Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Work or Something Like It

I was not a naïve Peace Corps Volunteer that thought they would be changing the world when they arrived in country. I knew that most volunteers struggled to make major accomplishments, and you had to learn to relish the little victories. However, I thought there would be some work toward the little victories. My biggest struggle so far in the Peace Corps has been trying to find actual work that makes a difference. Any work.

I’ve hinted that I don’t understand my organization before in previous posts. And yes, it is true. I have no idea what we are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to be a business incubator, and honestly, we don’t have enough funding for that. And because of that, we just kinda give up helping businesses in any way. It is already the end of February and we haven’t written our plan for the year. Whenever I bring it up, my director just says, oh, we should have done that. We’ll do that soon. We are supposed to be helping small and medium businesses, but I don’t ever see any results. Occasionally, someone comes in and wants help with a business plan. That’s happened three times in just under three months. So far, none of those people have actually completed a business plan.

I am still the main consultant for how to write a business plan, despite the fact that I don’t speak Russian very well or Kazakh at all. Yeah, I can get by in conversation, but when it comes to asking about what the annual income of someone’s target market segment is, I don’t get very far. I don’t know why my director hasn’t taken the time to read the materials I prepared or the professional materials I obtained from PRAGMA (a group that works with organizations just like mine) to learn how to write a business plan.

One of the most common and aggravating questions I get from family and friends here is about work. How’s work? It’s meant with the best of intentions, but it really just puts me in an anxious mood. I don’t like saying, What work? So I answer: slow, boring. It goes. What I should really say is, I get to work. Say hi to people. Play flash games. Listen to Russian tapes for an hour and a half. Go home for lunch. Come back and repeat the sequence. Go home for dinner. Maybe I prepare my lesson for an English Club or write up a future project plan that will never happen in the mean time.

I do have a long list of ideas though that I say I’m going to accomplish. Unfortunately, they are my ideas made by me. And I’m an outsider. I don’t really know what the community needs. And I don’t know how I can accomplish these things on my own. I mean, I can try, but the for sustainability’s sake, local people really need to get involved. And right now, there’s no enthusiasm within my organization to do anything. So I’m trying to network some, meet people that can help. Befriend them, and then I plan on asking them to work with me on a project.

For example, I had this great idea for a project. There’s a local museum in town about this guy named Baurzhan Momushuly, but there’s nothing readily available in English about who he is. So I wanted to work with the museum to translate their displays into English using a group of local high school students. The students would get to practice English, the museum would get a free translation. And then I would teach the students about Internet research, Web 2.0, and wikis. And we’d post the information about this national Kazakh hero online for the world to know about. I thought about a ton of things that could go wrong with the project: the students not knowing enough English to translate well, not having readily available Internet access, not enough time, etc. But I didn’t count on the museum saying, oh, why would we want the displays translated into English. Any English visitor we get always has a translator. And while that is true, my entire project idea was temporarily put on hold by that one. I’m not giving up on it though, as I for one want to know more about this guy was that my town is named after.

Further ideas I have that have yet come to fruition are: formalizing the business plan consulting services that we offer at the business center, creating a guide for how to open a small business, centralizing all of the legal forms required for opening a business in our office, creating a local volunteer club, introducing freeware software at the library to be checked out, offering computer training classes for locals, creating an English dinner club, promoting Internet usage among the youth, creating a speakers’ series for the practicum students at the Akimat, and teaching about business in the schools. I have two years, right?

But for now, I practice Russian, play hearts, play Bubble Snooker, plan English Clubs, do English Clubs, plan projects, and nag my director. Even with lowered expectations, it’s not quite the Peace Corps experience I expected.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cell Phones Part 2

In my previous post about cell phones, I forgot to cover how cell phone culture differs in Kazakhstan. It’s a really interesting example about how people’s behaviors adapt to their technical limitations.

So, in Kazakhstan, you are charged per second you are on the phone. This results in phone calls like:

Kaz Person: Hello.
Me: Hel-
Kaz Person: Where are you right now?
Me: I’m in Taraz.

Prompt hellos. Little chatting about how life is. Get to the point. Get off the phone. Don’t worry about saying goodbye.

Another difference is that you can’t screen your calls as easily. For one, there is no voice mail. Why? I have no idea. I work in a government office and we don’t even have a voice mail system. Or answering machines. Houses are the same. As are cell phones. So if an unknown number calls, do you just not answer it? Maybe, but then you’ll never learn who it is.

And say you do know the number that’s calling. Do you let it go and call back at a more convenient time? Well if you do, it’ll be on your dime. Because when you pay as you call, you pick up when people call you. Because then they’re paying for it.

This system also results in an annoying practice of calling for one ring and then hanging up. So you might be sitting there and your phone rings. But by the time you get it out of your pocket the other person has already hung up. You see that it was Yerzhan calling, but you have no idea what he wanted. So you have to call him back using your credit if you want to find out. Some people abuse this system a lot more than others.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dance Lessons

Dance Lessons

I think every really good PCV comes to a point in his or her life when they make an effort to learn a local dance. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself as I go to my dance lessons twice a week. But it’s not like I really need an excuse. I love dancing.

After a brief stint in high school of not really feeling comfortable with dancing, I found my rhythm in college with trips to Krush Girls, Ecuador, and Dr. Wheeler’s Ballroom Foundations 1. Now I’m ready to dance whenever and wherever. Which for right now, is Monday and Wednesday at 2:00 (2:20ish when the teacher finally shows up.)

Life here is a little boring. I think I’ve noted before that there isn’t a lot to do at night. I don’t speak the local social language. And I don’t really have friends here. So I wanted to seek out dancing as a way to meet people and occupy my time. I asked around and found out there was a dance teacher at the local dom cultura (house of culture, kinda like the cultural building in town.) So one day I went over there to find out when classes were offered. I was thinking it would be like a dance studio in America. Maybe Monday there would be classical dance, Tuesday and Thursday there might be ballroom, etc.

Well, I was told that the balletmaster was not back yet, so I waited around with a bunch of guys for a while. That’s always fun. I like the me-alone-with-locals situation because I get to meet new people and expose them to what an American is really like in person. After waiting about an hour, the balletmaster finally shows up and I tell her I want to learn how to dance. Instead of telling me when I can come, she asks me what time is best for me. Slightly confused, I run through my schedule. The only free times are when I have lunch for two hours and she only has lunch for one. Then we decide on twice a week: Mondays and Wednesdays. I tell her I’ll see her on Wednesday at 2:00 and head back to work.

Wednesday comes and I’m pretty excited. Something to do. And dancing. Ultimately I want to get back to ballroom, but I figure I’ll start with some traditional Kazakh dancing. Good way to ingratiate myself with the locals and learn for future parties and danceoffs. I’m still not entirely sure of what is going on. No mention of payment was made. I don’t know if there will be other students. Or anything really. But I show up at 2:00. And she shows up at 2:30. And we begin.

I learn that Kazakh male dancing revolves around a horse. Or rather the motions of riding a horse. So I learn a few basic steps that may be reminiscent of Monty Python, only I don’t have anyone following me around with the coconuts. She tells me that I don’t learn badly, and seems generally satisfied with my slow progress. I know that I’m a slow learner for choreography from ballroom and my experience with the Atlanta Bhangra Coalition (had to give a shout out), but I can pick it up with enough repetition. We call it a day after about thirty minutes.

Since then, I’ve had a few commitments that have kept me away, but I was able to make it back yesterday. I learned some hot new moves and got to practice my old ones as well. I’m really looking forward to being able to put them all together in about a month and a half when the volunteers have a danceoff at the end of March. I might even buy a coconut for it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cell Phones

One of the first major purchases of a PCV’s life in Kazakhstan is their cell phone. Within the first month, we found ourselves dropping about fifty dollars on a phone. Most of us chose the cheapest model possible: an old Nokia, screen with no color, no camera, no music. Just the basics (and a few games. Rapid Roll score of 4340. Try beating that. And if you do, please don’t tell me or else my addiction might start up again).

However, I think this purchase comes way too early for us to truly appreciate the cell phone culture here in Kazakhstan. For young people, your phone is like a status symbol. They may not have iPods or notebook computers, but most have a cell phone with a sweet color screen, that plays music, and of course has a camera. And these phones aren’t cheap, probably costing about the same as in America. 200 to 300 dollars. Although considering that the income level hear is just a fraction of America, that can be about one month’s salary from a regular job.

Once you have your sweet phone though, you have to choose your company. There are no ATTs, Alltel (yeah, that is (or at least was) a cell phone company back in the states), or Verizon here. We got Beeline, Activ, KCell, Pathword, and Neo (All of them usually written with the Roman alphabet). And all of the volunteers are encouraged to get Beeline because that’s what all the staff has and all the previous volunteers have as well. Because here in Kstan, the network makes a huge difference.

I’ve heard Pathword (one volunteer said it reminds them of the movie the Cable Guy) has a monthly plan of 1000 tenge in which you can call any other Pathword person for free. But other than that, you usually pay per minute here. That makes calling people expensive. But you don’t get a monthly bill, you have to buy cards with say 500 or 1000 tenge on them. Then you scratch off the back of the card and type in the number on your phone. It then adds the credit to your phone’s account.

There are various plans available from each company. But the average rate is probably about 20 cents a minute for phone calls. Usually it is more expensive to call a phone that has another company’s service. Text messages range from about 5 cents to 10 cents a text depending on whether you are texting someone who has a similar cell phone plan or not.

And of course, once you became really cool (at least in my mind), you start getting different plans with different companies. A lot of local people I know have a Beeline and an Active number (despite different names, I think KCell and Active are the same company, or at least have an alliance of some sort). But you don’t even need two phones to have two numbers. You just buy two simcards and switch them out when you want to call someone with that particular company. I’m not nearly that cool yet, but I’ve thought about it. (I’ve actually thought about getting another Beeline card as well and having a different plan that’s better for long conversations. I have an excel spreadsheet that tells me I’ll save money in the long run, but I’m not entirely committed on that yet.)

But for now, I have my simple Beeline plan and my simple Nokia phone. While lacking music or a camera, it does have a flashlight built in. And that’s good enough for me.