Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Local Transportation

Almalybak Lake

Merke (after my first snow)



My married friends. They're kind of cool, I guess. (Nick, Corinne, Katy and Seth)

Almalybak Language Group (I saw these guys 7 days a week practically all day long for 3 months) Seth, Katy, Leah, AC, and Jessie

Corinne and I at Swearing In Ceremony

I'm bringing Phase 10 to the world. Nick and Corinne's house.

The infamous dining room table at Nick and Corinne's house.


I've gone back and added pictures to some of the past few blogs. check 'em out.

40 Things I've Learned After 4 Months In Kazakhstan

Began October 30, 2008

1. Electricians are cruel. Every single light switch is a guessing game in Kazakhstan. They are never where they should be, and most often are found outside of the actual room which they illuminate. I stayed in an apartment in Almaty once and I couldn't find the lightswitch for the bathroom, finally I found a switch in the hallway, on the opposite side of the hall, that didn't seem to have a corresponding room or fixture, sure enough when I flipped the switch - ding! bathroom light turns on.

2. I appear to like music videos. Kazakhstanians like their television (I mean, they put a lot of Americans to shame). I don't watch TV in Kazakhstan, but because it's what you can find almost all Kazakhstanians doing at most hours of the day, especially in the evening, on occasion I will join them in front of the TV. In Almalybak when I walked into the TV room, all of my brothers sat up straight and grabbed the remote. Before I know it, we're watching the Kazakhstan MTV equivalent. Just music video after music video. I tried explaining that the Russian movie they were watching when I walked in was perfectly acceptable to me, but without fail, if I sit in the TV room - we watch music videos. I've stopped going into the TV room, it's just ridiculous.

3. MTV has made it to Kazakhstan. My Super Sweet 16 was playing on my counterpart's television the other day (dubbed in Russian) as was some dating show with a bus that was by no means educational or entertaining.

4. Bedding is meant to be used. If you are not sleeping, your bedding should not remain on your bed. Every morning I must strip my bed and place a blanket of sorts over my mattress. This blanket is only for show. (This was when I had a bed, now I take the blankets off of my COUCH).

5. School is a formal affair. 5 year old boys wear suits and ties to school. 5 year old girls wear pouf balls as big as a basketball in their hair. It's fashionable?

6. I can't cook. Everything here is made from scratch and the fact that I would consider buying my pasta noodles from a store is a disgrace to my gender.

7. Men are fascinated with America. My previous host dad was especially fascinated with my Dad in America. He wanted to know everything about him, and about my house (including what kind of heating we have).

8. "Breakfast" is a relative term.

9. Apartments are all about what's on the other side of that door. Every building looks like it could fall down at any moment and the corridors are something straight out of a horror film, but you walk inside someone's apartment and it's a palace.

10. Wine is consumed by the shot.

11. Water and electricity are never guaranteed. Anywhere.

12. "Superstitious" has a whole new meaning in Kazakhstan. Knock on wood. Spit over your shoulder three times. Never wipe a table with paper products. Don't whistle indoors. Don't pull loose hairs off of someone else's shoulder. Do not consider not wearing socks or slippers indoors.

13. If you don't understand, they will just say it LOUDER.

14. Even though it is technically called "toilet paper" the paper should never actually go inside of the toilet. That is why there is always a garbage can in the bathroom. (It took me being in an apartment in Almaty with other volunteers to figure this one out.) Fun times.

15. "American" foods are much more appealing in Kazakhstan than they are in America. I can't remember the last time I actually drank a Coke or ate a Snickers in the United States, but in Kazakhstan, I can't resist that Snickers bar in the magazine (Russian for store). What's that all about?

16. Dogs are not pets, they are doorbells.

17. In America there seem to be four options for milk: Non-fat, 1%, 2% and whole milk. In Kazakhstan there are three options: 3.2%, 6% and straight from the udder. I was a non-fat only drinker in the states, imagine my excitement...

18. A single "hard-boiled" egg can be considered dinner.

19. In the event of an earthquake, don't get UNDER furniture, just sit next to it. This is what we were taught during one of our safety and security sessions. They clearly wouldn't have survived Loma Prieta 1989. :) Either that or I need to throw my "Duck and Cover" training out the window.

20. There is always room for more tea. Always.

21. Barf is considered a high quality cleaning product in Kazakhstan. It's quite good at washing clothes and leaves them smelling fresh and clean.

22. No matter how much you eat, it is never enough. I'm convinced you have not eaten enough until you have actually become ill. This is the main reason the two Kazakh words I know and use every day are "full" and "finished".

23. There is no word for "sir" or "madam" unless you are addressing a judge or someone of royalty. They will look at you foolishly if you try using these words in every day speech.

24. Camels are domestic animals.

25. When a local learns you are from America, 8 times out of 10 they will respond with, "Oh, California!" (I wish I weren't from California so I could teach these people about some of the other 49 states). And when they do learn that you are from California, they always respond with "Arnold Schwarzenegger" and laugh hysterically. The word for governor in Russian is "guvernator" so it is even funnier to hear the locals say "Arnold Schwarzenegger Guvernator".

26. Sending a letter to the United States is not as easy as one might think. In Merke, I actually needed a translator AND a hand-written note to explain that this letter (addressed to the United States, in Russian) was to be sent to the United States.

27. Running in Merke is not acceptable. The first (and consequently only) time I went for a run in Merke, I was chased by a dog, followed by a car full of young men, and shouted at by a multitude of locals as I ran by. I had to turn around and head for home a mere 15 minutes from my front door because it didn't quite feel like a safe activity.

28. A shower is a luxury.

29. Korean restaurants in Taraz are apparently known for serving dog meat. I draw the line at horse! (which, for the record, is quite tasty)

30. It goes both ways: I have found that just nodding my head and saying "yes, yes, yes" through a conversation (even if you don't understand everything) usually makes life a lot easier. My host mom has now learned this trick, too. I found her responding to my questions (in Russian), which were not of the yes/no variety with "yes, yes, yes". When I looked at her quizically, she nodded seriously, and said, "yes, I understand".

31. If you try to play volleyball with a soccer ball, you will bruise your wrists, arms AND hands. Pumping up the soccer ball only makes this situation worse.

32. It's cool to wear tacky slippers.

33. The correct response to "Are you married?" is "No, I am not married. I DO NOT WANT to be married." And yet, most of the time you eventually have to say something to the extent of: "I'm sure your son is really wonderful. And yes, the fact that he doesn't smoke and doesn't drink are very wonderful qualities. Anyone would be lucky to have him. Thanks for selling me this loaf of bread. It was very nice to meet you."

34. Kazakhstan has a Santa Claus that wears blue instead of red. And he visits on New Year's Eve instead of Christmas Eve.

35. Couches are considered sufficient beds. Even if you happen to be 5'9" and your feet hang off the edge.

36. Americans are very efficient at an ATM machine. Be grateful for your ATM experience in America.

37. British English is a pain in my side.

38. If you are a Kazakh woman and you have passed the age of 21, it will be very hard for you to get married because you are now quite old.

39. You don't need a refrigerator for leftovers or salads, you just need a fairly cold room. We use our entryway (it isn't heated).

40. You can own a vehicle and a driver's license without knowing how to make a 3-point turn or turn on your headlights. I don't recommend traveling with said individual, it's quite terrifying.

Huber's Words of Wisdom

written December 15, 2008

Nick and Corinne Huber are two of my favorite people here in Kazakshtan (and not only because they have fed me pancakes and Mexican food - although it helps). In addition to being a couple of my favorites, they also have a Kazakhstan Peace Corps blog in action and I couldn't resist sharing the following post because it had me laughing out loud:


Check it out, along with some of the other blogs in the right hand column of this blogsite for those times when I can't adequately describe this crazy experience that is KZ Peace Corps. :)

Because I think they are so cool (and I want to be cool like them) I've started my own list. Stay tuned...

Making a Difference

written December 10, 2008

I had one of those "Peace Corps moments" this week. Last week I taught my 5th graders about "I have got" and "I haven't got" (yes, slightly British, we'd probably just say "I have" and "I don't have" but some things you just let slide). One of the activities I played with my students to get them using the phrases was a form of Go Fish.

I bought some playing cards at the bazaar and drew pictures of a bunch of the students vocabulary words (pen, pencil, book, computer, etc.). I pasted these pictures onto the cards and laminated them (with clear tape). Each student was dealt four or five cards and, in groups, my students proceeded to play "Go Fish".

All around the classroom these little kids were laughing and smiling and saying "Have you got a computer?", "No, I haven't got a book." "Yes, I have got a CD." I let them play for about 15 minutes because they were enjoying it so much - and hey, if my students are speaking English, then I'm doing my job. Then, I collected the cards and continued on with my lesson.

Well, this week, when I met with my 5th grade class again, one of the little girls (who struggles with English quite a bit) came up to me at the beginning of class just absolutely beaming. She reached into her pocket and pulled out some playing cards and handed them to me. She had made her own set! There on these 15 or so cards were pictures of pens, pencils, CDs, books, etc. - exact replicas of my own drawings.

Some days in Kazakhstan make all the difficult ones worth while. And it all boiled down to a set of playing cards and some pictures.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

More Pictures

Jealous yet?

Brendan, Nick and I (with Pancakes!)

My Counterpart, Symbat

My Soup!

My New House in Merke

Friday, December 12, 2008



Written December 5, 2008

I wasn't even missing home that much on Tuesday, but I was given a little taste of it anyways. I can now proudly declare that in the event of a fairly sizeable earthquake, my house is not going to fall down. Well, there are no guarantees for next time, but it held up just fine this first time. Being the daughter of a structural engineer I was indeed a little concerned to learn that Southern Kazakhstan lay on a fairly large faultline. I mean, there aren't exactly building codes in Kazakhstan, and I saw what happened to the Bay Bridge in '89.

I was at home, alone, on Tuesday morning boycotting my Russian tutoring lesson because chances are this would be the third session in a row that my tutor wouldn't show up for (don't worry I've found a new tutor), when suddenly the Mona Lisa in my room started to shake, and then the awkward topless woman painted on a piece of metal started making a lot of noise as she banged against my wall. It took a second for me to realize what was happening, and then I just had to smile. I was in Kazakhstan, but it was like I had been transported back to the Bay Area just so I could experience another earthquake.

Now, I've been fully trained (from a very young age) how one is expected to respond in an earthquake. But, had this particular earthquake occured in America, I'm not so sure I would have brought out the "duck and cover" tactics or made a move for the doorway. However, in Kazakhstan, you just never know how sturdy your structure is, and before I knew it I found myself standing in my doorway waiting for the shaking to be over. I heard a couple of things fall over in the other room, and to be honest I was kind of hoping it was a couple of those hideous fake plants my host mom has put up all over the house. After about a minute and a half the shaking stopped.

I had class shortly thereafter, so I didn't really have time to wait for an aftershock. I just grabbed my things and decided to start heading to school. And, I have to admit, I was a little curious how the Kazakhstanians would be responding to the earthquake on the streets. I was disappointed to see that there was little reaction when I made it out onto the street a mere 15 minutes after the quake. I grabbed a taxi to school (because I'm sorry when I can't feel my face I'm going to pay the 30 cents to get to class in less than 20 minutes) and for the first time since I've been in Kazakhstan, I was asked to put on my seatbelt! I realized later that this was because of the earthquake, but at the time I didn't know the word for earthquake (or for seatbelt, for that matter) so I just thought he was being particular forward-thinking. I happily strapped in and got to school safe and sound. On a side note, my driver only had nine fingers.

When I walked into the school yard, I saw that the entire building had been evacuated and was now standing in front of the school. I didn't have the heart to tell them that this would actually be a really horrible place to congregate your school children during an earthquake as most of the students were huddled underneath trees and there was a major electrical line running above them. But, I wasn't really concerned for an aftershock. We stood out there in the cold for about 15 or 20 minutes waiting for word from the regional center as to whether or not the students could be permitted back inside of the building.

During this time, one of my 8th grade students yelled at me "Miss James!" (yea, don't get me started) and then started shaking his whole body back and forth, presumably trying to simulate an earthquake. It was as though he thought that because I hadn't actually been in the school building with them that I hadn't felt the earthquake. (Maybe some earthquake training would be an appropriate secondary project?) My counterpart and another English teacher came running up to me as soon as I arrived and worriedly asked if I was OK and if I was scared. I stifled a laugh and let them know that I was familiar with earthquakes and that it had made me feel quite at home. I later learned that one of the English teachers had not been so cool and had actually started crying in class, while my counterpart (instead of comforting the students) had to focus her attentions on the spastic teacher.

School was cancelled for the day and everyone was sent home, for which I was actually quite grateful. All in all, my first Kazakhstanian earthquake was a success. And I'm safe, so don't worry. And to all of my elementary school teachers - your earthquake training served me well as I stood proudly in my Kazakh doorway.

Taxi?... Or Camel?

Written December 4, 2008

The first time I ever saw a camel was quite bizarre. I was traveling through Western Europe with a couple of my best friends. I met them in Strasbourg and we traveled South from there, through Germany and Switzerland. This was my Christmas vacation while studying abroad, and one of the best traveling experiences I've ever had. The four or five of us have some fantastic memories and stories from this time in Europe together.

One of the memories that had escaped me until just last week, was the couple of days that we spent in Laussane, Switzerland together. By this time, Kevin had just left us and headed back to Oxford (where he was studying for the semester) so it was just us girls left - Tracy, Sarah and I. We spent a couple of days sleeping in a concrete building with practically no heating (got to love hostels) and riding buses without tickets, just wandering around this old city that once hosted the Olympic Games. We didn't really have an agenda in Laussane, but somehow it had made it onto our itinerary.

We got lost a couple of times, we saw one of the most beautiful sunsets on the lake ever, and we just wandered the old streets. Well, being the holidays, every town has got their "Christmas Market". One night, we found ourself wandering around the market, listening to Christmas carols and checking out all of the candy and Christmas goodies at the market. It was the true Christmas experience. Then, as we turned a corner, we found ourself being passed by two or three men on camels. Just riding through the Christmas market. I'm pretty sure it was the first time any of us had see a camel, certainly my first time, and in a Christmas market in Switzerland none the less.

Well, just last week I saw my second camel. This time, in Kazakhstan - which, let's be honest, makes a little more sense. I've been told that there is quite the collection of camels in Kazakhstan, but the animals that I see around the towns and villages are mostly cows, horses and donkeys (and of course the dogs). Which, as a side note, are considered "domestic animals" in Kazakhstan. I learned this in one of my classes when my counterpart was teaching our sixth graders about animals and she asked the students to name "wild animals" and "domestic animals". Wild animals included the usual, Tiger, Lion, Bear, etc. and the "domestic animals" were dogs, cats, rabbits, the usual, and then they started adding animals to this list. Animals such as, sheep, cows, horses, donkeys... I was shaking my head thinking "No, those are 'farm animals'" but my counterpart confirmed their distinctions of these animals. And, I guess it makes sense because most of these children actually do have these animals in their backyards.

Later that week, during one of my Russian tutoring sessions, I, too, found myself learning about animals. Kind of embarassing really, to realize that my Russian is at a 6th grade level. But, she pointed at the camel and told me that it was a domestic animal. I couldn't stop laughing. I told her that in America, a camel would never be considered domestic. We had a good laugh, but nonetheless, I was a little saddened by our conversation. I mean, if camels are domestic animals in Kazakhstan, shouldn't I be seeing more of them? Are my neighbors hiding their camels in their backyards? I mean, come on, don't be greedy. The American wants to see a camel in Kazakhstan.
Well, I got my wish. I was running late for school one day, so I was going to pay the 30 cents to take a taxi to class. When I got to the taxi stand, there it was! It was just standing there, all primped and beautiful on a particularly sunny day in Merke. I stopped dead in my tracks, and I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face. I just stared. It was one of those moments where I am reminded that Kazakhstan is still not "natural", I'm still an American living abroad, who is fascinated daily by these little "miracles". It was then, that I realized this camel was for hire. Behind the camel was this very ornately decorated passenger cart. The owner was standing by soliciting the locals for a ride to work or school or wherever.

I stood there just looking at the camel, then at the taxi, then back at the camel. Decisions, decisions... Well, unfortunately the only reason I was taking a taxi in the first place was because I was running late. And, while I am not familiar with camels as a form of transportation, I imagine that they aren't exactly the speediest? So, I pouted and head hung low, walked over to my taxi. Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of the camel - part of me was hoping he'd still be there when I got out of my classes, and part of me realized that I was supposed to be blending in as part of this community. Now, the weather is cold again and the camel has returned to hiding. But, there is hope that maybe in the Spring, he'll be back...

The Camel in Laussane


Written December 2, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving from a country that doesn't care! :)

This was the initial start to my Thanksgiving blog, BEFORE I headed to Taraz for a Thanksgiving celebration with my fellow regional volunteers. As you can see, it wasn't the most uplifting start. I've since decided that the actual date of the American holiday is not what's important - it's all about when you choose to celebrate it.

My ACTUAL Thanksgiving day was a bust. I taught two lessons, which were nothing special, and then an extra lesson (for 5th graders) where I had a total attendance of 2 students. Back at my house, my host mom was lodged in front of the television for the evening, and proceeded to actually leave the "Thanksgiving" dinner table and eat her dinner in front of the TV. And what was on the menu for that particular Thursday evening? Borsch - basically Russian stew (not comparable to the delicious soup that I had made previously). So, for Thanksgiving, I sat alone at the dinner table sipping bland soup. Oh, Kazakhstan...

Fortunately, my "real" family called that night. And when I say family, I mean F-A-M-I-L-Y. First, my dad called (being the early riser in the family) then when my brother and sister-in-law woke up, they called (no, they don't live with my parents, they had stayed there for the holiday, thank goodness), and then after I got off the phone with my brother I was handed off to my mom. These conversations made the day. I mean, shoot, 4 phone conversations in one evening? That's like how many phone calls I receive in one month (in a good month). I think they all forgot about the time difference, because when I told my mom that it was almost midnight she quickly rushed me off the phone for my beauty sleep. SHE clearly hasn't heard about the bucket showers and the broken couch... it's not "beauty" sleep in Merke, quite the opposite really.

Talking to my family on Thanksgiving was so great that I didn't even mind when my dad revealed that shortly after I left the states they had completely transformed my childhood bedroom into his personal study. We're talking total transformation - painted the walls, new furniture, put my bed in the new "guest room", the whole thing. I'm sure it was just a coping mechanism. Right? :)

After talking to the fam, Thanksgiving only got better. Friday afternoon I got on a bus to Taraz (picking up a fellow volunteer along the way). Two hours later we pulled into the "city". Neither of us had remembered to bring directions to the volunteer's apartment, so we got off at the first statue we saw (Jennie remembered something about a statue in the directions). We were about an hour early, so not really having any idea where we were we just decided to sit down on the side of a building and hang out for a little bit. She had delivered a package from a friend of mine in the states, so I opened that and we ate Twizzlers (thanks Sarah) and just waited. Later, I received a phone call from a fellow volunteer asking if we had made it to Taraz yet. I told him our situation, and he had actually be driven into Taraz by a Peace Corps driver (any chance he's the favorite? haha) so they proceeded to pin point our location and came and picked us up. So, we had a personal escort to Susanna's apartment - Thanks Peace Corps! We spent the weekend at Susanna's... where there was a shower!

Saturday night was our Thanksgiving celebration. The other volunteers had invited some of their local friends and co-workers, and we had a total turnout of about 16. (Only 6 of us being PCVs). Dave had provided the turkey - bought at the bazaar and slaughtered by his host family. Susanna baked an apple pie and two pumpkin pies (from scratch!) Hotard made the now infamous Hotard Casserole. We had mashed potatoes, glazed carrots, corn bread (two types), brownies, pumpkin bread, salad (without mayonnaise!), and gravy. Matt made fish cakes (with salmon from America, none of this KZ crap). Jennie brought Kraft Mac and Cheese. Add to that a couple of Kazakhstanian salads (provided by our guests - this time with mayo), and we had a FULL spread. We ate food, said a little of what we were thankful for, and played "Cowboy, Bear, Indian" - appropriate game.

The six of us spent all day preparing food AND... what is Thanksgiving without a little American football? I had the 2006 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl (Boise St v. Oklahoma) on my computer, so we turned that on and spent the day in true Thanksgiving fashion. And really, what better football game to watch?

Everyone ate too much, and we still had leftovers for a perfect Thanksgiving leftovers lunch on Sunday. I'm not sure how I walked out of that apartment on Sunday afternoon, but I managed, and made my way back to Merke, where my host mom was in relatively good spirits.
Thanksgiving lives!! Now, CHRISTMAS...

Eating Dinner

Hotard, Matt Turner and Dave Hannon

Mmm... Turkey!!

My Thanksgiving Day Plate

Our Thanksgiving gathering

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Banana Republic

November 27, 2008

I think I have a problem...

So I had this dream the other night that was slightly problematic. What was even more problematic was how I felt when I woke up in the morning (after the dream). So, here's my dream...

I was in a shopping mall. I had some clothes from Banana Republic that I needed to return because I, well because I live in Kazakhstan and I'm a volunteer - I can use all the money I can get. So, I had brought my clothes to Banana to return them and get some money (probably to buy a measly banana or something - no pun intended, I just love bananas and they are quite expensive in Kazakhstan, so expensive in fact that you don't buy bananas by weight, you buy them individually). So, I walked into Banana Republic (back in America, which also didn't really seem to phase me) with some friends (Californian friends, of course, because dreams never make sense). We had to stand in a really long line (literally it went outside the store) just to get to the register. For some reason this also didn't phase me like it normally would.

When I finally got to the register, I pulled out my merchandise to return (which I'm pretty sure was old and worn, but this also didn't seem to come into play). The store clerk started talking about all the customers and how they had so many earlier in the day that there had been a line outside the store all day just to get in (like it was a nightclub or something). I just laughed it off, and then that's when I saw IT. Banana Republic was having their once- well it must be once in a lifetime because I've never seen this before - in a lifetime sale. Everything in the store was 75% off! It was only then that everything finally clicked into place. Basically I was outrageously lucky to have even gotten into the store, more or less that there was any merchandise left (and there was!) and instead of buying anything I had brought in some old clothes to return.

The store clerk asked me, you know, wasn't I going to buy anything? I had to play it cool (you wouldn't want to let on that you had no idea there was a HUGE sale going on) and said that, yea, but I always like to return my stuff first and then get to shopping. Let's just finish the transaction, and then I'll get back in line to buy new clothes.

I walked away from the register towards all of these clothes that were glowing like they were literally sent from Heaven. And, of course, it was right then that I woke up. I was furious! All I wanted to do was just go shopping in my dream for 75% off, but NO I had to wake up, on my fold-out couch (that doesn't fold out) in my sparse room with no furniture, in a country where they don't even have Banana Republic!

OK, so in retrospect, of course I realize that I was being ridiculous and that shopping is not nearly as important as changing the world (which, I'm totally doing). That I shouldn't care about Banana Republic or any other clothing store because well, in Kazakhstan they wear the same clothes for weeks on end (nice clothes, but the same ones!) and even at 75% off I probably still couldn't afford very much. But, nonetheless, I haven't stopped thinking about this dream shopping adventure. I wake up in the morning and stumble over to my buffet (which is the pathetic excuse I have for a dresser and a closet these days) stare at my clothes that are being destroyed by the bucket washings and want to climb back into bed just wishing that I can find my way back to that Banana Republic store (or any store really, I'm not being picky). But, no. Because you know that you can never go back to a dream when you want to. It's only when it's a nightmare that you don't want to ever experience again that you just can't seem to get away from the images...

So, I'm in Kazakhstan, dreaming about America and shopping at Banana Republic. But I swear, I'm changing the world! :)


written December 2, 2008

Alright already! I've learned my lesson. Just give me back my internet! So, just when I thought I was growing accustomed to this culture and all of its quirks, I found myself getting just a little too comfortable. Of course nothing is ever guaranteed in Kazakhstan, I should know that by now. But, is it so wrong for a girl to think that things were looking up? That when I heard my school had high speed internet connection that I could use whenever I wanted, I perked up?

Well, I decided to be nonchalant about it all. Oh, internet? That could be handy, but no big deal. I waited a few days before I checked the internet situation out, and sure enough, there it was! I was so excited, I started typing emails and posting blogs like there was no tomorrow. I told my parents that I'd have internet now if they needed to get ahold of me, but that I was going to try not to turn into that American that sits in front of the computer on all of her class breaks. I was going to use the internet no more than once (maybe twice) a week.

So, of course I ran home that afternoon and started typing. I started typing emails to friends I hadn't communicated with in some time, I started typing blogs about topics I hadn't been sure I'd ever actually have the time to post. I put them all in a neat little folder on my external hard drive and told my parents on Sunday night that I'd be sending them all of this important information on Monday (a solid 4 days after my first internet sitting). Well, of course when I showed up on Monday there was no internet. I played it cool, they told me it would be working after lunch - no big deal. I didn't want to seem desperate, so I didn't even check back after lunch. I just brought my external on Tuesday morning prepared to get some serious correspondence accomplished.

Tuesday - no internet. Wednesday, I asked (through the grapevine, of course. I couldn't let the computer tech know that I was asking again) about the internet. Still not working. No one could figure out why the internet wasn't working. It took a solid week for the administration to determine why the internet had suddenly stopped working. So what was the reason? The school hadn't paid it's bill. Kazakhstan.

It took two weeks for the internet to come back to life. December 1, I walked into the computer lab and looked sheepishly at the computer tech and said "Internet doesn't work?" as though it was an affirmative statement that didn't really need confirmation. She looked back at me and said "No, it works". I tried my hardest, but I'm pretty sure that I didn't hide my excitement very well. I sauntered over to the computers, and of course, I hadn't brought my external hard drive.

So, here I am again typing up emails and updates to post on the internet, but I promise that I realize it's entirely possible when I go back into the computer lab, that the internet will have disappeared again. It's teaching me a lesson really... the little EXTRAS aren't necessary. Really, they aren't. I don't mind waiting two weeks for a letter to reach the states. Now, I just have to figure out how the post office in Merke works...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gone to the Dogs

Written November 14, 2008

I should start by saying that technically most of the following observations can be said for cats as well as dogs, but I don't really care about the cats, so I'm going to focus my discussion on the dogs.

Dogs are not pets in Kazakhstan. This is a very hard thing for me to grasp being a self-proclaimed dog lover myself. The situation for dogs in Kazakhstan is dismal, and it kind of makes me want to cry.

Dogs are rarely considered part of the family in Kazakhstan, and to call a dog "man's best friend" would be absolutely absurd. Almost all families who live in a house, own a dog. They give this dog a name - most commonly Rex (apparently there is some television show with a dog named Rex) 1 out of every 3 dogs you meet will be named Rex. When I first moved to Kazakhstan I actually convinced myself that the word for dog was not actually "cabaka" but Rex.

Dogs do not eat "dog food" in Kazakhstan. Dogs eat whatever their owners don't finish or can't stomach. This includes whatever bread has become so stale that even the Kazakhstanians deem it inedible (impressively stale), as well as any bones left over from dinner (be they horse, or cow, or sheep...) and I usually try to sneak as many of the fat cubes on my plate to the dog's dish. In one of my classes today (6th graders) we were teaching the students about animals. One student wrote about what dogs eat and she listed basically all of the same foods that humans eat. Sounded quite delicious really.

Dogs are doorbells. People own dogs for security purposes not companionship. When someone enters your yard, your dog's duty is to bark like hell until that person has disappeared. The dog is also usually expected to lunge at this stranger in an attempt to rob them of their life, but since they are almost always chained up, they usually fail in doing so. When I moved into my new house, my new dog succeeded in completing his duties, except that somehow he had managed to break free of his chain and he bolted at my poor counterpart. We were fortunate that my new host mother came running outside just seconds before my counterpart (presumably) lost her life. After this incident my counterpart walked up to me and stated "well thank goodness I went to the toilet before we left my house". :)

You do not pet dogs. Obviously you don't pet the packs of wild dogs roaming the streets, but you do not even pet family-owned dogs. I tried to pet my counterpart's little mut "Tiger" (yes, one of three dogs I've met who are not named Rex) and my counterpart instantly scolded me and said "Jamie! He is dirty!". She didn't mean that he had been rolling around in the mud that day, or that he hadn't yet received his bath (because the extent of their bathing consists of days when it rains) she meant simply that this dog was characteristically dirty and should not ever (by anyone) be touched. And really, as much as I hate that this is true, it can't be argued. You just can't pet the dogs in Kazakhstan, unless they are puppies, because they have spent their entire lives without any affectionate physical contact from humans (of course they are kicked and tossed and dragged back to their chains) and quite honestly you can't blame them for freaking out when you make a move to touch them. Puppies are a different story only because they are still young and naive and have not yet realized that they are going to spend the rest of their lives without any affectionate petting. I spent three months in Almalybak, where my family owned a dog named Lyka (that's #2) who looked somewhat like a German Shephard (but wasn't) and it wasn't until the morning I left Almalybak that he actually licked my hand moments before I climbed into the car to leave. I saw that dog every single day and stuck my hand out for him to sniff every single morning and he always backed away in fear. They just simply aren't used to being treated like dogs in America.

Dogs are commonly chained up. Often they are put on a metal chain that is not more than 5-6 feet in length (like my dog in Merke, Prince - #3). So they have a 5 foot radius within which to sleep, eat and poop. This one bothers me so much I can't even really talk about it.

Dogs who have owners actually have it pretty wonderful. There are thousands and thousands of dogs who just roam the streets without owners, without any constant source of food and without any life expectancy. They are usually deathly thin, outrageously dirty and unhealthy.

Dogs and cows co-exist quite peacefully. In Almalybak, whenever they cows were being walked out to pasture, there were always at least two or three dogs running alongside the pack of cows, quite happy to be a part of the excursion.

I have never before found myself afraid of dogs, but there are some dogs in Kazakhstan that would give me reason to rethink this.

In the first couple of weeks in Almalybak I crossed paths with a dog that I later adopted (in my heart). He was a shaggy long-haired mut (they all are) who was absolutely adorable and had those large spurs stuck all in his hair and on his ears. He was covered in dirt, but he had the sweetest face and the happiest little prance. I tried not to fall in love with him, but I did. Before I knew it, I had called him Shaggy (Shags for short). He didn't appear to have a home, he slept on the street outside of one house near our school that I passed every day on my walk. I think I loved him so much because I felt so bad for him. Of course, in the last couple of weeks before I left I found that Shaggy actually DID have a home, and it was very nice. He was "choosing" to sleep on the street instead of in the yard, and he spent all day getting dirty simply because he could, not because he had to. So, I picked the wrong dog to accept into my heart and give my left over snacks to for three months... go figure! But, I still love Shags. I just can't help it.

In Merke, I don't think I'll have to look any further than my front yard to find a dog to take under my wing. Prince is quite underloved. But, for now, I'm still afraid to penetrate his 5 foot radius. :)

This is Shaggy. :)

This is my new dog, Prince.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Move over Campbell...

Written November 12, 2008

I made soup! Yes, that's right, I made soup from scratch. No more Campbell's for me America, I've got skill. I know it wasn't technically one of the things on the list that I was supposed to take from Kazakhstan, but learning to cook from scratch is really quite impressive if I might say so myself. Now, OK the truth of the story is a little less dazzling and probably not quite as impressive, but I've got to say, I'm still quite proud of myself.

My host "family" here just consists of one woman, a pediatrician and widow (with no children) named Aliya. She works from 9-6 every day besides Sunday (as is common in Kazakhstan) and so therefore, has left me on my own for the past 4-5 days for all meals except dinner.

She is very concerned about two things:

- whether or not I am warm enough
- whether or not I have eaten enough

It's actually kind of ridiculous, because she asks me these questions approximately every 5 minutes. I know I don't know a lot of Russian, but when the woman asks me if I'm cold, and I respond with accurate Russian that "No, I'm not cold, it's very warm here", I can't quite figure out why she then repeats the same question less than a minute later, and continuously until she leaves the house. She also just constantly tells me to "eat! eat! eat!".

So, I was scolded yesterday evening because when she came home and took stock of the ingredients of the fridge she noticed that the dinner from the previous night remained untouched. Now, had I known that what was actually sandwiched between the two small plates on the bottom shelf was our cabbage and meat concoction from the night before, I (maybe surprisingly, but this IS Kazakhstan) would happily have licked the plate clean, but when I opened the fridge and saw among a few other random ingredients, the slightly moldy block of cheese and a giant stick of what can only be equated to bologna, I assumed I was out of luck in the food department.

I resorted to making the Kazakh version of Peanut Butter and Jelly. I sliced up some bread, spread the homemade jam (still not sure what fruit it is) on one half and used the remainder of my Skippy on the other half. It was really quite tasty. Throw in the Ghirardelli chocolate square I took from the stash I gave to my host mom, and really I had a very filling lunch.

Anyways, my host mom saw the still untouched leftovers and assumed I hadn't eaten. I tried everything in my Russian language repertoire to explain that I had, in fact, eaten a sandwich (yes I know the word) and some bread, but when she saw the untouched sausage (aka bologna log) and cheese - the only acceptable sandwich fixings here - I guess she thought I was lying. She told me that I did not eat and she was very concerned. She started making dinner, which ended up being sliced bologna log and scrambled eggs in a skillet, and I thought that she had forgiven me for supposedly not eating. We sat down to dinner together and I served up a small portion of now fried bologna log and scrambled eggs. When I managed to finish my plate, she told me to eat more because I had not eaten all day. I politely refused, throwing in my impressive Kazakh language skills insisting that I was "toydum (full)" but thank you.

Well new host mom wasn't OK with that, so she picked up the skillet herself and dumped the remainder of our dinner on my plate and simply told me to "coushee (eat)". Well, normally I would have slid the mess around on my plate for awhile and taken a few extra bites, but having only been here for a couple of days, and afraid of what else I might have to eat if I displeased this new family member of mine, I managed to swallow every last bite of that bologna log on my plate. She smiled with pleasure when I finished.

Side note: to be fair, the bologna log basically just tastes like hot dog. But, no one likes hot dogs THAT much.

I guess now my host mom doesn't trust me to feed myself because when I woke up this morning there was a saucepan on the stove and a plate of various vegetables on the counter. She walked me over to the counter and explained that I was to make soup for lunch, and pointed at the saucepan which had two chunks of meat simmering in water. Before leaving the house (a mere 10 minutes later) she managed to tell me approximately 15 times that I was to eat soup for lunch. I panicked a little because I've never made soup from scratch before, but she had given me all of the ingredients and even started the pot boiling so really, I just had to cut it all up and throw it together right? Well that's pretty much what I did. And guess what? I ate soup for lunch. And this is no time for modesty... it was REALLY tasty. Some kind of meat broth (you just don't really even want to ask - but chances are it was sheep or cow, probably sheep), some rice, tomato, red pepper (which I cut the moldy parts off of, leaving me with less than half of the pepper), carrot, potato and onion.

I was so proud I took pictures. :o) Look at me Ma, I can make soup!

She hasn't come home from work yet tonight, but I'm hoping I got myself off of the hook for the PB&J the other day. I don't think I can eat another 5 slices of bologna log...

The Migration Police

Written November 11, 2008

Just a quick little story that seemed to encapsulate Kazakhstan...

Today I had to visit the Migration Police. You know, show them my face, give them copies of my passport, visa, and Kartochka so they know who I am as they see me wandering the streets of Merke for the next two years. Really, the whole thing is just a formality, because I'm already "in the system" but what's another introduction in Russian? I've got these things DOWN.

So, after my meeting with some important man in an office upstairs, I was sent (with my counterpart) to a room downstairs on the first floor. My counterpart knocked on the door and tried opening it. Someone on the other side of the door muttered something in a language I couldn't understand (probably Russian) and she responded with something along the lines of "I tried to open it, it's locked".

A lot of confusion ensued, and something that appeared to be angry shouting occurred between my counterpart and the man on the other side of the door. From my position in the hallway, I saw the doorknob start twisting in all sorts of directions, and what sounded like a key in the lock. The doorknob had now begun twisting furiously and I could hear grunting coming from the other side of the door. A few body slams against the door and then... silence.

Eventually my counterpart managed to attract the attention of another uniformed individual (on our side of the mysterious door) and they were pointing at the door and speaking in Kazakh. That man then started turning the handle and knocking. Whoever the employee was on the other side began speaking again (this time in a less angry voice), but the door remained closed.
Unlike my counterpart, I grew tired of standing in the hallway staring at a closed door, so I made my way down the hall a few feet and sat on the window sill, just waiting. Not sure what I was waiting for, but she wasn't making any motion to leave...

Soon a couple of new uniformed individuals arrived and began fussing with the door and it was now quite clear that the door was in fact broken. That it could not be opened from either side. The man on the other side didn't seem to care too much, as he was no longer speaking and definitely not shouting at my counterpart. It took about 15 minutes of various individuals sticking knives between the door and the jam, and then screwdrivers, but eventually someone showed up who actually made a difference. This man removed the door handle from the door and eventually managed to pry the door open.

No one seemed to think that the fact that two employees were locked inside of an office and had to be broken free by a number of uniformed individuals was any big deal. Oh, just another day at the office...

Turns out we just needed to give the individual on the other side of the door some copies of my documents. But, during all the ruckus he had learned that there was an American on the other side wanting to speak to him. After we had handed over the documents and made for the now inoperable door, he asked us to stop and sit down. He wanted to have what appeared to be a chat.

I sat and smiled, as has become customary when I don't understand a lot of what is going on, but I ended up leaving with his cell phone number and work number and his name and was assured that if I ever needed anything from the migration police department that he would help me. And if anyone gave me any problems, I could call him.

I'll be sure not to call about any hardware related issues...

The Classroom

Written October 30, 2008

Try this one on for size:

I'm teaching a class of 8th graders (about 12 of them) and I've got this piece of chalk in my hand. I'm talking, and gesturing and trying to explain what "windy" is, and the chalk falls out of my hand. Well, I'm in the middle of this explanation so I continue talking and ignore it for a second. A small boy, Daulet, jumps out of his seat and runs to the front of the class, picks up the chalk and hands it back to me, before returning quietly to his seat.

I dropped a picture of a washing machine on the floor once, and as I was bending down to pick it up, I saw one of my students getting up from his seat and heading towards the front. I waved at him to sit back down, that really, contrary to popular opinion I am capable of picking up this piece of paper on my own.

In so many ways, I find myself baffled by the customs of the Kazakhstanian classroom. When I walk into the classroom at the beginning of the class period, the entire class stands at their desks and waits for me to tell them that they may sit. Like I'm the Emperor or something (although I guess if that were the case, they'd all be bowing instead of standing). During training, this whole rising in my presence thing made me uncomfortable, so when I saw my students making to stand up when I walked in the door, I shook my head and told them to sit down. Every time. And they never stopped standing. I later learned, from a current PCV that some of these traditions should be respected. So, now apparently I'm supposed to let my entire class stand at their seats while I get my things situated and then instruct them to sit (as a class).

I'm also rarely allowed to wipe the chalkboard, or take my posters or pictures off of the board at the end of the class period. The bell rings, I assign homework and next thing I know all of my visuals are being handed to me by a group of my students and the board is being wiped clean. In my 11th grade class, I would walk into the classroom and there would be notes left on the board from the class before me, I would make to begin erasing the board, and one of my students would rush over and start cleaning for me.

Teaching hasn't been so bad thus far, but then again, my dad always did call me a Princess. :)

I'm sure I'll have more stories from the classroom to come, as I get situated in the new school. I can already tell it's going to be a slightly different atmosphere.

My First Kazakh Snow

Written November 9, 2008

I woke up this morning (in Merke) and as I got ready to head out to the outhouse (oh yes, that is what my life has become) I looked out the kitchen window and I saw white stuff all over the ground. At first I didn't recognize it. I thought the dog got into the trash. But then I looked over towards the yard and realized that it was snow! And it was all over the place. Probably about an inch of it. Today the sun is shining and the air is brisk and I couldn't love the weather more.

Moving to Merke was not exactly the easiest thing I have done in a long time and waking up on my first morning to my first Kazakhstan snow could not have been more perfect! Yay for snow! It must be one of the side effects of being a Californian, because I don't think I know anyone else who gets so incredibly excited over snow. It literally makes me all warm and fuzzy inside and I usually can't stop smiling for at least half an hour. If only there were other Americans here in Merke to go outside and play in the snow with, because I have this sneaking suspicion that the Kazakhstanians don't find the snow here nearly as exciting.

When I tried to brag about my first snow in Merke to my friend back in Almalybak, he unfortunately informed me that Almalybak was also covered in a layer of snow. Jerk! But, the timing could not have been better because if it had snowed in the Bak yesterday, I don't think they could have dragged me out. :)

In a couple of hours I will be moving to my new house (yes, folks that's number 3) to live with an older woman named Aliya. Should be a very quiet and relaxing environment. I expect to get a lot of books read in my free time. :) I will also be moving into my first residence without a shower. Yup, it's going to be bucket baths and banyas for me for the next 6 months... Kevin - be glad you're not coming to visit during that time. :)

I'm also heading to the bazaar today to experience my first REAL shopping experience. I have to get some winter boots, a hat and probably a warmer jacket. I've been avoiding the shopping experience because (well, because I'm a volunteer which means I work for free) and also because the bazaar is so incredibly stressful, but now that there is snow on the ground my counterpart won't let me waste another day without fur-lined footwear. I also really want a crazy Russian fur hat, but I hear they are like $100, and I probably won't need it in Merke... maybe next winter? I'll have to see what the locals wear here in the winter. When in Rome...

So California might be sunny and beautiful practically year 'round but you don't have Russian fur hats and snow in early November.

Things are looking up...

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Manarbek (Mah-nar-beck)

My host brother Manarbek is an absolute character. He brings a certain kind of life into this host family with whom I have found myself living these past 2 months (which for the record, have absolutely flown by!). Manarbek is 18 years old, and is really in many ways, just like every other 18 year old boy I've known. He lives and breathes music and cars.

A few weeks back a couple of my host brothers spent a significant amount of time showing me their collection of family photos on their computer from the past few years. Manarbek's collection of photos consisted of cars and more cars, some license plates, and a couple of fantastic photos of him in his military garb. (Everyone has to take military courses - kind of similar to ROTC - and he gets dressed up in his camo gear once a week). Apparently one of the mornings before he left he asked his older brother Azamat to take photos of him with the Jaguar dressed in his camo gear. I had to stifle my laughter as he proudly scrolled through these photos.

His current automobile obsession is the Toyota Camry. Which, I realize to fellow Americans, sounds quite absurd - especially in this Kazakhstanian family that hasn't exactly scrimped in the automobile department. And I, myself, was quite taken aback when I learned that this was his dream car of the moment. I mean, my mom drove a Toyota Camry for ten years, my brother and sister-in-law now drive it, and I'd hardly call it a car worthy of a teenage boys admiration (no offense Lailah). But, I've seen pictures of this new model of Camry, and I have to admit that it does look more like a Lexus than the typical Camry model I'm accustomed to. Anyways, he loves it, and a few weeks back it was really all he could talk about.

The other thing I learned about Kazakhstanians during this little photo session was that they are obsessed with license plates. This culture is outrageously superstitious (something I'll address in another post) and one of these superstitions is how important an individual's license plate is. If you have money, you will pay for your license plate (kind of like customized license plates in the states, except that these license plates don't have words written on them - it's all about the numbers). For example, if you ever come across a license plate in Kazakhstan with the numbers 777 on it, you can be certain that this individual has paid a lot of money for his license plate. Of course, you would never see a beat up old clunker with a 777 license plate, it's the Escalades and the Hummers with the good license plates. I was shocked as we flipped through Manarbek's photos, that for every picture of an automobile he has, he has at least three of a license plate (007, 777, etc.). These are fun little facts I've learned about Kazakhstan and it's people that are a direct result of my 18 year old host brother and his quirks.

More than the obsession with cars, Manarbek loves music, and more than music he loves dancing. Manarbek basically turns the upstairs of our house into a disco in the evenings, as he sits at his computer and blares popular dance tunes. At first, I was annoyed by the loud music a couple of doors down, but now I look forward to it. I'll be planning my lessons with my door open with the sounds of Akon, Usher, and other American artists, along with the occasional Kazakhstan or Russian pop songs, filtering down the hallway. You really can't help but tap your foot and bob your head.

Of course Manarbek sings along. They ALL do! That's another really fascinating thing about this culture: they have absolutely no shame singing. If a young Kazakhstanian has a song stuck in their head, they simply sing it. I've heard Manas (my youngest host brother) singing, and of course Manarbek (even at the dinner table), and just this past weekend I was visiting my counterpart's sister's house in Almaty and her niece (about 18 or 19) came to the table for Chai and was just belting some pop tune. No one seemed to notice, and I was trying my hardest not to stare in amazement. I mean, she didn't have a particularly good voice, in fact I might say it wasn't very good at all. But she just sang her little heart out, without thinking twice about it.
I've also seen this culture of singing in the schools. Whenever there is an assembly or an event at the school of any kind, you can't escape the singing. We had an English Language Competition about 3 weeks ago, and in the middle of the competition (almost like a half-time show) one of the students stood up, they started the sound system and she danced and sang herself around that stage. When she was done, the English Competition resumed. It was like no big deal. And, for the record, she also didn't have a particular impressive set of vocals.

But, back to Manarbek. About a month ago, I came home from the cafe (not particularly late) and heard the disco raging upstairs. As I climbed the stairs on the way to my room I heard Manarbek singing. I peeked into the computer room from the hallway, only to find Manarbek dancing his little heart out in the middle of the room. Now, normally I would have just smiled and walked away, but I couldn't resist. I walked over and stood in the doorway of the room (only to find that Azamat was actually sitting on the couch just kind of watching this little performance unfold?) and waited for Manarbek to notice the American at the door. Eventually his head bobbed my direction and he hesitated. He smiled at me, I gave him the thumbs up, and he just kept on dancing and singing. Absolutely no shame, this kid.

At the Kazakh wedding I attended at the beginning of October, Manarbek was given a chance to really show his stuff on the dance floor. And I'm not going to lie - this kid's got talent. I mean, it's Kazakh-style dancing, but he's "got moves you've never seen before". :)

Dinners always last a little longer when Manarbek is at the table, because for one, he drinks chai "like Grandma" as he says - which basically translates into really slowly. And also because when Manarbek is talking, we are all laughing. He's got the greatest "Russish" I've ever heard. He basically speaks Russian, but when he thinks he knows a word in English he just throws it in there. At which point we all laugh. This kid is endlessly entertaining in his very goofy way. His current dream is to move to Finland when he finishes at the University. Yes, you heard me right, Finland. I asked him why Finland (amidst the continuous laughter of his family) and he told me (through a whole lot of gesturing on both of our parts) that it is because they have fir trees and because he can do this: At which point, Manarbek stands up from the table and struts around the kitchen with his arms flailing about. To this day, I still have no idea what that is, but apparently Finland is the place to do it. He doesn't know anyone who has ever been to Finland, his whole family can't understand why Finland, but now Finland comes up at least once or twice a day at the table.

The fir tree thing is also fantastic. He just loves New Years Trees (they don't celebrate Christmas in Kazakhstan - being a dominantly Muslim country - but they decorate Christmas trees just like Americans do, for New Years). He has been bugging his mom to plant Fir Trees in the yard forever now, but she just laughs him off. She offered to get some small ones and try planting them and he said that that just wouldn't do. They need to be big ones. He's apparently also quite impatient. :) There is a part of me that expects to see huge fir trees in their yard before I leave the country in 2 years. I'll keep you all posted.

Basically, Manarbek makes Kazakhstan a little more entertaining each and every day. (But don't worry Ryan, you're still my favorite).

(tried to post a video of the dancing at the wedding, but it took 30 minutes and still wasn't done... another time maybe?)

The Open Road

I should probably rename this whole blog "Oh Kazakhstan..." as those two words seem to be leaving my mouth on a quite regular basis these days. Because really, in most situations, there isn't anything else to be said. It's just Kazakhstan, some things that happen here would probably never happen anywhere else in the world, and we just accept it as being a trait of this foreign land. You can't really get angry about these things, or think too much about them, because it just is. Most of the time we find ourselves laughing, because it's all you can do.

I'll try to give you a little taste of Kazakhstan as it differs from my experience in America (and even, for that matter, in France). First of all, we as PCTs and PCVs are forbidden from participating in certain activities here in Kazakhstan (for safety reasons). For one, we aren't allowed to ride horses without helmets, we aren't allowed to indulge in any "extreme" activities, such as rock-climbing, skiing (without excessive protective gear), and most importantly, driving.
Yes, that might sound absurd to an American, but here in Kazakhstan, driving is most certainly an extreme activity. Maybe more so than skydiving (and I can say that because I've experienced them both). And while driving is undoubtedly a dangerous activity in the states as well, it reaches a whole new level of extreme here in Kazakhstan. This is probably due in part to the fact that, like many things in Kazakhstan, driving has a price. I'll get back to that, but in America, every 15 year old is familiar with the process of learning to drive. Many (oddly with the exception of many of my high school friends) eagerly anticipate the day that they first sit behind that wheel and step on that gas pedal.

Well, in Kazakhstan, driving is hardly enforced. That is to say, that on numerous occasions I have been privy to seeing small children behind the wheel of the car. Yup, there are 10 year olds actually operating automobiles in Kazakhstan. Sure, the parents or grandparents are always in the car with them, but they are the sole operators of these vehicles.

When I was a small child, I remember with great joy and fondness the times when my father would take me out to the old Breuner's parking lot, sit me on his lap and let me steer the car around the parking lot for 10-15 minutes. Here, 5 or 6 year olds experience that same experience, but they are actually out on the pot-hole-infested roads. The really scary part is that I no longer find myself looking twice when I see a small four year old steering an automobile down the main road of Almalybak, on his grandfather's lap. But these 10 year olds I speak of, they actually drive themselves to school or to the magazine (store), or who knows wherever else they might be heading. I don't know how their feet can even reach the pedals?!

I was about a half block away from my house, on the way to my school a few weeks back when I heard a car approaching from behind. Being Kazakhstan, pedestrians also have absolutely no right of way on the roads (or the sidewalks for that matter, if they exist). So, naturally I scurried over to the side of the road, daringly dodging the giant mud puddles in my way, and continued walking slowly. Well, the car caught up to me and stopped next to me. I looked over, and go figure, a small boy of about 9 or 10 was driving the car. Grandpa was sitting in the passenger's seat, and the little sister was chilling in the back. They rolled down the window and told me that they would drive me to school (stop worrying Mom, I heard you when you told me not to get into cars with strangers - these were students I had seen around school, it wasn't as though I was in danger of being kidnapped or anything of the sort).

I'm pretty sure I snorted. Are you kidding me? I mean sure, there is a small amount of risk associated with being a PCV, but I'm not exactly here to just throw my life out the window (or in this case, into the hands of a 9 year old boy). I politely declined the ride, trying to insist that I really enjoyed the fresh (albeit brisk) air. Eventually I convinced them, and the small boy sped off down the dirt road. And yes, he was speeding (well, he would have been if there were speed limits). Afterwards, all I could do was laugh to myself as I continued on my way to the school (and of course send my friend Katy a text message telling her what had just happened). I'm happy to announce that the boy, his sister, and grandfather did all make it safely to school that day.

This is only the preface to the driving situation, because technically they do have "laws" about driving in Kazakhstan. I've never seen a small child driving a car in Almaty (a very large city) and my guess is that they can only get away with it in Almalybak because it is such a small village that might not even be patrolled by policemen. So here are the laws as I understand them in Kazakhstan: You can't drive until you are 18 years old in Kazakhstan, and in order to do so, you must pass a driving test (just like in America, right?). However, if you don't pass the driving test, you can just purchase a driver's license. I'm not sure if purchasing the license is "technically" legal, but the majority of driver's on the roads in Kazakhstan have not actually passed a driving test at any point in their lives - oh and yes, this includes taxi drivers and bus drivers.

So, take driving in San Francisco. Now, take 70 percent of the individuals operating vehicles and pretend they don't have a driver's license (they just bought one, say). Would you want to be on the road with these people? I think not. In addition, would you want to put yourself in the backseat of a taxi where the driver has no real experience operating a vehicle besides his lessons as a small child with his grandfather (possibly on the way to school)? What this - as you can surely imagine - results in, is absolute chaos on the road. There might be lines painted on the cement, but they are really more of a suggestion for drivers. I've been in buses, where the bus will simply pull off to the right hand side of the "freeway" and tear ass down the dirt shoulder passing all of the cars sitting in traffic, until the shoulder becomes too small for the bus and then it cuts off the line of traffic. Why? Because he can. The first time this happened, I was shocked into silence, my mouth stuck open in awe, and my eyes as wide as quarters. Now, it's just another day on the road from Almalybak to Almaty.

In addition, seatbelts are a suggestion. My host family made fun of me when I got into their car (albeit a Jaguar) and automatically strapped in for our trip to the supermarket. They all let me know that it was unnecessary and that I didn't actually have to wear the seatbelt. Fortunately, Peace Corps has a policy that if we are in a vehicle and that vehicle has functional seatbelts, we must wear them. So, I had an excuse for my actions that my host family could understand. I think there is a new law in effect that the people in the front seat of vehicles have to wear seatbelts, but it is rarely (if ever) enforced and usually results in taxi drivers pulling the seatbelts across their chest and then just hanging on their lap. I'm still addicted to my seatbelt, maybe even more so now, than before. :)

Also, good to know if you ever visit Kazakhstan (I'm sure it's top on all of your lists) is that any car on the road could be a potential taxi. Taxis are not marked, or rarely marked, I've seen maybe 10 or 12 taxis with an actual taxi sign atop the vehicle. Taxis are individually owned vehicles and people drive around town. You throw your arm out on a street and chances are the beat up old Nissan heading towards you is going to be your ride - or at least offer you one. You negotiate the price of your ride before entering the vehicle and then you're off. There are no meters in the taxis, but there is also no guarantee that this unmarked vehicle is going to take you where you asked them to. As a result, I rarely take taxis. And I definitely don't take taxis alone (so stop worrying, Mom).

One more note about traveling the roads in Kazakhstan. This one I almost forgot to mention because I have grown so used to it (like the infants steering cars) that I forget it as being abnormal. Buses and taxis in Kazakhstan are all individually owned (as stated above) and I think this is a major factor in the following occurrence: If a bus or taxi needs to fill up (needs gas), it simply stops and does so. I've been in an overcrowded bus before - standing room only, and barely any of that - and the bus has pulled off of the road and into a gas station to fill up. No one thinks this is weird. The first time it happened I thought I was dreaming, or that the bus had broken down (which, if you could see these things, is not out of the question). But, nope, the driver is just taking the opportunity to fill up the tank - no big deal. :) No one cares, or says anything, they just accept it as part of their ride, and after 10 minutes, when the bus is loaded up and ready to go, we pull out of the gas station and continue on our way. The same thing happened to me in a taxi in Merke with my counterpart (it's safe to cab it with a local, they don't get screwed over). We were on our way to visit one of my potential host families, and about a block from the house, he pulled off to get gas. My counterpart didn't say anything, we just sat there and continued our conversation while the man filled up his rickety old heap of metal (the taxis are especially decrepid in Merke) and eventually we continued on our way.

Oh Kazakhstan...

A Fresh Start

So, I know back in the states I gave all of my blogging friends (ahem! Lailah...) a whole bunch of grief for being really horrible about their blogging. And I also realize that I am now one of these obnoxious people who never updates their blog. So, any normal person would appologize for being so hypocritical and either a) learn to lower their blogging expectations of others, or b) become a more reliable and frequent blogger themselves. Well, here's my response: I'm in Kazakhstan. What's your excuse? :)

No, but in all seriousness, my life has become so different if only in the aspect that I no longer have access to some of the daily comforts of a westernized country. In America, it wasn't absurd to accuse my friends of being lazy if they didn't blog. I knew they had access to the internet, and law school well, HA! Law school is obviously no excuse for not blogging (what? Like it keeps you busy or something?). My other excuse for regularly nagging these sporadic bloggers was that I, myself, had nothing better to do. I worked in front of a computer 8 or 9 hours a day (yes, Dad, only some would actually deem my responsibilities "work") and when I found myself with no imminent task, or really no task at all, I wanted something to entertain me. I relied on the sometimes clever, sometimes humorous, sometimes insightful words of my blogger friends. And what's more annoying than being bored and going to read a friend's blog and finding, what? Oh, yea, that's right. Lailah hasn't updated her blog in 4.5 weeks...

Well, my life here is devoid of many regular comforts. Internet is really just a crap shoot. Even if you do have internet (in your town, because it's practically insane to imagine having internet in your actual residence) the reliability of this internet is non-existent. When we first moved to Almalybak, we were introduced to the internet, and one week later the internet was broken. No one seemed to be in a real hurry to fix it, and all of the PCTs were constantly dropping by the internet "cafe" with their fingers crossed hoping that maybe today, just maybe? But, they just looked at us, pitied our high hopes and shook their heads.

What was most surprising was how nearly refreshing it became to not have internet. Once I was finally granted access to a computer and given the opportunity to sit down to my email account and contact the outside world, I found myself unbelievably overwhelmed. How do I write absolutely everything that I am experiencing over here in this foreign society, or really even anything, in an email to my friends and family? And how do I do it in a short amount of time, so as to allow the impatient PCTs behind me a chance to experience the same terror and anxiety? I've almost grown to dread internet access.

Well, today I had the opportunity to sit in front of a computer for essentially as long as I wanted, with no impatient Americans waiting (as I was the only EDU PCT back from our site visit) and on the hour long bus ride to the PC Headquarters I scribbled notes on a piece of scratch paper about what I wanted to make sure I addressed in my blog entry. And what do you know? I opened up my blog and stared at the page for 10 minutes without typing anything. No, that's not true, I (uncharacteristically) titled the blog entry - Culture Shock 101. Then, I stared.

I used to enjoy blogging. I started blogging (as can be found in the first entry of this blog) as a release for my writing. I needed something to do (post-college) that would allow me to utilize this appreciation for the written word. Now, go figure, when I sit down to type these blogs that could seemingly express so much of this culture and these new experiences, that could be filled with descriptions of tastes and sounds and all that is foreign, I usually just try to throw as many facts onto the screen as possible, a verbal vomit of sorts, in an attempt to describe this experience. I don't like looking at my blog, I don't like logging into my account, I don't like what my musings have become.

Well, then I found out that what other volunteers have been doing (we're such a smart bunch over here!) is typing up their entries in advance, bringing them to the computer on a flash drive and simply transferring them. Yea, if you know me, you're feeling my pain. Of course I wish that I had thought of this ingenious idea on my own. But now, I hope to be able to provide a better understanding of how exactly my life is transforming over here in the great country of Kazakhstan, with slightly more thought-out descriptions and reflections. Because yes, I have been listening when you complain on the phone that no one still has any idea what I've been eating (which was, as we all know, my biggest concern before I boarded that plane), or what I do with all of my time, or how my Russian is coming along. Well... soon my friends. Soon.

Here's to my fresh start! (Here's where all of the Kazakhstanians - yes, we've learned that is the appropriate term for the people of Kazakhstan - raise their shot glasses, clink, and drink).


I'm having trouble with Picasa (google photo site) due to privacy restrictions on the Peace Corps computers, so I can't upload a lot of pictures, but I wanted to throw a few up here while I had a chance to finally put out some pictures from Kazakhstan! yay!

This is what a crowded bus on the way to Almaty is like...

View from my house in Almalybak of the mountains.

My running path... :)

Host Mom, Host brother Manarbek (the middle brother of 3) , and host Pops.

Dinner. :) Look at ALL that food!! Relatives came over for dinner. This is surprisingly typical of a dinner in K-stan. The guy on the far left with the yellow shirt is my oldest host brother (Azamat).

Our Jaguar and basketball hoop. Living the hard life...

I had to put in a picture of the trash... This is right by the view of the mountains from earlier.

Saturday afternoon activities for the locals...

My school in Almalybak. Yes, it's pink.

I used to pass this on my way to school in the morning (at my first host family). I had to take a picture.

3 of my 11th grade students.

A handful of my 8th grade students during an English competition at the school.

Three schoolgirls on the playground during lunch. They asked for our autographs...

My language class! (clockwise from bottom left) Seth, Katy (married from Portland, OR) Asel (our language teacher), AC (Marietta, Georgia), Leah (Flint, Michigan), and Jessie (Columbus, Mississippi, although she rarely claims it).

Saturday, October 4, 2008

It's MERKE for me.

We found out our permanent sites on Thursday. I'll be in the South of Kazakhstan, about 4 hours from Almaty (by bus) and 130 km from Taraz (another big city) and close to Shymkent (the largest city in the South). So, I'm heading to Merke, Kazakhstan for the remainder of my 2 years. I'll be moving there in the beginning of November (the 8th I think?). The town itself is about 30,000 people, mild winters (no Siberian snow winters for me...), but very green and lots of fruits and veggies all year long. That's about all I know, so Google it and let me know what you find out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Some Funny Stories

The other day, while my training group was leaving our school after a long day of Russian, we were bombarded with the usual, "Hello!" (snicker-snicker) "How are you?" (he-he-he) "What is your name?" (pull friends towards you sheepishly and laugh or run away). Basically, just the usual Almalybak interactions with local children. So, we nonchalantly answered their questions and then AC (the local Almalybak celebrity, and fellow PCT) asked one of the young boys how old HE was. They, as a general rule, aren't prepared to answer these questions, but if they do answer it generally means they have been taught the appropriate english response, and they are almost always correct. This particular little boy (who couldn't have been more than 3.5' tall) looked up at AC and confidently replied, "I'm 20!". We all started laughing and AC replied, "No, you aren't". The little boy was insistent that he was 20 years old. After switching to our minimal Russian we asked him how old he was. 12. :) When we corrected his mistake, he smiled largely and laughed with his friends. By the way, I still have a hard time beliving he was even 12 - these kids looks SO young.

On that same day, I also saw a man herding his sheep through the streets of Almalybak, twice. And every morning I pass a woman and a man who are "walking their cow(s)". Technically, they are taking them out to the fields behind my house, but when you pass them on the streets with ropes tied to the cows, it pretty much looks like they are just walking their cows. I also pass a donkey on the way to school every morning, always tied somewhere different to "graze" for the day. I've named him Donkey (Shrek, anyone?).

I have seen a young school girl dropped off at school by her father in their garbage truck (military-issue). The dad had to get out, walk around, open the door and hoist the daughter our, all the while I just walked on by smiling.

I have officially given my first autograph, to a group of four school girls on the playground during lunch. That is always a funny experience.

Being woken up in the middle of the night (when my window is open) by Donkey, down the road, hee-hawing is terribly frustrating, but I still can't help but smile.

The kids yelling "Hello" is getting a little old, as are their 3 other English phrases, but the boy who yelled "My mother's name is Dana!" the other day, deserves some credit. :)

When my host dad got home late from work and we saw eachother in the hall upstairs and he proudly said, "Good Morning!" in perfect English, only to be laughed at by his wife who realized his mistake, is in the top 10 moments for sure. Especially because Aida (my host mom) then brought it up at the dinner table so that everyone could have a good laugh at my host Dad's expense (including Dad). I noticed he hasn't greeted me in English since, however. :)

Hearing about Ryan S.'s host mom saying that "plants are bad for the environment too!" when he tried to explain his vegetarianism to her, will not ever cease to amuse me. I mean, come on, plants ARE the environment.

Also near the top of the list is AC's video of the donkey eating weeds, only to see, as the camera zooms out, two little boys smiling from ear to ear atop the donkey. AC calls it the Kazakhstan Gas Station.

I'll try to write about the much anticipated food subject soon!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Almalybak, anyone?

We just started Week 4 of PST (pre-service training) and a lot has changed since my first Sunday here in Almalybak. For one, I am no longer living with my original host family. Peace Corps got wind of some uncomfortable situations I was being placed in and the realization that there was no lock on my bedroom door and they found me a new family and moved me in with them no more than a day or two after they grew concerned. Basically, I spent the first week trying to find ways to deal with the very awkward 23-year old brother I was sharing a house with. He took an uncomfortable interest in everything I was doing, at all times of the day. When I was writing a letter to one of my friends back home, he came into my room (uninvited) and sat down on my bed and watched me write a letter for 20 minutes, just watched me.

But, no need to dwell on the past, Peace Corps moved me in with a new family, which I never asked them to do, but felt immediately relieved when I learned of their decision. I now live on the other side of Almalyback (in a newer part of town) with a family that is absolutely fantastic. I have three brothers (none of which compare to my American one, but all of whom add a little to my life). They are 15 (Manas), 18 (Manarbek) and 21 (Azamat), and then Mama (Aida) and Papa (Hanat) (which I don't call them haha). My host mother is a Vice Principal at the school I am training at and my host father is a "businessman" in Almaty. The literal translation of his position is Businessman, so take what you will from that because I still don't have a clue what he does (something with documents, I think). Our house is very western, almost too western in fact, but can you really complain about these kinds of things? I think not. I'll try to post pictures soon, I wasn't able to post them today unfortunately.

The first 7 days were really rough and culture shock basically took over, but now we've climbed over that hump and life is starting to feel a little more regular. I'm getting to know all of the other PSTs in Almalybak very well and a few of them would even fit right in back home (maybe I'll throw them in my suitcase in 26.5 months?) My new house is the last at the end of a newly constructed street (so new it doesn't even have a street name yet) and then the dirt road opens up into fields and fields for days, with a dirt path leading through the fields, lined with tall birch trees. This has been a lifesaver - I wake up in the morning and am able to go for a run through the fields with fantastic views of the mountains all around and no Kazakstanians staring and pointing at me as I run. It's perfect. The first evening at my new house I told my family I was going to go running in the morning, and when I woke up the next morning I was followed out of the house by my 15 year old brother. He doesn't speak English so I couldn't ask him what he was doing, but when I started to run down the path, next thing I know my little brother is running with me. Turns out his parents had told him to be my escort for my first day, so he was forced to go running with me. I still laugh about it to this day. After breakfast he then walked me to school as well. The poor thing must have been miserably embarassed, but it was only one day. :)

There are a lot of funny stories I hope to be able to share soon, but for now I'll have to leave it at this. My time on the computer is coming to an end and I've actually got to run back to Russian class here in 30 minutes. For now, internet in Almalybak is up and running, but you just never know... But Kaskelan (another PST site) is down the road about 15 minutes and they have a reliable cafe, so that's my plan of attack if I can't get internet in the next few days.

Love and miss you all!