Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Quick Summary

Usually, I like to write out what I post here at home or work and then put it up here. But someone was saying I hadn't posted in a while, so I'll give a quick update.

Wednesday...English club was epic. Although the Kaz-18 volunteer never came to club, Susannah, Dave, and I were all there. The topic of "Expectations" had some great discussion before we turne to hair care. We trimmed my beard, LIVE, in front of 18 or so stunned/horrified/amused locals.

Thursday...we met up to hear some local guys play guitar, then headed to a local night club for dancing. Fun times.

Friday...some volunteer came into the city and we went swimming with some people from my work. I saw my Russian tutor there and she asked where I had gone. Oops, I need to schedule an appointment. The park was awesome. It was a pond/lake. Some locals say it's dirty, but there were a lot of people there, and a pirate ship cafe. Afterwards, we went shopping for hours and then made frozen pizzas in the oven. Yep, my oven works.

Saturday...we went to Shymkent for Megan and Tyler's birthday. We went to a rock concert! It was awesome. I might write more later.

Sunday...two gosti experines with my old town after Joe made us delicious Scones. We wanted to see a soccer game, but Ken was sick and we had to take care of him.

Monday...Ken and I watched Dexter when our plan to walk around the city was ruined by a screaming five-year old sister that doesn't like her 22-year-old sister hanging around boys.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Slight changes

I made a few small changes to my blog since I've had a lot of free Internet time here in the PCHQ today:

First, I changed the main colors to blue and yellow in order to match most things here in Kazakstan.

Second, I updated the link where you can text me for free; the old link apparently had not been working for some months. But the new one does work, so text me whatever and whenever.

Third, I added a news gadget so you can follow a little bit about what is happening in country when you check out my blog.

Fourth, I addedlink to my twitter page so you can follow what I'm doing all the time.

Fifth, I added a search gadget so you can quickly search my previous postings.

More stories from Tau Samal and an incredible camping trip in Almaty coming soon.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tales from Tau Samal: American Superstar

It started as a joke. Myself and three other volunteers (one from Korea, Russia, and the Czech Republic) were supposed to be making a presentation about our countries for the kids at camp. We had originally intended to make a simple powerpoint with photos of our countries, their youth, and their nature. But the night before, there had been a concert with the theme of fairy tales, and the winning group had somehow turned that into a singing/dancing variety show.

“You know what we need…we need to add singing and dancing to our presentation.”
“Yeah, that’s how concerts work in Kazakhstan. You always have to do just random stuff.”
“What could you teach them from America?”

I thought for a second. I had already tried to do the electric slide. It was a little too complicated. The Twist too easy. The Macarena? Already known. What is something utterly American, that nearly everyone in America knows and does….

“I can teach them the YMCA.”

And with that idea, the second session of camp in Tau Samal was changed forever. We decided to put the song at the end of the presentation. We’d finish our photos, then I’d say that I wanted to teach them a song everyone in America does at nearly every dance event. I taught it to the other volunteers (who were unfamiliar with it) and we rehearsed it a few times.

Honestly, I was nervous. The dance was really simple. And sure, in America, it’s fun, but is it just cultural? Or is the dance actually fun? I could never detach myself to know.

The presentation went well. Some problems with the Russian, but nothing too much. Time for the dance. I introduced it. Got all the kids to stand up. The DJ started it. And the familiar beats came out of the speakers on stage. Da dadada da. “Young man….”

Our fingers started pointing. Our hips started shaking. And I looked out into the crowd. The kids were loving it! They were imitating all of our moves. Their faces were full of smiles. And then “Y---M----C----A!” Their hands weren’t quite in sync with the letters (for most, they had no association that they were supposed to be spelling out letters), but they were getting the general idea. 3 minutes later it was over. But oh, it wasn’t. They DJ played it again immediately. And we do it again.

Then every disco we do the song at least 3 times. In between the discos, we do the song. And each time I get up on stage, huge smile on my face, and soak up the joy. The kids are so excited every time we do it. Even the camp directors were getting in on the fun. It’s stuck in their heads for week.

There’s no feeling quite like being up on stage and watching 200 hundred Kazakhstani children imitate your every dance move with absolute joy. Absolutely awesome.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tales from Tau Samal: Daily Life

I just got back from a children’s camp my organization is assisting that’s about an hour away from the city. The camp runs four sessions, each hosting about 200 children ages 7 to 15 from children from cities from all over Kazakhstan. Over the next week, I’ll post a series of “Stories from Tau Samal,” but for now I want to give a summary of what the average camp day was.

8:00 Wake up.

8:10. Morning exercise. This is fifteen to twenty minutes of “Raz, dva, tree, cheterdee” activities (one, two, three, four). Like pumping your arms in the air. Touching your toes. Jumping jacks. Aerobics, but nothing too intense really.

8:35. Clean your room. Each room of about six to ten kids must be cleaned every day. All trash must be thrown out and all of the beds must be made. And it must be swept and sometimes mopped.

9:00. Breakfast! Of course its rice milk! Everyday. But it’s good stuff. Also, breakfast, like all meals is divided into two shifts. So while one group is eating, the other group of kids are….well, they are scheduled to be at breakfast. But since they aren’t there, they are doing the most popular activity of camp: just sit around and do nothing!

10:00. Clean the area of your group. Okay so there are seven groups of about 25 kids, and each has their space where they hang out. In the woods, on the soccer field, under the gazebo, etc. Each day this space must also be cleaned. The ground must be swept and sometimes mopped. All the trash must be picked up. In reality, maybe 6 out of the 25 kids do this, and it maybe takes them half an hour. What do the other kids do? Nothing!

11:00. The first day I was at camp, 11:00 was the beginning of organized structure for the kids. They could choose dance lessons, Korean lessons, soccer, Frisbee, basketball, etc. However every other day, 11:00 started a camp game. These games were like find the counselors who are wearing red ribbons, competitions with rival camps, or paint your face like Native Americans. For this part of the day, most of the kids were engaged in something.

1:00 Lunch time! Of course, only half the camp eats at one time, so during this part the other half is once again doing nothing. Soup and a main course with a mug of tea makes for a good midday meal.

2:00 Teehee Chas! (Quiet hour!) From 2:00 to 4:00 every day is nap time. This time is actually intended for the children to do nothing.

4:00. Pool time. From 4:00 to 5:00 the children get to swim in the pool at the camp. This makes all of the children happy and they actually do something.

5:00. Snack time! Snack time usually features cookies, fruit, and a mug of tea. Once again, the shift system leaves some groups with about half an hour of nothing time though.

6:00. Prepare for concert! Nearly every night there is a concert that the children perform in. The theme ranges from Mr. and Miss Tau Samal to KVN to “We are Kazakhstan.” Maybe 8 of the 25 kids in each group are interested in the concert (although this can range from 5 to 20 really). But for the other kids, they have two hours to sit around and do nothing!

8:00 Dinner! Dinner is once again on the shift system. However, because all of the groups are prepping for a concert, there is some structure to the time when they are waiting to eat.

9:00. Concert! A concert with one of the previous themes is held. They are actually rather entertaining, sometimes impressive, and always cute in some way.

11:00 Discothèque! That’s right, every single night they have a dance, but rather than calling it a dance, they call it a discothèque. It sounds much cooler that way.

11:00 Second dinner! Maybe hobbits help plan out camp, but I definitely don’t mind the five meals a day system. This is usually another mug of tea with some small pastry. Notice it overlaps with the disco though, so the children who are not eating are actually doing something with their time.

12:00 Bedtime! Children go to sleep.

Maybe from my tone, you can tell that the schedule of the camp was strange to me. I felt there was way too much structured nothing time for the kids. It wasn’t even free time. They had to stay in their groups. Sometimes they managed to acquire a volleyball or something, but usually they just had their own wits to find ways to entertain themselves for four or more hours a day. I wanted craft time, sports time, game time. Just some structure in which they could organize themselves. Maybe it’s just the American in me, but I think it’s more fun if you have something to do.

More stories from camp soon…

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pizza Hut

In May, something happened in Almaty that will change the lives of nearly every volunteer in Kazakhstan forever. Pizza Hut opened its first store in Kazakhstan. On the corner of Furmanov and some street (in the direct center of Almaty, according to Kyle), a magical place has appeared reminding volunteers how good food can taste. Michelle and I ate there last week. It was amazing.

At first I scoffed at the idea. Pizza Hut? I didn’t even like it in America. Too oily. Too expensive. Give me a Little Caesar’s here, and I’ll be a happy man. But Kyle sold me on it. And after he visited Tuesday, I had to try it. He had said it was a green building with pictures of pizzas all over the outside windows. It wasn’t hard to find.

The first thing that happened when we walked in was the hostess asked us in English “Smoking or non-smoking?” What? Are we that obvious even in Almaty? I was too stunned by this astuteness to be astonished by the fact that I was just offered smoking or non-smoking. What? In Kazakhstan?

The next thing that happened was that on the way to our table we ran into Alex, a PCV from Balhash. I didn’t recognize him at first but he remembered meeting me in Shymkent at Nauryz. We said hi, chatted for a few minutes, and then Michelle and I went and sat down. Of course, we’d expect to see another PCV there. We didn’t even ask each other what we doing in Almaty. It just made sense. Go to Pizza Hut, run into some old friends.

The menu was limited though. No stuffed crust. Just Pan and Hand-tossed. And no Meat Lovers. Supreme was there, as were some odd selections. Shrimp? Barbecue? Hawaiian? They all sounded delicious actually, but I wanted American pizza. We went with the large pan pepperoni. And the sodas of course had no refills (oh America!) but the half liter of Pepsi was served cold (although with no ice).

The pizza was prompt, coming out within fifteen minutes. The service was polite. The bathrooms were clean. It was almost better than an American Pizza Hut. And the price? Okay, it was expensive. Well for Peace Corps. Our pizza was 1880 tenge, about $12.50. So about the same as in America, but of course, we don’t get paid like we are in America.

And on the way out, I asked the hostess in my bad Russian (since I forgot the word for delivery) “У вас есть delivery?” (Do you have delivery?) “She answered, “По поже, мы только что открылись.” (Later. We just opened.) Later? As in by the time December rolls around and we gather for MST, we can order some pizzas to room 32 at the sanitarium? Отлично! But for now, we’re stuck having to go there if we want to taste America. Sometimes, Peace Corps life can be really hard.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Chinese Trains

Chinese Trains

Last Thursday, my view on trains was rocked by a new discovery: The Chinese train. I don’t know if these trains actually come from China. After being raised with such Americans traditions as Chinese Firedrills and Chinese Freezetag, I am skeptical of this tag. Nonetheless though, these trains are much newer than the old Soviet things I’m accustomed to. The bathrooms are far nicer, and actually have a green/red switch that shows when the door is locked. However, platscart on them is covcem (absolutely) different.

Rather than the regular four beds in the room area and two in the hall, all six beds are in the room area. They stack three high on each side, leaving very little room for luggage. I didn’t like it. I felt like I was in an open, crowded kupets with no place to put my bag. There was no friendly atmosphere full of fun and excitement. If you ever take the Almaty-Aktobe train, really consider buying kupets.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Youth Bank Training

Thank you Pat and Vernon. I doubt they’ll ever read this blog, but last week they put on one of the best trainings I have ever attended. I feel like I’ve had a lot of training experience. I was a very involved student in high school, college, and now I’m in Peace Corps. I’ve been to my share of trainings, retreats, conferences, etc. Before this, I’d have to say LeaderShape was number one. And honestly, it still is, but this one was up there, at a close second.

Background. The Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia (www.efcentralasia.org) is partnering with Activ (www.activ.kz) to sponsor a Youth Bank project here in Kazakhstan. Four cities (five counting Ecik (shout out to my homies down there at Fund of Local Communities) being sponsored by Philip Morris) will have groups of local youth (17-24) giving out small grants (up to $500) to other youth to accomplish social projects. I will somehow be an advisor/mentor to the group here in Taraz. I’m not sure what that means, but I’m here for questions, guidance, or monitoring. I’m super excited about working with the local youth on this project. Basically, the phone call asking if I wanted to do this went like this:

“Hello Michael, this is Ilyas with the Eurasian Foundation. Would you like to be a mentor for the youth bank in Taraz and attend a training in Almaty in two weeks?”
“Yes! Wait… what does that mean?”
“You’d just help them. Be there if they have questions, need assistance.”
“Yes! Wait… do I have to pay for the conference?”
“Actually, we don’t have funding for the advisors yet. Can you pay your own way?”
“Uh… Definitely travel. Place, no. But I think I can find somewhere to stay. So…yes. Wait… How did you hear about me?”
“Paul with Peace Corps recommended you.”
“Awesome! Sounds great.”

While most of my group had arrived in Almaty on Sunday, I had stayed an extra day (see last post about water park!) in Taraz. So I arrived Monday morning and met Alina at the train station at 7:15. We picked up from kids from Ecik and then drove out to the conference.

Back to conference evaluations. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of local trainings lately, but this one was impressive in how thoroughly planned it was. Eurasian Foundation brought in two trainers from Northern Ireland (it was a treat to hear them talk all week), who have done trainings in the area before. 10 hours a day. Full schedule from the beginning. Props. Slides. Games. Tasks. Group work. Daily reviews. And Pat, who worked in our small group, was amazing at group facilitating. When we had conflict, he didn’t ignore it. He addressed it immediately, and we talked about it directly until everyone felt like it was resolved. He was positive about absolutely every response given and receptive to any idea suggested. It was unbelievable the patience he showed with the youth.

And patience was needed. Maybe some of it was the translation, because a lot seemed to be lost. Basically, the biggest differences I noticed were no understanding of time limits and no respect for a restricted discussion format. We constantly ran over on our work, because even when five minute warnings were given, no one seemed to hurry up. The same pace was continued. It was strange to see. I think it’s cultural that more time will be given maybe. Also, we had one part that was supposed to be a very organized discussion. Or actually not a discussion. Just report reading and voting. But it turned into a discussion. And this might just be me, but I don’t think you always have to share your opinion in trainings. Sure, it’s great to get a viewpoint, but when the facilitator says one more comment, and that comment sets you off, you just suck it in. Especially when its simply a discussion, and there’s no decision making to come afterwards. You don’t have all the time in the world to just debate the merits of something. But we tried.

The youth also went a little wild. I don’t know what they did every night, but few slept more than three hours a night. That’s okay. I’m a big fan of work hard, play hard. I’ve been there before where you meet these amazing new people and you only have four days to spend with them before you separate forever. But when you play hard, you have to work hard. And when 8 of 25 people are showing up 20 minutes late to the first session, that’s a problem and that’s disrespectful. Two people from my group skipped all of Thursday morning. Eurasia paid for them to come to Almaty, paid for their hotel, and paid for the training, and they have too much fun at night to do what they came there to do. I was seething on the inside because of that.

But for the most part, the training went really well. I think my favorite activity was analyzing the painting Guernica but Picasso. It somehow related to monitoring. I don’t know about that, but I think we should add it to our Pre-Service training exercises. Give out the painting and ask, what do you see here? How does it make you feel? And once all the trainees are done answering, tell them, “This will be your site. Enjoy.”

Another highlight of the conference was the idea to use adhesive spray to make “sticky walls.” The trainers used sailing fabric that was strong nylon and sprayed it down with some 3M product. This meant they never had to use tape. They just stuck things to the wall. So useful and I’ve never seen it done. I’m not sure how cost effective it is, but I think if you use the sheets long enough, it would be really really handy.

Usually, I would model the youth’s behavior when I’m in Almaty and take advantage of the night life. However, I was so exhausted by the long trainings, I basically crashed every night. We did get to see Kyle and Meriah, which was cool, and we ate at Pizza Hut. Yes, Pizza Hut (see next post.)

Now, the training is over and we launch our youth bank soon. It should be a lot of work, but I think it will be a great experience for me and the youth. And if anyone is interested in giving some donations, I’m going to try to set up some channels to make foreign donations possible. $500 dollars, and you can sponsor your very own youth project in Kazakhstan!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Baseball Camp!

Way back in December, way before my friend Hanman decided to get ripped, he decided he would once again hold his baseball camp. Ever since announcing it in the cold winter months, baseball camp had been a constant oasis on the horizon. With summer came baseball camp. We dreamed big. Baseball cards for the kids, watching game on the Internet, projecting the movie Major League on the side of his apartment building, getting Willie Mayes to come, and a slip ‘n’ into home base.

But unfortunately, a week before the camp, my organization told me about the ecology camp we were doing for city youth (see last post). Then I got asked to go to a training for a new Youth Bank (www.youthbank.org) project starting in my city (see next post). So baseball camp for me was cut from ten glorious days to four. Monday, Friday, Saturday. (And Sunday. No camp, but hanging with volunteer time.)

Okay, so backing up. Baseball in Kazakhstan? If you’re not asking yourself what the heck is Michael talking about then you don’t know Kazakhstan. Soccer, kokpar, basketball, volleyball. Those are sports here. Baseball. Nope. But somehow, some time in the past, a volunteer acquired about three bats, fifteen gloves, a dozen balls, and five helmets (safety first!). So now, every summer, volunteers can spend a week or two teaching children a sport they’ve never played before and may never play again. But you know what, they pick it up quick, and they sure do have fun.

The first day was mainly spent with hitting and throwing skills. And then a short game with emphasis on throwing it to first, second, third, or home depending on where the runner is (Bir-in-shi, eki-in-shi, ush-in-shi, wu-ee-geh, in case you want to play at home.) Because Kazakh names are especially hard (especially for them Yankee volunteers living among Russians), we gave the children nicknames instead. Rookie, Jarule, Arod, John Stockton, Baby, etc.

Then I left. And I came back Friday and by golly the kids were already playing seven inning games. There was no stealing or balks or infield fly rule, but the kids were playing baseball. By then we had about twelve kids and eight volunteers, more than enough to field an actual team. It was an astounding site to see in Kazakhstan.

Then Saturday came, and it was the Big Day. Meaning I had lost one of my numerous bets to Hanman and was required to make the slip ‘n’ slide. One day I had randomly stumbled across plastic sheeting in the bizarre and had bought it. Now all I had to do was sew up the sides, buy some Fairy (the local brand of dish soap), and get some water from the well. In order to make it a little more fun, we planned an entire field day. Long jumb, Frisbee throw, tug of war (the jump rope broke – 3 times), and then an obstacle course ending in a wet slide into home. The obstacle course itself was set apart from maybe all other obstacle courses ever created on Earth by the fact that between first and second (it was a baseball diamond), the runners path was blocked by Scott and Aaron wearing large, furry mascot heads and making strange noises.

The kids enjoyed it immensely. I think I enjoyed it even more. It was super. The rest of the day just made it even better. Jenn, Ken, and I ate dog. Then we went swimming at a café. Then we ate Turkish food. Then we sang Karaoke (yes, we made many a tribute to Michael Jackson). And then donors on the walk home. The next day we continued the fun by going to a water park. Three more volunteers came and then I departed for Almaty for Youth Bank Training.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Ecology Camp

At the end of June, I helped at an ecology camp for my organization. We took about twenty-five youth ages 17-22 (we were hoping to get fifty) up to a camp about 60km north of the city. Our plan was to do some hiking, trainings on ecology, ecology competitions, and ecology KVN. That didn’t really turn out so well.

First, we had a projector, but no computer. Oops. Second, we didn’t really have a training space. We had a porch to one of the cabins we were staying in. Third, we had half the youth, so we didn’t have to split the program into two groups. Fourth, some of the youth seemed to not fit the original criteria. Eventually, we fixed things. We got a projector. We moved tables to the porch (after scoring the whole camp for ones that weren’t claimed by the campers). And we just cut the groupings.

From my American point of view, we did about twelve hours of training over three days. I guess that’s not that little, but it seemed like we had a lot of one hour breaks and a lot of pool time. I didn’t really see us learning too much about ecology and there was definitely not a running theme of ecology through out our days. In short, I was disappointed with the training aspects.

Other aspects were good though. We had a “discoteque” every night, meaning a dance. The camp puts one on for the kids, and we were able to attend. We competed against the counselors in KVN and tied. (I got to be Barak Obama during one of the skits arm wrestling my friend Aidos acting as Nursultan Nazerbaev.) We did go on a sweet hiking trek for three hours. And we got to lay outside one night and stare at the stars here (absolutely gorgeous and saw at least five shooting stars!) We played in the pool. There were apple trees everywhere to just pick fruit from and eat. And the camp was a truly scenic place, full of trees and a small river at the foothills of some mountains. I had a good time, but I wished the training aspects of it had been better.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Quick update again and a poem (not by me)

Oi! I lost my flash drive. Or it's somewhere in my house. Or at Dave's or Susanna's or camp or Almaty. Basically, I need to do some searching. Because of that, I can't type at home and then post. So I'll keep this short since time is money here at the internet cafe. I just got back from Almaty. My last two weeks have been great and busy. I'll update soon, probably like six stories about what I've been doing. Until then (hopefully tonight or tomorrow) Happy Fourth!

Here's one of my favorite poems about America.

Let America be America Again

Originally published in Esquire and in the International Worker Order pamphlet A New Song (1938)

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!