Thursday, April 30, 2009

We’ll go ahead and say it was for the championship of Central Asia…

Visa to Kyrgyzstan: $15.00
Transportation to and from Bishkek: $17.00
Miscellaneous travel costs: $10.00
Traveling 6 hours to another country to play an organized game of ultimate when you are living in Central Asia for two years: Priceless

I’d like to begin by apologizing to anyone out there who may not understand the jargon in this post, but I encourage you to start playing organized ultimate so it will make sense to you. :)

Last weekend I traveled to Bishkek to play in the somewhat annual Bishkek-Almaty ultimate Frisbee game. I was fortunate to hear about the game in March when I stopped into play pickup with the Almaty team while I was in town for a conference on volunteerism. After that I went through the hassle of getting a visa (a small hassle, but still pretty much a full day in Almaty), the stress of Peace Corps saying that Bishkek may be entirely off limits, and then the stress of having to arrange a stay in a town near the Kyrgyz border so I could make it to the game on time Sunday morning (thanks Jamie and Simbat!)

But it was most definitely worth it. Jacob (another PCV) and I arrived at the fields at 10:20, with the game scheduled to start at 11:00. All of our team was already there, most having come down from Almaty the day before. The team is a truly international mix of characters, headed by an ex-pat named Jason that works in Almaty. Jason played ultimate in the States before he moved abroad, but he’s been away from the stateside scene for awhile. (For Frisbee-philes out there, he left before the Callahan was added to the official rules.) He is a great handler and really forces the team to play by the rules and the fundamentals.

The rest of the team is composed of locals and other ex-pats who live in the Almaty area. I believe there were three Englishmen, six or seven Russians, and two or three Kazakhs. (A lot of the team was somehow recruited from an acrobatic squad or something, meaning very, very athletic.) We had one brave girl make the trip, forcing her to play pretty much all 36 points. There were also had two Peace Corps volunteers: myself and Jacob. I’ve played with the team a few times occasionally; Jacob just began a few weeks ago, but goes much more regularly since he lives on the outskirts of the Almaty.

As I said above, the team we brought down to Bishkek was very athletic. All of the guys can run pretty well. All can catch. Most can throw an okay flick and a good backhand. Jason and I were the main handlers, as we each have six-plus years of ultimate in our blood. We had two tall, fast players as our constant deep threats. And everyone else as very solid receivers and defenders. The weeks leading up to the game, the team practiced forcing and marking, and that really paid off on the defensive side of our game.

Eventually, the team from Bishkek showed up. They had more girls, less guys. But a solid team with good handlers, and a lot of very athletic players as well. We decided to play a game to 21, not a typical score limit, but a good test for both teams. The game started pretty evenly with both teams trading points. We eventually went on a scoring run right before half that put us up at about 11-8. Bishkek did a good job neutralizing our deep threats, pretty much swatting the disc away whenever Jason or I got huck-happy. That meant we had to work the disc up the field for most of the points, or score when we got a turnover near the endzone. After half Bishkek pulled within a point at about 14-13, but we were able to get a few more scores and eventually keep a few points between us to take the victory at 21-17 or 21-18. I don’t remember the exact score.

Overall, the game was very good-spirited (the most important part of Frisbee to me!). There were a few rule disputes as there always are, but nothing out of the ordinary. At one point, I realized we were playing by World Disc Rules, which I am completely unfamiliar with. I’m sure they are mostly the same, but I pretty much know the UPA rules to the letter, and not knowing the nuances of the rules really threw me for a loop. (For example, you can take a brick in World Rules on the pull even if the disc lands in bounds and then rolls out.) At times we didn’t have a clear stack, continuation from cuts wasn’t always there, especially from the break-side, but it was what you would expect from a group of people with an enthusiastic love for the game, but not years of experience. While our team definitely wouldn’t win any tournaments in the States, I don’t think we would walk away winless from a college tournie with a broad field of teams.

The guys (and girl) on the team are also great people. They had great spirits and were always cheering from the sidelines or on the field. I wish I lived closer to Almaty so I could get to know them better. I think they’d be great to hang out with even when they weren’t on the field. Even after the game, I had to leave right away rather than going to lunch because I wasn’t sure how long the trip back to Taraz would take.

I don’t think any of them read this blog, but if they ever stumble across it, I’d like to say thanks for letting me join your team for the game. I think I made good contributions, but I think Almaty would have won even without me there. They definitely have the skill and athleticism it. Also, thanks to the Bishkek team for arranging the field and for the excellent game. I hope that the next time the two teams meet, I can be there again and have just as much fun as before.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Resident Expert and Queuing

I already spent a lot of time blogging about my travels in March, so I’ll go ahead and summarize the trip to Almaty concisely. The conference was a conference. Some sessions were useful; some weren’t. Overall, it was great to see people. It made me feel good that hardly any of us are doing well at our sites. That’s phrased wrong. We are all facing similar problems. We aren’t alone with cultural, language, and work issues. And there was a large intermingling of teachers, ocap, and language groups. I became good friends with volunteers I had barely spoken to before.

Outside of the conference, we had fun in Almaty a couple times. We tried to karaoke one night, but it was way to expensive. We ended up going to a club with live music and lots of ex-pats. It was surreal and felt like America. Almaty is a lot different than my site. We also went out to another bar one night for Jen’s birthday with like twenty volunteers and probably ten counterparts. It was nice to have the mixed crowd there.

But there’s one bloggable experience that I definitely wanted to make sure I wrote about.

The Monday the conference ended I had to go by the Kyrgyzstan consular office to apply for my visa. The office opened at 10:00, so I was there at 9:30 with my passport and Peace Corps supporting letter ready to go (the letter gives a $25 discount on the cost of the visa). There were a few local-looking people milling around outside the gate, and one non-local-looking couple in their late fifties maybe. They had on traveler-looking clothes, and small backpacks.

I took a chance and asked if they spoke English. They said yes. I stood there for a while and then decided I should continue this conversation. I asked where they were from and they said Germany.. They were traveling, had come from Japan, spent some time in Russia, and now were seeing Kazakhstan on their way to Kyrgyzstan. They both spoke English and the wife spoke Russian.

By speaking with them, I realized how much I have learned about Kazakhstan. They were interested in the culture, people, and politics here. “Do most people speak Kazakh or Russian?” Answered (in the cities, mostly Russian. In the south, most Kazakhs will speak Kazakh to each other but can speak Russian. A lot of older Russians don’t know Kazakh at all, or at least can’t speak it.) “I heard they might switch to the Latin alphabet soon, is that true?” Answered (I doubt it. Really, why would they ever, and it’d be so expensive. There’s talk of it, but my opinion is nyet.) I was able to rattle off cities all around Kazakhstan, cultural facts, important holidays. Just little things, but they are things I knew nothing about just eight months ago.

Anyway, we eventually made it inside at about 10:05 and got our forms. We had to pay our fees at the bank about fifteen minutes away, so we walked there together and continued chatting. Once there, we were given some more paperwork in Russian. They were figuring it out on their own, while I just admitted to the teller I had no idea what the Russian words were (may be conversational, but still really small vocabulary). Through her help, I was able to get done first and pay my fee before my new friends. (I did help them out once I learned how to fill out the form, but they still seemed to take awhile)

I ended up back at the consular office without them and found a mob of locals crowding the window. Fortunately, they were asking “Kto poslednee?” whenever someone new came in. This translates to “Who’s last?” So rather than forming a line, or taking a number, you just see who the last person is, and then make your claim on the teller’s attention after they have been served. This was a first for me. The normal Kazakh practice is complete and utter chaos. As a Westerner, this is one of the most frustrating experiences. Lines do not exist here. People just crowd around the window of the post office or wherever and try to get the teller’s attention. You don’t want to be rude, but you usually have to be what we would consider rude to get any service. There’s no idea of fairness for whoever has been there the longest. You have to fight for the service.

So this new method of asking who is last blew my away. It wasn’t the good ol’ fashioned line I still adore, but it allowed some order to the madness. I only had to wait about ten minutes (all of which was one guy arguing over whether or not he had given the teller a document. I eventually moved up to the window while he was still arguing. It’s just what ya gotta do.) I gave them my filled out application, my receipt from the bank, and my proof of Peace Corps service. They said come back tomorrow. I said today. They said tomorrow. I said today. They said today. And I left.

On my way out, I ran into my new friends who were making their way back from the bank. “There’s a whole bunch of people that just arrived,” I warned them. “You may have to wait a while.”

“Oh, do you think we’ll have to queue?” the husband asked me.

I just laughed to myself and said, “Yeah, something like that.” It’s a perfectly normal question, but in the case of Kazakhstan, it sounded completely absurd.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Easter Again

I must admit, 4 hours into the Russian Orthodox Easter service I attended last Saturday night, my mind was beginning to wander. It has already 3AM, and I had learned that I did not understand much of the Russian, probably due to a combination of it being new vocabulary and it was being chanted most of the time. I began to think about what I could compare this experience to.

Although, it may seem odd, I settled on the time I went for a 7 mile run last summer with very little training or preparation. On that day, I had decided I would be running a 10K in about two months, so I wanted to see if I could do it. Of course, the logical process is to start with smaller distances and work your way up, but I like to just throw myself into things. So that’s how I found myself somewhere in Bloomington-Normal about four miles from my house with aching feet and a vague idea of how to get home. I did make it home eventually, and I found out that I could do a 10K, but my legs hurt and I didn’t know if I wanted to do it again anytime soon.

I threw myself into Russian Orthodox service in much the same way. I had wanted to attend the church in my town for a while now. I originally stumbled upon it in January when I was trying to find the bus station. It’s about a thirty-five minute walk from my house, right near the main highway. However, for a lot of reasons I hadn’t made it to a service there yet. It was really cold in the winter, and the walk was long. I was out of site a lot in Taraz or Almaty or somewhere. I was nervous about not knowing anyone there or what to do. But then it got to be Easter and I decided to just do it.

About all I know about the Orthodox churches is that they are 1) A lot like Catholic ones, so much so, that their members can receive communion at our masses (unlike Protestants). 2) Their services are about twice as long and there are no pews to sit down in. 3) They use a different liturgical calendar so they celebrate their feast days after we celebrate ours.

So although I was able to attend a Catholic church on Easter, I found myself with the chance to attend an Orthodox church on their Easter. I figured if there was one mass that had to be experienced, it had to be their Easter mass. My favorite mass of the year is probably Easter vigil mass (which I dub the Mac Daddy mass) because it is full of ceremony, sacraments, and celebration. I wouldn’t pass up the chance to experience a similar ceremony in a new and interesting culture.

Thus Saturday morning I walked to the church and asked a woman there when Easter services were. She told me at 11 o’clock. I asked her to repeat it. Still 11 o’clock. At night, I asked her. Yes, at night, she replied. In my mind I was excited that it would in fact be a late mass, but I was wondering how I would get to the church that late at night. When I got home, I told my host brother about it, and he said not to worry. He’d either find me a ride or walk me there. I also wondered how I would be getting home from the service, but I figured I would solve that problem when it arose. Someone would probably have a car and want to be nice to the American.

All day was like a countdown to the service for me. I had planned on going to the church on earlier occasions, but something always got in the way. Not today, not on Easter. No matter what, I would find a way to make it there at 11. There was a roadblock. At about 6 PM, my host brother and I went to a birthday party. I knew that would last well into the night. He assured me that I would still make mass, and he was true to his word. At 10:30, he found me a ride to the church. I arrived at 10:45 and nervously entered.

The priest was in the lobby area with his priestly garments already on (it’s been a while since I was an altar boy, so I forget the name). He had a large scraggly beard and long hair to match it. He looked like what I would expect an orthodox priest to look like. I went to greet him with a handshake but I was greeted with a blessing and a hearty happy easter instead. I walked into the actual church and saw about ten people sitting down in chairs in the back of the room. The church itself was small, maybe about the size of a large classroom. Along the walls were a number of icons (actually another fact I knew about Orthodox churches; they have a lot of icons).

There was a large lectern off to the left side facing toward to front of the church. There were two small tables centered in the middle of the church, centered about ten feet away from each other. All of the people were sitting against the back wall listening to a woman read from a book. I joined them in one of the last empty seats.

As I looked around the room, I was already confused. First, I didn’t expect there to be any seats, but I was already sitting. Second, the lectern was facing toward the front of the church. Third, there was no altar. There were two tables in the church, but neither of them seemed to be altars. Where would they consecrate the Eucharist? I thought it would look more like a Catholic church. I had also been hoping to blend in and be an anonymous face in the crowd, but when the crowd is fifteen people in a small room, blending in isn’t really possible.

Around 11PM, the priest came in. We all stood up and he began asking people in the congregation to recite various prayers or read from a book. Eventually, a group of women began taking turns reading from a prayer book from the lectern while he prepared the church for the service. It is during this time, that I learned another difference between Catholics and Orthodox: the way we use the sign of the cross. At least once every thirty seconds, everyone listening to the readings would cross themselves and bow. For Catholics, we usually cross ourselves at the beginning and end of prayers and services. Here is was almost constant at times. I would always watch the people around me to see when their right hand would reach up towards their forehead, but I had to be aware of the occasional time they were just scratching an itch. At first, it felt strange, but I eventually began to enjoy it.

During these preparations, one of my questions was also answered. He went up to the front of the church and opened two doors that led to the sanctuary/altar. I thought it was like a sacristy area where the priest got prepared, but there was clearly the altar there. It’s just usually behind closed doors. Around 11:45, the priest began handing out icons for people to hold. I was first given a picture of Jesus on the cross, but then he switched it out for the Gospel, which I had to hold with a towel so as my fingers would not touch it. I wasn’t sure what we were doing, but I was prepared to hold it for a while. Midnight finally came, and he said we would start the actual service.

The service began with a procession around the exterior of the church. Each of us, with our icons in hand, processed out of the church and into the street and then back around to the front of the church. The cross was first, the gospel was second, an important icon was third, and then the rest followed. Once we reached the front doors again, we said some prayers and then went back into the church. The priest took each of the icons back and put them back around the room, then took the gospel and put it back on the altar. Mass had begun.

The next hour and a half was spent saying what I assume is an Easter prayer/song/chant. I honestly didn’t understand much. Christ is risen from the dead. Something about a new Jerusalem. And a lot of stuff I didn’t follow. We would do a chorus part of the song while the priest went around with incense and blessed all of the icons, the altar, and the attendees. Then we would go through a verse. Then we would go through the chorus ceremony again. We probably went through about ten verses or so. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I began to be able to sing the refrain after about the third time. Of course, we were also making crossing ourselves and bowing about five times a minute the entire time.

It was about 2AM, when we seemingly finished the Easter song, and I was thoroughly confused. I had already been there for three hours. I had expected the service to be long. Like if Easter masses may double in length for Catholics, then service would maybe last four to five hours. But I had never been to an Orthodox service. Do they have the same parts? Were we in the middle? Just the beginning? Almost at the end? It was a strange feeling to be somewhere and have so little concept of when it would be over. Usually in life we have an expectation of a length or a deadline. Or at least we can look at where we are and estimate how much longer we have left. In lines, we can usually see the front. In books, we can see the number of pages. Even in stories, we understand the natural progression of a plot. But here I was at an event of an unknown length with unknown parts in a language I wasn’t understanding. The complete lack of orientation was frustrating and interesting at the same time. With no way of focusing on the future, it was only possible to focus on the present.

Unfortunately, there was not much going on in the present. The priest was behind the wall in the front of the church for forty minutes doing something we couldn’t see. During this time, we kept going through more verses of the Easter song we had just completed. Every ten minutes or so he would come out and give a “Molotsi” to the women who were continuing on in song, give a blessing, and go back to whatever he was doing. It seemed to be a long break in the liturgical action.

Finally, he finished at about 2:45 and we were back on track for the ceremony. It was about this time I set a goal of 5AM for the end of the service. It wasn’t even serious. I thought it was so unrealalistic that it would go on that long, I set it so I would be happy when it ended at like 4:30 or something. But as the hours passed, the service continued. Although I know traditionally you are supposed to stand during the service, there were times when most people took advantage of the chairs at the back of the church. The elderly and pregnant sat most of the time, but even the younger women occasionally rested their feet (there was only one child there, and only one other man under the age of sixty). Eventually we also moved onto more recognizable parts of the service. The priest eventually read from the Gospel. The bread and wine were blessed and consecrated, although I wasn’t sure of the exact time (no bells like in the Catholic church). Communion was given to everyone, although I did not receive in respect of their principles (we let them receive, but we aren’t supposed to receive). And finally, at about 6:00 the mass ended.

During this time, I estimate that I crossed myself approximately 500 times and said “Christ is Risen. He is truly Risen” about 200 times. And despite sitting down occasionally through out the service, I was tired and my feet were aching. Although the problem of having to walk home in the middle of the night was no longer a problem. I knew the sun would be rising in about 20 minutes.

After the mass, the priest blessed two loaves of bread and then gave out other bread for everyone to eat. We then all went into another room where this was a fantastic spread of baked goods, dyed hard-boiled eggs, and candy. Most of the people stayed around for about 5 minutes and then left, but I heard that there would be chai eventually (tea). Only myself, the priest, and an elderly man named Nikolai stayed for tea. I introduced myself and the conversation was brief. We chatted some until about 7:00 when I finally left the church. I made it home at about 7:40 and crashed for most of the day. In the end, I am glad that I went. They told me to come back when I could, and I definitely want to do it again. However, I think a normal Sunday might be less intimidating, tiring, and enjoyable. And with some training, hopefully my feet won’t hurt so much at the end of it either.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Easter in the City

This part week was Easter according to the Roman Catholic calendar. Myself and a few volunteers wanted to find the Catholic church in Taraz in order to celebrate. Yeah, I’ve been at site for five months now, so I probably should have found it sooner. But it’s not really as easy as looking in the white pages. Two Christmases ago a van full of volunteers drove around for hours trying to find it with no luck. But for Easter, Jenny and I were on top of things.

She’d actually found it a couple months ago with the help of our Peace Corps Regional Manager and the coolest driver in the world (shout out to Pasha!). It was pretty much nowhere near anything else in the city. How they found it, I don’t know, but they did. However, despite finding it, there were no mass times posted.

I did know there is a web site for the Catholic dioceses in Kazakhstan (I believe there are three of them). I went there to find out mass times. No times. Just an address and a phone number. The phone number didn’t work though. However, my friends in Shymkent knew a priest there. That’s the next city over; the closest parish to the one in Taraz. Surely he knows how to reach the neighboring parish. I call him (get voice mail, an absolute first in Kazakhstan!) and he gets back to me. He doesn’t know the new number but he can find out. Or of course, I could just call the operator. What? The operator in Kazakhstan? How does that work?

I didn’t know. Nor did any of my coworkers. 06, 07, 009, 09. We tried a lot of numbers. None of them reached anything at all, let alone something resembling information. (Later my friend in Taraz tried as well; she reached the operator, but even the operator didn’t know where the church was.)

Finally, the priest from Shymkent texted the number to me. I call it. No answer. I text it in bad Russian and get a reply in Russian spelled out with English. It’s popular, especially on cell phones to text Russian but spell it using English letters. This is especially hard for readers of English to understand I think because I actually know how to read English, and usually pronouncing these English-russian hybrids does not result in any Russian words I know. For example, this message used a “w” to make the “v” sound. Anyway, I got an address. I got a time. We were in business.

We met up on Sunday and were going to take a taxi. Easier that way. Of course, taxi doesn’t know the address. It’s not like we were going to the main square, we were going to middle of nowhere Taraz. So we get on a bus that Jenny knows goes there thanks to hours of experimenting she had done in February. We call the number I have again to make sure 55 goes there, it does, he gives more directions in Russian. I understand some of them. Its near a store like Bereke (really, that’s like saying something is near the Starbucks in Seattle; every other store here is named Bereke.)

But Jenny’s memory does not fail us. We find the church and meet a wonderful priest named Peter, who is Polish. He speaks really good English, and is impressed with my Russian. He tells us that most of the parishioners came to the vigil service the night before, but there are like four other people that come. The parish itself was a lot bigger a few decades ago, but has shrunk drastically since most of the Germans in the area have moved out of Kazakhstan.

The church itself is not big, but it is nice. Lots of pews. Some hymnals in Russian. Definitely Catholic with the crucifix, the tabernacle, and all the fixings. There were even tulips on the altar, a nice Easter touch. It felt good to be in a familiar setting. Even if we don’t understand all the prayers, we know what’s going on during the whole mass. (We did say the Our Father in English though after they said it in Russian, and he told us the hymn numbers in English.)

After mass, we got bulletins (!) and were invited to come back. I’m doing a lot of traveling soon (hopefully!) so I’m not actually sure when my next Sunday in Taraz will be, but all of us wanted to go back at least once a month. Sometimes even something as simple as finding the church feels like a huge accomplishment over here. It made for a great Easter.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Busties and Gosting

Christina and I had decided that we would leave Shymkent on Sunday in order to spend Monday in Issyk where we had done PST. It would be the first time I’ve ever returned to a host family. I have had a lot of them before from traveling, and of course there is always the promise of returning, but the goal had never been realized. I was nervous and anxious. What would it be like? First, we had to get there though.

Christina and I met up on Sunday morning to go to the bus station. She informed me then that the other Christina also wanted to come with us. So our goal was to get three tickets. We got dropped off and I approached the first bus I saw. Christina was hesitant, wanting to buy our tickets from a window. I told her that this is Kazakhstan and this is how you do it. You buy your ticket from the bus. She said she buys her tickets from a window. In all my bus experiences, I had never seen a ticket window. She conceded to letting me handle it. We ended up getting spaces on a sleeper bus. We bought all five of the spaces in the very back for the three of us. I asked when the bus would be leaving, and they said 6:00. I said 6:30 was better for us, and they said 6:30. That also made Christina nervous.

We actually arrived at 6:00 and spread out on the back of the bus. It’s hard to really describe our situation, but it was pretty much like a VIP pad. We had tons of space for the three of us. We played cards for a long time, and we had the pleasure of teaching EDU Christina how to play Durak (which I’ve blogged about before.) We also had dinner at like 12:00am when the bus stopped at a restaurant somewhere between Taraz and Almaty. The manti wasn’t that good though. Finally, we arrived in Almaty, somewhat rested and ready for gosting.

After hanging out for a few hours at the PC Office, OCAP Christina and I started the familiar trip to Issyk. It brought back a lot of memories of PST, as we took the hour long bus ride back into our lovely town. The first thing Christina said as we got off the bus was that it smelled like Issyk. I agreed, the scent of burning trash was definitely lingering in the air.

When I got to my host family, I found out that my host brother was at work. This bummed me out as he was the person I was closest to in the family. My host sister also said I looked tired and said I could take a nap. It seemed like the food wasn’t done yet, so I took her up on that. Two hours later, I awoke and had some delicious ploaf. My host sister had to leave, so it was mainly just my old host mom and I talking. It felt completely normal. It wasn’t awkward at all. It was like I ran into an old friend from America and we spent two hours talking about what I’ve been doing in Kazakhstan. Except it was all in Russian.

After gosting at my house, I went to gosti at Christina’s where I would also be spending the night. Her host family is incredibly accommodating and entertaining. We played more Durak, where I lost big on the final game (mainly due to confusion on the rules when you have four people playing.) The next day it was back to Almaty for the start of IST.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Break 2009: Culture Shock

I have never been to the zoo in a developing country before. I didn’t think it would get to me. I’m admittedly not a huge animal lover. I think people are a lot more important than animals, and it sometimes upsets me to see more resources spent taking care of animals than my fellow man. I wasn’t expected habitats like in America. I was expecting the cages. I was expecting poor conditions. But expectations didn’t prepare me for what I felt.

The animals were in cages. Small cages with concrete slabs. The bears had one fallen tree to play on and spent a lot of their time clawing at the fence. The old corn puffs people had try to throw into the cages littered the ground in front of the bars. The wolves were in a cage smaller than my bedroom. There was a large, beautiful pelican with clipped wings in a cage it didn’t belong in. The number of animals they had was also surprising. There were tigers, lions, bears, wolves, crocodiles, emus, camels, baboons, monkeys, hawks, ducks, seagulls, even llamas. (Seeing the llamas did cheer me up some. I am very found of camelids.) The conditions were shocking. All around these small living spaces were lush green spaces filled with trees and grass. Why weren’t the animals occupying more of the wide open spaces? But then again, why would they be? Rule number one here, is that things don’t make sense like you think they should.

But it wasn’t even the animals that got to me. It was the people. Because I think Ken and I were the only ones that were feeling any sort of sympathy for the animals and their conditions. (Admittedly, the people who go to the zoo are of course the people the enjoy the zoo. Anyone with animal rights qualms probably doesn’t go.) But there were a lot of people there. Families, couples, large groups. And they were all having a great time. Look at the bears, look at the tigers. Laughing and truly enjoying themselves. And I was miserable.

And I came to a culture shock epiphany. In Peace Corps, you hear a lot about culture shock. And everyday you experience a little bit, but this was like an atomic bomb of culture shock, right in my face. I felt bad for the animals because I think they deserve at least some level of regular life. But for the people there, they were just animals there for show. They didn’t really deserve much. After seeing how people here treat their dogs (barely feeding them sometimes, on a short chain outside a lot of the time), it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But rather than feeling anger, I asked myself why I think one way and they think another.

I was raised in America that animals in zoos should have habitats. They weren’t. I don’t know what exactly locals believe about animal rights, but it’s obvious my upbringing has shaped my life in ways that they haven’t experienced. Of course, I think I’m right. But am I? The zoo really challenged by feelings of cultural superiority. It’s hard for me to really describe, but the zoo provided such a shock that I really started to think about cultural differences in a new way. Maybe cheating in school is okay because you should help out your friends? Maybe sitting on people is okay on the train because..okay, I don’t know how they justify that one. Maybe its okay if women are the only ones who clean the house because they claim they enjoy it. Maybe not. Probably not. But where do my values come from other? My culture, my family, my upbringing, my religion. And when these all vary in a culture, how should I expect them to share my values.

Anyway, I went to the zoo. It was awful. It made me think a lot more about cultural relativism in the context of Kazakhstan.

Next up “Bus”ties and Gosting…

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Nauriz 2009: Whipping, Rain, Goat Carcasses, and the Zoo

Sunday had been hyped up in my mind for weeks. Nauriz. The Kazakh New Year. Yurts, ploaf, Kokpar! What more could someone ask for. Well, good weather would be nice. Sunday decided to get off to a bad start when the temperature dropped back into the 50s and the sky let out a light drizzle. Despite the weather, we still made our way to the Gippodrome or whatever it was for the day’s festivities.

The first Naurizish thing I did upon arriving at the stadium was have the traditional Nauriz soup. I think only one person liked it (Jessie) and I may have the only one to feel so-so about it. It’s a strange combination of seven ingredients, although few people can name all seven when asked. Meat, salt, water, oil, milk, corn, and? The main ingredient actually seemed to be Kefir, which is why most people didn’t like it.

After enjoying some great hospitality where strangers gave us quite a bit of food for free, we started watching the horse games. My absolute absolute favorite had to be the Kiss the Girl game. Brad had originally told me about this only hours after I learned I was going to Kazakhstan last March. In it, a guy and a girl are each on their own horse. The guy has to try and kiss her and she gets to whip him. I thought that those events would be done simultaneously. Unfortunately, they ride down the racetrack one-way with the guy trying to kiss her, and then on the way back she gets to whip him. I think the game would be better the way I originally envisioned it. All the guys got in a good kiss, but only one of the women got in a good whipping. My original plan in coming to Kazakhstan was to eventually become a superstar at this game, but since I’m seven months in and have yet to ride on a horse (or kiss a local girl) I’m lowering my expectations of this.

It was about this time that the sky really opened up and the rain came down harder and harder. I was stubborn (meaning stupid) and did not have a coat or an umbrella. Fortunately, it took about two hours for the water to soak through my fleece so I was actually warm for a good bit of the day. The next event was horse wrestling, in which two men are on their own horses and try to throw the other off. It was fun to watch and we got to get really close to the action. I can’t imagine what muscles it takes to pull of that sport, but I imagine they are the ones I don’t even know I have.

Then Kokpar started. I’d seen it on TV before, but it was so much better in real life. I still don’t know too many strategies, but it was entertaining to watch. There were some breakaways, a few guys falling off a horse, and a really dirty goat carcass by the end of it. I was going for the white team, and I think they were even up at half. But the yellow team made a strong comeback and eventually took the prize. By the end of Kokpar, most of the volunteers had left. The rain had been too much for them. However, Ken and I had stuck it out. How often do you get to see Kokpar live? Weather was not going to deter us.

On the way out of the stadium, we ran into two volunteers that had gotten lost and were just arriving. They had mistakenly gone into the zoo looking for Kokpar. Being that it was about 2:00 and my bus wasn’t leaving until 6:30, I still wanted to make the most of the day. Ken and I decided to check out the zoo ourselves.

And what I experienced there deserves a rambling post of its own.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ruined Cities, Salty Water, and Turkestan

Saturday of the Nauriz weekend was probably the most touristy I have ever been in Kazakhstan. We loaded up about thirty volunteers plus two of our directors on a rented bus to go on a pilgrimage to the ruined city of Otrau (maybe?) and Turkestan. Turkestan is home to a really cool mausoleum from a really old Islamic teacher of Sufism. A lot of people in Kazakhstan believe that three trips to Turkestan are equivalent to one trip to Mecca. A lot of people in Kazakhstan also believe that is complete BS. I side with the latter.

However, before we visited Turkestan, we stopped at the ruined city about an hour away. Apparently good ol’ Ghengis Khan had sent some messengers there one time, and the city officials decided to kill them. Hindsight is 20/20, but you probably shouldn’t kill the messengers of one of the bloodiest emperors in history. He promptly started an assault on the city that ended up with it being completely laid to waste. Eventually, it was rebuilt and finally abandoned again in like the 1700s or something.

So we in the bus pull up to this site, and we are told we’ll stay for about thirty minutes. We don’t see a ruined city anywhere, but hey, it was decimated right? Why would we see it. There were a suspicious number of people acting very religious and all the women had their heads covered. I couldn’tunderstand why this site would have such religious significance. Then we started talking to this guy, or rather he started talking to us. A big crowd of Americans usually draws attention. We asked him where exactly the ancient city was. He pointed one direction and said about five kilometers that way. So apparently, we weren’t at the ruined city. We were at the mausoleum of some other really famous Muslim guy. It put everything in a whole new perspective.

The guy also told us that there was also a well at the site with holy salt water. If you took three sips of the water while praying you would be healed. My friend Ken and I were dubious of this action. Is it really wise to drink water while in Kazakhstan without using our water filter first? It was from a well though, and that’s safer than city water, right? Despite the thoughts of our Soviet doctor scolding us, we decided to try some of the water. I think we started a trend as most other volunteers gave it a go too. I don’t think any of us got sick. I don’t know if it healed any of us either.

We eventually did make it to the ruined city. And surprisingly, it was pretty well preserved. Parts of it at least. It wasn’t the ancient, ancient city, but most of what we were walking around in was from a few centuries ago. We had a great chance to film another scene from our LotR remake, but we passed it up.

After the ancient city, we were on the bus again for another hour before finally making it to the Holy Land of Turkestan. Gotta admit, it was a little underwhelming. I mean, for Kazakhstan, it was definitely cool, but overall not that impressive. I was hoping to see more Koranic inscriptions after having read a couple books about Islam. There were a few, but not all that many. I don’t mean to make it sound bad. It was a cool mausoleum, but for being a 1/3 of Mecca? I wouldn’t put it that high. I do hope to get some pictures up of it soon, probably next week or so when I get some high speed Internet.

We got back late, around 8 or so. There was some hanging out and then a really fun night at a local dance club. Joe and Vicente had a dance off, and Joe totally won. It may have helped that the judges were the crowd and it was mainly made up of other 20s. But I think the vote was fair. There were of course three fights, none of which we were involved in thankfully, but that’s to be expected at dance clubs down here in the South. Then bed and resting up for the main event: Nauriz and the horse games.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

SB Kazakhstan 2009: Shymkent

It has become a Peace Corps Kazakhstan tradition for a whole bunch of volunteers to make the trip to Shymkent around March 22 every year to celebrate Kazakh New Year’s. This is the first time most volunteers will see each other since they left for sites four months ago. For many, it is the first time in the non-negative celcius for months and the first time they’ve seen something green as well. Fortunately for me, I live only a few hours away, so I didn’t even have to take any time off of work to go into the city. And I even made friends with the taxi driver who was taking me there, although this friendship did not prevent him from overcharging me for the trip.

The title of this article is Spring Break Kazakhstan, and in some ways it was. We were in the South, having fun in the sun, and enjoying each other’s company. I don’t want it to sound like it was one big crazy party though. We had a lot of structure to accompany our three days in the city planned by the amazing South Kazakhstan Crew, I believe headed by Vicente. (Big props to all of you guys!)

The first night we rented a sauna, which was my first time in such a thing. I’d heard about them from my coworkers often, as in Michael, we will take you to the sauna. When? Soon. Later. Never anytime that ever happens. But finally, in Shymkent, it became a reality. See, the sauna is like the banya, but with an upgrade. Before, I’d only gone to banyas owned by my host families and public ones. But the sauna is one you rent out with a group of people for a few hours. The one we had featured a changing room, a shower room, a bathroom, the actual sauna area, a small pool with freezing water, a “massage” room, and a dining room complete with tables, chairs, and a big screen television. There’s someone outside in the lobby to sell beer, snacks, water, etc. Altogether about ten of us decided to go in on the venture, and it was about eight bucks a person for the two hours.

The big advantage to the sauna is that it’s just pretty awesome. I mean, what isn’t there to love about having your own private party complete with pool, living room, and steam room. I’m definitely going to try and get in on more of these in the future, although my meager salary will prevent me from doing so all too often.

After the sauna, I enjoyed a meal with Scott and Eric at a restaurant that was actually full of people. Definitely my first time ever seeing that in Kazakhstan. (Usually, they are pretty devoid of all life other than you. Even the waitresses can be hard to track down.) And then I went back to a party some volunteers were having at the apartments we rented.

The next day I would embark on my trip to Mecca.

Friday, April 3, 2009


I have a twitter account now. I'm not sure how often I'll update it, but you can follow me LIVE from Kazakhstan 24/7.

(See in Russian, they often change the "h" to a "g" sound. e.g. gamlet, garry potter, ogio. I wished PC had told me that before I came over so all my documents could have said готард)

I'm a Peace Corps ______________

What is a volunteer? It seems like a pretty simple question. For most people in America, it is. We have volunteers in the local hospitals, in schools, at museums, in libraries, in NGOs, etc. They are the people who give up their time to work for free. Work for free. Or at least without monetary compensation. You can get t-shirts and tickets and prizes. The line can be blurred sometimes if you receive a lot of non-monetary compensation. But money seems to be the clearly defined line.

Okay, back to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan doesn’t know what volunteerism is right now. It’s pretty new over here. It’s not that they don’t help each other or the community, but they don’t recognize it readily as “being a volunteer.” There’s also not a large civic society in which people can volunteer. Just 17 years ago or so, they were part of the Soviet Union, when most social services were provided by the government. Organizations didn’t need to have volunteers. Since then, then NGO sector has been increasing, filling in some of the gaps left when the old government collapsed, but there is still a lot of room for growth.

So to summarize:
1) Volunteers work without monetary compensation
2) Kazakhstan doesn’t understand volunteerism because it is A) a foreign concept and B) still has a small civic socity base.

Point 2 is what brought me to Almaty a few weeks ago. A few other volunteers and some local partners organized a seminar to bring organizations that currently use or want to use volunteers together for three days to talk about volunteerism in Kazakhstan. A big thanks for Perry, Dave (Hanman) Hannon, and Alina for doing that. I think a lot of good will come out of that conference. It allowed people to network, share ideas, and gain some concrete examples of how to use volunteers for all sorts of things. That was during the day.

Night time was fun. We had billiards, a dance party, America’s Next Top Model, St. Patrick’s Day, walkoffs, defenestration, and all sorts of what happens when you bring PCVs together for a few days.

But now onto the heart of this rant, and if you’re still reading this jumbled article, then good. Because I’ve been wanting to get this off my chest for a long time. I am supposedly a Peace Corps Volunteer. That’s what I am called. But I get paid. Fact. Peace Corps likes to call it a living stipend or something to cover food, housing, communication, and some travel. But I call that a salary. Sure it’s only a few hundred dollars a month, but I’m living in Kazakhstan. I get paid more than most (not all) of my local friends here. They don’t call their salaries a living stipend. They call it what it is. And that’s not even including the non-monetary benefits accrued by PCVs. As an economist, I know that money is only one form of payment. Add awesome health insurance, free Russian and Kazakh language tutoring, and an additional $200 dollars accruing every month in savings that I can only get when I leave.

Okay, so now imagine that you have a job that covers all of your living expenses, has comprehensive medical coverage with a personal doctor on call 24/7, gives you free language training, and you save $3000 a year before taxes working there. Is that volunteering? It sounds like a great job to me (which is why I’m here). And granted it’s not like CEO of a financial company or something, but it pays a heckuva a lot better than a lot of low-income jobs in the US. Or here.

Okay, now try using the very word volunteer that most locals here for the first time when you introduce yourself, to talk about actual volunteering. It’s completely discordant. Yet, that’s one of our jobs here. We are supposed to serve as examples of volunteers by being something that is entirely not a volunteer. People often see volunteers as foreigners who travel and help out in other countries. Err.

It’s one of my pet peeves about Peace Corps having to call myself a volunteer. Because I don’t feel that I am. I do volunteer here some. I think if I help out at a school after I’ve put in my 40 hours at the BI, then I’m a volunteer. But my work is work, and I get paid for it. Maybe not by Kazakhstan, but by someone. And I don’t remember third party exchanges anywhere in the definition of volunteering.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Big News!

Wow, it's been a really busy two weeks for me. First there was a volunteer conference in Almaty then back to site for two days then to Shymkent for some awesome Kazakh New Year's then back to Almaty for IST (PC slang for in-service training). Then back to site just yesterday morning by bus. In the meanwhile a lot has happened including me getting a visa to go to Kyrgyzstan to play in a frisbee tournie there if all works out well.

But obviously the biggest news is I'm engaged to a local! I know it seems sudden, but it seemed like everyone back at home was catching the bug. My blog may seem like a weird place to announce it, but Bahitgul and I met each other last week but it's like perfect. It's so hard to even describe in words that aren't Kazakh. The wedding won't be for a while, since I'd love for my parents to get to meet her if they are able to visit this summer. But we are pretty serious. More to come on all that later.

And in smaller news, they also celebrate April Fool's Day over here. Who knew?