Monday, May 25, 2009

Additional Reading

So, my PCV friends are actually fairly talented writers themselves (3 of my closest friends are actually English majors as well). The week in Merke has been written up by a couple of other friends as well as myself, and they might have explained it better, as they actually have internet and can write gracefully instead of hurriedly and spastically.

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)

Happy Reading!

The Cow Story

written May 30, 2009

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.

Summer, Summer, Summer!

written May 26, 2009

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)...

An Excuse to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

written May 25, 2009

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...)

All Roosters Should Be Killed

written May 25, 2009

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

Home Sweet Home

written May 18, 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?"