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