Sunday, September 13, 2009

Some notes

It's strange. In August I actually read some David Sedaris and then The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Very different books, but very inspiring for me to write more stories about Kazakhstan, and maybe try to actually write more "stories" than blogs. But since then, I haven't really written anything. I'd like to say it's because I've been busy, but I have managed to watch a LOT of movies lately. I have been working a lot though as well. Some things of note I in life or in general.

1. I started Russian tutoring. Yes, it's my second year, and I just started. But really, that's better than a lot of volunteers. The accountant that works with our organization teaches me for an hour a day for free in the mornings. The goal is for me to be able to read Russian. Like Tolstoy or Pushkin or something. Reading is hard because there a lot of words in books. I can speak just fine with people, but hardly know any actual words, especially concrete nouns. And I'm learning Russian cursive, which is incredibly useful.

2. I posted pictures on my picasa site. PICTURES HEREMost of them are also on Facebook, but for those without Facebook, you can see them there. Included is a picture of my girlfriend Acela. We've been dating for a few months now. She works at my organization as a volunteer and is studying to get a Master's in Ecology.

3. What do I do at work? It's hard to describe. But this week I led two English clubs, did tutoring on how to write essays, started a business English course, finished a grant application to teach English to impoverished children, helped with publicizing an exchange program, finished writing a script for an English play, and helped a guy prepare his documents for an American visa.

4. Last spring, I helped work on a book about volunteerism in Kazakhstan. I assisted with one chapter; my friends did a lot more. You can check it out for free here:

5. I found out how extensive is. It has some interesting stuff about Peace Corps, including volunteer salaries (wait, we're volunteers, we'll call it a stipend then or a living allowance maybe) for countries all over the world and early termination rates for countries all over the world.

6. One of the more interesting articles was this one Its a long document written by some former volunteers about how to improve the program. Included in this document is the fact that Peace Corps misreports the ET rate by using very fuzzy math. They report annual ET rates rather than cohort rates. So if I say 15% of people serving in Kazakhstan ET, you may think that 15% of the people who come leave early. But nope, they mean 15% of the people serving there in that year. So in reality maybe 30% of the people that come leave. I think it's ridiculous that they use these numbers, and really can't imagine how it is illustrative of anything.

7. The report also had this shocking (in my eyes) fact: "In FY 2008 the Peace Corps reports that it received 13,041 applications, but only 4,265 survived the medical and legal clearance process to become “qualified.” Of this pool, 4,123 were invited to training. This means that from this pool of “qualified” applicant, all but 142 or 96.7% were invited to training." And they claim that Peace Corps itself did not have this statistic already generated. I certainly hope that Peace Corps has some metric like this. To say that the application pool is competitive may be a stretch. I don't know if they tout a 25% ratio anywhere, but I don't think they say 96% of people who are in good health with a criminal history will be accepted.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Guest blogger: My mom

Savannah to Kazakhstan is a long trip. 21 hours. We left Atlanta on Sunday, August 9 and arrived in Almaty Tuesday morning. My first thought when we came out of the baggage claim was, Holy cow. All the taxi drivers were hollering, Taxis! Taxis! And then I saw Michael and hugging him was all I could think about. It was great to see him; it had been a year.
We stayed in Almaty for a couple days. We went to the bazaar. It was so different. They sold everything from spices to meat, all out in the open. The city was very busy and crowded in some places another other places were less busy. We met some of Michael’s friends and had a beer with them. They were very nice. I was glad to put faces on names that Michael has mentioned. We visited Silk Way, a square that reminded me a little of City Market in Savannah, with paintings, shops, and vendors selling food. We went to an American cafĂ©. It was nice to have a cup of coffee.
Then it was time for us to go to Taraz. I was not so sure of this train ride (11 hours) to Taraz. Michael had told us a little about the ride. I could not imagine sleeping next to a stranger. I worried for no reason. It was not bad. We shared a platscart compartment with two Russian women and a grandchild. They were so friendly and we talked about ourselves with Michael translating (he would do a lot of that on the trip.) We shared our food and talked until lights out at 11:00. I was on the top, which was better. There are four beds: two on the top and two on the bottom. The train was very hot and crowded until the sun went down. It was very enjoyable.
We arrived in Taraz around 3am Thursday and I rode in my third taxi. They drive wild. Who would have thought I would ride in cars with no backseat seat belts. It was like Thumping, stick out your hand and Bam! a car stops and you give a price and off you go. We went to Michael’s apartment, very small. It might be smaller than my den. We three slept there, Stephen on the floor and Michael and I shared his futon. I haven’t slept with Michael since he was a little boy. We went to Michael’s work and met his co-workers. We helped him teach English Club. All of them were real curious about us. Everyone we met was so friendly. It was like we had always around. We did a lot of things in Taraz, like walking in the square, having an amazing meal at one of his friend’s houses, and gosting with his ex-host families (visiting).
We went on a picnic with his co-workers and English Club. We met by a park and rode on a bus to the lake. It was fun. We played games on the way. At the lake, people swam. We had some great food and conversation in both Russian and English. It was great fun. I was happy to see, and a little surprised at how everyone socializes together, young and old had so much fun together. It was a great day. Everyone was so nice and made sure I was having fun also.
We also went gosting to his old host family’s homes. The first house was near Almaty. We ate a dish a lot like chicken and rice. The second was near Taraz. We were treated like long lost family. We had a feast and I drank cognac for the first time and used an outhouse for the first time. I like the cognac, but not the outhouse. We had the pleasure of going to a Kazakh wedding. It was a lot of fun. Food, food, and more food. We also had a lot of toasts for the wedding couple. We toasted many times with wine, vodka, and cognac. We danced the Kazakh way, had a great time. We got home around 2am, and we slept until 11:30. Monday we went out and toured more of the city. It was a good day.
My Kazakhstan trip was amazing. I have to say I was very nervous. Me, Margie, in a far far country. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I ‘d visit Michael, but a year was a long time not to see my son and hug him. Everyone I have met from his co-workers, his friends, and the youth people in English club have been so sweet and friendly. I hope I have made many friendships. As a mom, I now feel that Michael is well taken care of. Everyone really likes him, and I know he is in good hands.
I loved Taraz. It was like my home. Not so busy and not so crowded. They have beautiful parks, and family with children are out at night. Everyone accepted me with open arms. I hope to keep in touch with some of the people I’ve met. Like Michael said, he wanted me to experience a week in his life. I have, and it was amazing.