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.