Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Taxi Incidents.

written January 27, 2009

Incident Number 1:

I went to Shymkent this past weekend (the locals call it the Texas of Kazakhstan) for my friend Joe's birthday. On a taxi on my way back to Merke on Sunday night, I was drifting in and out of sleep. At one point the driver nudged my legs, waking me up. He was trying to open the glove compartment. He pulled a can of air freshener out of the glove compartment. He sprayed it in his lap and then liberally throughout the front of the taxi. As he was spraying, he smiled sheepishly and apologized. I was literally choking on the air freshener fumes but also partly as a result of trying to stifle my laughter.

My taxi driver farted. :)

Sometimes I think I'm thirteen.

when I told my friend Joe about the incident, he mentioned that he probably could have just rolled down the window and accomplished the same result, which I hadn't even considered at the time. But I think that the fact that he had a can of air freshener on hand for such and incident was entertaining.

Incident Number 2:

Yesterday, the weather was particularly cold in Merke. The kind of cold where your whole face just freezes and your eyes hurt from the cold. Because I'm a wuss, I decided to take a taxi home from school instead of walking (it only costs 40 tenge - less than 40 US Cents). As the taxi pulled over to the side of the road, I opened the back door forcing the woman who was sitting there to have to slide over. I was about to apologize for making her move, when the woman made eye contact with me and loudly exclaimed (in English), "I've been hoping to meet you! Let's speak in English". I soon learned that she was an English teacher at another school in Merke, and had obviously heard about the new American living in Merke.

It's a very bizarre experience to climb into a cab and have the stranger in the back seat know all about you. I hadn't even spoken yet (which almost always gives away my foreigner status) and I can usually slide by as Russian if I don't open my mouth. But this woman knew instantly (having never met me or seen me before) that I was "Merke's American".

The Toilet Works!

written January 17, 2009

I count myself among the lucky here in Kazakhstan. I have an indoor toilet*. And, while this may seem quite luxurious (well, to other PCVs) it wouldn't be considered such in the United States. But, like many other things, I have learned to appreciate the little luxuries here in Kazakhstan and I am trying to forget about my heated bathroom, jacuzzi bathtub and shower with water pressure (wait - just the shower period).

When I moved into my house in Merke, I was very aware that most homes in this town don't have running water. For my more intelligent readers, you surely recognize that this means no indoor plumbing. Well, sure enough, I am currently living without running water. So, you can imagine my surprise when I was shown the indoor toilet. With no running water... how exactly does this contraption work? (On a side note, let me mention that being shown how to "use" the toilet is a very surreal experience at the age of 24.)

Well, our toilet is really basically an indoor outhouse. The toilet has been placed in the entryway, behind a couple of doors that don't actually close. There are pipes running to the toilet and to the sink, but as far as I'm concerned, they serve no purpose. To "flush" the toilet, there are two handy buckets (which we regularly fill with water). You simply pour the water into the pot (no, not the tank) and it magically "flushes" the contents. Now, to the average American, this might seem slightly savage, but the alternative is the wooden structure about 20 yards from the door covering a hole in our yard. In the winter, when we have a significant amount of snow on the ground, this slightly chilly toilet in the entryway is greatly appreciated, especially after being forced to drink at least three cups of tea before bed.

Imagine my surprise, when my host mom mentions something about the toilet working during our fragmented dinner "conversation" last night. As far as I was concerned, the toilet had always been "working" just fine. Responding to the look of confusion on my face, we took a little field trip to the toilet. She pushed the flusher on top of the tank and Ta-Da! the toilet flushed. She pointed at the pipe leading to the toilet and said something about water. Now, don't ask me where the water comes from, in a house with no indoor plumbing? This is a question for another day, or another year (depending on the progression of my Russian language skills).

But, as of yesterday we officially have a toilet that flushes without involving me carrying a bucket full of water through the house. I'm under the impression that this magical flushing capability I have grown so unaccustomed to is temporary and that at any moment the water will no longer exist. This leads me to feel as though I should take advantage of the toilet situation as much as possible having been granted such a luxury. As a result, I find myself drinking more than my average three cups of tea at any one sitting. I mean, how cool is it that I can simply push a button and the contents of the toilet are replaced with clear water? Pretty freaking cool!

*Talking about bathroom issues is no longer something that we PCVs consider "unapproachable territory". I apologize to my readers who find such topics displeasing. But trust me when I tell you that this is one of the most tasteful bathroom antics I could share. :)

Craft Scissors

written January 17, 2009

One afternoon, after three months in Kazakhstan, I made a drastic decision. I took a pair of craft scissors (purchased at the local bazaar) to my head. I hadn't realized how long my hair had gotten until I saw it all lying on the ground around my feet. Yes, that's right, I cut my own hair with craft scissors. I didn't even really think about it. It wasn't something I had been planning. I just looked at the ends of my hair, which desperately needed to be cut, knew that I wasn't going to be going to a hair salon any time in the near future and so I picked up my scissors (usually reserved for school projects).

I think when it was all said and done I cut off about two inches. I felt THAT immediately. I didn't mean to cut off so much, but I'm not exactly a hair stylist... But now, two months later, my hair is actually really healthy. Maybe it's all the grease from only being able to wash it twice a week. Who knows? But, I don't have any split ends. I'm thinking maybe I will become my own hair stylist while in Kazakhstan.

I won't lie... a lot of this has to do with the fact that there are some pretty drastic hair styles going on in Kazakhstan at the moment. There's Dima Bilan (Google him if you get a chance). He's the "Russian Idol" winner - basically Russia's Kelly Clarkson. He sings in English and Russian, and he's really popular among the younger kids in Kazakhstan. But his hair... It's like a partial mullet, but he's made it "fashionable" simply by being famous. So, boys in Kazakhstan have started growing out the back of their hair to look like Dima Bilan. It's hideous.

The other popular hairstyle among boys that I've noticed is the shaved head with bangs. Yes, at first I thought I was just seeing things, but no. One day, in Almalybak, my host brother came home and he had obviously just had a hair cut. It was shorter all over, except right in the front. I kind of thought that maybe the hair stylist had just missed that section. Stupid me. Now I see it on a lot of my students. It's this short cut all over and then in the front, right above the forehead, it fades into "bangs". I'll try to get a picture, but as I'm sure you can imagine it's quite awful.

For girls, it's not quite so bad. But, just as a general rule nothing ever looks even. One side tends to be longer than the other, or the top is shorter than the bottom. This obviously isn't true of every girl in Kazakhstan, these are just the trends that I notice and secretly fear. As a result, I haven't asked about a hair salon in Merke. I'm simply not interested. For now, me and my craft scissors are a great pair. But next time I'll try not to cut off so much...


written January 17, 2009

Something they don't teach you during PST (Pre-Service Training): how to walk on the ice like the locals.

In the South of Kazakhstan, when we have sunny days the well-travelled snow will melt just enough to freeze overnight into a smooth sheet of ice. The walking paths become beautifully smooth ice skating rinks. The locals are unfazed by these trecherous paths. Women wear tall stiletto heels and glide elegantly across these ice patches. Children run and slide across them like Olympic athletes. Us Americans, well to put it gently, we're less elegant.

I've now fallen (like REALLY fallen - this does not include flailing or stumbling) three times this winter. One of these times was particularly impressive. Last week I was walking to school and I came across what used to be a couple of steps. In this season, they are covered in snow and ice and form a sort of "ramp". I hesitated, as my brain was struggling to think up the best solution for traversing this downward ramp of ice. I noticed an old babuskha (grandmother) coming my way, and wanting to blend in with the locals so I quieted my thoughts and hurriedly decided that maybe "quickly" was the best solution. If I tried to actually gingerly step down this ramp, I would surely fall as there was absolutely no foothold for these steps of mine. But, if I quickly scampered down the ramp I might be able to avoid slipping.
I went for it.

Unfortunately, on my very first movement I slipped. I now had all of my weight on a single limb that was sliding (not even remotely resembling grace) down the ramp. I glanced up and saw the babushka out of the corner of my eye and my pride kicked in and I decided that I needed to quickly regain composure. In an attempt to steady myself, I began flailing... We're talking like Bambi-style flailing here. I've got arms spinning in circles in opposite directions, one leg rapidly sliding out to the right side of my body, the other slowly, but surely rising up into the air and before I know it, all pride is lost and I'm sprawled out on the ice with limbs located in impressively flexible positions. I did the inevitable. I began to raise my eyes towards the babushka... only to find her gliding past me, unable to stifle her laughter, a broad smile slapped across her face.

It took a few attempts to regain a vertical position, but I was eventually able to stumble away from the scene with a relatively small number of witnesses. I was now clearly a foreigner and I'll probably have to learn Kazakh in order to regain any sort of respect from those few locals who witnessed this disaster.

I have since avoided this portion of the path to school, having found alternate (and less trecherous) routes on the other side of the road. My new plan of attack - avoidance.

* Many of my PCV friends have other, more impressive "Winter Fall" stories. For example, just this week I received a text message from a fellow PCV that read "Last 3 days, I'm 3/3 on ice falls. Day 1, slid back down an icy hill. Day 2, I bruised my thigh. Today was only a small tumble but in front of two girls that laughed at me." I'll attempt to gather more of these stories for the general entertainment of all.


written January 17, 2009

It's winter.

That is a reminder for those of you living in California. I know, it's so sad that you are having to deal with bright sunny days and 75 degree weather in the middle of January. Oh, and I heard about those record breaking lows a couple of weeks ago. The 40s?!? No way! And... how long did that last for, again?

I actually received an email from one of my friends who recently vacationed in Canada complaining about how terribly cold the weather was up North... It was at this point that I realized I hadn't discussed "winter in Kazakhstan" with my dear old friend. Here's an overview:
Winter in South Kazakhstan: very cold. Winter in the North-ish of Kazakhstan: freezing cold. Winter in the true North of Kazakhstan: shoot me.

I currently live in what is considered "South Kazakhstan". As it was described on my "Site Information Form", Merke's "climate is mild, warm winters, summers are not hot, springs and falls are long". Sounds ideal, right? Yea, uh... if you're from Siberia! For someone who has lived in California for roughly 22 years, this description could be considered a flat-out lie. I intend to re-write this description for future volunteers. I believe it will look something like this:

Climate is tolerable. A lot of snow can be expected in the winter, a very large and warm winter coat is a MUST as are fur-lined boots (and a single pair of wool socks will still not be sufficient). The sun will shine relatively often (these are very picturesque days), but these days should not be mistaken for "warm" days as your clothes will still literally freeze into the shape of a thin "V" on the clothing line outside, cracking to the touch. Indoor heating is low in quality - either insufficient or overwhelmingly hot, depending on the income of your host family. Running is near impossible and burns your throat as well as your face, find ways to exercise indoors. Practice walking on ice.

*Spring, Summer and Fall descriptions to follow (although I've been told summers are in the 100's and clothing will be literally soaked with sweat).

Here's the positive angle:

Kazakhstan looks a lot prettier when it is covered in a layer of pure white snow. Snow can be fun - snowballs, snowmen, sledding, snow angels (the only of which I have checked off the list thus far is snowballs). Christmas truly can be white (even if no one knows what Christmas is)! It's still a heck of a lot warmer than the rest of Kazakhstan.

After a recent trip to the North-ish of Kazakhstan (Karaganda), here's how I describe the difference between the South and the North-ish (I have yet to experience the "true North"): In the South, you need a scarf, a hat and usually gloves. In the North-ish, that scarf must be thick and wrapped around your face and those gloves must be a heck of a lot warmer and you will still be chilly. It's really the wind that gets you in the North-ish. Imagine, if you will, a biting cold wind that whips around in all directions carrying with it a flurry of snow.

So, for those of you "suffering" through your winters in California, if you haven't pulled out the fur-lined boots or the gloves, scarves and hats, you're not really suffering. Those gloves, scarves and hats are daily necessities in the life of a Kazakhstan PCV during this season and could very surely find much more grateful homes in the true-North of Kazakhstan. The first question my host mom asks me every day when she gets home, literally translates into: "you are not freezing?" This same verb is also used in the following expressions "to be frozen", "to freeze to death", "to perish from the frost", and "to become frozen".

Winter. Something California has not yet experienced.

The Wheels on the Bus

January 9, 2009

So, these past holidays I took yet another "bus" into Almaty, to spend the New Year with my old host family in Almalybak. We have quite a bit of snow here in the South of Kazakhstan now, and based on my previous experiences, I wasn't exactly ecstatic to jump into another vessel of death and make the trek to Almaty. Well, this trip proved much less dangerous, but much worse in so many other ways...

I know the bus driver now, and if I give him enough warning, he'll come and pick me up at my house in the morning for the ride to Almaty. When he got to my house, there was only one other woman on the vehicle so far, and I slid past her into a nice seat by the window. We drove around Merke picking up our other passengers and cargo (being the holidays, a lot of people were paying our driver to deliver their presents to family in Almaty - it was almost like we were playing Santa Claus, yay!) Before we left Merke, I noticed that the woman next to me had a folded hand towel on her lap and a little plastic bag. Considering that everything in Kazakhstan is carried in these plastic shopping bags, I didn't give it a second thought. MISTAKE NUMBER 1.

About fifteen minutes outside of Merke, this woman next to me curled up towards me and placed her head on my shoulder. Yea, in America, total invasion of that personal bubble! In Kazakhstan, aparently you don't even have to ask before you use your neighbor as a sleeping aid. I kind of giggled at first (MISTAKE NUMBER 2), thinking of the stories I could tell my fellow volunteers about my new best friend. BUT, as I came to learn, this was the absolute least of my worries. We carried on in this manner: me shifting slightly under her weight, her snoozing away on my shoulder. About an hour and a half outside of Merke, my new friend woke up. She started shifting restlessly in her seat and fanning her face. A few short minutes later, she began frantically asking the driver to stop the car. He pulled over into the snow and a young Russian guy in the front seat got out, and opened the back door (he had to unload two heavy speakers before the woman could burst out of the van). She knelt down in the snow and started gagging. She then lifted up handfuls of snow and began rubbing it all over her face and arms. She returned to the van a few minutes later, quite damp, and definitely very ill-looking.

We continued on our way, the rest of the passengers seemingly unfazed, and I was just glad that she clearly wouldn't be sleeping on me anymore - oh wait! What's this heavy lump I feel on my right shoulder? I was not giggling anymore. She tried to sleep (on me!) for another 30 minutes or so, before she instantly (and without warning) lifted her head, grabbed that plastic bag on her lap, and began vomitting excessively and noisily into the bag. No one in the front of the van even turned around! My right thigh is literally touching this puking woman, who was just sleeping on my shoulder and the sounds coming from her wretching body are grotesque (to put it lightly). Well, fortunately by this point, we were only about 15 minutes from our halfway point (where we unload quickly for bathroom breaks and food). So, she just held that little bag of puke until we arrived. I could not have exited that vehicle sooner. I was practically running away from the scene, just trying to get those sounds out of my head, when my new best friend began yelling after me -- "Wait! We will go to the toilets together." Oh great, she likes me. She followed me around like a little puppy dog as I grabbed an iced tea for the road.

I almost screamed when the bus pulled away from the stop and this woman, oh this woman, made the move to lie on my shoulder again! Does she not remember that she was just heaving into a small plastic bag at my side? I was bound and determined to no longer be a comfortable shoulder to rest on. I was constantly finding excuses to lean down and grab something out of my bag, or check the time on my cell phone, forcing her to remove her head from my shoulder. But as soon as I had settled back into a stationary position, her head would find its way back to my shoulder. I had all of these visions of her puking down my neck, and other awful images. I was not a happy traveler.

Well, to cut the rest of the 4 hour bus ride short... my new friend DID end up throwing up again (3 more times in fact! All of them as she sat next to me on this doomed vehicle). Each time she tried to sleep on my shoulder, and each time I found myself squirming around in my seat trying to shake this dreaded puking head from my body. The third time she threw up, we all had to smell the pizza flavored croutons she had picked up as a snack from our first stop - those things smelled bad going down, you don't even want to imagine what they were like coming back up. Well, unfortunately the little girl in the back seat had reached her limit and when that smell reached her, she began throwing up as well! So the two were puking in chorus, and I just had my head smashed against the cold window trying to think about anything other than the sound and the smell. Side note: after one of the times she threw up, she asked the driver to stop the car. She handed her bag of vomit to the young Russian guy and asked him to throw it out into the snow for her! That poor guy's face was absolutely priceless. All I could think, was that we had all taken one for the team at this point, and really it was his turn. He obliged.

When we pulled into Almaty I was so anxious to get off of that vehicle and as far away from that woman as possible that I actually banged my head against the door in my haste. I quickly grabbed my backpack and nearly sprinted away from the scene, not even stopping to say goodbye to my fantastic new friend. I am, in no way, looking forward to my next trip to Almaty.

And if that van pulls up in front of my house with that woman on it, I am going to have to learn how to say "I'd rather not, Thank You".

The worst part? I ended up eating Sbarro pizza for lunch later that day - by choice! :)

The Journey...

Written December 18, 2008

Kazakhstan doesn't recognize Christmas as a holiday, but it does have Independence Day on December 16 - therefore, I had the 16th and 17th without school. Not wanting to sit around the house for two days, I decided to go into Almaty to meet a couple of PCVs. Getting to and from Almaty on this particular holiday proved to be quite eventful. Here's what I experienced:

- Two dead cows on the road. The first was initially mistaken for a horse, but recognized once we got up close to it (ugh). The second was clearly a cow, and the car that had hit it was smashed up on the side of the road.

- Two dead dogs. RIP.

- A fog so thick that we could barely see the cars in front of us. This makes passing cars really exciting, let me tell you. Headlights just suddenly appear in front of you. I think I almost peed about 4 times.

- Started snowing on the way back to Merke (yes, we now have about 2 inches on the ground). I just kept wanting the darn car to pull over and put chains on, but I don't think those exist here. We only skidded on the snow twice, I think...

- A car accident that rivals any I've ever seen in person. One car was engulfed in flames on the side of the road - actually kind of mesmerizing to watch a car just burn out of control. Except that as we got closer I thought I saw a person standing next to the car, also engulfed in flames and I thought I was going to vomit. I soon realized that it was actually the passenger's door had been left open as the car burned. Phew! We didn't see the second car until we were leaving the scene of the accident, and it pretty much looked as though it had been crushed by one of those compactors. Pieces of that car were strewn all over the road. I didn't understand anything that was being relayed between all of the passersby (because, note to self, when Kazakhs are excited they don't speak slowly - very inconvenient for us Americans). But, I did catch that no people were hurt, so that's good.

- Oh, and did I mention that MC Hammer came on the radio? Yes. That's right. I listened to Can't Touch This in Kazakhstan on the radio. I smiled for the entire length of the song.

A journey that usually takes just under 4 hours, took us 6 on the way back to Merke. I got home and my host mom wasn't expecting me, so she had locked me out. Fortunately, she was sitting in front of the TV as usual, so I was able to knock on the window to get her to let me in.

Woke up this morning to a white Merke. I've been told the snow has begun and winter has arrived, and there is no going back from here. I'm going to the Bazaar today to buy a warmer coat and maybe some other warm gear for this white winter. They keep calling it a snowy New Years, but I still think of it as a white Christmas. :) I'm stubborn like that.

The Local Celebrity

written December 6, 2008

We have a woman in the house this morning. An extra. We've only had a couple of people by the house since I moved in - the first, the cleaning woman who vacuumed my room, second, the locksmith, who installed the new lock on my bedroom door, and now this woman. She is the curtain hanger (for lack of a better term). Apparently my host mother has ordered new curtains for most of the house and today this woman has come to hang them up.

As I emerged from my bedroom this morning, quite groggy and in desperate need of the bathroom, my host mother pulled me aside and insisted that I meet this woman in our house. So, I obliged. As I returned from the bathroom, the woman, now alone, told me that she needed help with some English. She had a word that she had heard somewhere and she wanted to know what it meant in Russian (as she doesn't speak any English). I'm not sure where she heard the word, or why she knew that she should bring it with her so that the native English speaker in this local house could translate it for her, but that's Kazakhstan. I'm constantly being asked to live with people (as they boast about their various amenities) I have to admit that the hot water amenity usually trips me up a bit in my usual polite refusal, or to teach them English, or to teach their children English. This all usually comes before they've even learned my name. One woman even wanted me to marry her son. She started spouting off all of his traits that made him a worthy husband - he doesn't smoke, he doesn't drink - it was at this time that my counterpart began to rush me out of the magazine.

And I know that I'm not the only volunteer that experiences this. A friend of mine living in the north of Kazakhstan actually received a phone call (at his host family's house) from a local woman who had heard he was in town and would like to commission him to teach her English. He has no idea how she got his phone number or knew where he lived, but that's how things work in these smaller communities. People hear about the "American" and everyone gets to talking and someone knows that you live with the Berekova family and before you know it you're receiving phone calls during dinner from a woman you've never met.