Thursday, March 19, 2009

What I'm up to

Last Friday started a crazy busy two weeks for me which will result in a large array of blog posts soon. But just to give you a taste, look up kokpar on wikipedia and that's what I'm going to be watching on Sunday. Happy St. Patrick's Day and Happy Kazakh New Year!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Women and Cooking

So all around the world there is this holiday called International Women’s Day, but much like other international things like the Kyoto Accords or the United Nations, it’s not too popular in the United States. However, here it is a big deal. I heard that it’s the one day of the year when men are supposed to do housework and cooking—the things usually reserved for the women of this country. So I was pumped. Me, get to cook? Yes!

Peace Corps has this wonderful cookbook that they give volunteers with a ton of recipes you can make with mostly local products. I am amazed by how often I read this book. It’s not even a book you read. I mean it’s a cookbook. But nearly every other day I find myself drooling over recipes I want to try. Bean soup, homemade tacos, mock sweet potato casserole, pesto… Before I was always one of those experimenting cooks that never followed a recipe, but here the recipes are so easy and handy. I can’t wait to try more of them out when I move out on my own or negotiate cooking my own meals a few times a week.

In combination with the Peace Corps cookbook, I had my parents send me the ultimate cooking tome: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This book is AMAZING. It doesn’t have actual recipes (except historical ones, like the first recorded recipe for an omlette), but it does contain everything you ever wanted to know about the science of cooking. How are the proteins different in the whites and the yolks of eggs? What happens when you curdle milk? How do you make tofu? And everything, everything else. Combined with this book and the Peace Corps cookbook, I set out to make an awesome Women’s Day meal for my family.

The meal I chose to cook was gnocci (which I’ve cooked once before here; it’s pasta made from potato dough) was semi-homemade tomato sauce. Below (inspired to post my recipes by my buddy Ken ) is the recipe.

• Vegetable broth (To make broth: Boil a few carrots, onions, garlic, and whatever other vegetables you have on hand in a good bit of water. Well not boil per se, but simmer close to boiling. For hours. Until they are pretty much eviscerated. I added some salt and pepper to this too. Let a lot of the water evaporate off to intensify the flavor some.)
• Tomato paste
• Tomatoes (fresh better, but I used pickled ones)
• 3 carrots
• 2 onions
• 8 cloves of garlic (my host mom seems to like garlic a lot, although she never cooks with it)
• Pepper
• Salt
• Sugar
• Italian seasonings (from ‘merica, but best if you can find some local herbs)
• Baking soda (to reduce the acidity from the pickled tomatoes)
Mince the garlic, carrots, and onions. Saute them in a pan with a little oil.
Peel the tomatoes. Smash them. Add this to the vegetables.
Add some amount of paste to the pot and mix well.
Add some amount of vegetable broth to this.
Bring to a boil and quickly reduce to a simmer.
Add pepper, salt, sugar, and seasoning to taste.
Add baking soda when you realize its way too acidic.
Simmer for a long time while you make the gnocci.

• Potatoes
• Egg
• Salt
• Flour
Peel some potatoes.
Boil them until they are soft enough to mash.
Drain the water and mash them.
Add like two eggs. One egg maybe. I added one egg and a yolk for fun.
Add some salt, maybe a teaspoon or so. Tablespoon? A spoonful.
Add flour until it’s a good dough consistency. Here my two cooking references are at odds with each other. The Peace Corps cookbook has a high ratio of flour to potato, while On Food and Cooking recommends a low ratio. I find that the higher one was necessary, but the less flour, the lighter the pasta will be.
Knead dough.
Roll out the dough and cut into squares or something. Fold the squares up to make dumplings.
Drop these dumplings in a pot of boiling water. When they float up they are done.

Pretty simple. It did take a while to make, but it’s not that difficult. And it was soooo delicious. It was hard for me to not eat all of it and save some for my family members that weren’t home. Everyone seemed to really like the sauce and the gnocci. At one point during the cooking, my host mom asked why I just didn’t go buy the pasta instead of boiling, mashing, kneading the potatoes etc., and I still don’t know how to say the whole point of the dish is the potato pasta in Russian, so I would just shrug and say they are important. I would have like some cheese somewhere in the dish, I’m thinking inside the dumplings, but I don’t know where to get good cheese in my town. I’m also on a gnocci kick now, and would like to try steaming the dumplings to see if they turn out any different from when I boil them.

In addition to this, I also gave my host mom a photo album of pictures from her birthday celebration last month and I gave my host sister some photos and some cash. I tried to clean the house with them, but they wanted to do that themselves. They said they couldn’t just sit around all day not doing anything. Later on in the day we had some guests come and that was fun. I showed some children my new juggling skills, we toasted to women, ate some ploaf, drink some chai. The normal gosti activities. All in all, it was a great day.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Some Observations

Inspired by my friend Jamie who was inspired by my other friends Nick and Corrine, I’ve decided to make my own observation list of Kazakhstan.

1. The word for an orange in russian is appleseen. Right, it has apple in it, but it means orange.

2. Chas literally means an hour. Which is also how to say one o’clock. It can also mean now. Or “now.” Maybe locals can tell the difference; I can’t.

3. Locals don’t wear seatbelts unless they are passing police checkpoints. They buckle up a few hundred yards before them and then immediately unbuckle after they pass. As an adamant, always wear your seatbelt type of guy, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to do this simple life-saving procedure. I want to introduce the crash dummy characters to the youth here.

4. Toilet paper is cheap, but newspaper is even cheaper.

5. Bananas are not dirt cheap here, but it is December, and you can still buy them in Kazakhstan.

6. Everyone knows the f-word here. They understand it’s a bad word, but it has no real meaning for them. Hence, it’s acceptable to say at the dinner table in front of your mother.

7. Um is apparently a curse word in Kazakh. Luckily, my crutch word is naturally uh.

8. 75% of primetime television advertising is for banks and cell phone companies.

9. M&Ms has a Christmas themed commercial here. (The one where Santa faints when he says the talking candy.) Of course, here it is a New Year’s commercial, but it’s the same idea.

10. A lot of families have two dogs. There is one small dog that yips in the yard and a large angry one that is always chained up in some corner of the yard.

11. Whenever you see a Kazakh man for the first time that day, you must shake his hand. The handshake need not be firm, and it probably won’t be. Just a touch really. If you really want to show respect you should also use your other hand to clasp slightly above the wrist as well. If you see them later in the day, you don’t have to do it again. They’ll probably look at your funny if you try, but they’ll be okay with it.

12. If you walk into a group of men, you should shake all of their hands. For example, if you are waiting in the lobby of city hall, it almost becomes like a greeting processional as men walk in. If you walk into a room and there are five men, you go around the whole room shaking hands. If you are with a group of men and encounter a group of men, a rather fun round robin of handshaking occurs. Unfortunately, women are generally excluded from this game.

13. Interior paint hasn’t quite caught on in this country. The walls are usually whitewashed and you will get white dust on your clothes if you lean up against them.

14. On the subject of paint and colors, Kazakhstan steems to really like using its two national colors of light blue and yellow for nearly everything. It’s still a very young country, so it’s forgivable. I’m not sure when America realized that red, white, and blue look good on the flag, and not always on bus stops, street signs, banners, buildings, etc, but it probably took a while. I hope part of their 2030 plan is to incorporate a wider palette into their public works though.

15. A lot of people don’t know the alphabet in Russian. Or at least the order. Hand them a dictionary for them to find you a word in Russian, and you’ll see them flip through it cluelessly The trick of discerning whether the words falls between the two header words at the top of the page is also lost on them. Better to ask them to spell it while you look it up yourself.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Updates and the Banya

First, check out this video from my friend Dave's English club. . Because I have dialup, I haven't yet watched it myself, but he guaranteed its awesomeness. And please leave positive feedback if you can. They worked really hard on it.
Second, Happy International Woman's Day! Somehow this isn't a holiday really in America, but it is everywhere else.
Third, this post was written like two months ago, so a lot has changed since then. And I haven't even read it lately. So...yeah, enjoy.
Fourth, last night I made veggie sloppy joes and french fries with my host brother. I think that's what Peace Corps is all about.

I apologize if I have already written a banya post. I don’t think I have, but I have been intending to for a while, so I’m not sure if it ever made it online. I think I was waiting for a really good banya story to happen, but so far that has still not happened. So I figured I should just go ahead and share this amazing part of Kazakh/Russian culture.

The banya is that it is a sauna type room in which the majority of the population prefers to wash. Showers are not very common in this country, and when a house has them, it seems to be because they don’t have the space to accommodate a banya (like in an apartment complex). The banya itself can vary in size, accommodations, and features. Often there are at least two rooms: one for the steam and the heat and one to change clothes in. Better banyas even have a third room between the two as an intermediate step where you can bathe and wash, but it’s not a necessity.

My first banya experience was at the end of PST at Christina’s house. Jamie and I had psyched ourselves up for banya-ing with Christina’s brother and father. However, when they actually sent us in alone we found ourselves pretty clueless. Of course, we had some general ideas of what to do. There is a pile of rocks generally heated by a furnace. There is a hot water spicket. There is some cold water. There are elevated wooden benches at different heights. You pour water on the rocks to make steam and the room really hot. Sweat, clean, call it a day. And Jamie and I did the basics: some steam, some suds-ing, some beating each other with birch branches. We thought we’d done an okay job. But really, we were so off.

It wasn’t until three weeks at site that I had the chance to banya again. I had been bouncing between host families right before banya every week, but one Sunday I finally managed to stay long enough for the family ritual. After dinner, they told me to go out to the banya. I was worried I would once again have no guidance. So there I went. I stripped and entered the room. This one was smaller, maybe five feet by six feet, and a ceiling at about six feet as well. I put on some steam and started to lather when my host brother finally appeared. Finally, I thought, I’m going to learn how this works.

The first thing he did was pour a lot of water on the rocks. I had made the room slightly hot, maybe bordering on the warm side. He made it HOT. The air was burning and my face felt like it was on fire. We then stood in there for a good while just savoring the heat. And then popped in my host dad. And the three of us stood in there for maybe ten minutes. It was a small room. A little cramped, but hey, it’s Kazakhstan. Of course, with the room that hot, we all started to sweat, and that’s the point. You sweat and sweat and then rub your skin to really exfoliate it. You also hit yourself with a birch branch, I think for the same idea.

After sweating it all out, we went in room two to do the actual bathing. We filled up some basins and washed ourselves soap and water. And washed with soap and water. And washed with soap and water. I usually feel pretty good after one go-over. I pride myself on being a quick showerer. In and out in under five minutes. Here though, that doesn’t fly. I’m not sure what the marginal washing benefits of the repeat lather are, but I decided to just follow the locals. And then, we did it all over again. Just when I thought we had finished. Steam, sweat, rinse, lather, rinse, lather. We went back in the steam room and sweated some more. And then rinsed and cleaned again. Needless to say, I felt amazingly clean after all this. Almost like I had new skin. I loved it.

My next local banya experience came about a week at my new site. My host family had said their banya was broken, but I could go use someone else’s. So I gather my things and we head out around 6:00. At this point, I realize that I could be going to a public banya or to a friend’s banya. I really had no idea. And when I get there, I am greeted by someone with a hearty, “Michael!” Only I don’t really remember who this person is. I meet a lot of people, especially my first week at my new site. So I go with it. He introduces me to his dad. We wait around a while, and then we all enter into the banya together.

Now maybe its just stupidity on my part, but at this point I still don’t know what’s really going on. Is this a public banya? Is this their banya? Is it a public banya that they own? So I just follow their lead. And another interesting twist is that they start the banya with their underwear still on. I’m thrown for a loop. Is this discretion around the new American? Proper public banya etiquette? Just their personal preference? So I just go with it. We steam up. We wash. We steam. We wash. They let me use their birch branches. I’m still confused about the extended amount of time all of this takes. I think I need to shift my mind from this as a shower substitute as something entirely different that should be enjoyed for its own sake.

Anyway, I manage to hang out for like an hour going between the rooms. Shampooing my hair. Lathering and rinsing. Sweating. Dousing myself with cold water. It was pretty fun. And once again, I felt awesome afterwards. I love banya. (Turns out it was a public banya, 200 tenge for an hour, they just happened to be using it as well.)

But for good or for bad, my host family has fixed our banya. This means that I don’t have to pay to use the public banya, but I am now banyaing adeen (by myself). Its good for a shower substitute, but it misses out on the communal experience of hanging with the guys. (Our banya has now broken again, and I am back to the communal banya.)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Swimmin in the city

A few weeks ago, I blogged about how I was jealous my friend’s city had a heated pool for swimming laps in. Well, since then I have found out that the city I live near (50 minutes by van, 250 tenge) has a heated pool with a bubble covering. (The pool in his city is actually outdoors.)

My first attempt to swim at this pool was an abject failure. After having been told about it by my friend in the city, I decided to visit it the next time I made the trip in. I was ready with my towel and shampoo when I entered the pool lobby at about 12:15 or so. The lady behind the desk told me to come back at 12:45, which confused me. I thought maybe they were closed for lunch. No, she told me, but I can’t go in until 12:45. While understanding some of what she was saying, I really didn’t understand what she was saying. 12:45 was too soon to the English Club I had to give, so I decided I would just go another time. I left feeling defeated and down on my Russian skills. I couldn’t even talk my way into the local swimming pool.

The next time I saw my friend in the city, she explained that you can only enter the pool on the quarter hour. You pay by the hour, so you go in at 12:45 and stay until 1:45. While this does make sense to some degree, I would have never considered this myself. I then realized that I didn’t understand the woman before because my mind was in no way prepared to hear that explanation in Russian. So my brain just couldn’t understand that foreign of a concept in a foreign language.

For my second attempt, I was ready and at the pool at 1:45 on a Sunday. This time I took no chances and quickly explained that this was my first visit to the pool and I had no idea what I was doing. She quickly asked if I was American (how she knew, I don’t know). I said yes, and I was on my way. I began by paying her the 400 tenge it took to enter the pool. Then the woman pointed me to the desk for the coats. I gave them my coat but the woman also wanted my shoes in a plastic bag. Fortunately I had a plastic bag with me from having bought a Goosebumps book in Russian (You Can’t Scare Me) earlier in the day, but this step was not expected. Now in my flipflops, I walked to the next station and handed my wallet and valuables to another woman who locked them behind a different desk. Then the first woman escorted me to the locker room and handed me off to a fourth woman. She was standing in there with a ring of keys, and unlocked locker number three for me. She told me to go shower and come back to her. I put my bag in my locker and just stood there. Where did I change, considering there is a keywoman standing in the middle of the locker room. She told me I could go in the bathroom area. I did this. Went to the shower room. Showered. And then went back to her. She locked my locker and then escorted me toward the pool area before handing me off to a little kid walking in, explaining that I was American.

Finally, I was at the pool. I felt a little silly having to be led through the entire process of getting in there, but I was comforted by the fact that even if I could speak perfect Russian, I would have not understood what the heck I was supposed to do.

The pool itself was about ten lanes wide and fifty meters long. There was a swim team practicing in the last three lanes and a lot of people just sitting on side of the pool in the first few lanes, but I had a lane in the middle all to myself. The water was not particularly warm, but warmer than most indoor lap pools I have been to. My only complain would have been the lack of flags at the ends of the pool to measure my backstroke flipturns. But hey, this is Peace Corps right?

I was tired after my first initial laps, but I felt determined to stay for the full hour. I was also lacking goggles, so my strokes had to be modified a lot, making them much less efficient. However, most of the time was just occupied by the surreal thought of me swimming in an indoor heated pool while in the Peace Corps. Overall though, I probably got in at least 1200 meters or so. Not bad for the first time in a body of water since my triathlon last July. Afterwards, one of the guys swimming next to me even asked if I had been swimming for a long time.

At about 2:45, the alarm went off and we all exited the pool area. I once again asked the woman in the locker room to unlock my locker. Then showered, and then changed in the bathroom area. Then I went back out. Got my valuables, my coat, and my shoes. This time I left feeling good. Not only for had I gotten a great workout, but I had also conquered the public swimming pool.

Monday, March 2, 2009


My last posting was about work, but that’s only part of my day. Unfortunately, it’s most of most days, but not my whole experience. Life outside of work is pretty slow though.

I have found local pickup indoor soccer, which is a lifesaver most weeks. Team sports remains my favorite way to relieve stress. We play 4v4 at a local school on the basketball court with indoor goals set up on either end. I wish we had a futsal ball, but we usually play with a Size 4 instead. Some of the guys are pretty good with the footwork. The small court makes the game revolve a lot around making runs and passing, and really neutralized my speed advantage. I have a lot of room for improvement.

My host-sister and her daughter moved out because she is going to start working in the city. That just leaves my host mom and me in the house. I’m going to try and start cooking more often. We made tortillas last week and some version of a seafood taco with imitation crab meat. Earlier this week we had a movie marathon. She had borrowed a DVD from a friend that had 40 episodes of a TV series on it. So Sunday though Wednesday was pretty much made up of watching 40 hours of television during any free moment we had. It was actually great practice for my Russian.

I met my neighbor last weekend randomly. I was eating lunch with a guy I had met earlier in the week, and there was another guy there. So Guy I Know (Nurlan) says to us, you know you two live in the same house, right? (I live in a duplex.) We both look at each other, slightly confused. Nurlan continues, yeah, you live in the same house. My neighbor didn’t even know I was living in the house, which is weird, but I’d never seen him before either. So that’s how I met my neighbor.

For the reverse of that story, I was walking around town last Saturday because I had nothing else to do. (I’m still trying to find a good translation for “I have nothing else to do” in Russian, as it is something I want to say all the time.) I walked into a magazine that is clear across town from my house. And as soon as I open my mouth, the girl behind the counter asks if I’m the American that lives with Fatima. Apparently her mom is friend’s with my host-mom, and her mom had actually talked to me on the phone the previous night. So my own neighbor doesn’t know me, but people clear across town seem to.

I don’t know why, but I love answering the phone at my house. It’s hardly ever for me, but I enjoy saying “Nyet tu” when they ask for someone else. Last week two people actually talked to me for a while even though they weren’t originally wanting to. One claimed I had a phone number I did not have, and would not believe me when I said I didn’t. The other asked why I didn’t know Kazakh if I’m living in Kazakhstan. I get that question almost every time I meet someone. It’s really annoying.

I am learning how to juggle. For Christmas, my parents sent me a book about juggling that came with three bean bags. I leave the balls out on the table and practice a few times a day whenever I walk by. My basic three ball cascade is slowing improving, although I still lose it after about 30 seconds. I’m also working on some tricks. I think in two years, I should be decent.

This week I vowed to begin learning Kazakh, but I still haven’t started. I need to. I am tired of being left out at social events because I don’t know what on Earth the people around me are saying. I guess I could make local Russian friends, but our town probably has about a 2% Russian population.

Updates from when I wrote this a few weeks ago. My host brother has moved home for a few weeks. He's having trouble finding work with the financial crisis. So it's been fun to have him around. I was left alone last week and made gnocchi (maybe spelled like that). Its potato pasta dumplings and it was so easy and tasty. I am much better at the juggling now.

In response about people smiling in the photos, people here don't smile in photos usually. Some of the Kaz20s actually take a series of photos now. We have the normal smiling, the Kazakh (serious), the open mouth (in honor of Christina), and the dinosaur (in honor of Jessie trying to do the open mouth. I think that's where it originated anyway.)