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.

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