Tuesday, October 13, 2009
So, I decided to write to you, dear readers, for some motivation. Ask me questions. Anything you'd like, from mundane to the complex. Whatever you find yourself hoping to read about when you visit this blog, ask me. I'd love to have some new topics to write about. And with a year's experience under my belt, I feel almost qualified to talk about them.
*I suppose this will also serve as a little test to see if anyone is still reading this blog? :)
Thursday, October 1, 2009
My students are not known for their writing skills, and last year instead of tackling this problem head on, I just followed my counterpart's lead and steered clear of nearly any and all writing assignments. This year, I have a lot more flexibility in the classroom (as you saw with the Pirates lesson plan) and so I've decided to slowly approach the task of improving their writing.
I started my 7th grade students out with a poem. I gave them the line prompts and they just had to finish the thoughts. The poem was titled "In My Future Life". Some of the things they came up with were absolutely priceless. I decided to include a few to give a better idea of what working with Kazakhstanian students in the English classroom can be like. (I haven't omitted spelling errors, these are original works of art).
In my future life,
I'd like to be a ghost,
I'd like to fryghten people
And go cemetery
In my future life,
I'd like to be a pirat
I'd like to whistle a song
Then stolen a treasure
And run at the yaght
Please ban all fish from ocean.
In my future life,
I'd like to be a skeleton
I'd like to eat people
And steal treasures
Then jump around my island
Please ban all lions from Saturn.
In my future life,
I'd like to be hungry worm
I'd like to dance in the box
And I'd like to drink wine
Then kiss a turtle
Please ban all seagull from Jakarta
In my future life,
I'd like to be a martian
I'd like to dance
And jump, jump, jump
Then drink a sea of milk
Please ban all people from earth.
And my personal favorite...
In my future life
I'd like to be a zombie
I'd like to crazy
And eat people
Please give me to play with baby's.
Despite the obvious errors, I can't help but be terribly proud of these kids.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Daniar (we would call him Daniel in America) is one of the sweetest little boys at my school. He also participated in my Summer Camp.
Little boys and their capes... (this was Germany I believe)
The Russian 5th grade class. They were Ukraine.
All the little 5th graders. SO cute.
Monday, September 21, 2009
It's the end of the third week of school and I still don't have a permanent schedule. I am told what my day's schedule will be at approximately 1:30pm the day before. This is not uncommon for Kazakhstan. The administration takes the month of September to get organized and the teachers scramble about making do in the mean time. More importantly than the teacher not having a reliable schedule is the fact that none of the English classes have books. Aparently this is also something that takes the month of September to coordinate. For anyone who has ever taught students before, I'm sure you can imagine how difficult it is for a teacher to plan lessons without a book and with less than 24 hours notice as to which classes will be taught.
As a result, for the past three weeks I have been making up lesson plans using the internet, my own creativity or any other resource I have available. This week, running low on ideas, I came across a lesson theme online that I thought might be of interest for my 7th form students. The theme? Pirates. I found a song online (The Pirate Song) and pulled the Pittsburg Pirate logo off the internet. After learning new vocabulary words (like peg leg), and listening to The Pirate Song, I showed them the Pittsburg Pirate logo and told them that for the last 10 minutes of class, their job was to design a NEW logo for the baseball team and that we would vote on the winner (and that person would receive a 5 for the day - this is the equivalent of an A+).
I thought you might like to see what my students came up with...
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
So, I'm a procrastinator by nature. Honestly, I blame my brother. He always excelled at procrastinating when we lived at home together and I immediately understood that this was a way of life that I needed to adopt. It didn't take long before I, too, excelled in the art of procrastination. In Davis, 90% of my essays were started and completed the morning they were due and I always seemed to get away with it.
Since arriving back on the farm I've gladly welcomed my procrastinating ways back into my daily life. Dishes? I'll do them in the morning. Cleaning the floors? Eh, I'll wear socks. I can clean the floors on Thursday. Bathing? My hair doesn't start to look greasy until after 2.5 days. I'll boil water when I absolutely have to. Well, I believe the time has come for my lesson to be taught.
Yesterday afternoon, a mere 24 hours before Joe is planning to arrive in Merke, I decided it was probably about time to clean those floors and the few dishes left over from breakfast. I went out to the pump and began pumping. It took me a minute before I realized nothing was coming out of the pump. At first, I assumed I must just be doing it wrong (as if the past 5 months hasn't been lesson enough) but quickly realized that no, indeed something was terribly wrong. Every time I pulled and pushed the pump the darn thing only yielded air. I ran over to my neighbor's house to play the "stupid American" card, but she was still at work.
So, now I've got dirty floors, I'm feeding Kairu bottled water and the dirty dishes keep piling up. Not to mention the fact that I am now a day past my greasy hair limit and haven't gotten a run in for 3 days. It's a really bizarre feeling to realize that you don't have access to water. Suppose I'm going to have to stock up on gallon bottles of water at the local магазин (shop) that or start carrying buckets to and from a neighbor's water pump...
I'm sorry I procrastinate. I know I won't change my ways, but I would really love some water right about now! :)
Monday, September 7, 2009
After a trip to the "white house" (the toilets at our school), Saltanat, Dinara (the other amazing new and young English teacher) and I came across an adorable little puppy on the school grounds. I crouched down and called him to me and he came galloping across the path up to my legs. He wasn't afraid of me at all. Saltanat eyed me (knowing full well what I was thinking). I asked her if the puppy was a stray and she asked the groundskeeper (who was standing nearby). Sure enough, he had no home. Saltanat and Dinara encouraged me to adopt him and I decided that when my lessons were finished I would think about taking this dog home with me.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
I also have the blogs of friends and family who aren't in the Peace Corps because although they may not be living in Kazakhstan, I like to think they're doing some pretty cool things and/or have entertaining and interesting things to say about life outside of Kazakhstan.
And, if you haven't figured this out already, internet is up and running and very easily accessible at the moment, so I hope to keep the flurry of blog posts coming (at least until I get too bogged down in my job as an English teacher to keep up).
Saturday, September 5, 2009
After leaving the plane in the Almaty airport, all of the passengers are almost immediately filtered down two flights of stairs (no escalators) and into one large room for "Passport Control". Having just been through a handful of these in the past few weeks, I knew the drill: Have your passport out and ready, be prepared to answer some questions about your vacation, stand in line for a few minutes. And now just minutes after my arrival at 5:15am, I found myself in this non-descript room instantly thrown back into my Kazakhstan reality. As I tried to find the most promising line, to get through this situation as quickly as possible, I remembered that there aren't generally lines in this country -- more like suggestions. I stood in what started out as a line, and before long it morphed into something more closely resembling a huddle. People were coming into the group from all sides. In the three weeks I had been away I had nearly forgotten how to throw elbows and stand my ground and I was forced, very quickly, to relearn these habits. No one smiled. No one apologized for stepping on your feet or slyly nudging you out of the way.
I waited in this "huddle" for 37 minutes before I made it to the counter with my passport. Once there, I was not asked the usual series of questions. The Kazakh man behind the glass simply pointed up at the small camera above his head. I stared. He then took out a stamp, pounded it against the page of my passport and handed me an immigration card to begin filling out. As I quickly scribbled my name, he became impatient and waved for my attention. Pulling the piece of paper away from me he stamped it in disgust and slid it back under the glass. Now, nearly certain that my luggage had been circling the belt for at least a half an hour , I walked over and found unsurprisingly, two solitary pieces of luggage sitting upon the belt. Mine, of course, not among them. I waited, watching those two pieces travel around the track for a minute or two before I noticed a heap of suitcases and duffel bags on the floor near the conveyor belt. Sure enough, I dug mine out from among them.
Suitcase in hand, I prepared myself for the inevitable taxi negotiation. This part, unlike the others, I had known would be a part of my return to Kazakhstan. I didn't expect the delay caused by the hoard of friends and family essentially blocking the exit to the baggage claim, each and every passenger being forced to weave a path through the masses just to get out on to the street. From all sides men are yelling, "Taxi, devochka (girl)! Taxi!" Finally escaping through those front doors I set my sights on the group of taxi drivers negotiating rides. The first of whom, blatantly laughed in my face when I suggested 1500 tenge as an appropriate price for a cab across town. The second, accepted. I don't know what exactly I was expecting, but as we walked through the parking lot towards his car I kept hesitating in front of all of the vehicles I thought might be his. I was shocked when he opened the trunk to his once-blue wreck of a car. No more Mercedes-Benz or Volvos for me, I suppose. After loading my bag into the car and fumbling to find the seatbelt in the backseat, before remembering that seatbelts were a shot in the dark here, the driver told me to wait 5-10 minutes while he went to smoke with his friends. I rolled my eyes and he seemed concerned. As I prepared myself for a long wait in the back of this smelly beaten-up vehicle, I decided I simply wasn't in the mood. I began to get out of the car, telling him that I would find another driver. Alarmed at losing his passenger, he insisted that he could smoke later, we should definitely get on the road.
It took us another 15 minutes just to travel the 50 meters to the parking attendants, the cars all following the same pattern as the huddles at Passport Control. Once my driver made it to the window, he managed to convince the attendant that he couldn't pay now (he didn't have the money), but that he would be back in 30 minutes and he would pay then. I was snickering under my breath in the backseat, eagerly anticipating the response from the attendant. What an absurd suggestion! There's a system. I was shocked, when the parking attendant hesitated and then simply nodded and opened the gate. I'll have to remember that one for next time... :)
Finally, we were on the road. I began to imagine the soft comfortable couch in the Peace Corps lounge, just 20 minutes away now. As I pictured myself curling up with a blanket and sleeping off these miserable first hours in Kazakhstan our car swerved softly off the road and into a gas station. Oh yes, how could I have forgotten? Buses, taxis, marshrutkas, they all simply stop and fill up when the tank is empty. Another 6 or 7 minute delay, and at last we truly were on the last leg of our journey to the office. Besides the incessant talking and blabbing from my driver who, learning that I was American, now wanted to be best friends and eat beshbarmak together, the ride was really quite pleasant. There were very few cars on the road at such an early hour and I watched as everything began to feel a little familiar. All of these little houses with their green or aqua blue gates. The masses of stray dogs wandering the streets in packs. One pothole after another until I was convinced that the shocks were absolutely destroyed. A couple of closed roads due to "construction" and about 30 minutes later we finally arrived in front of the Peace Corps Office in Almaty. Being buzzed through the front gate was like returning to a sanctuary. Granted, a sanctuary I was entirely convinced I wanted to be visiting, but a sanctuary from this morning nonetheless.
Returning to Kazakhstan after three weeks away, was almost like arriving in Kazakhstan for the very first time, simply more educated and less jet-lagged. As opposed to everything looking exotic and foreign, it all looked vaguely familiar and yet seemed as though I was seeing it all with fresh new eyes. Eyes that were less inclined to be impressed. Less inclined to feel awed. After waking up from my 5 hour nap in the Peace Corps Office, I quite honestly couldn't imagine how the next (and last) 15 months of my service were going to be even remotely enjoyable. I unwillingly dragged myself away from the office and onto a marshrutka at the bus station. I refused to use the barbaric toilets at the rest stop. And yet, somehow, as I unlocked the gate to my place in Merke, I was instantly overcome with a feeling of familiarity and comfort. I dropped my bags and climbed through the hole in the fence to my neighbors' yard to retrieve the keys to my house. The amazing Russian family next door greeted me with happiness and smiles, knowing instantly that I must be exhausted from my travels and insisting that I go immediately home and rest. We would catch up tomorrow and I could tell them all about it later. They completely understood. I wasn't forced to drink chai completely delirious or sit and make small talk after three weeks without speaking a word of Russian. I returned home, to a house that had been cleaned before I left and looked after while I was away and I felt almost happy to be "home".
This first week in Kazakhstan has presented its share of challenges: I was assigned 9 lessons on the first day of school, I had 18 hours to recover from my jetlag before the first bell ceremony at 9am, I have had 8am lessons every day this week, I was scheduled for Saturday classes (which is not something I have had to experience in Kazakhstan so far), two of the worst classes at my school were dumped on me, and my counterpart currently lives and works outside of Almaty as a TCF for the new PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees). I can't lie and say that every moment of every day is a joy to spend in Kazakhstan and that I never dream about being somewhere (almost anywhere) else. I can say that I'll be here for COS next November and that despite all of its quirks and traditions, Kazakhstan is the place that I currently call home.
Friday, September 4, 2009
"Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us, our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life." - Albert Einstein.
xoxo Grandma Morris
In other news... Happy Birthday Lauren! (Who just came and traveled with me in Sweden and Denmark), It's a popular couple of days for birthdays it seems...
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Scandinavian trip in a nutshell: Incredible. There is far too much to say about the last three weeks of my life to fit it all into a manageable and still entertaining blog post. Over the past three weeks I experienced nearly every emotion known to man. Happy. Sad. Overwhelmed. Angry. Peaceful. Excited. The list goes on. It took me a while to recognize, but Kazakhstan had hardened me. I stepped off that plane in Stockholm with a different outlook on life than I had a year ago and with really no clue how to manage it.
The Cliff Notes version of my trip to Scandinavia:
Toured an old Swedish castle, took an evening jazz cruise in Stockholm, stood in a 14th century Swedish church in the countryside watching my best friend from college marry the man of her dreams, got stuck in a rain storm on a canal cruise in Copenhagen, sat in the backseat of a car with two great friends from America watching the Swedish countryside flying by, stood in an Ice Bar with flip-flops, a parka and winter gloves drinking a cocktail served out of a block of ice on a bar also made entirely of ice, saw the Copenhagen skyline flying by beneath my feet from an amusement park ride at Tivoli, had a traditional Danish meal with two remarkably hospitable Danish friends, buried my face in laundry fresh out of the dryer, made new friends in Stockholm who did a great job of convincing me that Sweden should be the next destination for my life, sat in a one-room cottage with 20 other wedding guests singing 'Oh When The Saints' to the tunes of an amazing trumpet and guitar player, got upgraded to Business Class and ate chocolate chip ice cream and fried gambas (prawns, bet you didn't know that) on a bed of mango, bell pepper and coconut salad, watched the latest Harry Potter (in English!) in a real movie theater, ate Thai, Indian, Italian, Japanese and Mexican cuisines not to mention approximately 7 or 8 hamburgers/chicken burgers, spent several mornings running around a lake on winding forest paths listening to amazing music and breathing fresh air, took several hot baths with absolutely no shame when my hands and feet were long beyond pruny.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
I tried to make these final memories of Kazakhstan ones that were full of joy and laughter. Hosting most of my favorite volunteers at "The Farm" for the past 3 weeks single-handedly accomplished that goal. We spent three solid weeks playing cards, drinking beer, eating extraordinary food (jambalaya, pizza, hamburgers, cabbage-wrapped meatballs, eggplant parmesan, chicken fajitas, etc.) and playing games with my students for a few hours every day. We made watermelon lemonade and spent an afternoon picnicing in the mountains by the river (the same river that nearly took poor Andy's life as he absentmindedly lounged in the rapids). We pumped water and burned trash. We traveled to Almaty together and drank coffee and tea at the American-owned cafe and ate dinner at Pizza Hut. Basically, I just wrapped up the best three weeks of my service thus far in Kazakhstan. The timing couldn't have been better.
I'll be celebrating 1 year of service in the Peace Corps on August 21st - the day we arrived in Kazakhstan last year. It's been an emotional, adventurous, mind-blowing experience so far and I'm not even halfway done. Leaving the country is bound to have its challenges - I currently live a life that has very few similarities to anything that I was once familiar with. The extravagances and luxuries of a "civilized" world will be unfamiliar, if nothing else. Coming back to Kazakhstan after three weeks out of the country (spent with some of my favorite people on this planet) will be challenging to say the least. But, after the last three weeks in Kazakhstan, I've got fresh memories of how absolutely amazing this experience can be at times.
So what's my official take on this Peace Corps experience? Would I do it again? Am I glad I'm here? Do I think I'll stay for the rest of my 27-month term? Heck yes! Kazakhstan sucks sometimes. Cold and lonely winters are hard to survive. Students who don't want to learn are hard to teach. Accepting local customs drives you crazy sometimes. Learning to throw elbows to be recognized or respected is frustrating. Eating food you don't like stinks. And then sometimes, Kazakhstan is amazing. Picking strawberries with your neighbors. Making someone laugh, in Russian. Learning how little one actually needs in life. Passing goats, cows, horses, donkeys, chickens AND dogs in a single 10-minute walk to school. Hearing your students' English improving. This has been the most difficult year of my life, hands down, but I'd do it again in a second. So, for all of these reasons and so many more, I plan to come back to Kazakhstan in three weeks ready to start a new and more challenging school year.
I'll be teaching all of my courses solo for the first portion of this new school year, as my counterpart was granted an awesome opportunity to work within the Peace Corps organization here in Almaty training the new Peace Corps Trainees (arriving from America at the end of August). This has a lot of perks - finally being able to stop cheating in the classroom, forcing my students to really speak English and not rely on a translator - but it also has a lot of potential drawbacks. For one, my counterpart is very respected by our students, discipline has never been an issue in any of my classes. I will now be solely responsible for disciplining my 17 and 18-year old students :/ as well as every other class I teach. I will also be putting in more hours in the classroom to make up for the reduced English teaching staff (from 3 teachers to 2). I've also started planning some potential secondary projects for the upcoming year with fellow volunteers. And, I'm considering training for a marathon in Southern Russia next summer (try to keep off the winter weight this year). Nick, Corinne, Andy and I are hoping to travel to Thailand this December to celebrate the holidays in a slightly more tropical locale.
So, when I return to Kazakhstan I will have 12 of my 27 months completed, but the spirits are still high. My insanely busy and active summer has rejuvenated me for the school year. And everyone swears that the second year just flies by...
Friday, July 24, 2009
- Normal-sized people (not feeling like a giant in midget country)
- Cami's Swedish countryside wedding
- Seafood (like from an actual body of water!)
- Long Showers
- Feeling clean
- Friends from America
- Not speaking Russian
- Attractive people (no more gold teeth, please)
- The Beach!
- Beer that isn't Kazakh or Russian (AKA - delicious)
- Shopping (somewhere other than the local market)
- Running water
- Celebrating ONE YEAR (in a place where I can actually enjoy myself)
- Conversations with Cami
- No 20+ hour train rides
- A nightlife that doesn't involve creepy Kazakh men
The list is really pretty endless, but I've got to stop somewhere...
Friday, July 17, 2009
I finally gave up trying to find a photo website that could handle Kazakhstan's internet speed. Looks like Facebook is going to be the best option for awhile. I've uploaded a handful of albums to Facebook.
Check them out.
If you don't have access to Facebook, I can always email the links to the albums, but didn't want to bombard anyone unnecessarily with emails. Just let me know.
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Kazakhstan can shut off your gas when they feel like it. And not just your gas, but your entire block's gas. I'm not sure exactly how they notify everyone that their gas is going to be shut off for the day - probably sky writing in Kazakh because I was certainly not informed.
I had finally gotten my act together, now that school is over, and invited my counterpart and Saltanat (the young English teacher I work with) and their families over for Pizza Night tonight. I've been bragging about my pizza making skills for months now and by Kazakh standards I have waited way too long to invite my first guests over for an appreciative dinner at the new place.
I did most of my shopping yesterday and then made one last run to the bazaar this afternoon to pick up the rest of the ingredients for my dinner party. I came home and began preparing the dough for pizza and apple pie (yup! That's right - I'm making my first apple pie in Kazakhstan) and decided to get some water boiled for the inevitable hourde of dishes I was going to have. When I went to light my stove, nothing lit up. I tried almost an entire box of matches in all different sorts of manners, but nothing worked.
To display my initial American ignorance... the first thought that went to my head was that maybe I had forgotten to turn off the gas switch last night after making disastrous sugar cookies and that I had used up all of the gas. I recognized instantly how ridiculously idiotic that sounded. I remembered that I have an oven in my banya - don't ask, I still haven't figured out why the thing is there, just gotta have the chai even in the banya?. But, I decided to see if it would light - you know, establish the source of the problem. No luck there either. I was twisting all sorts of pipes all over the place and trying to see if something had fallen apart in my sleep (it's a very old house - totally possible), but no luck anywhere, I even followed the piping out to it's source on the side of my house (getting snagged on some bushes in the process, embarassing).
I finally walked over to my landlord's house next door and explained that my gas wasn't working and asked if his was working. He smiled and said that the city had turned off our gas and that it was supposed to start working again in the evening. When I asked him if he knew what time (I'm expecting my guests around 5-6pm) he clearly misunderstood me and just repeated the initial statement. On a side note, sometimes I think that it's really not me who is the idiot in some of these conversations. I smiled and thanked him. He made some joke about how it was really inconvenient (not all of which I understood) and I came back to make some disappointing phone calls.
So, now I've got all of the ingredients for a delicious dinner and no way to actually cook any of it. It would be fine if I were having a Salad Party - which believe me would be a real eye-opener for this culture, but unfortunately everything I was planning on serving requires a flame. In America, I'd just head to a local restaurant with some friends, but here... well I guess I could always go to a cafe alone? That's sad. Maybe my counterpart will feed me dinner tonight...
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Monday, May 25, 2009
Drew wrote about Merke's culture camp. And Nick wrote about our epic run-in with the Police on our first trip to the mountains. Check 'em out. (Sidebar. Drew and The Hubers)
My counterpart, Symbat, owns a cow. Normally I don't even realize that the cow is there because she keeps it tied up in the "barn" in her backyard. Sometimes the cow will moo when she's hungry, but other than that you could really very easily forget that the cow existed. Well, now that it is Spring, the cow is allowed to roam around the yard eating the weeds and greens growing in the yard. Symbat's two dogs don't like this very much. As soon as the cow steps foot on the paved portion of the yard these two little pipsqueak dogs go running up to her feet are barking incessantly. It's quite hysterical because the cow is not remotely phased by their presence considering that with one step she could kill either of them. I think the dogs also realize this, but they have to keep up their image as "tough dogs" so they bark anyways, but they run away if the cow starts to move towards them - in fact, one time Strielka peed, ran between my legs and continued her little barks from her new safe position.
Well one day I was sitting in their sunroom listening to my ipod on our lunch break and I saw the cow start charging for the front gate. I ran out to see what she was chasing only to see that the front gate had swung open in the wind and the cow was actually running for her freedom. I had to call my counterpart out of the house and explain that the cow had run into the street. She couldn't understand why I didn't stop it... Hmmm. Well, for one, it's a cow charging at something, I don't care how valuable the cow is, I'm not about to step in front of that moving mass. And two, I was relaxing in the other room, not cow-sitting. But it provided me with my first (of a now handful) experience corraling an animal. Symbat called a man who works at a shop down the road and he came out and joined me, Symbat, and her neighbor's son. It took about 5-10 minutes, but eventually we guided the stubborn cow back into the yard.
It was at this point that I learned that Symbat's "cow" is not actually a cow. It's a calf that is just a year old. This explains her periodic jumping - no joke, a calf can and does actually jump! - and generally adolescent behavior. Sometimes she'll just start running frantically around the yard for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, as a result my counterpart's onion crop has been destroyed - nothing can withstand the weight of a cow landing on top of it repeatedly. It's definitely a cow with some personality.
But, the better story was yet to come. Another day, on our lunch break from school, my counterpart was preparing lunch in the summer kitchen and I was reading a book inside the house when I heard my counterpart start yelling at me. She was shouting my name over and over, but I couldn't understand what she needed. I got up and began moving to the door to find out what she needed. When I turned the corner into the front room I found myself standing face to face with the calf! I almost peed myself. My counterpart put her head against the window and explained that I needed to get the cow out of the house. Not exactly sure what protocal was for chasing a cow out of your home, I decided that noise was probably the best option. I spread my arms wide and began stamping my feet on the ground and moving towards the cow. Eventually I startled her (I mean, really, it was a very disturbing sight) and she turned around. Then I just had to run her out of the house and back into the yard. It took a little coaxing but I managed to get her out. I felt very proud - and this time it was definitely not my fault!
Another, of many, life lessons learned whilst in the Peace Corps that I had never dreamed of.
The last day of school in Kazakhstan (nationwide) is May 25th - and that is more of a graduation ceremony than anything. Which means that as of yesterday at about 11:00am, I don't have to write lesson plans or discipline my students for the next three months! As Peace Corps Volunteers, one of our main assignments is to integrate into our communities here at site. In order to ensure that we aren't abandoning our communities here during the summer, we are required to log at least 30 days in site. But for the other two months we are free to travel to other volunteers' sites and participate in language camps, sports camps or whatever other activities our creative volunteers come up with.
I would be lying if I didn't admit that I and my fellow Education volunteers have been looking forward to May 25th for a very long time. Especially during the harsh winter, many of us acquired the personal goal of just making it to May 25th. The next three months are rumored to be some of the easiest months in service, and I plan to spend them quite delightfully.
My first, and most exciting day of my Peace Corps service thus far falls on June 2nd, when my old friend Kevin arrives for a three week visit here in Kazakhstan. He's spent the last five months traveling around this half of the world (including, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and India - to name a few) and finally arrives in Kazakhstan at the beginning of June. He will be the first truly familiar face I will have seen since I left California back on August 16, 2008. We're going to hit a few of the "hot spots" here in Kazakhstan as well as participate in some fellow PCV's summer activities before he leaves again on June 22nd. After he leaves, I'm attending a Baseball Camp at a nearby village in my oblast (maybe equivalent to a County in the states?), and then later in July a Russian Language Camp up in North Kazakhstan. I'm also planning a summer camp here in Merke in late July, after which I head to the Almaty International Airport!
I'm finally leaving the country of Kazakhstan on August 9, 2009 just short of one year after my arrival here in country. I'm heading to Scandinavia for three weeks to celebrate Cami's (college roommate and friend extraordinaire) wedding in the Swedish countryside. Some other PCVs are also making their big exits this summer. I have one friend who is heading back to America, a couple others to nearby countries such as Thailand and Turkey, one couple is heading to England for a few weeks. But, I couldn't miss Cami's wedding for the world. And, to be quite honest, Scandinavia doesn't exactly sound like a terrible place for my first escape. It all worked out quite perfectly.
As a result, this means that I won't be heading back to America this summer, and to be quite honest probably not at all during my two-year service. This is due to a combination of factors, really. First and foremost, coming back to America is a very challenging experience for a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers. Getting a taste of the states mid-service is bittersweet, and many volunteers find themselves not wanting to come back to country. Secondly, Kazakhstan is a huge country and I feel there is a lot here to see (probably more of the interestingly bizarre variety than the stunningly beautiful). Lastly, it's expensive to travel. And last I checked, my current "salary" is less than $4000 a year, almost all of which goes to actual living expenses here at site.
So, I apologize for the weddings, graduations and births that I am going to have to miss (or already have - Congratulations Chris & Jill, and Lailah!), but more time in country means more blogging, which is all you really cared about anyways right? So here's to the start of what I hope to be an outstanding summer here in Kazakhstan (and Scandinavia)...
I officially planned, organized, hosted and completed my first solo secondary project here in Peace Corps Kazakhstan. I organized a Global and Cultural Awareness Week here in Merke for the students of my school, with the help of my counterpart Symbat. We invited 7 of my PCV friends to help with the execution of everything and I am happy to report that it all went off without a hitch! It really energized me as a volunteer - showing me what exactly we are capable of doing for the communities here in Kazakhstan and how much our students and teachers enjoy participating in our events.
The general overview for the week was that each PCV chose a country or region of focus and prepared a 15-20 minute presentation (all in English) to present in small groups, to over 50 eighth through tenth graders at my school. In addition, each volunteer was assigned a core group of 7-8 students to work with daily on an end of the week school-wide presentation associated with their country (things like skits, songs, dances, etc.). Between the eight of us, we focused on 7 cultures - Panama, Colombia, Southern USA, Asia (Korea), India, Africa (Ghana), and Ireland. Each core group came up with a slogan for their group, including "East or West, Asia is the Best!", "U-S-A, All The Way!". and "Crazy Colombia" and these slogans were chanted during our daily olympic events.
We had organized games from other countries (and some that are just plain fun - i.e. capture the flag) and had the countries compete against each other for the last hour of every day. Surprisingly, Africa was not even remotely a contender, the USA didn't walk about with any gold medals, and India was actually hanging tough for a considerable amount of time (despite their "Mathletes" reputation), and most shocking of all, the winner of the 2009 Merke Olympic Games was Ireland of all places - unintentionally breaking cultural stereotypes left and right.
In addition to a highly successful week of cultural education and fun, we had the added bonus of having most of our afternoons off to simply hang around the farm with some of our closest friends here in Kazakhstan. The eight of us ate some of the best food I've had here in Kazakhstan that week. We had our resident 5-star chef, Andy Park, in attendance (PCV in Zhalagash) who was highly responsible for the outstanding cuisine during the week. And Sagar had brought with him a duffel bag full of Indian food ingredients and made us one of the most outstanding home cooked Indian meals I've ever had - and that's taking into account the fact that everything was so delicious spicy people were sweating buckets at the dinner table and I actually had to make myself go outside and throw up because my body was experiencing flavor overload. (Try living on boiled meat and potatoes for nine months and then sitting down to Indian food - ahh!)
And considering that the Cinco de Mayo fell in the middle of the week, we took the opportunity to put together a full Mexican feast that evening. Cheese enchiladas, tacos, beans, mexican rice and tequila. Other meals included spaghetti and meatballs, pizza, Mexican leftovers, among others.
So, all in all, I re-energized myself as a volunteer and as an American during my friends' extended stay here in Merke. We even managed to make it up to the mountains twice! (More on that later...)
My landlord (who happens to live in the house next door) has all of the animals that my house is designed to have - cows, chickens, dogs, cats (well those are the only animals I have seen so far, but who's to say there aren't more). They were initially all generally well-behaved so I didn't have a problem with them. In fact, I didn't even know the cow existed until I went over there the other day for chai and walked into the wrong door and found myself standing face to face with one. This is impressive considering the problems I have already experienced with cows in the past month or so. I met the chickens on the day I moved in, because well, they were wandering around my yard. It was actually slightly disappointing to find out they were my neighbors because for at least an hour I thought they belonged to me. Now, why anyone would want to actually own four chickens is probably a question most of you are asking yourselves, but for me it just added to the ambiance of my new abode. I mean, who has chickens just wandering around their yard in America (well suburban America)? Not too many people. I thought it might be cool? You know, they could huddle around my feet as I pumped water every day and make me smile when I looked out my kitchen window and saw them just passing by on their afternoon stroll through the yard. Maybe I'd seen too many children's movies set on a farm?
After about four days of living with the occassional chicken visitors (my landlady and I have an opening in our fence which the chickens pass through whenever they feel like it) I was less enthused by their presence than I had originally anticipated. They were kind of loud (the one rooster at least) and really quite ugly. One of the chickens had this long scrawny hairless neck that gave me the goosebumps if I looked at it too closely. My visitors (who experienced all of these little excitements on the farm with me for the first week) complained that Kazakh chickens make a terrible sound. To be completely honest, I wasn't accustomed to listening to chickens in California so I can't be sure that they have different accents over here in Kazakhstan, but it's nice to pretend that things are just worse here because it's well... Kazakhstan. But, I was pretty wrapped up in hosting my visitors and the Global Awareness Conference so I didn't pay too much attention to the daily vocals of the neighbors farm animals.
As soon as my last houseguest left the farm, things changed. I was being woken up by the horrible ugly rooster at 6:30 every morning and he would annoy me as I made breakfast, lunch and dinner. Roosters don't crow once when the sun rises and then shut up for 24 hours - one of the many things I have learned from this Peace Corps experience that I hadn't expected. In fact, they crow all day long and I'm convinced that this particular rooster crowed more just when he began to really get on my nerves. And to the credit of my volunteer friends, I have to admit that he definitely started to sound very peculiar (as though maybe something was wrong with his vocal chords - or maybe it was just the Kazakh accent). The only relief was when I was able to escape to my school for classes everyday, but when I got home they were waiting for me. The four of them tromping around like they owned the place and talking their little heads off...
Well that seems like an appropriate transition for my rooster story here. You may have noticed that I switched to the past tense when talking about my chicken visitors. That's because after about a week alone with my chickens they stopped annoying me. In fact, I didn't even notice their presence anymore. I figured that the farm life was simply growing on me and that I had mastered co-habiting with my new farm animal friends. That Sunday afternoon my landlady came over and insisted that I come relax outdoors on such a beautiful day with her, her daughter and a neighbor friend. I was tired of studying Russian and looking for a chance to get to know the neighbors better so I obliged. It was during our time outside gossiping about all of the other neighbors that my landlady revealed some new news. Turns out the chickens had been beheaded on Saturday morning. All four of them. Now, I didn't know the word "beheaded" in Russian - and in fact, still don't, I have got to look that one up - but she was kind enough to do a little charades act for me.
Now, I had a sneaking suspicion that I was going to like my landlady the first time that I met her, but this news absolutely solidified our new friendship. She killed the chickens! I found myself so relieved that I wasn't going to be woken up at the oddest hours in the morning and have to see their hideous faces out my kitchen window. The best part about the beheading story, and the only reason she actually brought it up, was that when one of the chickens was beheaded, the cat ran up and snatched the head and ran off with it. Now, I can't be sure what kind of fun those two had together, but I can only imagine it was frighteningly inappropriate. As for my new life sans chickens...
Turns out the neighbor on the other side has got a damn rooster too. And, if I'm being completely honest with myself, it's entirely possible that he was the one waking me up every morning and I had just assumed it was the rooster that I saw wandering around my yard. Because, this new rooster is my personal alarm clock. He lives right outside my bedroom window and he starts the slow and steady process of pissing me off every day starting at 6:30 in the morning. Here's to hoping for another hungry neighbor...
Sunday, May 17, 2009
After the disastrous and stressful house hunting, my search has finally (at least temporarily) come to an end. I moved into my new place on the 1st of May, just hours before my first guests starting arriving. We originally rented the place just for the week that the other volunteers were here, but after some talking with the landlady, we convinced them to let me stay here until the house sells (it's been for sale for two years with no luck - here's to hoping for continued bad luck for the next 18 months).
So, the house. It's been lovingly nicknamed "The Farm" by my PCV guests, and quite honestly I think the name suits it. However, they also mentioned that it would make an excellent setting for a horror film (which I unfortunately can't disagree with). A long time ago, whoever lived here clearly had their own animal farm housed on the grounds - there are chicken coups and every other kind of farm animal structure you could imagine in my yard. In fact, I even get the frequent chicken visitors from next door during the morning, day and night. Most of these farm structures, I don't even come near unless I'm searching for dry wood. Dry wood? That's for my very own banya (Kazakh sauna, much less luxurious that you are probably imagining) which we spent the first day on the farm cleaning and prepping for it's first use.
My guests helped me dig my trash pit (welcome to the world of trash burning), start a compost pile and attempted to start a garden in my huge "former" garden - an area of my yard that is so overgrown I haven't even really attempted to fix it up. My next door neighbor did point out the green onions that are growing there though, and now I find any excuse to add green onions to my meals... would it be fair to say that I'm living off the land? I'm hoping to get out there this summer and get something started, or at least clear out an area for picnics or something - it's huge. We'll see...
As for other amenities, I have gas and electricity (yay!) but no water. I have a pump in my yard that is my wonderful source of water from the mountains (which are exactly 6 km from my front door). At first, and for any and all American guests, the water pumping is a very exciting thing. I've learned to take advantage of this and let anyone who has an interest in pumping satisfy their desires. Because now that I'm doing it on my own several times a day, it's beginning to lose it's excitement. But, it feels more like that Peace Corps experience I was expecting when I filled out my application and wrote all of those essays. I also don't have a refrigerator, which I'm planning on using my alloted Peace Corps "Settling-In Allowance" to purchase, if this place starts to feel semi-permanent.
I've got enough furniture for two and a half of the five rooms, plus a table and chair for the kitchen. Since my friends have left and we are no longer using the floor in one of the rooms for sleeping space, I've closed off the back two unfurnished rooms to make the place feel less large and empty. I have two small beds in "the bedroom" and a fold out couch in the... well I have no idea what it's called. Right now it's the laundry room, but it's probably more equivalent to something like a living room? Point is, there is plenty of sleeping space for at least nine guests... The door's always open.
I'm finally cooking for myself, meeting the neighbors and enjoying life without beshbarmak and crappy Russian TV shows, not to mention the occasional grandma's nudity. All of my years of camping have really paid off, learning how to start a fire (banya skills), how to make a sink out of two buckets, hanging everything on a clothesline and playing cards all day and night were a huge asset to my week hosting eight or nine volunteers. Life on The Farm is exactly what I was looking for out of Peace Corps... an adventure. And heck, I'm going to be so scrappy and resourceful when I get back to California you won't even know what to do with me.
As my friend Andy was pumping water for the banya, Hotard and Jenn were out trying to clear a space for my garden, and Sagar was carrying buckets of water to and from the banya, I think Sagar put it best when he asked, "Exactly how many years into the past do you think we have travelled?"
Monday, April 27, 2009
I have a puppy! OK, well not really, it's technically my counterpart's dog, but if she loves me the most doesn't that sort of make her mine? This puppy has currently hit her really awkward (dare I say, ugly) stage, where her paws are practically the size of her head and her cute fluffy puppy fur is not longer quite so cute, not nearly as fluffy and considering that dogs in Kazakhstan don't get washed, she's becoming quite dirty and scruffy. But, I kind of love her anyways.
She hasn't quite yet gained control of her bladder so every time she sees me she just starts wagging her tail and peeing uncontrollably. I've convinced myself that it's endearing. She's not afraid of humans yet so I still get to pet her (the first dog I've actually been able to touch in Kazakhstan). Admittedly, I have to run to the water spout to wash my hands afterwards because, well even though I love her, she's still insanely dirty.
My counterpart's husband named her Strielka (which means arrow in Russian - because when she was a puppy she had a little arrowhead shaped white patch on her forehead). Unfortunately, that patch is barely visable now, making the name kind of pointless, but I like it anyways. I let her break the rules, like putting her paws inside the kitchen, even though my counterpart would give her a good whooping if she saw it. I'm secretly trying to maintain favorite status - which is really hard to do considering I'm not the one who feeds her.
I forget how great pets are sometimes...
It's hard to encapsulate the food here in Kazakhstan quite perfectly, especially because new things keep coming out of the woodworks. Like the sausage I made with my counterpart on Saturday. Until I move out on my own, I've accepted that I have relatively no control over what I eat in this country (with the exception of the few apples and bananas I buy every couple of weeks because I just miss fruits and veggies so much). So, on Saturday when my counterpart asked me if I'd like to have sausage for dinner, I knew that I didn't really have a say in the matter. Honestly, I figured this meant that we would just go to the magazin and buy one of those bologna logs and fry it up in a pan with a bunch of oil and some potatoes - it's kind of a staple here. Little did I know that we were going to make the sausage from scratch!
Now, all I pictured was some factory (probably from a Mr. Rogers episode) where there are these long thin casings being pumped with ground beef and then tied off at the ends. You throw a couple of those suckers on a Weber and we're talking good old Sunday BBQ. Well, nothing is quite so simple here in Kazakhstan. First thing that tipped me off was the giant plate of "meat" she brought out from the summer kitchen. As she shoved these hunks of well, not your delicious supermarket steaks, into the meat grinder, I watched this gooey (slightly bloody?) paste squishing out the other end. I tried to maintain my perfectly pleasant expression, but my counterpart saw right through it. She laughed at my distorted face and told me that I didn't have to watch - get back to peeling those onions. It was only a few minutes later that I learned why our sausage meat had looked so, well, unappetizing - it was sheep liver, kidneys and here's the kicker... heart! Mmm...
Now, you'd think that's the worst of it, but what you're not realizing is that this is Kazakhstan. That's rarely ever the case. Symbat, my counterpart, came back again from the summer kitchen carrying a large mixing bowl. What she pulled out of that bowl made my stomach churn. The question I had failed to ask myself was what we were going to use for that long thin casing I had seen Mr. Rogers' friends filling with tasty Grade - A beef. Maybe I'm naive, or maybe I just like my store-bought chicken apple sausages, but intestine?! Really? Yup, we were going to be filling a sheep's intestine (albeit the same sheep that provided us with the filling) with his own kidney, heart and liver. I'm the kind of person that doesn't generally like eating meat off a bone (unless it's legitimate BBQ ribs) and I pick through chicken meat to find the breast meat because I don't really like the dark stuff. Basically, I'm pretty particular when it comes to the meat I eat in the states - I eat it and enjoy it, but it's got to look pretty. This was the furthest thing from pretty I could imagine. So, I let my counterpart do the stuffing and I ran into the other room to get my camera.
She stuffed the intestine, sewed off the end with some purple thread (a nice touch, I thought) and set it to boil on the stove. Although I had eaten, and actually enjoyed, kidney a couple of weeks ago, I've never been able to stomach liver. I told my counterpart this, in a desperate attempt to get out of eating this homemade sausage (not to mention heart), so she set me to peeling a handful of potatoes (in the event that I wouldn't like the sausage). I was relieved that there was a back-up, this I believe was due largely in part to the fact that my counterpart is more or less fluent in English. Had I been in one of my other host families I certainly would have had much more trouble explaining my reservations about the sausages. Although, on the flip side, I don't know the Russian or Kazakh words for liver, heart, kidney or intestine, so maybe the whole experience would have been less painful. You'll be happy to know that I'm still actively integrating into my community, so I did in fact try some of the sausage, although my counterpart was kind enough to peel off the intestine before she put it on my plate. The verdict: I still like my chicken apple sausage from Whole Foods, but I didn't find myself running to the outhouse either.
All of the products used in producing this sausage came from a sheep which was bought live at the bazaar over the weekend and slaughtered in my counterpart's backyard. Unfortunately, I was in Taraz celebrating Easter so I didn't get to witness the slaughtering, but they promised me that next winter they'll invite me over for the horse slaughtering. Yippee!! Oh, and the sheep head is currently chilling in the fridge in the summer kitchen. See if that doesn't give you some creepy dreams...
Where's House Hunters when I need them? I've spent the last four months looking for a place to move in May (when my mandatory six-month host family stay has ended). The anticipation of moving out on our own has gotten many a PCV through some rough times. I know at least two volunteers who have an active countdown going with May 1st as the most exciting day of their Peace Corps service thus far.
You might not understand why we want to live on our own so badly, and quite honestly not every PCV does move out. For most of us, one of the largest motivating factors is food. While it's been fun to get a rich cultural experience, eating beshbarmak (which is simply boiled meat - usually horse - boiled lasagna-esque noodles, onions, a couple of (that's right) boiled potatoes, and a lot of oil) and baursak (fried dough) and plov (rice and meat and carrots), we miss our vegetables and salads and basically good old American home cooking. I often dream about the day I can make chocolate chip cookies and fruit salad, not to mention cutting up some tomatoes and cucumbers every once in a while, an apple a day for breakfast would be simply heaven. All this and the opportunity to listen to American music (that is not Celine Dion or The Pussycat Dolls) and invite other Americans over on occasion. Needless to say, after nearly nine months of cultural exposure (and for some of us not so fortunate volunteers, over-exposure - yea there are some exhibitionist host families out there) we're ready to mix it up a little.
Unfortunately for me, this process has not been as easy as my counterpart had anticipated. I've now seen over nine places and there are a few things I know for certain - I will not have an indoor toilet and I will not have a shower for the rest of my 18 months of service. Surprisingly, however, these things have not really been an issue for me. The issues that have arisen in our house hunting have been much more of the "she's American, therefore, she's rich" variety. I have now had three places lined up for me, moving dates established and decorating plans laid out in my head, all of which have fallen through because they started thinking about the fact that I was American and how they could probably get more money out of me. One landlady actually went so far as to say, "Anyone who would leave America and work in another country without pay, is absolutely wealthy - there is no other explanation. We shall triple the rent, no discussion". There have been the obvious emotional battles, finding myself "volunteering" my time to work in this country, teaching their students English, working extra hours for those who want extra English language exposure, swallowing their beshbarmak on a weekly basis, only to feel completely underappreciated by the community at large.
But ultimately, I work with some really great locals and my students (usually) are awesome, and I'm growing to enjoy living and working in this crazy country. So, I've been grinning and bearing it all, getting back on the horse (which will certainly be dinner at some point down the road) and continuing my search. The problem here is that there isn't such a thing as Craigslist or Newspaper Ads for people who want to rent their apartments. The only way to find a place in Merke is to ask all of your friends, who in turn ask all of their friends, and just hope that somewhere along the line something pops up. We're still asking and still looking...
I still have hope that soon (preferably in the next two weeks or so) I will have a place to make my chocolate chip cookies and host my American visitors. In the mean time it's more cultural exposure and boiled foods.
Kazakhstan is green. For the past four or five months Kazakhstan has been very white. The snow started melting in March and now the whole steppe is covered in this lush, bright green color. The trees are starting to bud and flowers are starting to bloom - and Kazakhstan is apparently known for its tulips (rumor has it tulips are from Kazakhstan) which I didn't realize until I saw a huge field of bright red tulips.
In California, where the sun shines year round except for a week of rain here or there, you don't really see the seasons, but after a cold, white winter (and comparatively one of the mildest in Kazakhstan) the changing of the seasons is so apparent. The mountains are still covered in snow, making the whole landscape that much more picturesque.
In a country that started to feel very bleak and cold in the winter, things are definitely starting to look much more promising for the Spring. We were told that PCVs just have to make it through the winter and then everything starts to look and feel a lot better, and quite honestly if the sun starts shining and the rain lets up a little bit, I'm going to be one happy PCV. Chances are that will only last for a month, and then the intense Southern summer heat will burn off all this beautiful green and I'll be praying for the rain and snow again. But, I get to spend the hottest month of that, celebrating my friend's wedding in the Swedish countryside and the rest of the summer trying to travel around to cooler areas of the country, so I think it'll be bearable.
But, for all you travelers out there, if Kazakhstan every makes it onto your itinerary, Spring is definitely the right time of year for Kazakhstan. Everything just looks a lot cleaner.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Our stair climbing team.
Kazakh Wedding Spread and my host brother Manat.
New Year's Eve with the Almalybak family et al.
My host family setting off some very illegal fireworks. The dog was trying to eat them.