Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poquito. Make that poquitito.

I used to speak Spanish. Never great. I only took three semesters of it in college. I studied abroad in Ecuador and Peru for a combined total of fourteen weeks. Based on all of that education, I actually felt like my Spanish should have been much better than it was. I couldn’t read much. I couldn’t really watch TV (language still too fast), but I could have a general conversation and get by fine with life in those countries.

I’ve had a theory that learning Russian will actually help my Spanish. The third language will get me over some imaginary mental language hump and my brain will soak up future languages like a sponge. And after Russian, I could easily pick up Spanish again. I don’t know how valid this theory is, but looking at the complexity and insanity of Russian, I do long for the days of discerning por/para and trying to think when I should use subjunctive case.

Yesterday, I had a chance to practice my Spanish for the first time in a long time. I had a visitor staying with me from Spain. We talked mainly in English to start because Asela was also over for dinner and she doesn’t speak Spanish. But when Asela left, she told my guest (Maria) that I could speak Spanish. I was excited to try but also knew it wouldn’t get very far. Sometimes just for fun, I try to think of how to say something in Spanish, but my mind only produces Russian words. And when I don’t know the Russian word for something, Spanish still pops into my mind. And some words never seem to go away. (I am still more likely to ask for a servilleta than a salfectka (napkin). And I still think “Falta adeen chelovek” (missing (sp) one person (rus)).

It started out painfully slow. Maria asked where I learned Spanish.

V yniversidad. Nyet. No. No. En? En! En uiversidad. Ya. Yo. Yo. How do you say also?


Tambien! I was going to say tambien. Yo tambien. Zhil. Zhil. Zhil. How do you say live?


Vivo!. Vive? Vivia? Yo vivia v no en Ecuador y. How do you say and in Spanish?


Y? I was going to say that, but that’s what it is in Russian too, so I thought it couldn’t be right. Yo vivia en Edcuador y Peru.

Que hiciste ahi? (Maybe she said something different, but it was “What did you do there?” and I think that’s how you ask that question.)

Chto? What? Ahi? Ahi? He znaiyoo eto slova. I don’t know that word. Ahi?

Ahi. Ahi. There.

There? What’s here.


Oh! Aqui. Alli. You’re saying a-yee. A-yee! Wait. You’re from Spain. No wonder I can’t understand you. It’s the accento.

So the first two exchanges took about five minutes. Where did you study Spanish and what did do there? But it was a strange feeling as Maria reminded me of the words I once could speak without hesitation. Because they were so familiar to me. They fit. It was like having forgotten an event, and you hear your friends describe it, and you’re like, yes. Yes, that was it!

Slowly I re-learned, but not learned, I was re-familiarized with the words for people, team, sports, men, women, children (gente, equipo, deportes, hombres, mujeres, ninos). They were all coming back to me. And then there were some strange words I remembered myself. Apodo (nickname) and cancha (court, as in a basketball court). But every time I had to say a number, I had to start at one. (Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis…) Seis hombres! At times I would cycle through Russian and Kazakh before finally settling on Spanish, my brain realizing that it was supposed to be a foreign language, but not really sure which one. (Da, ye, si! Si!)

And then I would try to conjugate Spanish verb with Russian endings. Played. Jugar. Jugali! Of course. I think my pidgin Spanish/Russian would be perfectly understood by many PC volunteers who are in the same situation as me. But for Maria, a lot of it was lost. However some words are surprising similar (noch, noch, night; palmedor, palmedor (okay, that’s Italian), tomato). And in the end, I just switched back to English and bitched about how hard Russian was to learn. (Yeah, those two glasses there. Those are stakani. But if I say two glasses there, I say dva stakana. And if there are five. Well it becomes pyat stakanov. Yeah, it’s awful!)

I was glad to have the chance, and I do long for the simple noun structure of Spanish. And I really do think that one day, I’ll move back to Latin America for a few months and finally commit to learning Spanish. But until then, I’ll have to change my usual answer when people here find out I speak Spanish. Yo hablo poquitito. (Ya govaroo covcem chut-chut. I speak a little little Spanish.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Angry Blog

(This was a couple weeks ago. Everything is fine now. We even got the original sent to us in the mail. Of course, DHL lost it for a few days, but sometimes those things just seem to happen.)

I’m angry. So we got this grant. I helped. But financial stuff, that’s not my stuff. I do content. Accounting is something else entirely. Not my problem. Well, tip for all future volunteers, it will be your problem.

So we had this agreement sent to us by the embassy about the money we earned. We signed it, and sent it back. Then they sent us the first installment of the grant to our bank account. Sweet, right?

Okay, so maybe I don’t understand banking here. Maybe I don’t understand banking for NGOs. But our bank had a problem with a large sum showing up in our account. We have to show them a reason why we are getting this money. Is that normal? My bank never minds when I deposit money in my account. They like it a lot. But this bank says we have three days to show them a document showing where the money came from.

So we do. But because we are working with a foreign embassy, the documents we are working with are in English. And the people at the bank don’t understand English. We don’t have the documents in Russian. Too bad they say. So we call the embassy and they don’t have the documents in Russian. This process is taking a few days so now we have one day to translate the documents into Russian and then get them notarized and then get them to our bank.

Why does this country work this way?

(And I won a new grant! Yay! Now I have a project to do. Good things the volunteer meeting is coming up soon too.)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Paying bills

This week I tried to pay my bill for heating and hot water four times. Because here in Kazakhstan, you can't just send it in the mail, you have to pay in person for most of your utilities.

Tuesday 10:00. The lights are out at the post office (where you pay bills).

Wednesday 10:00. The computers are not working. Despite this there are already eight people waiting. No one seems to be being helped by a cashier, but they are waiting anyway.

Wednesday 16:00. The computers are still not working but people are being helped. There are eight people in front of me. And by in front of me, I mean sitting, standing, waiting anywhere. We know our place in line. Who is in front of us, and who is in front of that person. I wait an hour. Three people are able to pay their bills. This place closes at 6:00. I do the math and walk out.

Thursday 9:00. I go to a different post office and see only three people in line! Success! One woman pays. The next woman pays. Then the cashier says she is closing (breakfast break maybe?) and we should go to the other cashier. I hadn't seen this one obscured by a pillar across the lobby. Six people are waiting there. I go stand there, but now we are in the back of the line. I wait there five minutes and see our first cashier has returned and is once again helping someone. I go back over there. Wait behind one person, don't let the woman who comes after me succeed in her claim that she was before me, and finally pay! Success!

What do I miss in America? Checks.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Molodets! (?)

So yesterday my friends told me that smoking is now banned on the streets of Kazakhstan. I didn't believe this (given the amount of smoking here.) But I quick google search turned up this news article today:

Kazakhstan Bans Smoking In Public Places
ASTANA -- A law has come into force in Kazakhstan banning smoking in public places, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.

According to the legislation adopted last month, smoking is now officially banned in schools, hospitals, clinics, cinemas, theaters, circuses, concerts, exhibition halls, sports arenas, stadiums, and other covered places used for public entertainment and recreation, including night clubs.

People will also be restricted from smoking inside airports and railway and bus stations.

Tobacco items will also not be available in shops selling goods for children.

Cigarettes can also not be sold to individuals under the age of 18.

Violators of the new law can be fined up to $500.

I also found this:

Kazakhstan bans public smoking, raises drinking age
(AFP) – Sep 29, 2009

ALMATY — Kazakhstan's government said Tuesday it would impose a total ban on smoking in public places and raise the drinking age to 21, a rare step in the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking former Soviet Union.

"We are now following the recommendations of the World Health Organization, according to whose data more than 30,000 people die every year in Kazakhstan from smoking," health ministry spokeswoman Agmagul Abenova told AFP.

"We also continue to struggle against alcoholism, and therefore have introduced new regulations against it," she added.

The new regulations, published in Kazakh newspapers on Tuesday, come into effect October 9.

Kazakhstan already bars people from smoking in public venues, such as stadiums and on public transport, but the new rules extend the ban to the Central Asian country's notoriously smokey bars and nightclubs.

Although many European nations have public smoking bans, few ex-Soviet countries have followed suit, and none besides conservative Tajikistan have raised the legal drinking age.

Kazakhstan's smoking ban does not match the strictness of neighbouring Turkmenistan where former dictator Saparmurat Niyazov barred smoking even on the streets.

Alcoholism and smoking-related illnesses are a major health problem in the former Soviet Union, which saw a huge decline in average male life expectancy following the collapse of Communism nearly two decades ago.

Kazakhstan's drinking age was previously 18.

I guess the real test will be how much these are enforced. It's strange to these things just seem to come out of Astana. I can't imagine laws like this changing in America without stories all over the news. Even smoking bans in Athens, created crowded city hall meetings. I remember the controversy. Here, I don't think anyone even knows.

And for the record, I'm on the fence about smoking bans in private establishments. It's good for me, but I think it infringes on the owner's ability to run the establishment like he or she wants.

Monday, October 5, 2009

No, but come to my speaking club...

English club is my life’s constant. No matter what projects I may be starting and stopping or seeking out, I always make time for Wednesday at 3:00. It’s a legacy passed down from generation to generation. Before me it was Hanman. Before Hanman it was Spry (I think. Colin maybe? Someone had English club here). Before them, it was… someone. There’s a strong pedigree here.

English Club is my hour to do whatever I want, and for some reason, people keep coming back. There are probably more effective ways to run English clubs. Our format is an hour-long discussion group. I act as a moderator and throw out questions on various themes: the crisis, youth issues, expectations, powerful women. To the dismay of many students, I come up with the theme at about 2:55 on Wednesday based on my life’s circumstances. Bad service at lunch, we’re talking about customer service. Had to wait a long time for a taxi, we’re talking about how you occupy the dead times in life (okay, we haven’t talked about this yet, but we probably could. Phone, think, read? It’s an interesting question.)

Sometimes we have visitors in English Club. Any time there is another volunteer in town, we invite them. This summer when student numbers were low and volunteer numbers were high, I think we had a one to one ratio. Susannah’s been here. Ken multiple times. Joe is no stranger. Scott the same. Justin’s made the rounds. And I’m sure many more. Couchsurfers also stop by. They have interesting stories and viewpoints and are living evidence of the website I plug about once a month in club. (Do you want to practice English, host a foreigner!) (Couchsurfing now limited by new in-country policy, more on that in another blog.)

Sometimes we have activities in addition to the discussion. Mafia seemed popular when we played it. (Did you know mafia was actually invented in Moscow? Check it out on wikipedia.org) Card games are fun, including English-teaching-modified Circle of Death. One time we played Post-secret, and the secrets they shared were actually really interesting. We come up with inventions, business ideas, and advertisements. One time we even trimmed my beard (after the group fortunately voted for me to keep it rather than shaving it.)

Lately English Club has been growing a little too big for its britches. (Have you ever typed the word britches before? That can’t possibly be spelled right.) Our largest classroom comfortably fits 12 people. We could rearrange it and have more space, but we don’t have anywhere to put the tables. Therefore it fits 12. Last week we squeezed twenty-two into it for English club. The week before we had twenty. Next week I expect thirty people with the Americans visiting. We may move it to the park across the street. They’re coming up with the lesson plan though, but I’ll be guiding the newbies along the road.

(Update: 31 people showed up when the new volunteers came. We moved into two classrooms. This week…. We’ll see.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009


I have become so bad at blogging. Quick updates. I'm blogging live, meaning I have the Internet running (costing me 120 tenge an hour).

1. I wonder if the woman next to me would be having the same Skype conversation if she knew I understood English. I'm trying not to listen to her, but she's confessing her undying love to a guy in America she hasn't seen in two year. Not listening. Not listening. Not listening. Not hearing her talk about her past life with him. Not hearing it.

2. I found a new apartment! It's awesome, but now I'm disupting the final bills with my landlord. He wants me to pay the bill that say "for October" for water and trash, because it is clearly for September. So this week, I'm supposed to go to the trash company, give them the bill marked "for October," and ask, "Now, is this bill for October." Knowing Kazakhstan, they may say no.

3. I went to the mountains. Pictures soon. So many blackberries. Awesome trip.

4. New volunteers came and so did Dasha! Dasha is my old Russian teacher, well she's not old. She's actually a year younger than I am. But the new volunteers are old. Not actually old either, but some are retired volunteers. They were cool because they actually have experience. The young kids were cool because they had a lot of enthusiasm. I think Dave, Susannah, and I managed to show them so good stuff in Taraz. It's too bad only one of them even has a chance of coming here (just one OCAP site opening within seven hours of me.)

5. I found a new apartment. It's worth restating. Cheaper, bigger, and with a balcony.

6. I have two more posts coming soon I already wrote, but they're left on my work computer for now. So be prepared.