Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I told my counterpart that we need to come up with a project idea for an upcoming conference that Peace Corps is having in March. I showed him an example project plan that I wrote up in Russian about adding consulting services at our organization. He told me he’d think about it.

After lunch today, he got back to me with the fantastic idea for a chicken factory. Our town doesn’t have one, he explained; but we have a lot of chickens. Sounds like a decent idea, I thought. But I asked him how does the business incubator we work at relate to that project. He paused and got a confused look on his face. I explained the project was meant to be for the organization that we work for. But the business incubator doesn’t have any money, he explained. How can we do a project?

Two full time staff, one full time PCV, a borrowed office, and two computers. Yeah, we don’t have money, but these things are called resources.

I don’t even know where to begin here.

Peace Corps?

Last week was Joe’s birthday over in Shymkent (city about two hours away), so a bunch of us volunteers gathered there to celebrate on Saturday. It was another occasion that really illustrated how varied the Peace Corps experience can be. It began with a conversation I had with Joe a few days before going down there.

Joe: Sorry I missed your call before. I was in the pool.
Me: Uh… Did you say pool?
Joe: Yeah, Britt and I go swimming three times a week.
Me: You have a pool! What?!

So despite it being the middle of winter in one of the world’s coldest countries, some volunteers get to work out in a swimming pool. (Later I found out that it is an outdoor pool, but heated, and you have to jump in a hole and swim under a wall to get to it, but still a pool. And still Peace Corps.)

I arrived in Shymkent a day before most people and hung out with Joe and Britt at a café. A nice restaurant with wireless Internet right near the city’s four-story mall. Afterwards, I went back with Joe and we watched four episodes of Top Chef he had downloaded on ITunes. Watching Top Chef does not feel like Peace Corps, but it is. (But it sure was enjoyable. We ended up watching the rest of the episodes Monday night, so now I’m caught up on the season. But I’ll have to wait about a month and a half before I see any more episodes probably. And I’m now convinced I can watch LOST this season somehow via the Internet.)

Fortunately, after a long time spent with a large group of Americans, I rode in a crowded marshutka (van) down to one of the southern most cities in Kstan to visit a Kaz19 volunteer that works with farmers. Riding in a marshutka in the bumpy roads staring off at either the steppe or the mountains always brings ones back to reality of Peace Corps though. It’s hard to forget your in Kazakhstan when you’re in one of those.

That night we also gathered at a volunteer’s house, cooked dinner (with vegetables!), and watch Slither with a nice set of speakers and a personal projector. Lounging on a sofa, eating peas and beans, while watching a movie projected on a big wall also does not feel like Peace Corps. But it is.

I then went back to the other volunteer’s house who had high speed internet. I was able to chat with some friends and tried using Skype, but it wasn’t working too well for me. The high speed internet is probably about 20 to 30 percent of our monthly stipend. Not cheap, but affordable if you budget. Of course, this house did not have a toilet or running water. High speed internet, not feel like Peace Corps. Squatter and bucket rinsing, definitely Peace Corps.

The next day I returned to Shymkent via marshutka. And the trip that was supposed to take about three hours took about four and a half because our van kept breaking down. Having to get tow-started three times by other marshutkas does feel like Peace Corps. Arriving back in the city and watching Top Chef, does not feel like Peace Corps.

And after this last trip, I’m beginning to wonder if I am leaving my site too much. I travel about every other weekend, and many weeks I spend an afternoon in the city to working on the Internet or meeting with other organizations. I always make sure I am doing stuff related to work, but I am out of the office a lot. But not right now. After a short pit stop at my old site to get some clothes, I am officially back at my work. And I am sitting in my office. Alone. Not really doing work, but rather writing for my blog. My coworkers were here, but they all went off somewhere telling me they’d be back soon. Where? I never know

Yeah, this definitely feels like Peace Corps again.

Thursday, January 22, 2009



I don’t think I ever expected to study Russian in my life. I took Latin in high school. I took Spanish in college. I knew I’d be learning a language in the Peace Corps, but I didn’t expect Russian. Mongolian? Thai? French? Kyrgyz? But Russian? That actually might be useful in the future. If I ever manage to learn it.

Russian is a tough language. To start with, the nouns are declined. For those who only studied romance languages, you might not know the horrors this brings upon a language learner. Let’s take the word dog for example. If dog is the subject of a sentence, it is собака. If it is used in possessive, it is собаки. If it is an indirect object, it is собаке. If it is used as a direct object, it is собаку. There are also two additional cases that correspond with “with” and with “about” in many common cases. So you’d be with собакой, and you’d speak about собаке. Of course if we want dog to be plural, then we’ll have another six ways to write it.

Fortunately, there are only three major declensions to memorize, but remembering to use endings and knowing which ones to use in every day speech is a constant struggle. I don’t even know what it sounds like to a native when I talk. “Bez molokom” for example, is literally “without milk” but milk used in a case usually used when you mean “with milk.” Usually, I find, you will get it with the milk.

And the cases aren’t too bad until you start using the prepositions. If it was as simple as it sounds, it wouldn’t be bad at all. But if you want to say walked down the street, for example, you can use multiple prepositions for “down” and depending on which one you choose, the case may vary from genitive to instrumental to accusative. Fun. Oh yeah, adjectives of course have to match the number, gender, and case of the nouns as well. We won’t even talk about that.

Articles don’t exist in Russian. This makes it pretty easy in some ways, but feels awkward at times. For instance, do you want to go to concert? The concert? Or a concert? I want to specify, but I can’t. They get by without it though.

And then you learn that in Russian, there are only three verb tenses. Past, present, and future. Awesome, right? But then you learn the truth. Verbs have two aspects, perfect and imperfective. This is similar to Spanish, when you have either the perfective or imperfective endings. But in Russian, the verbs are entirely different. So if I want to say, I read a book last Saturday, there is one verb for having read and finished the book, and another verb to describe the general activity of having read a book. Often these verbs are very similar, which is both good (because they are easier to learn) but bad (because they are easier to confuse). Russian also loves to add prefixes to verbs. So the verb говорить which means to speak, can become говаривать to say repeatedly, разговаривать to converse with.

And the worst Russian verbs ever are the dreaded verbs of motion. “Go” doesn’t translate very well into Russian, because it depends on your mode of transportation. Walk, drive, fly, swim, boat. Well each of those has a different word. Go towards, leave for, return to, go through, go around, go in. Well, you better learn your prefixes for those nuances. There are actual books just about Russian verbs of motion.

To be or not to be? In Russian, you don’t need to be if you’re in present tense. I good. This delicious. Where you? If you are in the present tense, you just omit the verb to be. And if for some reason you need to use it, you use the instrumental case after it. Of course, sometimes when you omit “to be,” you use dative instead of nominative as the subject of the sentence. I don’t really understand when that happens yet.

And then, you begin to think you’re finally getting a grip on it all. Yeah, it’s confusing, and yeah, your vocabulary is miniscule, and yeah, you don’t pronounce the strange vowel sounds they have, but you’re getting there. Then, they give you something to read. And it’s in handwriting. And it looks like a whole new language. I can imagine cursive is difficult to read for people who haven’t studied it. Ms and Ns are easy to confuse. The r is a little funky, but Russian script is a ridiculous code just made to confuse people. It can be somewhat replicated on the computer with italics, but nothing really compares to getting a sentence in script and not knowing any of it. I even got someone to write out Merry Christmas in Russian script so I could copy it on my Christmas cards here. I would match the example the best I could. And even after I had just written out the words, I still had trouble reading what I had just written.

день рождения день рождения. Not so bad. Pretty readable. D is a little different.
говорить говорить Is this really the same word? Yeah, somehow, it is.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Not a typical Friday night

This post was actually written in Mid-December, but it got lost in the holiday posting shuffle:

Last Friday was a rather down day for me. I had an ingrown toenail. I was fighting a bad cough. All day at work, I just wanted to go home and sleep. Usually, the fact that I still have no social life here in Kazakhstan is a little disappointing, but that day I was appreciative of the fact that I could just go home, collapse in bed, and rest all weekend.

And that’s how things started. I ate dinner and then went to “nap” at about 7:30, not really expecting to wake up. I did wake up a few hours later and decided I should probably brush my teeth before actually going to bed. I emerged from my room intending to be back in bed within five minutes but my family was having chai. “Chai budesh?” they asked (will you have tea.) I’m always one for chai. “Kuneshna” (of course), and I joined them for tea.

About ten minutes into the tea drinking, some young guys show up at the house. They’re my host brother’s friends, my new host mom explains to me. She had said something about him coming to Shymkent (a city nearby here) this weekend, but I didn’t expect to see him. Anyway, about ten minutes after his friends arrived, my new host brother arrives. I’ve never met the guy since he lives in Almaty six hours away, but his mom had told him all about me. “Michael!” he exclaimed as soon as he walked in, and gave me a hearty embrace. “Do you want to go to a wedding?” he asked.

Now twenty minutes earlier I had been lying in bed, perfectly content just calling it a night. I had only actually gotten up to brush my teeth. But here was my chance to go to a Kazakh wedding, possibly one of the only party events I’ve heard about in this country. “Kuneshna.” Clothes were ironed, shoes were shined, and we were off. 11:00 and we were just leaving the house. I could tell this would be a good night.

So it’s me, my new host brother, and two of his friends. We roll up to this “restaurant” (restaurant is a relative term here; I’ll write about it later. It was a reception hall) and go upstairs. There’s a huge room full of tables and people and food and spirits. There’s a DJ, an emcee, and a video screen. Maybe like 400 people. And at the front of the room on a stage are the new bride and groom sitting at a table. We make our way up to the front and I follow my bro and his friends as we greet a couple tables of young people near the stage. Asaloms all around. We take our seats and our immediately given food to eat. “Kushi.” Oh, Kazakhstan. So I eat some cold beshbarmek. And what comes next? The vodka. Oh, Kazakhstan. I explain that I don’t really like vodka, but I’ll have some, but slowly. I take a shot with the people at the table, who have now been informed I am Michael, I am from America, and I live in town now. Most have had enough vodka to really enjoy these simple facts.

The next two hours are actually fun. I meet more people, mostly friends my host bro went to school with. Nice guys, all about my age. We dance some. We listen to toasts. I give a toast. They wanted it in English, so that’s what I did. I said some stuff in Russian and Kazakh too. We dance some more. Finally at about 2:00, the party ends. I’m happy. It’s a Friday night, and I did something. Oh, but the night is young. I pile in the back of a car with three girls while my host brother’s two friends sit in the front. Because they are such great friends with the bride and groom, we are going to the after party.

We drive around for a while (because of language stuff, I’m still not really sure why). Maybe we were trying to figure out where the after party was? All the while, the driver is telling me the girl I’m sitting next to is his girl. I tell him that I understand, but he wants to make sure I understand. I understood. His girl.

We end up at a house where most of the people I met through out the night are already there. We gather in one room around a table and hang out for a few more hours. I do take some of drinks they offer me, but I am drinking slower than most of them. They call me a girl for not finishing my shots, but that’s okay. Finally, around 5:00, I’m done. I find a space on the floor, get a sleeping mat, and I crash. But just as I’m about to doze off, my host brother and his friends tell me we’re going home. Even better. We climb back in the cars and go home. A tremendous night. Dancing. Toasts. New friends.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Apples are from Kazakstan

If any of you really want a great travelogue of Kazakhstan, you should check out the book Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins. I’m not sure how good it will be for people who haven’t been here, but it was really entertaining for me. The little things were what made it so great. Like the spinning locks you have to deal when you rent an apartment in Almaty, the mouths full of gold teeth at the bazaar, and the local fascination with Linkin Park and Eminem. Better yet, you should come visit me, then read the book. That way you too can understand all the subtleties that he managed to capture.

Host Family

(Post originally written around December 18, 2008)

I have a new host family. There weren’t any problems with my previous ones; they were just too far away from my new office. This is actually the fifth family I’ve stayed with in Kazakhstan. (One during PST, one for OJDA, two for the first month at site, and one now.) And I can say I’ve been lucky to have great experiences with all of them for the most part. No creepy siblings. No drunken uncles. Everything has been pretty spakoina (tranquilo, peaceful). My current family is just a widow named Fatima in her late forties. The past few nights we’ve spent watching TV while I crochet and she knits. Exciting, I know. She has four kids (one son my age) who have all grown up and moved to the cities. For the past week, the two-year old grandchild name Toma has also been living with us. She’s absolutely adorable, and dances like the girl in Little Miss Sunshine. If I had my camera right now, I’d totally video it.

Toma is also the sixth child that I’ve lived with here. Learning to deal with children has been an unexpected perk of my Peace Corps experience. It’s not like I didn’t like kids before Kazakhstan, but let’s say on any volunteer form, I always put working with children near the bottom of my preference list. As the youngest child, I never got to experience having young children in the house. I am still not completely at ease around them, but I enjoy having them around. And they definitely make life more entertaining. Plus, I’m getting great experience for when I go back and greet my two-year old nephew Mason.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Russian Pop

I got a request many moons ago for some Youtube links to Russian pop. Sadly, my dialup is too slow to find them on youtube, but i'm in the city today.

Enjoy some of the following: Dima Bilan. A favorite of Ken. He won the Russian version of American idol. The song is about making the impossible possible. Reflex. I have some of their stuff on my IPOD. Some Kazakh flavoring.

Christmas in Karaganda Part Dva

Karaganda itself was pretty awesome as well. Highlights include making arts (and crafts) like handprint reindeer. Watching Christmas movies. Multiple nights sleeping on a cold floor. And just hanging out with friends. Saturday was really our big day out though. During the day, we managed to go out to a great Turkish restaurant and ice skating (I know I vowed never to ever ice skate again, but it was actually really fun. And it seemed like I had to, being that I was in frozen Kazakhstan, and we were on a lake at a park. I’d never ice skated on a lake. There were no walls, as Christina pointed out, but it turned out okay. And no twisted ankles!)

And even as exciting as that was, the next activity scheduled was even better. Karaoke. I LOVE karaoke. And I haven’t been able to do it yet in K-stan. We wandered around a bit before we finally found a place with it written on the outside windows. Of course, when we went inside, it didn’t look like any karaoke bar we’d ever seen. There were some TVs, but there was no stage. Just a mic lying on top of the bar. But we checked out the selection, saw they had a fair number of English songs, and decided to go for it.

The selection they had was… interesting. Only one Journey (and not Don’t Stop Believing). No Neil Diamond. A lot of Beegees but no Stayin’ Alive. Celine without the Titanic song. A lot of Louis Armstrong. But I guess you shouldn’t judge a Kazakhstani karaoke bar on the selection of English songs it has. We did manage to find enough songs to keep us going though. Ken started the night was the uber appropriate jingle of Wham’s Last Christmas (which turns out is a really long song). Katie did a great George Michael and Faith. Christina and Jessic sang about warm weather with Kokomo. Jamie did maybe the most passionate performance of the night with the Eagle’s Take It Easy. Megan and I did not one, but two Disney duets together, in which she totally upstaged me in both of them. Ken and Katie also got halfway through a Dima Bilan (the Russian Justin Timberlake) before Katie accidentally told them to shut it off when she said help me in Russian.

And of course, I gave the absolute worst performance of the night by overestimating both my knowledge of Juanes and my ability to read the Spanish language after four months of living in Kazakhstan. But, I can now say that I performed Camisa Negra at a bar in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, and it may be something I take pride in for the rest of my life.

I think how a country likes to do its karaoke says a lot about them, or at least is interesting. In Peru for example, you passed a microphone around the tables, but there was no “stage” to sing on. In Asia, I’ve heard that you often rent your own room. Here people performed near the bar, but they didn’t really “perform.” Sang yes, and for the most part very well. But they lacked the American enthusiasm (which is maybe just shown in order to make up for the lack of singing ability.) I did enjoy the locals singing though, especially when one of them picked out a third Disney duet to sing with me and I inadvertently told Ken to sing it instead.

The rest of Karaganda was pretty chill. Mostly just savoring friends and American culture while we could. Our train wasn’t scheduled to leave until late Sunday night/early Monday morning, so we had a lot of time to kill. I ended up watching Fellowship of the Ring in Russian (and it was awesome). And then while I was channel surfing at 1am, I stumbled upon a live broadcast of the Miami-Baltimore NFL game. I was in awe. I didn’t expect to see a live football game for two years. It means I probably could have seen the Falcons game the day before, but maybe it was for the best that I didn’t have to watch that.

We left Karaganda in the morning and went right to sleep on the train, being that it was 3:00am when we boarded it. The bunk of the train actually provided me the best night’s sleep in three days. And when I awoke I was happy to find that my plats neighbors were all young people. A twenty-two year old guy and two twenty year old girls. When I wasn’t hanging out with Megan and Jamie in the next compartment over, I spent most of my time playing cards (Durak, look it up, have I blogged about that yet? I should) and getting to know these moladois. The time flew by, and it barely even felt like we were traveling.

I walked home with a guy I met on the train who lived nearby and was happy to see my host-sister and niece. I ate dinner and then crashed. Kganda was great, but it almost didn’t feel like the Peace Corps. I’m actually excited about staying close to site for a while. Surprisingly, I missed it some while I was gone.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Christmas in Karaganda: Part Odeen

Christmas in Karaganda

The two days off of work post-Novi Goad (it’s not even New Year’s in my mind anymore, when I think of it, I think Novi Goad) gave all of us volunteers a four-day weekend. I saw that as a great time to travel somewhere and see some old friends from PST. I had to decide between going to the Shymkent two hours away or taking an eighteen hour train to the middle of the country for “Christmas in Karaganda,” a holiday celebration that Jessic had been planning since our sites were announced in October. Shymkent is warmer and closer than Karaganda. However, Karaganda just had this mythical appeal. When faced with a difficult decision, I always try to pick the option that will make the best story later on. Trains, snow, steppe, cookies, and stockings. I chose Karaganda.

I left my house on the morning of the first and headed to the local train station. I quickly befriended some local Russians who wanted me to help their daughter climb on the train with an injured foot. At train stations in the big city, they could have helped her themselves, but my town get a three minute stop. So you begin by guessing where your train wagon will stop and stand there in eager anticipation. We guessed wrong, and ended up trying to run through the snow to get to our wagon. Well of course, she can’t run. So we end up boarding a few wagons early and walking through the train to our spots. (I don’t understand why people were so concerned about getting on their wagon, because I’m pretty sure anyone could have done this.)

At this point the train is nearly empty. In my wagon, there are maybe ten other people and about fifty or so spots. I should take a moment though to describe the train. I have written about trains earlier, but my only experience had been kupets. Kupets are now classified as boring. Platscart is the new way to go. See, in kupets there are a number of rooms along a hallway, each with two sets of bunk beds. Platscart has a similar setup, but there are no walls separating the hallway from the rooms with the beds (so they aren’t really rooms, per se, but there is a definite defined four bed set up with a table in between.) And the hallway itself is also lined with bunked beds. So you don’t really get any privacy, but why would you ever want that. Plus, in platscart, the bottom bunk is really just a seat for pretty much whomever. And sitting on people isn’t even considered rude. Strange to me, but that’s how things are here.

So on the way to Kganda I meet the most awesome people. First, there was the conductor that was nice to me because I was new on the train. Then there was a young teenager that had sung at the New Year’s concert I’d seen the night before on his way back to school in Astana. Then the university student that wanted to practice her English with me. And finally husband in wife from Taraz who gave me chai and food when they saw I didn’t have any. Plus, the husband was so impressed with my one Kazakh toast (Zhanga Zhil kutti bolson, happy New Year) he made me keep giving it. When I couldn’t go to sleep I ended up talking with him for a while and we sang songs together in English and Kazakh. I loved platscart.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Snowv’em Goad 'em

С Новым годом! That’s how you say, “Happy New Year!” in Russian. As I said before, Christmas isn’t really a big deal here. But New Year’s is. As the thirty-first approached, Kazakhstan did seem more like America at Christmas. There were some decorations put up. Schools had New Year’s celebrations. Television even started showing American Christmas movies (I saw Love Actually, The Santa Clause 2, and Bad Santa playing in Russian).

I had maybe made party plans a little earlier, but those had fallen through for a number of sort of complicated reasons. But anyway, it got to be the thirty-first and I had figured I would be celebrating with my host family here in town. What that meant though, I was still uncertain of. Maybe just me and host-mom. Maybe with host-sister and niece. Maybe with brothers. But part of my life here is just going with things and figuring them out as they happen. It was annoying at first, but now knowing plans is actually anticlimactic.

On New Year’s Eve, I worked until lunch and then the celebrating began. One of my host brothers from Almaty had come in that I hadn’t met, and we went gosting to some places. Then my other host brother came back from Shymkent and we had a big family dinner of traditional Kazakh food. I was then told that my older host brother was going to Taraz but I would be goolyat-ing with host brother number two. Gulyat is the Russian word for “to walk around” but it also means to just have fun.

So we checked out the local New Year’s concert down at the town’s center. It was a pretty big crowd. On the stage, they had dancing and singing. All around the crowd people were shooting off fireworks. That was maybe the biggest initial shock. It would have been so illegal in the US. Not just sparklers. But any type of firework you could imagine. Big, little, and in between. We also met up with many of my host brother’s friends from school and went to a café for a while.

We eventually made our way back to the concert, which abruptly ended at 10:00. The music stopped. The stage lights were turned off. I was confused. In America, most New Year’s parties last until well past midnight. I turned to my host brother and asked him what was going on. Had the concert finished? Yeah, it ends at 10:00 he told me, so everyone can go home and celebrate at home. Right. That is so Kazakhstan to me. In America, you go out to the concert so you can be out of the house. But here in Kazakhstan, they want to make sure they are home with their families when the ball drops. (Not that there is a ball, we’ll get to that in a bit.)

We gulyatted around town until about 11:30 when we finally meandered back to our house. When we get there, there’s a concert on TV. We have some champagne ready to break out. Things are feeling pretty normal, almost like America. Then at 11:50, who comes on the TV? None other than Nursultan Nazerbaev, the Kazakhstani president. He gives a ten minute speech and then reaches off-screen and grabs a glass of champagne to toast to Kazakhstan to bring in the New Year. Imagine if Dick Clark was replaced by George Bush. But here, that’s normal.

We actually didn’t stay inside to here his final toast, because as soon as midnight struck we rushed outside with the champagne and begin to yell happy new year (snowvem goad’em) to anyone we saw. It was an amazing scene. Everyone was in the snow-covered streets wishing happy new year to their friends and neighbors. Fireworks are going off everywhere. It was beautiful. The sky was lit up with colors around every neighborhood as people rang in the New Year was celebrating that would never be allowed in most parts of the United States. Then we went and gostied at our neighbors’ house. And then they came and gostied at ours. And then I crashed at about 1:30.

It was awesome, and definitely a New Year’s night I will remember for a long time.