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...