Monday, May 24, 2010

A Long Story

I got Internet installed at my apartment…. That one sentence leaves
out a lot of backstory though. I'll fill in a few details.

October 2009
I remember that the volunteer nearby named Scott has a wireless modem.
He's also going to be leaving in a month. I call up Scott and ask for
the modem. He says he just promised it to Britt. BUT he happens to
have two. Something about one not working for a while. But now they
both work. He'll give me the spare.

November 2009
Scott leaves and I realize that I never talked to him about HOW I
would get the modem. It turns out he left it in Shymkent with the
volunteers there. I can get it whenever I want.

December 2009
I finally go to Shymkent in order to speak to the Bilim center. While
I'm there, I get the modem! Modem received. Now I just need to get
KazTelecom to come by and hook up the DSL. I look at my bank account
and I think about the 7000 tenge installation fee. Since I just bought
a washing machine in November, I decide to wait until the new year
(and pay day) to get Internet.

January 2010
Now the fun begins. I call up my landlady and tell her I want to turn
on the Internet. She agrees in principle and says we'll talk about it
next time she gets the rent. That's not until the 20th though. I agree
to wait, because I don't think there's anything else I can get her to

I go by the phone company's office (Megaline is the brand name) and
ask what I need. She tells me the name of some document. I don't
understand so I get her to write it down. I still don't know what it
is; something to do with rights to the phone and who owns the

I call my landlady back and tell her that she'll need to bring this
one document when she comes for the rent. She says okay, but doesn't
agree to bring it. She says she can only come on Sunday. She comes for
the rent without the document. We talk about it. She explains that she
can't come into town during the week because her grandson is sick. The
mom works and she has to be at home with him. She apparently also
can't take him to the phone office (?).She also doesn't trust me with
the document. Only she will give it to them. She tells me to wait
until the grandson gets better.

The phone company is not open on Saturday or Sunday, so there's no way
I can sign up for Megaline. Then I see that there are some private
dealers for Megaline. I go and talk to one. Are you open on Saturdays?
Yep, they are. I call my landlady. She doesn't trust them, she says.
They'll copy her document, forge it, and then she'll lose her
apartment. I tell her I don't think that's true, but she won't believe
me. I'm stuck again.

February 2010
I keep calling the landlady about once a week. Finally, the grandson
gets better, but she falls ill. She goes to the hospital. In
Kazakhstan, this can be serious or not serious. I don't know. But I
don't pressure her. Okay, you're in the hospital, I guess I can wait.

Finally, at the end of February, she's out of the hospital. Can you
come to the office now? No, she's still weak. I give her a week. She
finally agrees to come.

March 2010
We meet at the Megaline office. Signing up takes about five minutes.
That's it. She gave them her document, they made a copy, and she
signed something. Two months for this? Okay, so when will I get it.
Megaline says they'll check the quality of my phone line (they send
Internet through the phone here rather than through cable) and call me
in a week.

A week! A week until the Internet. I wait a week. Megaline has not
called. I go back to the office.

Oh, they checked the line. It's not good. They need to change it. How
long do I need to wait? The woman in the office doesn't know. I should
go ask someone else.

I go next door to the other offices of KazTelecom and see the Megaline
specialists. They tell me to call a number and talk to someone. I
don't like phone conversations with random people in Russian. I decide
to wait a couple more weeks.

A couple weeks, pass and I go back to the office. The woman knows me
by now. She calls a guy, and he says they still haven't changed the
line going to my building. I ask her, when? When will they change it?
In a year? She laughs and says no. A week? She once again laughs.
Okay, so now I have a time frame. Somewhere between a week and a year.

I decide to go back once a month to keep checking on the process.

May 2010

I go back the office. She says she still doesn't know when, but I can
ask the guys in the other office again. That didn't go so well the
first time, but I'll give it another try.

I go next door and I take my number. They actually have a really
efficient waiting room system. You pick the service you want from a
machine, then it spits out the number you are. You have to wait in a
lobby area where a screen will flash which customers are currently
being served. For Kazakhstan, this seems revolutionary.

Finally, my ticket is called and I go talk to the guys. The Megaline
office has four desks set up where clients can talk to a service
representative. Two of them are un-staffed. I sit down across from a
younger guy, while another guy sits at a desk without any clients. I
start telling my story. He checks the computer and confirms. Yeah, my
line is bad. They're changing it. They don't know when.

When, when I implore. I've already waited two months. When will they
change it? Can't they just give me a time table? He talks with the guy
next to him for a while. Looks something up, then says, we can maybe
give you WiMax. WiMax? What the heck is WiMax? I've heard of WiFi, but
not this.

He explains. They'll put a satellite dish at my apartment. They'll
beam me the Internet. Not everywhere has signal, but he thinks my
house will. I give him my number and he says he'll call me in a couple

A couple days go by and still no call. I go back to the office and
speak to him again. They greet me warmly, remembering the American who
wants Internet. He makes a few clicks on his computer and says, yep,
there is a signal at my house. I should be able to get WiMax. What's
next, I ask. They'll send someone by my house tomorrow morning to
install it.

Then they ask me how to get on the roof of my building. I tell them I
don't know. I live on the fourth floor. I don't know who has the key
to get to the roof above the fifth floor. They say not to worry. They
can put the satellite on the balcony.

So the next day, I'm waiting at my house for the installation guys.
Amazingly, they come on time with no waiting or delays. They
immediately ask me how they can get on the roof. I tell them I don't
know, so we call my landlady. She says the neighbor has a key. We
knock for a while, but the neighbor is not home. I was so close. They
were ready to turn on the Internet! But alas, I was once again denied.
They tell me they can come back the next day if I get the key. I
should call them in the morning to let them know.
I go to my neighbor's house that night and leave a note. The next
morning, the note's still there. So still no key. Still no internet.
That night my neighbor calls me. She asks what I want to do on the
roof. I tell her I want to turn on the Internet. She asks if they will
drill holes in the roof. If they drill holes, then the roof will leak
and there will be water in her house. I don't think this is true, but
how can I really know? I don't know how they install this Internet
satellite. I can't make any promises. I won't give you permission she
says; I won't give you the key.

The next day, I go back to the guys at the Megaline office to explain
the problem. I just wanted them to explain what they were going to do
on the roof. Maybe they could qualm her fears. They sense that this
could be a problem, so they talk among themselves for a bit. Then the
guy says to me, we can turn on regular Megaline, but it may be a
little slow. How slow, I ask. About 1MB per second. 1MB per second?
That's blazing for Kazakhstan. Yes, yes, yes. He says he can do it
tomorrow. Then he realizes tomorrow is Saturday. He asks if I can turn
it on myself if he guides me through the steps on the phone. Of
course, I assured him (not knowing what that meant really). He said he
would call me later that day in the afternoon.

Friday I waited eagerly all day. I went home from work a few hours
early to wait for his call. I finally got Scott's modem out of the box
and got out the disk. Then remembered my computer doesn't have a disk
drive. Then remembered that I had borrowed Jessica's disk drive and
hadn't given it back yet. It was a sign! The Internet would be
installed. Then the disc for the modem wouldn't work. Blin! Luckily
though, after the third time trying and wiping it down with a cloth,
it finally managed to get through the set up. Then the guy from
Megaline called and guided me through the process. No problems!

And that's how I got Internet installed at my house.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Facts about yurts OR A Volunteer Named Dave

First, I'd like to say Brad captured the spirit of the trip very well. I really enjoyed his perspective on things as someone new to the country. I threw a lot at him, and he did great. Most of the things Brad got wrong were minor: we did x before y type things. But they aren't important for the story. However, Brad did confuse the story of the yurt in Asa quite badly. Enough that deserves correcting now.

Many years ago, there lived a volunteer in Kazkahstan. I don't know his name. But he bought a yurt. Because yurts are cool. (See Brad's entry and photos.) And they aren't that expensive. (Maybe $600 then probably. Try buying a house for that much outside of Detroit these days.) But despite being carried around by Kazakhs as movable transportation for hundreds of years, they are big. So without a caravan going from KZ to America, you may have to pay a pretty penny to ship a yurt back home. Probably more than the cost of the yurt.

Well, original un-named volunteer did not consider the shipping costs. And when he calculated them, he realized he couldn't justify spending his whole readjustment allowance on the yurt shipping. (He probably had to use it to travel.) So the yurt stayed here under the vigilance of a local friend. It was stored in her shed or something. Not really sure. But he had plans to one day find a way to get this yurt home. 

That was years and years ago. And the caravan he must have been waiting for never materialized. Eventually, friend of the un-named volunteer no longer wanted the yurt taking up space where ever it was taking up space. Also, it was being entirely unused. So she though, who might want a yurt? The answer: Dave.

Let's rewind a bit to talk about Dave. He was a city boy, born and raised in south Detroit, who took the midnight train going anywhere. Just kidding about that part, had some residual Journey stuck in my head after finally watching the pilot episode of Glee. But yeah, Dave was from somewhere around Detroit. (Which makes the idea of him buying the yurt even more ridiculous. He knows $600 is way too much for a house.) He worked at a youth/community organization in a small village north of Taraz called Ainalain. 

From the stories about locals, you'd think Dave was a super hero. He spoke Kazakh that rivaled Abai. He played baseball better than Mickey Mantle. And his beard bested even the best Russian Orthodox bishop. While none of these claims are true, they model reality. He did a lot for his org in the time he was there, and the people of Asa remember him fondly.

One of the goals of his organization is the preservation of Kazakh culture. They want to make sure the younger generation never forgets their past. It's very important here. To do that, they make traditional crafts and have camps with local youth. And what fits more into traditional Kazakh culture, then a yurt. 

So friend of original volunteer happens to know Dave (because everyone here did) and calls him up one day. I believe the conversation went something like: 
"Do you want a free yurt?"
"Uh… Did you say free?"
"Yeah, I have this yurt sitting here that I don't want. Could your organization use it?"
"Yes. Yes. Uto zharksa (Kazakh)."

And then he took the rest of the day off, because he had just scored a yurt for his organization, for free.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Hot Dog Contest, Part 2

This blog is a continuation of the previous story. Please see the previous entry if you are just stumbling upon this entry.

After a solid set of dancing, they set up the room for round number 2. Aidos decided to volunteer for this round. He can eat, but I didn't feel he was a major threat. The same set up was given and Round 2 began. I immediately noticed that almost everyone was dunking. Had they learend this from me? Or did the more serious competitors just wait for a later round?

It quickly became apparent that only one guy would be a threat. He was on a good pace and did not quit. It was hard to keep track of how many he had eaten, but they were quickly disappearing from his tray. Then I noticed that two of his friends lifted a hot dog from his tray when the judges weren't looking. What?! Well, we are in Kazakhstan. And cheating is better phrased as helping a friend out. I pointed this out to the judges and they put the dog back on the table.

At ten minutes, all the competitors stopped. They counted Aidos's total. He had gotten 5 down. Definitely respectable. Then they counted major threat as getting down eight. But I counted, and he had seven complete hot dots left on his table and one half of one. That was eight on the table, meaning he'd put down seven. They miscounted! I tried to explain this to the judges, but they didn't understand. He'd only eaten seven and a half. And I'd eaten seven and 9/10. But by the rules, both of us should have been counted as seven. So I couldn't really complain that much. And maybe Round 3 would just blow us out of the water. Or maybe, there'd be a tie and I'd have to eat even more hot dogs.

The competitors for Round 3 were scary. Three guys weighing at least 200 pounds, one who was ripped, one with a chubby gut, and one that was just a big Kazakh man. Three minutes in though it was clear that the muscle man was a pretender, but the other two guys were serious contenders. They guy in black kept a good pace, eating one hot dog at a time. But the guy in white was a beast. He'd be dunking two or three hots dogs at a time and then ripped them to pieces with his mouth. He ate like an animal. And he finished eight hot dogs with about three minutes left. I was impressed. He stopped at nine before the judges reminded him of the steady progress of the guy in black and quickly finished off number ten to put us all away. As the time ran down, the eventual winner was just standing around and the guy in black just managed to finish his ninth. They called time and the guy in black ran off, possibly to vomit all of what he just ate (apparently allowed in this competition.)

So there I was, tied for third. There'd be a showdown. I'd have to eat more hot dogs. The announcer called me and the other guy with eight onto the dance floor again. They put a tray of ten hot dogs in front of each of us and said we had five minutes. At first, they didn't give me a chuck bucket, but I made sure I had one of those available. This was really the first time I got a look at my competition. He was taller than me, probably about 5'11, but wasn't very big. We stared at each other as if enemies, but then laughed it off. He seemed like a fun guy, but I was not going to give up without a fight.

The clock started and hot dog one went down surprisingly easy. Maybe going in Round One had given me the advantage after all. I did have about thirty more minutes of rest and digest than this guy. Hot dog two was a struggle, but I realized that water is great for getting down the last bits of a bite. It almost came up a couple times, but I managed to hold it down. My competition was about ¼ of a dog behind me but seemed to be slowing down. As I picked up dog number three, I looked down at my the timer on my phone. Three minutes gone, two minutes left. I knew I could get one more down. I told myself don't worry about the other guy. Just get this one hot dog down in two minutes. You can do it.

After the first bite, I doubled over in pain. That was entirely unsuspected. Up until that point, the problem had been holding down all the food. But now, my stomach was in agony. Ever bit I swallowed was like another sharp jab. I was about half way through though, and my competitor had just eaten the sausage from number three. One minute left. Dip, swallow, pain. Dip, swallow, pain. I was squatting, not even able to stand up. But finally, with one final swig of water, I was able to get the last bit down. I had done it.

Time expired and they declared me the winner of the eat off. My prize: a sweet medal and a bag of men's beauty products. And although I didn't win 100 dollars or the sleek stereo set given to second place, I left with pride knowing that I had put up a good fight for my country. Eleven hot dogs, fifteen minutes, not bad for a first try. However, I am astounded and amazed at what the pros can do, about 6 to 7 times more hot dogs than I can. Really, I think I rank that feat higher than iron man triathlons.