of the conference was the idea to use adhesive spray to make “sticky walls.” The trainers used sailing fabric that was strong nylon and sprayed it down with some 3M product. This meant they never had to use tape. They just stuck things to the wall. So useful and I’ve never seen it done. I’m not sure how cost effective it is, but I think if you use the sheets long enough, it would be really really handy.

Usually, I would model the youth’s behavior when I’m in Almaty and take advantage of the night life. However, I was so exhausted by the long trainings, I basically crashed every night. We did get to see Kyle and Meriah, which was cool, and we ate at Pizza Hut. Yes, Pizza Hut (see next post.)

Now, the training is over and we launch our youth bank soon. It should be a lot of work, but I think it will be a great experience for me and the youth. And if anyone is interested in giving some donations, I’m going to try to set up some channels to make foreign donations possible. $500 dollars, and you can sponsor your very own youth project in Kazakhstan!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Baseball Camp!

Way back in December, way before my friend Hanman decided to get ripped, he decided he would once again hold his baseball camp. Ever since announcing it in the cold winter months, baseball camp had been a constant oasis on the horizon. With summer came baseball camp. We dreamed big. Baseball cards for the kids, watching game on the Internet, projecting the movie Major League on the side of his apartment building, getting Willie Mayes to come, and a slip ‘n’ into home base.

But unfortunately, a week before the camp, my organization told me about the ecology camp we were doing for city youth (see last post). Then I got asked to go to a training for a new Youth Bank (www.youthbank.org) project starting in my city (see next post). So baseball camp for me was cut from ten glorious days to four. Monday, Friday, Saturday. (And Sunday. No camp, but hanging with volunteer time.)

Okay, so backing up. Baseball in Kazakhstan? If you’re not asking yourself what the heck is Michael talking about then you don’t know Kazakhstan. Soccer, kokpar, basketball, volleyball. Those are sports here. Baseball. Nope. But somehow, some time in the past, a volunteer acquired about three bats, fifteen gloves, a dozen balls, and five helmets (safety first!). So now, every summer, volunteers can spend a week or two teaching children a sport they’ve never played before and may never play again. But you know what, they pick it up quick, and they sure do have fun.

The first day was mainly spent with hitting and throwing skills. And then a short game with emphasis on throwing it to first, second, third, or home depending on where the runner is (Bir-in-shi, eki-in-shi, ush-in-shi, wu-ee-geh, in case you want to play at home.) Because Kazakh names are especially hard (especially for them Yankee volunteers living among Russians), we gave the children nicknames instead. Rookie, Jarule, Arod, John Stockton, Baby, etc.

Then I left. And I came back Friday and by golly the kids were already playing seven inning games. There was no stealing or balks or infield fly rule, but the kids were playing baseball. By then we had about twelve kids and eight volunteers, more than enough to field an actual team. It was an astounding site to see in Kazakhstan.

Then Saturday came, and it was the Big Day. Meaning I had lost one of my numerous bets to Hanman and was required to make the slip ‘n’ slide. One day I had randomly stumbled across plastic sheeting in the bizarre and had bought it. Now all I had to do was sew up the sides, buy some Fairy (the local brand of dish soap), and get some water from the well. In order to make it a little more fun, we planned an entire field day. Long jumb, Frisbee throw, tug of war (the jump rope broke – 3 times), and then an obstacle course ending in a wet slide into home. The obstacle course itself was set apart from maybe all other obstacle courses ever created on Earth by the fact that between first and second (it was a baseball diamond), the runners path was blocked by Scott and Aaron wearing large, furry mascot heads and making strange noises.

The kids enjoyed it immensely. I think I enjoyed it even more. It was super. The rest of the day just made it even better. Jenn, Ken, and I ate dog. Then we went swimming at a café. Then we ate Turkish food. Then we sang Karaoke (yes, we made many a tribute to Michael Jackson). And then donors on the walk home. The next day we continued the fun by going to a water park. Three more volunteers came and then I departed for Almaty for Youth Bank Training.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ecology Camp

At the end of June, I helped at an ecology camp for my organization. We took about twenty-five youth ages 17-22 (we were hoping to get fifty) up to a camp about 60km north of the city. Our plan was to do some hiking, trainings on ecology, ecology competitions, and ecology KVN. That didn’t really turn out so well.

First, we had a projector, but no computer. Oops. Second, we didn’t really have a training space. We had a porch to one of the cabins we were staying in. Third, we had half the youth, so we didn’t have to split the program into two groups. Fourth, some of the youth seemed to not fit the original criteria. Eventually, we fixed things. We got a projector. We moved tables to the porch (after scoring the whole camp for ones that weren’t claimed by the campers). And we just cut the groupings.

From my American point of view, we did about twelve hours of training over three days. I guess that’s not that little, but it seemed like we had a lot of one hour breaks and a lot of pool time. I didn’t really see us learning too much about ecology and there was definitely not a running theme of ecology through out our days. In short, I was disappointed with the training aspects.

Other aspects were good though. We had a “discoteque” every night, meaning a dance. The camp puts one on for the kids, and we were able to attend. We competed against the counselors in KVN and tied. (I got to be Barak Obama during one of the skits arm wrestling my friend Aidos acting as Nursultan Nazerbaev.) We did go on a sweet hiking trek for three hours. And we got to lay outside one night and stare at the stars here (absolutely gorgeous and saw at least five shooting stars!) We played in the pool. There were apple trees everywhere to just pick fruit from and eat. And the camp was a truly scenic place, full of trees and a small river at the foothills of some mountains. I had a good time, but I wished the training aspects of it had been better.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Quick update again and a poem (not by me)

Oi! I lost my flash drive. Or it's somewhere in my house. Or at Dave's or Susanna's or camp or Almaty. Basically, I need to do some searching. Because of that, I can't type at home and then post. So I'll keep this short since time is money here at the internet cafe. I just got back from Almaty. My last two weeks have been great and busy. I'll update soon, probably like six stories about what I've been doing. Until then (hopefully tonight or tomorrow) Happy Fourth!

Here's one of my favorite poems about America.

Let America be America Again
LANGSTON HUGHES 1938

Originally published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Summer Plans and A Quick Story

I’ve been busy. And not. And busy. And sick. And lots of things. I’m actually on a pretty packed schedule until the end of July. This week I’m helping at two camps. One is baseball camp which was AWESOME today. And the second is an ecology camp that my org is running that starts tomorrow. After that I’m going to a training for a new Youth Bank starting in my town sponsored by the Eurasian Foundation and Activ. Then I’m going to another camp hosted by my org for two weeks. Then Almaty for my Peace Corps medical check up. Then I look up for air and it’s already July 25h and my family is coming in three weeks after that.

Anyway, I am still enjoying the city. We went to a rock concert last week. I got sick last week. I read Dune finally and can’t remember being so satisfied with a book after I finished it. I doubt the sequels will live up to it. I’ve hosted three couchsurfers and met tons of great people so far in the city. And I went back and gostied at my old host family’s house for my Toma’s birthday party (she turned 3!) I hope to write more soon, but I wanted to get something up since it’s been a long time.

Oh, a quick unrelated note. Like any time you learn a foreign language, sometimes synonyms can be tricky. You want to know how words are different and you can learn false reasons just to distinguish them. I don’t know where some of these come from in Kazakhstan (maybe that dastardly British English so popular around these parts!) but below is an example of one discovered by my friend last week.(I wasn’t there, so I had to fill in the details as close to the real facts as I can imagine)

Hanman: Hey English Theater kids hanging out at the bus stop. What’s up?
One ETKHOATBS: We were supposed to meet today, but Michael is ill, so we didn’t stay long.
Hanman: Oh, yeah, I heard he was sick.
One ETKHOATBS: Sick? What’s sick?
Two ETKHOATBS: I know. That’s like ill, but in the head. (motions to the head while doing this)
One ETKHOATBS: Ohhhhhh.
Hanman (chuckles and thinks about how ripped he’s getting).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Jingle Bells

I forgot to include this in my blog about singing songs on the bus. Because most of the songs were in Russian, I sat there trying to think of a song I could suggest in English that everyone would know. And honestly, even I struggle with most songs when they aren’t part of the chorus. I had one in mind, but it just seemed silly. But I was certain they would know it. Fortunately, my hesitation was solved when a sympathetic volunteer for our organization started the exact song I was thinking of: Jingle Bells. Everyone knew it. Maybe 20 of us belting out Jingle Bells on a bus in Kazakhstan at the end of May. And they especially enjoyed my embellishments of “hahaha” and “hey.” Next they tried “I just called to say I love you,” but we couldn’t get pass the chorus. Travel tip in Kazakhstan: if you want people to join in with you for the whole song, stick with Jingle Bells.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Perfect Weekend (two)

So my last blog left off with me moving into the great unknown of the city with few local friends and a world of unknown possibility. I’ve only been here a week, but so far, it has been awesome. With a combination of better Russian skills, warm weather, other PCVs, working in a youth organization, and living in a city, I had an amazing introduction to life here.

Last Friday night, I went with fellow PCV Hanman to see live music at a local club with some locals dancers that he knows. The band wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. It played mainly danceable songs in both Russian and English. But live music at a club! You don’t get that in the villages.

The next day we woke up and rode out to his village with some of the dancers from the night before to meet one of his colleagues. Yes, after hearing about picnics for months now, I was finally going on one. This one was complete with horseback riding (his colleague had two of his fourteen horses out for us to ride); kielbasa, tomato, and cucumber sandwiches; frisbee throwing; and a dip in the river. When I got back, I was supposed to go to a concert with a guy from work, but he got the times mixed up. It was okay; I was exhausted.

Sunday I woke up to go on my second picnic of the weekend. My work had organized a trip with a local dance school to go to the mountains. We played mafia, ate noodles with meat, and then went on a three hour hike on the hills around our site. Aidos and Acel and I got separated from the rest of the group but we climbed three of the hills ourselves. Of course, I forgot my camera, but it was awesome nonetheless. Then we got back and threw the Frisbee in a circle for about half an hour before packing up and going. On the way back, we stopped at a historical city with warm stones and sung old Russian songs on the bus.

So if you’re comparing this with the first perfect weekend, there are some similarities: friends, Frisbee, and singing on car trips. Mix those things together, and I’ll probably be happy.

I doubt that my life will consistently be as exciting as that, but that was a wonderful way to get acquainted here. I’m really excited to be here in the city and at my new organization. I’ll post more about my first impressions soon.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Perfect Weekend (one)

The Perfect Weekend

I plan to move to Taraz in a couple days to work at my new site, but it’s days like this that make me wonder if I made the right decision. (Of course, it’s a weekend, and that means I’m not at work.)

Saturday was the KVN Zhambyl Oblast Finals. Our team got a late start practicing, but we spent all day Friday running through our skits. I had a small role. I would read a few questions in Kazakh and sit there while they sang some songs. We left for Taraz early in the morning and on the way our van stopped in a field of wild flowers to take pictures of the group. We also rapped and sang to the sounds of Kairat’s sweet guitar playing during the ride. I felt like I was with a group of people who I was really friends with, and we were just hanging.

The competition itself flew by. I doubt I’ll be asked to be on a team in Taraz, so this is probably my last competition. We ended up placing second and winning a digital camera. I also broke the news to the team that I would be moving to Taraz. They were sad, but eventually agreed I could probably be a more effective worker there. (They also claimed we were going to Astana in the winter. Of course, no one had ever told me that. I maybe could have held on to make my dreams of being a Kazakh Superstar come true.) After the competition, I met someone from my new organization and we looked at an apartment together. It’s near the center and furnished, but soooooo small. I’m going to live there at first, but I want something bigger with a balcony I think. But for now I just need to get into the city to start my new job. I made me way back to my site and stayed up late watching a movie in Russian with my host brother.

Sunday I slept in and then worked in the garden some. Nurdalet and I threw the Frisbee around and then played soccer in the street with some neighborhood boys. I watched some KVN on TV, spoke with some of my Peace Corps friends on the phone, helped make dinner (okay, I watched. But I was about to put some of the dough through the noodle-cutting-out-machine before they stopped me. Okay, I also watched them work in the garden, but I did use a scythe for a little bit for photos which unfortunately didn’t work.), and now I’m just working on some computer stuff.

A great weekend. Fun, relaxing, completely local. I’m going to miss the days like this. I know I’ll eventually make friends in the city, but for now I’m leaving this support system for something unknown. And I’m leaving weekends like this.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

I changed sites

I changed sites. The reasons are complicated, but not. I felt like my organization was not providing me with enough quality work. The director was having a lot of things going on and was being pulled in different directions by his bosses. I spent most days sitting in our office trying to find things for me to do or planning projects that would never be implemented. Back in March, my manager gave me a deadline: work by June or you’re moving.

I had fought a site change for a while. I wanted to stay. I wanted to make it work. I had (and still have) this great vision for what the business incubator could be. So I accepted the deadline and thought we’d do something. Anything. And I could stay.

But then we didn’t. And I realized that I wasn’t sure if we ever would. So when my manger came to visit my site again, I said I was ready. I was tired of trying and trying without seeing any results. Without seeing any reciprocation from my coworkers.

Sadly, I was beginning to feel more integrated into my community, especially over the last four weeks. I had joined the comedy team. I have been playing soccer twice a week for months now. I made more English speaking friends and have been hanging out with them. My host brothers have been home for a while and will start to do some remodeling work soon on our house. I was going to help. Spring is here and people are more active. The sun doesn’t set so late so I can stay out later walking around. I’ll miss this place. It felt like home. My little community that no one else appreciates. I was the American here. And now I’m leaving all that.

But I’ll be closeby. Only 40 minutes (truthfully 2 hours with waiting, but 40 minute travel time.) I’ll be in Taraz, which is my favorite city in Kazakhstan. I already have friends there through other volunteers and through family and gostings and the train. I’ll move out on my own (which I wasn’t planning on doing quite yet), so I’ll cook more and eat better. Vegetables will be a regular part of my diet, especially with summer coming. But most importantly, I’ll have work.

I’ll be at Zhambyl Zhastara, an organization I’ve actually worked with a few times in the past. They focus on youth development through education, leadership, and volunteerism. I actually have a certificate in Leadership and Service from UGA, so I feel uniquely qualified to work there. They also want help marketing their programs to the community, which I think I could also be good at. They’ve had a volunteer in the past, a few years ago, but not recently. But that means they know how to work with a volunteer. They speak Russian (and English), but both of those are much better than the Kazakh spoken in my current office (not an overall judgment of the language but simply because I didn’t study Kazakh). Maybe most importantly, they have pre-existing programs and projects. I’ll be able to jump right in with helping them and hopefully eventually propose my own. They understand what a volunteer can offer and they want that.

So now I’m saying my final goodbyes at my old site. I’ll certainly miss the people. The people were always great. My acquaintances, my friends, and especially my family and coworkers. I’ll miss my morning exchange with the security guard, being jokingly pestered by the drivers, and the office culture that I finally warmed up to. This was an experience I could have never gotten anywhere else, and I’m happy to have gone through it. I’ve enjoyed it here. Thank you to all the people here who have made my life wonderful during my time in Zhualy. I’ll be back to visit.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kazakh Superstar

A week earlier I would have never imagined it. There I was standing in front of hundreds of applauding people, dressed in authentic Kazakh clothing, receiving an award that I wasn’t quite sure what was for. I had just finished my first KVN competition and apparently was given the award for best overall performer. My team placed second and received a DVD player. More importantly, I felt like I was making real friends with locals my age.

Okay, so for those of you that aren’t living in the former Soviet Union or are, but are living under a rock, KVN(w/link) is a popular form of entertainment that doesn’t really exist in the United States. Basically, it’s a competition where teams (of anywhere between three and ten people) are given around ten minutes to be as entertaining/funny as possible. It’s like improv, except you prepare for the show beforehand. (So I guess it’s not really like improv, but it feels like that to me.) Most of the skits are about 30 to 60 seconds long, meaning in your allotted time you perform about eight to ten skits. It’s extremely popular here, in Russian, and maybe in other CIS countries, especially in the schools, colleges, and universities.

So when some people from work asked if I wanted to join their team, I jumped at the opportunity. However, like the rest of my life here, all of it was in Kazakh. Except for most of my lines, which were in English. Yes, I am pretty much an English-speaking prop for the team, but being the token white guy is a role I’m comfortable with (see India Nite 2006). However, because it was all in Kazakh, it meant that I didn’t understand most of the jokes. And even when they were translated, I didn’t think they were all that funny. But humor is probably one of the last things you acquire when you assimilate into a culture.

My friend Hanman says that KVN reminds him of Boy Scout campfire skits. Since I wasn’t a boy scout, I don’t know. To me, it’s like Robot Chicken, but not as funny. You want the jokes to be quick, and the laughs usually hinge on a radical change in expectation. At least that was our style. It’s not so much a skit with funny characters, as a joke acted out with a punchline at the end. An example is one of our guys crying longingly over the apparent dead body of a girl, and her waking up and asking what’s wrong.

We practiced a lot for a week before the show. Mostly staying after work, saying we would practice, running through the skits one time, sitting around for an hour hanging out, then going home. It wasn’t very efficient practicing, but we spent a lot of time doing it. But it was fun to sit around and joke with locals. And one of the great things about KVN is that the people that do it are usually funny, entertaining people. The people you’d want to pal around with after work.

Finally, the big day came, and we ran through final rehearsals. I would be in five of the twelve skits we had planned. First, I’d recite a Kazakh poem that I learned by heart to endear the crowd to me. Next, there would be a skit in which I’d be in the mountains and there’d be an echo, but it wouldn’t be able to translate my English. Next, I’d have a line in Kazakh about alcohol being the best translator in a skit involving being stopped by the police. Then I was in a skit contrasting American and Kazakh music videos. Mine was made with a cameraman, theirs was made with a cell phone. Finally, I’d close the show by saying local Zhualinski (my region’s) girls are the most beautiful. I’d also be wearing traditional Kazakh clothes. Why? Because it’s always better when you make the guy who already stands out, stand out even more.

We drew the third slot, and anxiously waited backstage for our turn. The team before ours ran out of time before finishing, and left the stage angrily. Then us. Of course, it was a blur once you actually begin to perform. I do remember that the audience was laughing quite a bit. That was unexpected from me, but like I said, I don’t understand the humor. No mistakes. Under time. Awesome. I watched the rest of the show from backstage. Only one other team was definitely funnier than us. Everyone else seemd to get less laughs. When the judges gave out the scores, we received all fives, and were tied with the other team that seemed funny. (Should I mention somewhere that our team made up of people from the local government and the local political party, and two of our coworkers were on the jury. Not that that sort of thing matters here.)

Oh, and the skits are just one part of the competition. The other part is either having to answer questions from the judges or tell prepared jokes. For our show, we had questions from the judges. So once everyone was done, all the performers went out on the stage. I answered one question using complicated English words, the joke being that I had given them an answer, but they couldn’t understand it. Funny? Maybe? My team pushed me out to the mic a few minutes later and told me to do it again. I resisted, got there, froze, and said, “Kazakhstan Kutti Bolson.” I don’t know what that would mean, but you always say kutti bolson after the holidays, so it’s something good. Finally, the judges went off to deliberate and the audience was given their chance to ask question. That’s when someone asked “When did Michael learn Kazakh?” and I learned “None of your d*#n business” in Kazakh. That got a lot of laughs.

Then the judges came back. And I got a diploma. And then my team got a DVD player. And I got a lot of congratulations.

Since that original competition, my team placed third in the oblast semi-finals, but that earned us a spot in the finals in two weeks. When I came to Kazakhstan, I had the unrealistic goal of becoming a star in one of their horse games. That’s shifted now. I’m going to be a KVN star.