Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Fresh Look

I've packed my bags. I've cleaned the house. I've given the keys to the landlord. I've traveled to Almaty. I've said most of my goodbyes. I've checked in for my flight. It's official. I'm leaving Kazakhstan in less than 15 hours.

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...