Monday, April 27, 2009

Strielka (stree-el-ka)

written April 22, 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...


written April 22, 2009

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...

House Hunting

written April 22, 2009

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.

Spring has Sprung!

written April 22, 2009

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.