Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas 2010 = Awesome

Three Christmases away from home are a lot, especially when they are in Kazakhstan. The Christmas season just doesn’t exist here. I’ve blogged about it before, how New Year’s is kinda like Christmas but without a lot of the same message. Superficially, they look alike, but there are a lot of differences. Basically, if you want to feel like its Christmas here, you have to create it yourself, and that’s what we managed to do this year.

I won’t write a lot about everything that we did, but here are the key points for why this Christmas was probably my best one in Kazakhstan.

1. Christmas party at Zhambyl Zhastary

I had a party at my organization that went really well. Mark played Santa and we played a lot of Christmas games. Before I was told to make Christmas games in November, and I couldn’t think of any. But this time, I had found some online and thought of some myself. (Fun Christmas games: Draw things blindfolded, orchestra of Jingle Bells Animals, Find Santa (Frog killer but Christmas themed)).

2. Midnight Mass

Mass was less crowded this year, and there was no choir. However, Laura, Annie, Mark, Asela, and I still enjoyed it. Annie and Laura are Kazakh speakers which means they understood nothing. However, they swore heard “Nazerbayev” about ten times during the homily. Mark and I did not hear this, and Asela confirmed the Leader of the People was not mentioned. We are still wondering what Russian phrase they kept hearing.

3. Christmas Breakfast

Banana Pancakes at Mark’s house.

4. Post Office and the first Christmas miracle

One advantage (the only?) of Christmas in Kazakhstan is that you can still receive any last minute packages. After waiting for only 45 minutes (there were four people in front of me, average time helping customer = 11 minutes), I finally got my package. AND the Christmas miracle was that they let me get Erin’s as well. Previously, the post office never gave us the package of our fellow volunteers, but this time all I had to do was call and get her passport information.

5. Bazaar in a Santa hat and our second Christmas miracle

Being busy all week, we hadn’t had time to do shopping for the holidays, so we had to go to the bazaar on Saturday. Since it was Christmas though, I decided to wear my Santa hat all day long – even walking around the bazaar. I got a lot of “Hey Ded Moroz” calls, but some people realized that I was actually trying to be Santa Claus. One woman in the pig section even gave me a free slice of pork as a gift on the holiday. Oh, and in the pig section Laura managed to do the impossible. Earlier in the day, she had announced that she would find bacon. It can’t be done, I told her. I looked, and there’s no bacon. But with her persistence and positive attitude we found bacon in the Taraz bazaar. And not even a random package of frozen bacon from Omsk. Actual freshly made from butchered pig meat in Taraz bacon. BACON!!!!!! Year 3 just became a billion times better.

6. Christmas dinner

  • Mac and Cheese
  • Fun Dolphins (The name in French sounds like this, they are really fried mashed potato balls)
  • Glazed carrots
  • Roasted Chicken (too stringy, will be bringing back my old meat thermometer in March)
  • Mashed Potatoes
  • Gravy
  • Crab and apple salad
  • Curried Egg Salad
  • Yule Log (I will post pictures of this amazing cake made by my French guests. It is unbelievable.)
  • Sugar cookies

7. Christmas crafts!

I was somewhat joking when I told Jessica that she should bring the Christmas crafts, but I knew from Xmas in Karaganda how much fun crafts can make Christmas. Jessica delivered and we: made reindeer with our handprints, crafted ornaments out of homemade clay, decorated our own individual stockings, decorate holiday-shaped cookies with colored frosting, and cut out snowflakes. We even baked wall pieces for the gingerbread yurt, but we never got around to making it. (In America, Brad made one though. Picture to be posted later.)

8. Christmas movies watched mostly on Saturday and Sunday

  • Nightmare before Christmas (**** - haven’t seen it since I was a kid, amazingly creative)
  • We’re No Angels (***** - everyone should see this holiday classic with Bogart)
  • Home Alone 1 (**** - amazing how well this stands up to time but could never be made today because of cell phones)
  • Home Alone 2 (** - good, but less Christmas spirit then the original by a lot)
  • Glee Christmas Episode (3 times because Mark kept missing the end) (*** - some great lines from Britney)
  • Office Christmas Episode (*** - what a great final scene in the parking lot)
  • 30 Rock Christmas Episode (***** - I laughed out loud at least three times)
  • Love Actually (**** - possibly Asela’s new favorite movie)
  • A Christmas Story (**** - reminded me a lot of Kazakhstan)
  • Red Sleigh Down (**** - after singing the 12 days of Christmas a billion times this year in my English clubs, I can appreciate the running gag in this episode so much more)
  • Rudolph (**** - I love that, at least on some level, America celebrates the differences of people)
  • A Muppet Christmas (in French with English subtitles) (**** - watching movies in French is amusing)

9. Christmas Morning Two

  • Banana pudding (with homemade vanilla wafers from Jessica)
  • Bacon (!!!!!!!)
  • Pancakes (made by Erin)
  • Hashbrowns cooked in bacon fat

10. Gift exchange and stockings

As per Zhamballa tradition, everyone got a stocking and Santa filled them during the night. He brought us toilet paper, candy, pencils, curt, chap stick, and fruit. In our annual White elephant gift exchange, people received: Brown Sugar, knife sharpener, head scarf, Trivial pursuit baseball edition (could there be a more worthless game in Kazakhstan), a donated smock, candy, and the Oblast gift (consisting of a Chinese new year plastic thing, a framed picture of a random Kazakh man found buried in my old apartment, and a dog puzzle.) This year, the oblast gift was almost lost when one of my French guests grabbed it. However, Annie took one for the team and stole it when it was her turn.

11. Caroling

I challenged people in our region to write Christmas carols, and they came up with some great ones. I’ll post them later this week because this post is already getting way too long.

12. Web cam

Finally, a Christmas where my parents understand Skype. It was great seeing them on the holiday rather than just talking to them on the phone.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Merry Christmas, everyone! I heard that there's this new program
called Skype and you can call internationally for not that expensive.
Crazy what's available in 2010. If you want to give it a spin, you can
try calling me for the holiday at 87057974646. (Hint hint)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My city in the news

And another news story about KZ; this one is about the oblast and city
I live in.

Zhambyl Oblast takes steps to combat extremism
I didn't know that this was a problem in the area, but it's
interesting to see the steps the government is taking. Also, I'm
impressed with the article. A lot of articles here are short and
confusing, but that one is very well developed.

Kazakhstan in the news

So here are some random news stories about Kstan that people without
Kazakhstan as a section on their Google News page may have missed...

"While studying the ancient microcontinents that make up the geography
of central Kazakhstan in Asia, geological sciences professor Joe Meert
and colleagues uncovered evidence that multi-cellular organisms may
have evolved 100 million years earlier than previously thought, well
before the Cambrian Era..."

"Raised on a farm in Kazakhstan and a beach-town suburb of Sydney,
Bose is doing his best these days to bring recognition to a program
based in tiny Thibodaux, La. Featuring a diversity in his game rather
befitting an international man of mystery, the 6-foot-6 senior
swingman ranks third in the nation in scoring, averaging 25 points per
game, and accounts for nearly 37 percent of the team's points..."

Culture and life
A BBC reporter interviews three people about life in Kazakhstan.
Regular people with interesting stories. Gives a good view of the
diverse people that live here.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Independence Day!

December 16 was Kazakhstan Independence Day. Kazakhstan got its
independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. However, a lot
of people I talk to associate this week's holidays with the Zheltoksan
riots from December 1986. These riots occurred when Moscow removed the
Kazakh leader Konaev and replaced him with a guy from Russia. The next
day students took to the street on December 17, 1986. Hundreds?
Thousands? Police responded. The exact details are still unknown and
kept hidden.

This is interesting to me, because I don't see the two events as
directly related. Although the riots have been referred to the
beginning of the end, wouldn't the USSR have collapsed without
students rioting in 1986? Was this really a call for national
independence? If the USSR had collapsed in October instead of
December, would people still cite 1986 as the beginning of Kazakh
independence? Do Kazakhs view these events differently than other
nationalities here? I have mainly spoken with people my age about them
(people I know), but they would have been one years old at the time.
I'd really like to know more about how people who were students at the
time and older view the events, and if young people view them in the
same ways.

You can read more about the events on Wikipedia:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Arm Wrestling

I remember when my director (then counterpart) first told me that her husband was a professional sports trainer. What sport, I asked. Football (soccer for Americans)? Volleyball? No, she replied, arm wrestling. What?! That's a sport? And there are trainers for it?

Yes, I was ignorant of the sport of arm wrestling. I had seen it on TV while flipping past ESPN a few times, but I never really thought of it as a sport. However, Natasha's husband is a trainer, and he's a pretty good one at that. (He used to compete, and he looks it, but he mostly sticks to training others now.)

This past week he was in America for the World Armwrestling Championships USA ( in Mesquite, Nevada. Three (or four? I forget exactly) of the athletes he trained were going to compete. After a quick Google News search, I found a couple interesting articles about the event.

This one from a local paper describes the fascination some Russian athletes had with local Salvation Army Santas. I can imagine their interest because while I have seen lots of strange things in Kazakhstan, I haven't seen a Ded Moroz standing outside ringing a bell and people walking up and giving him/her money. Really, if it wasn't ingrained in your culture, wouldn't you think that was strange?:

The next one is from the WSJ, and it covers the controversy and politics associated with on the top levels of the sport. One quote featured in the story: "You want to get the best grip possible. A lot of these guys don't use chalk so their hands can get kind of sweaty and slippery." Another quote: ""We train with the guys. The stronger the competition, the better."

And how did my director's husband do? Well apparently, he's a pretty good trainer. One of the girls he trains got first in the youth category for 50 kilo left and 50 kilo right. She then entered the women's category and won the 50 kilo right. His brother, who he used to train, won the 100 kilo men's right category. Full results can be found at:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friend's Blog

So my friend Becca's blog was recently featured on Soros's blog for her description of ZhasCamp. I was there too (way back in October, has it already been two months?). Her blog's a pretty good description of the conference and the exciting things some youth are doing here in the KZ. Check out the video on the page too to see highlights from her org's awesome summer camp last year.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

No shame in big dancing

I don't know a lot about Kazakhstani politics, but this whole wikileaks thing has got me a little more interested. Overall, the cables from Kazakhstan don't reveal much. One of the most shocking revelations is that the Prime Minister..... enjoys dancing! Imagine that. A person from Kazakhstan loves to get down and boogie. Dancing is the best part about Kazakhstan culture. They dance all the time! And there's no grinding like in America. Its fun dancing with any dancing accepted. There's no mocking the bad dancer in Kazakhstan, because there are no bad dancers. I really think the biggest culture shock is going to be me being laughed at when I bust a move at Brad and Karen's wedding next March.

Anyway, this is what the cables revealed about the Prime Minister:

Prime Minister Karim Masimov was tripping the light fantastic in Astana, according to the cable, which detailed a night out at trendy Chocolat nightclub.

"Although the club offers a VIP area, Masimov chose to sit at a table in full view of all of the club's patrons," the cable said, citing a US embassy official who spotted the entourage.

"Masimov himself chose to dance on an empty stage above the dance floor. His companions quickly tired but Masimov remained, dancing alone and animatedly on the stage for another 15-20 minutes."

That sounds awesome! This guy who isn't afraid to dance alone. Dancing alone is reserved only for the best "big dancers" (a category I assign people who do just that. Dance big). Whenever I see someone out on the dance floor still dancing after being abandoned by all their friends, I tip my hat to them. That takes guts and a true love of the dance.

Apparently, Masimov wasn't upset by this revelation. He later told the media, ''I like it very much,'' Mr Masimov said on Wednesday. ''First I am on the internet with my wife. I like dancing with my wife and to advertise in the traditional way, I have to pay a lot of money for that. But this time it's free. And I am very happy for that.''

This guy has quickly become my favorite Kazkahstan politician for three main reasons:

1) Big dancer and proud of it.
2) His nickname is the "the wily Uighur" among expat businessmen, which means he must eat delicious food. Uighurs are an ethnic group from West China, and they make some of the best food in Kazakhstan. If you are ever in Kazakhstan for just one meal, and you want something delicious, then go to a Uighur (or Dungan, which is an ethnic group similar to Uighurs) cafe.
3. He has an awesome mustache. Click the link above under point 2 and see how awesome his mustache looks.

So for all the mustached, big-dancers of the world who enjoy eating great food (which depending on my shaving habits I can sometimes be included in this group), I think we have found a potential spokesman.

Monday, December 6, 2010

PC Kaz 20 Volunteer Survey

This survey asked the Kaz20 group about their experience in Kazakhstan. 29 people responded out of 36 or so. It was conducted about 6 weeks before most volunteers left the country, so it does not capture that period of time. Also, this is not statistically accurate because it did not capture the whole population and it was not done randomly. However, we can find out some interesting things. All questions were self-interpreted. 

Most attended between 1 and 2 weddings.
9 volunteers never attended a wedding
One volunteer attended 5 weddings.

5 volunteers were bitten by dogs (17%)

1752 books were read
an average of 62 books per person.
Minimum books read was 2;
the maximum books read were 400.

4009 movies were watched. This is about 1.5 movies per week.
Someone claims to have watched 800 movies – almost a movie a day.
Someone reports having seen only 1 movie.

Sim cards:
14 volunteers bought only one Sim card in KZ
9 bought two sim cards
One volunteer bought 6 sim cards

The average number of volunteers banyaed with was 12.
The maximum was 51.

American money
10 people spent no American money.
One person reports spending $3000.

Weddings in America:
On average, people missed between 2 and 3 weddings in America.

Cell phones:
13 volunteers bought more than one cell phone in Kazakhstan

TV Series
One average, volunteers watched 5 complete TV series

Hard drive space
In total 10882 gigabytes of hard drive space was filled.
The average hard drive filled was 418 gigabytes.

Money saved:
15 volunteers indicated saving no money in Kazakhstan.
The maximum saved was over $2000.
The average saved was about $200.

Weight loss:
On average, volunteers lost -5 pounds with the most remarkable weight loss being -40 pounds.

Amount of volunteers who had the following amenities in their homes: 
Internet: 51%
Washing machine: 46%
Bed: 96.5%
Shower: 62%
TV: 65%
HF: 34%
Garden: 27%
Water: 76%
Toilet: 79%
Banya: 28%
Cable: 38%
Roomie: 3%

9 volunteers prefer Shymkent.
2 like Karaganda
2 like Fresh Cup Karaganda
1 likes Fresh cup karaganda soft.
Someone actually said Alma-Ata was the best beer.

17 volunteers prefer Juicy

Juice Flavor
Cherry is the favorite with 8 votes.
Guava and Multivitamin are second with 4 votes.

Leave days
Average leave days remaining was 11.
Max was 35;
Minimum -1.

41% of volunteers had gone to America

Flown in KZ
34% of volunteers had flown in KZ.

31% of volunteers report doing a SPA grant.
31% report doing a PCPP.
0% report a PEPFAR grant.

44% wrote something for the Vesti.

50% kept a blog.

48% considered seriously ETing

Over half the volunteers did not spend money on tutoring.
The average amount was 1854 per month.
5 volunteers spent the maximum monthly amount.

8 volunteers report getting in fights

One volunteer was arrested

10 volunteers report flooding their apartments
2 volunteers report flooding them twice.

Things dropped down the outhouse include:
200 tenge, glasses, flash drive, poop, pee, tp, and a phone

19 volunteers say banya is awesome
7 say so-so
3 do not like it.

Alcohol contracts
No one is on an alcohol contract.

4 people have reprimands

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

December 1: Winter, AIDS, and OSCE!

Congratulations on the first day of Winter! While we are all taught that the start and close of the seasons fall on the equinoxes and solstices, Kazakhstan (and I am assuming all of the former Soviet Union) mark their seasons on the first of the month. So spring starts March 1, summer on June 1, fall on September 1, and winter on December 1. Also, people sometimes wish each other Happy First Day of Winter, or Happy First Day of Spring, but the way Russian works, they don't say "Happy ______," they say congratulations. So you often get congratulated for the new year or for having a birthday or for the start of a season you thought was still 22 days away. So for everyone out there, "Congratulations on the first day of winter!"

December 1 is also World AIDS Day, translated into Russian as World Fight Against AIDS Day and into Kazakh as lots of words I still don't know how to read. This difference in translation may be to prevent any confusion from people who thought the day was celebrating the disease and not efforts to eradicate it. Although the population of K-stan only has a small number of infected people (15,000ish by reported numbers), some characteristics of the population (heroine use, infidelity in marriage, high use of prostitutes) make it at-risk for a larger outbreak.

Finally, December 1 marks the beginning of the OSCE summit. For those of you not in Kazakhstan, this is an extremely big deal. While a lot of news coverage was devoted to things like the G20 summit or the NATO summit held over the last few months, this is the really important summit. I doubt that those other two summits had billboards all over the country dedicated to it, had a child named after it, had its very own TV channel, and shut down half a city. For those of you who may have never heard of the OSCE: "The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization. Its mandate includes issues such as arms control, human rights, freedom of the press and fair elections. Most of its 3,500-plus staff are engaged in field operations, with only around 10% in its headquarters." For Kazakhstan to hold the chairmanship the past year is a really great honor because it shows it as a leader in Central Asia. I'd post some pictures of all the billboards advertising the summit, but I don't know how to upload pictures with access to Blogspot still being restricted in Kazakhstan.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Zhamballaz Thanksgiving Feast 2010: Food, Friends, and More Food

 Wow, how things have changed over the past two years.


I remember my first Thanksgiving in Kazakhstan. It was a rough, lonely day. I printed off small cards and gave them to all of my co-workers in an attempt to celebrate the holiday. That night I went home and timidly asked my host mom if I could make mashed potatoes. When they were all mashed, I remembered I needed to add butter. However, we had no butter, so my host mom threw in a large chunk of lard, and the mashed potatoes then tasted like everything else I had in Kazakhstan.


That weekend was much better. It was the first time I met my future friends of Dave, Susannah, and Matt. It was also the world premiere of the Hotard casserole. And at the insistence of locals that we must play some sort of game, we devised Bear, Pilgrim, Indian, a variant of Rock, Paper, Scissors, although you must perform your character. The next day, Susannah rushed off to comfort her then-boyfriend in North Kazakhstan and we were left alone to wander the mysterious city of Taraz.


Two years later, and most of the mystery, confusion, and wonder are now removed from celebrating this holiday in Kazakhstan. I just get pumped that we are going to pig out on kilos and kilos (oops, pounds and pounds) of delicious homemade food.


For Thanksgiving Day itself, I got to teach one of the preschool English classes my organization runs with sponsorship from the US Embassy. We made cut out turkeys, played Thanksgiving memory game, and even made Pilgrim and Indian hats. When I wore my pilgrim hat home, I was stopped by the police, but that wasn't really a surprise. I did look pretty ridiculous in it. They looked at my documents for a few minutes before finally getting to the larger issue: Why are you wearing a paper hat? It's a holiday in America, I told them. This is the hat we wear. Their attitude warmed up immediately, and they even wished me a happy holiday!


Of course, Thanksgiving in Taraz always falls on a Saturday rather than a Thursday, so the whole oblast can come and celebrate. Before the big day, Mark was able to secure two turkeys, although he did this way too easily. Two years ago, Dave had to kill the turkey. Last year, Jenny had to find one using her local network of friends and colleagues. This time Mark bought the birds frozen at a local super market. (He did have to go to two supermarkets to find them though, so life is a little harder here than in America.)


After a bazaar run to get all of the needed ingredients, the cooking commenced. We worked from 1PM until 7PM. And our spread this year included:

Turkeys (2)


Cheesy mashed potatoes


Mac and Cheese

Potato salad

Glazed carrots

Sweet potato casserole

Corn pudding with a chocolate waffle crust


Corn Bread


Apple pie

Walnut Pie

Stuffed apples


Everything was absolutely delicious and wonderful. Noticeably missing is the annual Hotard casserole, but I did prepare the sweet potato casserole and corn pudding with chocolate waffle crust in its place. We invited some locals, but only about 7 people came. The total number of eaters was 14, but we had planned for 20. Asela was pushing hard for a game, but we didn't bring back Pilgrims, Indian, Bear. Instead we let her play the traditional "Wishbone" game with Chris. Food, friends, and more food. I can't imagine a better holiday here.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Wonders of Skype

For two years, my family never learned how to use Skype. I had barely used it myself. But my parents finally invested in a web cam and, more importantly, in learning how to use the service. Last night, it really paid off. I was able to sit at my computer more that 6000 miles away (it was a question my mom had last night) and talk with my whole family.

I was on the computer in the dining room and everyone was sitting around the table. They weren't really talking with me. We were talking as a family. There were the usual heated discussions that of course didn't get anywhere. There were side conversations between family members. Half the time I was just sitting and listening.  Unfortunately, my internet speeed was so slow (why are holidays at the end of the month after I use up all my allotted bandwith?) that I just saw blurry blobs moving around a screen, but I could identify everyone. 

This is the third Thanksgiving I wasn't home for. And I still won't make it back in time for next year's. But it felt a lot more like Thanksgiving this year than all the other years. This year, I am thankful for Skype.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Taraz in the New York Times

Today on my Google News feed, I saw that Taraz (the city I lived in) is talked about in the NYT. The story is about an American couple trying to adopt a baby from Kazakhstan. I think I had met them many many months ago at an Internet cafe, but I never stayed in touch. You can read about their story below.

Taraz doesn't get much description, but it is described as, "Taraz, a city on the old Silk Road where English is rarely heard and boiled horse meat is typical fare." Yeah, that's pretty much accurate. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Public Face

Sometimes, I really really want to write a blog to vent about something, but I can't. This is one of those days. ERRRR!!!! ARRR!!!!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pictures on Picasa

So apparently, the photos from yesterday didn't load. Here is a link to a Picasa album with the photos, plus some more photos from the last few months.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Volunteer Camp

I just got back from volunteer camp that was the launch of the National Volunteer Network in Kazakhstan, as well as a year long campaign to promote the network called World of Kindness. Overall, the conference was really well run and the session were very informative. However, I left with a sense of not understanding what it was for. Was it to just talk about volunteerism? Was it to get us excited about launching the network? I don't know. But the people were great and the trainings were well-done.


Whenever I go to these training/seminars/camps (I don't know why a two-day meeting a hotel is called a camp rather than a conference, but that's the term they use now), I like to note new ideas I encounter. I've been to a lot already, especially being involved with student leadership stuff at UGA, so most things I've done before in some way, shape, or form. When there is something new, it really stands out.


First activity: Paint mixing. The first day they brought us all in a room and put us each around a table. The group standing around the table popped a balloon that had a word inside. Then the trainers gave each of us a plate with water in it and put a set of paint on the table in front of us. We had to mix the paint inside the plate to form our special color. Then they gave us flour to mix in with the paint. Then glue. Then oil. Each was supposed to symbolize something, but that was in Russian and I didn't understand. Then they told us to remember the word we had, and we had to finger paint it on the board. Finally, other teams had to guess what word we had. My personal favorite part about this game is that two guys on my team (because they were older Kazahk males, and therefore dressed nicely for this type of conference) were in nice suits. However, they attacked the task with as much energy as everyone and managed not to get any paint on their suits. Interesting ideas from this were: the different ingredients symbolizing different things, popping a balloon to find out the club, and guessing rather than just explaining our paintings. All of these were unneeded in the overall activity, but they made it more interesting.


Second activity: secret angel. This was super easy to do, and it was a lot of fun. Everyone at the conference drew someone's name out of a hat. They were then this person's secret friend for two days. They were supposed to write nice notes, give creative gifts, and just make sure this person is cared for (some word in Russian that doesn't translate well is used to describe this succinctly). This is done secretly, so gifts should be given through third-party messengers, notes posted when people aren't looking, etc. At the end of the conference, people reveal themselves to their secret friend. I got a few nice notes and candy that were fun, and I gave away fruit and tea that I had left over from my train journey. A great success story was from one woman who said she had a very frugal husband that didn't believe in giving lots of gifts. But her enthusiastic angel had given her TEN gifts over two days. She said she's take them all home and show her husband her many gifts from a perfect stranger.


Third activity: closing wishes with string. Maybe, I had done this before, but I don't remember exactly. Anyway, at the end of the conference, we were each given a yarn necklace with twenty short (maybe three inch) yarn pieces loosely tied to it. We then had to take off these pieces and tie them to other people's necklaces. When we gave them away, we also had to tell that person something nice about them from the weekend or wish them something well. Then you are left with lots of nice things said about you, and a physical yarn necklace symbolizing all of the wishes. It's a really effective way to close out a conference/camp/training.


Balloon towers. A fun game that I led with Hilary.


One of the guys on my group that had painted in his suit. This is at the end of the conference with with wish necklace.


I was given a homemade card from an orphanage. It was a great honor and really sparkly. I loved it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

New Phone Number

I have a new phone number. My new number is 8 705 797 4646. This is an unofficial Beeline number (meaning that they don't sell it at Beeline stores, but it is a beeline number.) I pay 35 tenge a day (20 cents), and I can talk for 35 minutes a day. However, if I talk more than 35 minutes or if I call from not in Zhambyl Olbast, I think its about 35 tenge a minute. I'll keep my old sim card to use when I travel outside of Zhambyl Olbast though. And I still have a Pathword phone and an ACTIV sim card that gets used when I call Activ. Two years ago, I started with just one number and now I'm so cool I have four. Really, its just a way to deal with the expensive cell rates they have in Kazakhstan for talk time. With this new number, I should cut down immensely on my monthly cell phone costs.


So yeah, 8 705 797 4646. Call if you ever want to talk and catch up and say something like, Hey Michael, its been 2 years and three months, how's it going? 

Saturday, November 6, 2010


I really liked the post that fellow volunteers Paul and Susan had about their Halloween party up in Pavlador ( So much, that I was inspired to tell about our festivities here. First, let me just summarize the month of October. The last few weeks have been pretty busy. October 9  and 10 I was in Almaty for Zhascamp ( The next weekend was FLEX testing in Taraz. Then the next weekend Mark and I went to Zhanatas. Then the next week was Halloween and a trip to Almaty to say goodbye to the Kaz20s. This weekend was a picnic (today) and the new volunteers come tonight (volunteer for Taraz). So I haven't had much time to just sit around and relax. Every weekend has been fun, but fun in a gulyating kind of way and not in a otdihating kind of way.


So back to Halloween. Like always, my org does a Halloween party for our students and volunteers. This year, we had our party on the 30th (Saturday night), not because of religious reasons (apparently they did that in Georgia) but just because it was convienient. I once again dressed as a cow (8 years running; thanks Brad! When should I retire the costume.) Mark (site-mate) was a mummy made better by a bronzing spray his girlfriend made. We had scary masks, Indian saris, and ghosts, but nothing way spectacular with the costumes. And of course, we had games. Because like every party here, you can't have a party with no games. Strange question one for the night was, when is the party going to get started, after the party had already started. See it was 6:45, the food was laid out, the music was going, people were around. Looks to me like the party is going, but because the program of games hadn't started yet, there was no party. (Second strange question of the night was repeatedly asked me by one of the students. What's next, he would say? Can we scare people? My response was, what do you mean, scare people? You can scare people whenever you want. How do we coordinate a group scaring of people. Although maybe he meant go outside and walk around the town scaring people, which people did later.)


Games we played included: pin the amulet on the witch, toss ping pong ball into jack-o-lanterns, mummy wrap, and apple bobbing.


The party lasted about two hours or so, and then we all went home. I walked home in my cow costume. And by chance, it happened to be Day of the City. And by chance, Taraz decided to go all out and celebrate it this year. (Last year, I know there was a city day, but I don't think anyone cared.) So the square was full of people! More than I've ever seen in Taraz on a Saturday night just walking around. And I was in my cow costume. And it felt great. I loved doing stupid things for attention in America (e.g. Mulhawk Spring 2008), but I feel so restricted by the Peace Corps 24/7 Face of America standard here. However, it was Halloween, dang it. And it was fine. Some laughs and stares, but surprising not even a stop by local police. I think some people realized it was Halloween weekend; some may have thought I was just a guy in a costume dressed up to take photos with, and others… I don't know what they must have thought of me.


On actual Halloween, I was invited to another Halloween party. I didn't really want to go (I finally wanted a day of just resting), but I decided to give a shot. It was actually a lot of fun. Mostly just a daytime disco at a local café, and once again the costumes were disappointing. Most of the students there said they couldn't find one (well, you should just make one then). In the end, I was glad that I went.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Miss Iron Chef

So a couple months ago, my friend's director was in the Mrs.
Kazakhstan pageant
([vocab-raw]/missis-taraz). Jessica
told me that at the Taraz competition, the women had to make salads on
stage. I thought that was a novel and interesting idea for a beauty
pageant. Since it was Mrs. Kazakhstan, and wives are expected to do
all the cooking, it was very culturally appropriate.

However, now there is another beauty pageant coming up called «Мисс
Драгоценность Тараза». That translates to Miss Jewel of Taraz. I don't
know the word for Jewel, so the first time I started to read it, I saw
Miss Drag(something) and was initially confused, knowing that
competition would never happen in Taraz. Anyway, on the web site for
Miss Jewel, the rules of the competition say contestants will have
three tasks:
1) The best story about yourself.
2) Best dish made with her own hands.
3) Best outfit.

Again with the cooking! Will they make cold salads? Will they each
have a skillet to work with, or even elusive access to an oven?
Overall, I don't like beauty pageants that much, but I am a fan of
Iron Chef, and I like the idea of beauty pageants moving more in that

Monday, October 18, 2010

What a Spektackle!

I walk by the theater twice a day every Monday through Friday. I've lived in three apartments now, and my path to work from each one of them passes by the huge structure. It's smack in the middle of town across the street from our square. And I often see the banners hanging outside advertising the plays, but like most things that are constant like that, I never went. I imagine that millions of New Yorkers have never been to the Statue of Liberty following the same logic. What's the rush? There will be more time to do that later. (I have been in the theater itself – four times already. Twice for performing in KVN, once for a NGO forum, and once for the ballet. But I had never been to a drama performance there.)


So about a month ago (wow, I haven't updated in a long time), I saw a banner that was different than the usual one hanging outside the theater. 10th Annual Kazakhstan Drama Festival. Taraz. September 15-22. On it was written a schedule with plays being held twice a day. Most of it was written in Kazakh, so I asked two guys standing around to translate it for me. They said there would be a play in the morning every day at 10am, and one in the afternoon at 7pm. Groups from all over Kazakhstan would come here to perform. Where do I get tickets, I asked. No tickets. Free for everyone. Free plays! I'm in. I called Asela and asked if she was free at 7pm. We were going to the theater.


Now when I asked those guys to translate the banner, I swear they said that it was a kid's play that evening. So I went in expecting a puppet show or something. What we got was a love story set in Germany during World War II. In Kazakh. I loved it. The play opened to a scene of a squad of Kazakh soldiers who just heard the news that the war was over. There was laughing, joking, and pranking among their happy ranks. Then they dispersed and one soldier was left wandering. He stumbles upon a young woman and when he saves her life from some artillery fire (I guess the war wasn't quite over), they fall in love. Then Asela leans over and tells me she's German! Crucial plot point that would have been missed without some translating help.


The play (or as its called in Russian, spektackle) then shows the guy's commander back in headquarters wondering why this usually good soldier went AWOL. He is determined to find him and punish him for his subordinate behavior. Eventually, the squad does find him. And he is punished. For deserting his comrades and for associating with an enemy. The commander is sadistic and enjoys torturing him, asking him where they can find the girl's location. Eventually, the commander's commander shows up. Then the girl shows up. She pleas for her man, and the higher-up commander lets him go after she leaves.


He searches for her and finds her. But he tells her he must go back to Russia on the train. She begs him to stay, so he gives her his hat. She is left yelling "Peter, Peter!" (but in Russian, its like Pai-ter, Pai-ter), clutching his hat, as the stage goes dark.


And it was really well done. The young guy that played the AWOL guy did a great job, as did everyone else. The stage design terrific. The costumes were authentic looking. Most stuff in Kazakhstan is way-over-the-top glitz and dancing and tackiness. This was not that at all, and I was super impressed. And despite it all being in Kazakh, I understood most of the play. What was on the stage was pretty understandable.


I was hooked. And decided I had to go back later in the week to see the premiere of the Spektackle "Baurzhan Momushylu."

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Film from Kazakhstan

I can't wait to see this, but I don't know. I am as skeptical as the writer of the article.

Cribs Kazakhstan or Lifestyles of the City Volunteer

What to blog about…


The more time I spend in country, the harder and harder it is to think of bloggable things. Like this weekend, Mark, Jennie, and I were walking back from Frisbee and I saw this security guard standing on the porch of a jewelery store with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He overheard us speaking in English, and said hello and asked us to stop and talk with him. We told him that we didn't have the time, and we kept walking. Random people with weapons wanting to speak with you on Sunday mornings, sounds kinda strange, but really not a big deal.


I already blogged a little bit about this, but about two weeks ago I changed apartments. My old apartment was big and cheap and had pretty good amenities. However, I was tired of leaky showers and rocking toilets. I mean it's nice to have them (sorry village volunteers, but if you visit you can use mine), but I want them not to be a hassle when I use them. Finally, my previous landlady told me she wanted to increase my rent, so I decided to test the market. One of the women we know from ZhamZhas said she was moving to Almaty and wanted someone to rent her flat (apartment). I checked it out, and it was glorious. This place is Posh Corps if there ever was one. I have a washing machine, microwave, refrigerator, cable TV, a huge kitchen, tons of cool kitchen gadgets to try out, and even a mattress. I never realized that I have always been sleeping on futons or stacked up pads in this country. But finally, this is a real, comfortable mattress. It's amazing. (Come to think of it, I had been sleeping on futons in America for ten years or so, but aside from the one in Illinois, it was always a very comfortable futon.)


The only two things that could make it better would be a shower head that can be mounted to the wall. You have to hold it the whole time. (Wow, I sound so spoiled typing that sentence. Can I imagine myself in twenty years at a RPCV gathering? Yeah, I had to hold the faucet for my indoor heated shower the whole time. I couldn't even suds with two hands! Life was hard.) And an oven. For teacher's day, I wanted to bake something for my co-workers but I had no oven. (Instead I had to order pizza for delivery. That's something to blog about! The first time I've had pizzas delivered somewhere in over two years!)


Also, the new location is superb. It's about five minutes closer to my office, which will cut off 50 minutes a week from my walking time. And it passes by my favorite donor stand and cabbage peroshki lady. Plus, there is a giant super market across the street from my house.


I'm ready for my third year.

Coming soon: Blog about Kazakh theater

Monday, September 27, 2010

Things I've been doing

Moving out of my old apartment and into my new place. No oven, but does have a washing machine. And a freezer that doesn't seem to turn into an actual block of ice. (I should have taken pictures of my last one.) Thanks to Mark, Courtney, and Asela for doing a lot of the heavy lifting for me.


Visits from new trainees. The new volunteers are coming on field trips to see what volunteer life is like. The first group was a lot of fun, but they got lost a couple times. This week, I have decided to give maps to the new group that comes.


Work. I have a to-do list of about thirty things every week. I have a lot of things to do from English planning to volunteer planning to conference planning to meetings. It's busy here, but I can't imagine life not being busy.


COS conference. All of the Kaz 20s who are left gathered in Almaty for one last conference. It was awesome. Thanks to everyone who was there and made it special. We even had a talent show that featured Madonna, butt-shaking Glee dancing, juggling, Lady Gaga, and impersonations. That talent show was at a cookout that was awesome, but could be improved for next year. (Improvements include: pickles, sliced onions, yellow mustard, and bbq sauce.) But Paul also brought over his N64, which enabled me to get my butt kicked in Golden Eye.


Other stuff. Frisbee starting back up. And playing one last game with Jason in Almaty. It was a great day with tons of hucks and running and games to 3 or 8 depending on how you look at it. Frisbee here was good on Sunday. Hoping to get it going regularly before the winter sets in.


Next blog will focus on my first trip to the theater to see a Spektackle! 

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Weekend – Normal and not


The last two days have been normal, strange, and normal for being strange. Life in the Peace Corps is definitely interesting in that it is very active and varied.


Friday started out with a strange amount of success. I showed up at work early to copy some audio files onto a student's flash card to find they had forgotten their memory stick. After that hiccup though, I went by a local university and picked up some forms they were supposed to fill out. In addition to the forms being ready, I had tea to celebrate Ait (end of Ramadan). Next I went by another university and met with a professor there, and she also filled out forms that I needed. Then I went to work and my 1:00 appointment was on time. I gave her a volunteer book for her college and she gave me the name of an acquaintance who can hang wall paper. Then my 3:00 appointment was on time. I spent about an hour assisting someone with their resume and teaching them that past work experience should include descriptions. (I will soon do a post her about resumes in Kazakhstan.) Finally, the girl came back to get the audio files with her flash drive. Rarely has a day ever gone that smoothly.


In the evening, Asela and I went on a double date with one of her friends and her new boyfriend. We ate at Bavarius which is a strangely American café. There you can find pitchers of beer, onion rings, garlic toast, and fried mozzarella sticks. It was a fun night.


Today I made a speech about Frisbee to about 1000 people at the stadium during a health festival. I then was able to briefly play on a grass field for about one minute to demonstrate the game. During this minute I successfully made a gratuitous layout catch and got grass stains on the UNICEF t-shirt my friend had just given me. Within five minutes ten locals immediately pointed out how I had gotten dirty. I thought that was the point.


The rest of the day was filled with me packing up my apartment, settling issues with a neighbor, and my landlady coming over unannounced to show off the apartment. That's right. I'm moving apartments. I decided to find a landlady who is nicer and will actually do repairs when things break. (Apparently, it's somehow my fault that the sink leaks water and the toilet now rocks when you sit on it. I have no idea why these things occurred, but my guess is the sink she got was cheap and the toilet is clearly installed on uneven tile.)


Finally, I went to a wedding of an old friend. It'd been a while (about a year) since my last wedding, so it was nice to go to one again.


Now I'm back at my apartment waiting to go to the train station so I can head to COS conference where it'll be awesome and sad. It'll probably be the last time I see a lot of my close friends who are going back to America. But that's not until Monday.


Now I'm just thinking about tomorrow when I'll get to play Frisbee in Almaty. It's been about a year since I played a competitive game with more than four people on a team. Here's hoping for sevens. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

An epiphany

A couple weeks ago, my organization went on a picnic to celebrate Constitution Day. It was a great day of relaxing, swimming, and delicious food. (Mark and I cooked with the help of a local guy Danyar. And although the stew I made wasn't supposed to be a stew, it was still pretty good.)

One thing that stands out is an exchange I had with a bus driver and consequently everyone at the picnic. We were all sitting down to eat a snack about 30 minutes after we first got there. The bus driver was napping in the bus, so one of my friends told me to invite him to eat with us.

I walked up to the bus and leaned inside. Then I said something to the equivalent of "Здрастуй! Мы перекусаем. Вы хотите кушать с нами?" Which translates, in my mind, to Hello! We are having a snack. Do you want to eat with us."

Immediately, I mean immediately everyone at the picnic made a groan of horror. Michael, how could you be so rude? How could you say such a thing? What, I asked. I just asked if he wanted to eat with us. Exactly, they said. You should never ask if someone wants to eat. They'll be shy and say no. Just invite him to eat with us.

So I tried again. "Мы приглашаем Вас кушать с нами." (We invite you to eat with us.) Again, the cries rang out. No, no, no. Confused and getting frustrated, I asked, then how am I supposed to tell him to eat with us. Just tell him, "Пойдем. кушайте! " (Let's go. Eat!)

Suddenly, two years in Kazakhstan made sense. Every gosti experience. Every host family experience. Every meal I've ever eaten with locals. By now, I've come to accept that being told to eat wasn't rude here. It's just what people do. Eat! Eat! We hear it from day one. But I never really that asking someone if they wanted to eat was rude. What in my mind equates to respecting someone's own desires and giving them the opportunity to choose and come eat was horribly offensive. I thought back on my two years and wondered how many times I may have offended someone by offering them that choice.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Two Years and the surprises keep coming

Two Years!


I haven't been to America in two years. (I arrived in Kazakhstan 8/21/08). For the past 730 days, I have been in Kazakhstan for all about sixteen of them. Fifteen were spent in India and one was spent in Kyrgyzstan. It's been a long time. And it feels longer than I expected it would. Despite that, Kazakhstan is still full of surprises.


Example one: The other week I had some people from England visiting me. We were playing Frisbee with a local school and then the person who had organized the event invited all of us (four English guys, two PCVS, and Asela) back to her house for dinner. But the organizer was Kazakh, so big mass invites are not a big surprise. She calls home to find out that her family is actually at their grandmother's house. Slight change in plans, but we'll just go there for dinner. We hope they have enough to feed us.


After driving way outside of the center of the city, we find out that her family being at grandma's house meant ALL of her family. There were probably twenty to twenty-five guests already at the party. And there was plenty, plenty of beshbarmak for us. We sit down in the dining room and I'm just happy these English dudes are getting the gosting experience. They'd been in K-stan for two weeks already, but this is their first trip to someone's home. (Easy to get invites when you live here, but when traveling the big cities it can be difficult.)


This all is still pretty normal. Really, I mean there are seven people that a family barely knows eating at their house, but that's normal in Kazakhstan. These are hospitable people. Then one of the uncle starts talking about something. I don't understand and Asela is having trouble translating. Something about cutting. Oh, it's the circumcision talk again. It comes up sometimes, people talking about circumcision. Usually in the banya, but this still isn't out of the ordinay. Then the guy asks if we want to see what he's talking about. This isn't new either, but usually it's a joke.


He's not joking. All of a sudden, he lifts up a small boy, probably about two years old up on the table. The boy is only wearing a long t-shirt. The uncle lifts up the t-shirt and well there is an example of circumcision. From the telltale green antiseptic in the area, it seems like it is a fresh circumcision. The boy's smile is beaming as his uncle shows him off. Apparently this whole party was for him, some sort of Muslim version of a bris. I've been to many a gostings before, but that part was new. SURPRISE! (A friend later said that we should have given money to the kid as part of the tradition. If that ever happens again, I'll be ready.)


Example two: I was walking home the other day and I noticed a girl on the street had something in her hand that I hadn't seen before in Kazakhstan. It looked like a cup full of colored ice. It looked like a…. Then it hit me. The blini café. For the past two weeks, they'd had a sign out front with really blocky, pixilated pictures advertising a new "slosh". What's a slosh? (In my mind I associated it was cole slaw somehow, probably because it's written like "слаш" in Russian, which kinda looks like slaw if you read the c as a Russian s and the w as an English w instead of a "sh" sound.)


I went there to see for myself. Yes, there is was. Two nozzles attached to two spinning tanks. One purple. One yellow. Slushies! Slushies in Kazakhstan! SURPRISE. A country where most people are afraid of cold drink because it will give you a sore throat and ice is only seen in the winter usually on the ground. But here it was, in Taraz! Slushies! I immediately bought one.


Example three: Although, I'm getting tired of writing and want to eat dinner, so this will be short. We went to this café we though was Uzbek because it looked all fancy and stuff. Turns out its Moroccan, and they have couscous! Couscous in Kazakhstan. SURPRISE! It was so light and fluffy and awesome. Unfortunately, it was way too expensive, the rest of the food was awful, and the service was disappointing. But still, it's nice to know it's there if I ever really really want it.


Even after two years, this country is still full of things I'd never expect. And that's what makes me excited still heading into my third year. I may be experienced now, but the adventure is far from over. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Goals Two and Three

I often pick my English Club topics strictly based on what I want to talk about. So this week, there's been something on my from all the news I've been reading. It seems to be a controversy the media can't stop talking about. And no, I wouldn't dream of talking about Prop. 8 with my club. It's whether the "mosque" should be built in Manhattan at a site in the area near the 9/11 attacks.


In general, I try to avoid the subject of 9/11 with the people in Kazakhstan. It doesn't mean as much to them, not like it does to us. It's hard to hear them talk about it. Although, maybe for that reason I should talk about it more than I do. Here there is a lot of misinformation about the attacks. Apparently, if you put something in documentary form it must be true, and much of the population saw a documentary about how Americans really planned the attacks. Or how Jewish people were the masterminds to make Muslims look bad. People say these things as if they believe them; I think they do believe them.


Today, I thought that's where we needed to start the conversation. What happened on 9/11? I first heard their accounts. Some said that America planned it. Most knew about the two buildings, but had forgotten the two others planes. I decided to fill them in. Terrorists hijacked planes and attacked America. It was an attack by Al-Quida. Al-Quida was based strongly out of Afghanistan, and that's why American invaded. (These facts are true right? I also brought up the fact that some Americans still think Iraq was related to 9/11 somehow. Americans (and everyone) distort and confuse their history.)


I then asked them to describe the terrorists. What adjectives would they use? Crazy. Radical. Male. Extreme. Angry. Suicidal. The list went on. And I couldn't help but think what Americans would have said? What would the first adjective out of most American mouths? Muslim. It wasn't in their top ten. It wasn't even on their minds.


There were about fifteen people in today's club. Fourteen of them were "Muslim," in that if you asked their religion, they would probably say that. Although I don't think any of them abide strictly by the Muslim tenants. I've only met a handful of people here that pray every day, keep the fast during Ramdan, refuse alcohol, etc. Most Muslims here are really like most religious people in the world, their stated beliefs do not always match up with their actions.


I told the club that in America, Americans would have said Muslim terrorists attacked on 9/11, and they immediately responded by saying that isn't Islam. That's not their faith. Those people distorted Islam. They are like any radical group, using faith to masquerade their hatred and extremism. It's what everyone in Kazakhstan has ever told me about the hijackers on 9/11. The terrorists say that they are Muslim, but they aren't.


The topic of the club then moved on to the current controversy. Should Muslims be able to build a mosque near Ground Zero? In America, this is causing an endless debate that is entangling politicians, religious leaders, and pundits on all levels. For them, there was no debate.


Why not?, they asked. Why shouldn't they be able to build a mosque there? It's not like the radical terrorists are building a mosque there? It's just regular Muslims. They didn't cause 9/11.


I countered that many victims of 9/11 feel that it's offensive to them. They once again were confused. Why would it be offensive, they asked. I told them I didn't understand myself.


Then one of my sitemates asked if this was really an issue in America (she doesn't have Internet regularly and therefore hasn't seen this in the news). How many Americans really feel this way, she asked. Over 60% I told her, a clear majority of Americans oppose a mosque being built there.


Really? she asked in shock and disappointment. She sighed a familiar sigh of partial disbelief and confusion. I am familiar with that sigh.


See, it's part of Peace Corps goals to talk about America. It's always quoted "Goal 2: Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served." And it's great when I get to talk about how great America is. Our roads are paved so smooth. We have tons of amazing music artists. Our food and beer selection is out of this world. But sometimes I'm faced with the hard trust about what America really is. It's not perfect. At times, it has problems. There are homeless. There is racism. There is intolerance. Anyone familiar with America, knows that it has its fair share of problems. But usually, I get to talk about the progress we're making. Here, in this situation, it seems like we're moving backwards.


Maybe it's because I've been in Kazakhstan for two years, where a majority of the populating is Muslim. Maybe it's because my first three months were spent with an amazingly welcoming and observant Muslim family and I kept Ramadan with them. Maybe it's because I'm dating a Muslim girl. Maybe because of all of that, I completely fail to see why anyone would be opposed to building a mosque there or anywhere. 60% of Americans have a viewpoint that I not only disagree with, but I cannot even begin to understand.


Islam isn't something to be scared of. It's just another religion, like any other one. Muslims aren't to blame for 9/11. Terrorists are. And having to read that our President made a mistake by speaking out on what is right and just is infuriating. I feel ashamed to share a better understanding of Americans.


But then again, maybe that's why there's a third goal to the Peace Corps. Goal 3: Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Sometimes, it's certainly needed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day time disco

Some things in Kazakhstan don't make sense. Okay, a lot of things
don't make sense. BUT one thing they do more logically is pricing for
movie theaters. While most American theaters divide movies into
matinees and evenings, theaters here have a sliding scale. The very
first show may be 400 tenge and the evening shows are 1000. Mid-day
shows fall somewhere in between.

I can't speak for all Peace Corps volunteers, but when I decide to see
a movie (I've seen three in two years) I prefer that early morning
show. So that's how Ken, Berik, and I ended up at the Mega in Astana
at 9:30, before the mall even opened. The only store we could go to
was Ramstor. Everything else was cut off by some guards. Early morning
mall-walkers are prohibited in Kazakhstan. At 10am we rush up the
stairs to the fourth floor and check the time for Inception (in
Russian, Nachalo, which I translate to beginning. Is that what
Inception means? Honestly, I don't really know. When does anyone even
use that word?) 10:50! And the cost is 600 tenge. Blin! The price at
the new tent-mall (way disappointing) was 500. But we're here and we
buy three tickets next to each other. Another difference (possibly
improvement?) is selling specific seats in the movie theater, rather
than having general admission.

Berik is grateful because he has 50 minutes to run home and get the
glasses he forgot. Ken and I have 50 minutes to wander an empty mall.

We walk across the food court to this place called Babylon. Imagine a
stripped-down mall version of a Chuck-E-Cheeze without pizza or a mall
arcade on steroids. This place has bumper cars, laser tag, arcade
games, a 4-d theater, air hockey, DDR, etc. If you want to blow some
tenge, it's a good place to go. We weren't looking to spend any money
though and just wanted to check it out.

We walk in and see a strange site, even for Kazakhstan. There was a
circle of their employees (all Kazakh teenagers probably with summer
jobs) dancing in the middle of the arcade. I thought it was some
Target-like morning teambuilder. And it was strange to watch. Almost
embarrassing to watch. We started wandering the empty center and I
made my way to the ticket counter. I wanted to know how much
everything cost. The woman there said that bowling had been replaced
with roller skating, laser tag was 300 tenge for fifteen minutes, and
there was a morning discotheque every day if we wanted to join in.

Disco-teque! That wasn't a morning warm-up. That was a kid's disco!
What else were we supposed to do for fifty minutes? Ken and I
immediately decided to join in.

By this time, the circle of ten Kazakh teenagers had been joined by a
Russian father and his daughter, who was about four years old. A
skeptical mother sat out on the side, not having nearly as much fun as
enthusiastic father and daughter. The circle had two dance leaders who
were leading the scripted hand and dance motions for each song. Ken
and I joined in and quickly caught on with the choreography (it was
for children, after all). And honestly, there I was in my clothes that
hadn't been washed in a week, beard that hadn't been trimmed in two
weeks, and I don't think I've ever felt more self-conscious in my
life. I couldn't help but wonder what they thought of me and Ken, two
random strange-looking people speaking English with one another, who
just happened to be at the kid's disco at 10am on a Sunday morning.

Three songs in, my concerns were slightly abated when all of a sudden
the dancing circle broke down into a game of apparent tickle tag. Ken
and I had no idea what was going on when one of the Babylon employees
came running at us and got us each with a quick tickle attack. Next
the Russian father got us from behind. Nothing says acceptance like
voluntarily tickling of another person, and I felt a little more at
ease after that. The rest of the dances were fun if we had been small
children or if you were not a small child but had nothing else to do
or if you have a heart. We did conga lines, heart motions, brought the
circle in, brought the circle out, etc. And then the clock hit 10:30
and it all ended.

Kazakhstan has been full of strange experiences, but that was probably
one of the strangest.

(And yeah, we saw the movie at 10:50. It was good, and we understood
almost all of it in Russian. The next question is should I see The
Expendables at the movie theater because there's a lot of action and
explosions, or wait and see it on video because the voices won't be
dubbed over into Russian?)

Monday, August 2, 2010

My Week in a Yurt

Last year for baseball camp, we all stayed at Dave's run-down, dirty apartment. This year the plan was for us to stay there again, even though Dave didn't live there. Jessica was supposed to move there before baseball camp, but certain things (like we live in Kazakhstan) interfered with that. So baseball camp was approaching and we had no where to stay. Jessica and I were exchanging some texts about the fate of the twelve people coming to camp, when I remembered something.

Me: Isn't there a yurt in your front yard?

J: Yes, and it has a TV.

Me: A TV with a yurt. Do you think we can watch the World Cup final in the yurt?

J: I'll ask.

And the housing problem was solved. We'd sleep in a yurt, use the bathroom at Aigul's apartment/a field near the yurt/behind Jessica's organization, cook in Dave's old place/Jessica's future place, and eat in the yurt. Or most people would. I commuted to the city most days. For work, not so I wouldn't have to sleep in the yurt. That part was awesome.

So Day One. It's Sunday night and there are about eight of us and we have a dilemma. It's the world cup final. I've already forgotten whom. Oh yeah, the Netherlands and Spain. The yurt does have a TV. It gets five channels really well. And three channels super fuzzy. The world cup is usually on Habar or EDA. Habar is clear; EDA is super fuzzy. If we stay and watch the game in the yurt we risk the chance of not seeing the game, if its only on EDA. However, if it's on Habar, we get to say we watched the 2010 World Cup Final in a yurt in Kazakhstan. That's an icebreaker at future cocktail parties. "Oh yes, do you remember that year Spain beat the Netherlands. I was serving in Peace Corps at the time and watched it live from a yurt."

We decided to go to Jessica's friends house for the first half and then walk home at half time if we can confirm that it is on Habar. Dilemma solved. We watch the first half at her friend's house, but they have satellite. Their broadcast is showing on Russia2. That channel is not in the yurt. I call other PCVs until I find out that yes, it is on Habar. Half time comes and we walk home. And almost get eaten by dogs, but luckily didn't. And we get to the yurt in the fiftieth minute.

Most of us manage to stay up until the end of the game, but to be honest, I think only Chris and maybe Jon were awake for the end. I woke up briefly when Spain scored the gamewinner, dozed back off, then woke up at the end. I remember Kyle wanted to know the score (for the people who read Kyle's blog as well, this is the guy that posted about the World Cup at the start of it with predictions and all. Then fell asleep during the US/England game and then missed out on the final to go to some party), and I was so tired I had to will myself to press each key, "Spain wins in extra time." The next day I had to check my phone because I wasn't sure if I had dreamt it or not.

But yurt living was sweet. The only problems were when it rained one night and we were too lazy to figure out how to put the top cover on. And they had taken the Nintendo Wii out of the yurt when we got there. (Yes, that sentence is correct.) But it was cool at night and we had plenty of floor pads and even two beds! 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chick-fil-a on a Sunday: Or thanks to the McCampbells

The food. When people here ask you what you miss about America, they probably expect you to say your friends or your family. And don't get me wrong. Of course, I miss my friends and family. But man do I miss the food in America.

And one of those things that I miss is Chick-fil-a. I'm a Georgia-boy, born and raised. I remember getting nuggets meals at Oglethorpe Mall even as a small kid. Eventually, my love for the restaurant grew when I realized that I could get a free sandwich every time I donated blood. Helping potentially save a life and getting a coupon in return for a delicious lunch, I don't know what could be better. I even worked at a Chick-fil-a one summer and loved the free meal I got every day at work. My professional recommendation from eating four to five sandwiches a week is to try out their sauces: their buffalo sauce is surprisingly spicy.

So when Mark asked me if I wanted his parents to bring anything from America when they came this summer, the first thing I thought of was Chick-fil-a. I was only half-joking. After all, five months ago Brad managed to hand deliver me Krystal. What's next on the fast food list but a chicken sandwich. And not just any chicken sandwich, but the new spicy chicken sandwich. Yes, even though I am on the other side of the world, I still get updates from, and I probably knew about the debut of the new sandwich before most of my friends in the States. Would I truly have to wait until November to try this new exciting innovation? What do I want from America? I want the new spicy chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-a.

Mark's dad seemed to be excited by the challenge. The plan was set in motion. They would get the sandwich the day before they left. Freeze it overnight. Then seal the chicken, buns, and pickle in separate zip-lock bags. Mark would be getting a regular sandwich, and I'd be getting a spicy one. They'd pack the goods into their luggage and they'd unpack it after the 30 hour trip. Simple.

When Mark's parents and sister arrived, Mark sent me a text to tell me the sandwiches were in tow. They'd made the Transatlantic light bez (without) problem. Unfortunately, I'd be in Shymkent until Sunday and the sandwiches would arrive in Taraz on Friday. What's another couple of days though?

Sunday (yes, on Sunday) I arrived back in Taraz and, even before going home, immediately went to Mark's house. His family was asleep, still jet-lagged by the long trip. He got out the sandwich. Although originally planning to wait for me, he understandably succumbed to the hunger and had eaten his sandwich the day before. I unwrapped mine piece by piece. First the bread. Then the pickle. Then the chicken. We reheated it on the stove and the reassembled it.

I lifted it to my mouth and took a large bite. MMMMMMmmmmmm. It was amazing. It tasted amazing. It was just like I had remembered it, and the spiciness was an interesting enhancement. I relished in the food, savoring each bite. Chewing and chewing and chewing. I don't think I've eaten anything so slowly in my life (see previous entry about hot-dog eating contest). I didn't want to finish it, but eventually I was down to the last bite. I popped it in my mouth and slowly chewed. Chick-fil-a in Kazakhstan. This country is always full of surprises. 


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I did on my summer vacation

So I'm back at my site now. I'm sitting at home. Alone in my apartment. And it feels great. For now. I'm sure a couple days of this and I'll be bored wishing I was back traveling again, but it feels good to finally have a break. The roller coaster that was the summer seems to have wound down, although a week earlier than expected.

Uzbekistan did not work out for us. Me, Mark, Courtney, and Jessica had wanted to go check out some of the old cities there. We filled out our paperwork, jumped through tons of PC hoops, and then in the end never got our letter of invitation. The tour agency (Roxana Tour) said that it could take months for us to be processed because we are all Peace Corps volunteers. That would have been nice to know from the beginning, but we had trusted the tour agency to secure visa assistance, and they did not. Other volunteers have used this agency in the past, but I don't know if I can recommend them, mainly because next week instead of going to Uzbekistan I will be sitting at home in Taraz.

 Before traveling to Almaty to get a final NO on the Uzbekistan issue from the embassy, I was in central to northern Kazakhstan in a gorgeous spot known as Shchychenks. There were not only trees, but forests! Forests! In Taraz, we have lots of trees. It's very green, but we don't have actual forests with trails. It was amazing to see. It's also not far from Kazakhstan's "Little Switzerland" known as Borovoe ( It does not look like Switzerland, but it was awesome to see a beach in Kazakhstan. I hope in the future there will be something like the Jersey Shore filmed there with locals.

 I was up north to learn Russian, but I think I came back speaking worse Russian than I did before I left. A week surrounded by English speakers means that whatever Russian we do learn won't actually be used. I speak now and hear so many mistakes. I want to surround myself for a week with only Russian speakers so I can start speaking okay again.


Before going to the lake-filled land of Akmola Oblast, I was at BASEBALL CAMP!. Baseball camp this year was awesome because A) It's baseball camp. B) Mark's parents brought sweet Braves hats for everyone. Everyone being the children and Mark. C) We stayed in a sweet pimped-out yurt complete with two beds and a television D) We had a ton of awesome volunteers come and help out. The two beds were somewhat useful, but because there were ten of us, it was really only 20% useful. Other highlights included sponge dodgeball, BASEBALL, picnic by the river, lots of watermelon, BASEBALL, berry picking, banya-ing, and finding a sweet new karoke spot in the city. It was a lot of fun, and I'm already excited about next year's camp. We'll need some more balls though, but I'll try to get some donated or something and bring them back. We have tons of hardballs, but we are afraid to use them and all of our squishy baseballs are ripping at the seams.

 Before going to BASEBALL CAMP!, I was in Shymkent for an activity/English camp. We went to the water park. We went bowling. We went to Mega. The kids on our trip decided they didn't like delicious pitas. I also learned a new Kazakh superstition that people here don't drink out of chipped cups or glasses. Now I acknowledge that its bad for a restaurant to serve you a chipped cup, but if I got one, I'd just turn it around and drink from the non-chipped side. Here, a poll of all 20 students revealed that all of them would send it back. It's an insult to the guest to serve such a glass. Two years here, and there is still the stuff I don't know. Overall, the camp was fun and the kids had a good time. And they were speaking so much English. After working with them for half a year, it finally sounds like they are opening up and become more comfortable speaking. I had a good time too despite my sandals breaking on day two. And me only bringing sandals. I don't think they could handle the nightly discoteque we had at the hotel restaurant.

 So now I'm back at my site. I don't have any major travel plans until September for our Close of Service conference (despite staying a third year, I still get to go). Seven full weeks at site. Hopefully, I'll get a lot done. I'm really excited to hit the school year running with all sorts of service projects and volunteer recruiting. I also need to finally hunker down and make my organization a web site.

 Preview for upcoming blog: Another description of trains in Kazakhstan, but this one is mind-blowing

Friday, July 23, 2010

One more year!

So I was originally supposed to leave Kazakhstan some time in November 2010. However, I decided to "extend" (Peace Corps lingo), and I'll be around here until December 2011. I thought a lot about it over the past few months, and finally turned in my application at the end of May. I heard a few weeks ago that it was accepted. In addition to just extending, I'll be staying on as a "Peace Corps Volunteer Leader," so I will have a few more administrative tasks added to my normal workload. Overall, the expectation is I work 70% at my work and 30% assisting staff and other volunteers.

So why did I stay? Do I just absolutely love life here in Kazakhstan? I stayed because I think I can get some interesting work done over the next fifteen months. I came to my host organization seven months late after a site change, so I feel like I was behind everyone else in learning about their organization. I have some specific projects I'd really like to get done before I leave Kazakhstan, and I think staying an extra year will let me do it. I also have a rather comfortable life in Taraz (cable, Internet, a working oven). And life is still interesting here. I am used to a lot of it, but every week if not every day there is still something new for me here.

This doesn't mean I won't come home until December 2011 though. As part of the extension, PC requires us to go home for a month. And they even pay for this trip! (However, after coming back to country, if I decide to go home early I then have to reimburse them.) But free trip to America is tentatively scheduled for February/March 2011. I'll be home for about six weeks. So probably a few weeks at home, maybe one in Atlanta, one in Nashville, one in Illinois (maybe, but its far and icy that time of year), and one spent trying to find a late winter/early spring hat/pickup frisbee tournament. I'm really looking forward to seeing everyone even though its seven months away. :)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Busy Busy Busy and a Failure

So a few weeks ago I posted a schedule for my summer and said it would be busy. It has been! My current schedule is wake-up, prepare for camp, do camp, teach business English, come home, watch World Cup Game 1, eat dinner, try to watch World Cup Game 2 before passing out.

Last week we had a great time at Tay Samal camp (thanks Christina and Jacob for coming, and Mark for heading up there from Taraz). Next week we have a camp in Shymkent because the second week of our activity camp was hijacked by a grant won by people in Shymkent. We had a lot of cool stuff planned, so hopefully their camp can match it. 

Today, I was set to have the coolest day in Peace Corps ever and it failed on so many levels. Plan was to make American breakfast in my office for the camp we are having. See, you don't understand what its like to be asked a bajillion times what your national food is, to say we don't have one national food because we value variety in our dishes, only to be told you are wrong. You're national food is hot dogs and hamburgers. No, darn it. Chili and meatloaf and BREAKFAST. People here are not breakfast eaters usually. Maybe some bread and jam and definitely tea, but a Sunday brunch with pancakes, waffles, sausage, etc - unheard of. So today since we were doing American language camp, we were going to cook our national dish - breakfast.

I knew the guards in our building had a small electric burner and I got their permission to borrow it. Then I bought a lot of food. Flour, milk, kefir, eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, etc. I hauled a bunch of cooking stuff from my house to work. I even got my co-workers to bring some spare mixing bowls. The plan: have the kids split into teams. Give them each a recipe for pancakes in English. Give them access to the supplies. Let them at it. Then they'd bring it to me in the next room and I'd fry them up. 

For those of you that aren't in Kazakshtan, this is very very weird. An office is an office. It is not a kitchen. While this may be kinda kooky in America, this is pretty much unheard of in my neck of the woods. (On a similar note, the Egg Drop for tomorrow has been replaced by American dancing (yeah, YMCA!) because it is culturally insensitive to waste food for science experiments). 

All was going super duper awesome. The kids were mixing. They were excited. They were confused by these American things called pancakes. (In Kazakhstan, pancake is translated as Blini. But blini are really crepes. Thick pancakes are not very common.) And then I fired up the burner. And waited. And waited. And then just as it was getting hot, it switched itself off. Oh Bozhe. Yeah, the safety mechanism on the borrowed electric burner turns itself off if it gets too hot. BLIN! 

How hot? Not even hot enough to really cook a pancake hot. Hotter than warm, but nothing all that hot. FAIL. Lesson to all future Peace Corps volunteers (and one I should have learned myself already) always do a test run with the kitchen equipment when planning to feed 25 people at a summer camp. 

Like we did cook up some pancakes, but the process was taking way too slow. And they were never fully fluffy and delicious like they should have been. So an hour in half into the experiment (we had scheduled one hour for cooking and one for eating) we'd made about twenty pancakes, not nearly enough to feed all of the kids and the staff. My director wisely took them to a nearby cafe and got them a real lunch. 

It wasn't a disaster entirely. The children did learn some new vocabulary (including the word for spatula, a device that most locals don't even know how to call it in Russian). They did learn some new recipes. They did try pancakes. And I think they had fun too. It just wasn't enough to feed them for the day. Next time I'll test the burner before hand. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Frisbee Camp: Week One

We didn't have concrete goals going into the camp, so it's hard to say if it was a "success." But I think overall, it went well. 

Did children play Frisbee? Yes. 

Did they learn that Frisbee is awesome because there are no referees and everything is governed by this sweet "Spirit of the Game" attitude? No, there was lots of yelling. 

Did we have one day with absolutely no children? Yes, but only one. 

Did everyone have a good time and get certificates in the end? Yes. 



We'll see how it goes next week at Tay Samal!