Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thanksgiving to Russian Orthodox Christmas.

A thousand pardons for the delay in blog entries, but I am still alive. I could say I've been busy, but that would be a lie because for the past two weeks we have had a break for holidays (New Years and Russian Orthodox Christmas which was yesterday). A lot of stuff has happened since last I wrote which I believe was in November.

A lot of this is chronicled in both Jamie and the Huber's blog plugged at the right of this page I believe. So for a brief recap I'll go by months.

In November the Hubers were able to find a turkey for Thanksgiving and all the volunteers in the area and our local friends made dishes and we celebrated together. We had stuffing, salad, garlic mashed potatoes (which I made), broccoli and cauliflower casserole and some delicious deserts that Corinne made. There was a pumpkin muffin made out of pumpkin pie remains that was like the most delicious desert I have ever had and can never be created again since it was a salvage operation and exact ingredients have been lost to the twisted nether of culinary improvisation. Let's see, we also had MST which stands for Mid-Service training and it was pretty low key. We had conference during the day and all the vols were able to spend time with one another after. I ate at Pizza Hut in Almaty (it's really ritzy and clean and tastes just like America) and also at a halfway decent Chinese restaurant. So good food was a nice break from the relative monotony of Zhezkazgan's 100 cafes that all serve the same Kazakh dishes.

I also participated in NaNoWriMo which stands for National November Writing Month. It's basically a contest to try and write a 50,000 word novel in one month. I got 35,000 words before having to go to MST and now it sits unfinished. It's a horror story about traveling volunteers who are on a train and their fellow passengers begin to mysteriously disappear. It's not too bad and the plot is coherent, so I'll make it my New Year's goal to finish it before I get back to America.

I got back to site around Dec 6th and began finishing up the school quarter in anticipation of Christmas and New Years. Of course Christmas isn't celebrated here so I had to work on Christmas day. Luckily I had planned a Secret Santa exchange for my younger kids and I think they enjoyed it. None of them could keep a secret so they all knew who their Santa was, but I don't necessarily think American 12 year olds could really do a proper Secret Santa without telling anyone either.

Oh I almost forgot. When I got back to site my internet no longer worked and getting it back up again proved to be almost a month long comedy of errors. So the timeline was something like this.

Internet doesn't work, I spend a week and a half trying to get the KazTelecom people to reset my internet or come to my apartment to fix it.
Everyone ignores me until the director of my school writes (well has my counterpart write on his letterhead a tersely worded letter to the manager of the company)
The tech guys come the next day and after fawning over my American things and asking me if I play Warcraft tell me that my modem is broken.
The next day the power cord to my computer breaks
I borrow my friend Gulzhan's computer, which is a netbook that Robert sold to her.
I go that day to buy a modem and buy the cheapest modem I can find and don't buy a new power cord because I'm not sure it is compatible.
I get home and learn that I can't install the modem because it has an install disk and the netbook doesn't have a cd drive. My computer doesn't have power so I can't install it on that one either.
It is Christmas Eve. I go back to the store and test the new power cord and buy a better modem and try to return the old modem because I have a guarantee but they won't give me my money back because technically the modem works, just not with my computer.
I get my new netbook in the mail for Xmas (Thanks Mom and Dad) and the new modem works exclusively with it though this one is not wireless and is a bit slower than my old modem.

Sorry if that bored you, but the amount of frustration those few weeks caused me needed expression.

There's also something wrong with my electricity causing my power to cut off anytime I use something that uses more power than my computer power cable. As a result I haven't washed my clothes in about 2 months. Last night I dreamt that I found a cache of clean clothes in my apartment and was more excited than if I had found 100 dollars if that explains the increasing direness of the situation. Man Jamie often asks why I don't just hand wash like he does. My reply? "I don't understand the question and I won't respond to it."

So yeah Christmas was fun this year. We made pizza and drank a bit. I am becoming a marinade master and Man Jamie is becoming quite the accomplished pizza chef.

After Xmas but before New Years, I had a Teacher's party at the school. These should really just be called "Who's been Lusting after the American and Chooses to express it while Drunk Party." I had to dance which I really don't like to do and every dance one of the teachers kept grabbing me and parading me around to all the dance circles like I was some bauble. It wasn't so bad, I'm used to this kind of thing especially when forced to dance, but it was still weird. I did get a nice slow dance in with one of the cuter teachers though *a-wink. It is strange drinking in the school cafeteria and watch all the men go off to smoke cigarettes in the boy's bathroom. It's like some kind of perverse regression where the teachers let lose and act like juveniles. I hung out for about 3 hours and then excused myself.

I did absolutely nothing for New Years. Everyone was out of town or had plans already so I stayed home without even a TV to watch the countdown on. It was pretty sad from an outside perspective, but kind of nice to relax especially given how crazy last year's New Year's was with the host fam.

And speaking of host families, I went over last night for my first official guesting since I moved out. It was... just like old times. My host dad was a little tipsy from a visit with one of his friends earlier, but was really happy to see me. He embraced me and called me his little brother with a warmth I hadn't seen since a few months before I left. Not to say things left on a bad note between us, just that living with people (especially from different cultures) is stressful for all parties and I think we were both ready for me to leave last August. That said, he and I have always had a interesting friendship in that he is ebullient and can be a bit much to take (especially after some vodka). Last night I had a really interesting time with him though. My host mom, Olbulsyn, was a little mad at Mukhtar because he had been drinking and was talking a lot, but he was really excited to see me and had a lot to tell me.

After we ate some beshbarmak, Mukhtar and I went out to the stairwell and talked for an hour or so about the things that have been on his mind. He will always tell you what is on his mind, but last night he was strangely unguarded. He began telling me about how much he loves his family and how hard he tries to provide for them. This is becoming increasingly difficult since his work shifts have been cut in half since the crisis and he is not pulling in much money. Olbulsyn has taken a job at a cafe that she clearly hates, but they need the money. He described himself in a sea of credit as they have taken out loans with three different banks and owe a ton of money every month. Mukhtar told me that the kids ask for money every day and he usually gives it to them and keeps it secret from Olbulsyn. He also told me about his childhood and how he worked everyday to buy clothes for school and whatnot. He wants to disconnect the internet that Zhupar and Yernur use all the time because it is expensive and talked to me about this.

I obviously realize that these are more or less the same things that parents tell their children. Life will probably have always been more difficult for the previous generations than the next. I recognize that my father, like Mukhtar worked really hard to get where he is in life and fought for a higher education. I am proud of him for this and the character it obviously built within him.
However, when we are children we hear these stories from our parents and think of them as tirades (sorry Dad) akin to the "when I was your age I walked uphill in the snow both ways... etc;" but in that apartment somewhere in between Mukhtar and his children's generation gap, I gained a new perspective on the family unit. As a parent you want to give your child everything, but may slightly resent the fact that they have life much easier than you did. You don't want them to have to break their back for want of something, but also don't want them to be ungrateful. Is this the crux of parenting? Is this the inherent chasm that creates the generation gap? I don't know, but standing their I felt like both a child and an adult, seeing the validity of my host brother and sister's desire to have internet and Mukhtar's agonizing over the cost of the utility.

After an hour Olbulsyn peaked her head out of the door and told Mukhtar to stop talking my ear off. We went back inside for tea and I really felt like a part of the family. I realized that Mukhtar had really missed me. I think he enjoyed having a friend around who would indulge him and occasionally drink with him and talk about war and politics and things like that. Kazakhs really are masters of hospitality when they want to be and my old host family has given me a lot to think about as I gnaw on the slightly stale, oily, baursaki (fried bread) that they gave me to take home.

Now I have break until Monday and it's been a wonderful week and a half of doing nothing. I've been able to read and watch tv and just veg out. I hope you all had wonderful holidays. I am thankful that I will be home for the next round.

Yours Drewly

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Commence Year Two in the Crazy KZ!

Okay, so I need to start writing this. My trip to America, was to reiterate, amazing, but I don’t feel that I need to go into detail about what this was like because most of you live there and if not, you probably don’t want me to brag about my return to western opulence. I’m going to start instead (and I’m egregiously ripping off Girl Jamie’s post, but what can I say I was inspired) by documenting my return to Kazakhstan.

So the return plane to Almaty seemed a lot longer than the flight back to the states (even though I had a seven hour layover in Germany on the way to America and had less than 30 minutes total to make each of my planes coming back to Kaz). This was partially because I had seen all of the in flight movies and partially due to the fact that beer wasn’t free on the way back (American airlines have a lot to learn), but either way, 21 hours on a plane is just unavoidably grim. I met some great people on the plane ride back however, and talked to man living in Frankfurt who worked for the IRS and a Francophile Kazakhified Russian woman who was living in France and making large sums of money by playing the stock market (something to consider upon return home). I returned to Kazakhstan at 12 AM and had spent a great deal of time agonizing over my customs form since I had bought a ton of stuff in America. This form was never even checked upon exiting the plane. After I got off the plane I began filling out the customs/reason for travel/visa form after having asked a woman to borrow a pen. Halfway through the form, I realized I could bypass all these huddling SOB’s and could get right into line because I am one of I would say less than 200 Americans that have a multiple entry visa to the glorious nation of Kazakhstan. I popped into line and was out before you could say “beshbarmak” and went to reclaim my luggage.

I can’t tell you how, when travelling, what a liberating experience it was to be able to give my luggage to someone else and have them take care of it for you. After a year of dealing with the Kazakh “carry your luggage yourself and get the hell off the train quickly” mentality, I had forgotten how posh air transport actually is. That is, until I waited for an hour for my luggage that simply did not appear on the carousel. I went to the “I’m foreign and have a problem” desk and filed my luggage as missing. They were more helpful than I expected, and gave me a travel kit with toiletries and a white T-shirt. Because a T-shirt is what needs changing the most after almost a day in the air. I tried not to appear too peeved, and they said that my luggage would probably be on the plane that would come the next day (also at midnight). After giving my contact information, I went out into the throng of humanity that is the taxi drivers jockeying for a chance to extort foreigners. I don’t know how Girl Jamie got a taxi for 1500 tenge (ten dollars) because they tried to charge me 5000 tenge and I haggled it down to 3000 I think. I guess looking like Lenin just doesn’t hold the same sway over taxi drivers that being an American woman does.

After a 30 minute bus ride to the Peace Corp HQ, I was greeted by some volunteer friends and tried to explain what a trying trip it was. Little did I know I would have 3 days to spend at the PCHQ to get reacquainted with everyone. Basically, my luggage was floating in the International nether somewhere between America, Germany, and Kaz. When after the first day, I called the airlines again to locate my luggage they informed me that they actually did not know where it was, but they were (more-or-less) hoping for the best I yelled at them a bit and demanded a per diem (Almaty is expensive on a PC budget), but that concept is apparently not universal. Luckily I was staying for free at the HQ. So I sat and waited and jetlagged and checked train schedules and finally got my luggage. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the train back to Zhezkazgan until the day after I got my luggage, so I had to wait an additional night.

To give you your obligatory 2 minutes of Kazakhstani geography, let me tell you what the Almaty to Zhez train route is like. Twice a week a train leaves directly from Almaty (in the southeast of KZ) to Zhez (smackdab in the middle of KZ). Every day a train goes from Almaty to Karaganda which is north of Almaty and almost dead east of Zhez. Almaty – Karaganda = 20ish hours. Karaganda – Zhez = 14hrs. Since I was not leaving on the correct day for the direct trip (around 30hrs) I had to change trains in Karaganda. The ticket lady informed me that the train from Karaganda to Zhez was full and so I couldn’t by a ticket. I have met with this “problem” before and only once has it actually been true, so I hedged my bets and took a one-way to Karaganda. The annoying thing about this layover is that you get into Kgan at 7AM (way before anything is Kaz is open) and the train to Zhez leaves around 7:30PM.

So what did the intrepid young Boggsy do for those meantime-inbetween time hours? Well, first I sat on a bench in front of a sports complex for 2 hours. Then, I went to the mall because it was about to open and sat outside there for 30 minutes. When the mall opened I had planned to go see a movie/ sleep in the theater for as long as they would let me. I went to by a movie ticket and asked to see Inglorious Basterds (I had just seen it in American theatres, but fancied a go at the Russian version). They informed me that it wasn’t playing until noon (it was 10:30) so I told them that I would see any movie that was playing now and to just give me a ticket. They looked very confused until they told me that they would only have a screening if there were more than 4 people with tickets (I guess there’s not much of a demand for early matinees in KZ). I would have been tempted to pay for 4 tickets if I thought that even this seemingly logical compromise would have met with success, but luckily my friend Sally (a former Zhez volunteer that had gotten relocated to Kgan) answered my calls. She told me that she had to work, but I could tag along with her if I wanted to. Of course I accepted and spent the rest of the day learning exactly how unstructured OCAP work can be. Not to say Sally didn’t do much work, far from it; but the schedule was so less scripted than my average day of teaching. We had a really good time though, and I’m glad I got to know her better.

Yada yada, I got my train, woke up the next day in Zhez, walked to my host family’s house, went to school to tape a prewritten speech in Kazakh (I speak Russian remember) for some teacher’s conference, and then went back and started moving into… MY NEW APARTMENT!!!

And that’s my excuse for the lack of blog posts. After I moved in and relaxed for a couple of days, school started back up and things got real real, real fast. Last week clubs started back up and they seem a lot more organic than last year. So far Tuesdays are Film Club, Wednesdays are Teacher Club, and Thursdays are Kid’s Club. So the meat of my workday is in the middle of the week, nestled in between some nice free time... it's a "club sandwich" if you will. Hopefully in the next week or so, my Literature Club will start up and I am really excited about it.Other than that, I have class starting at 8AM every day except for Tuesdays when it starts at 8:45. So if any PC staff is reading this, rest assured I’m busy.

The liberation that has accompanied moving out on my own is unparalleled. I feel so much less harried and stressed out and feel much more rested than I did on a given day last year. Part of this is due to the fact that I can eat when I want, sleep when I want, and I’m 15 minutes closer to my school. I’m learning how to cook and after 3 sliced fingers, multiple oil burns, and a couple of overwhelming bazaar runs, I think I can safely say I’m getting the hang of it. That is, I can cook things that I would not be ashamed of someone else eating. I even made pizza sauce for my 6th graders’ home ec class that got pretty solid reviews.

To summarize, life’s good. At least until winter drops.

Pictures of the new place will follow soon.

As always, thanks for reading.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Road Weary

I haven't forgotten about the old blog, the summer was just extremely busy. I traveled all over K-stan and went to the States to spend a little over two weeks with family and friends. It was absolutely amazing and deserving of more words than these, but I don't really know what to say so I'm going to leave it it at that for the time being.

When I returned I moved into a new apartment by myself so learning to cook and be independent again has consumed most of my time. School has also started back up so I've been readjusting to teaching and being a responsible human being in general. Expect a longer entry in the near future. Consider this a trailer.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Fun with Drew's Friends (Not Man Jamie's)

Alright, since life has restored to a certain normalcy I figure I should blog about the past couple of weeks. After school ended I enjoyed a period of relative relaxation in which I was mainly just planning my summer camp and preparing to go to another volunteer's camp in a small town called Shortandy.

I was a little nervous about my trip to Shortandy because it was my first train voyage alone. I have run into about every permutation of Kazakh train interaction thus far so I was pretty sure I could handle anything that came up. I was also excited because I was going to be travelling through Astana (the capital) for the first time and venturing north (having only travelled in south and central Kazakhstan). My train ride from Zhez to Karaganda was the normal 14 hour night ride that I have grown accustomed to. I was actually in a platzcart area with a student from my school and a guy who wanted to practice his English so it was somewhat entertaining. I had a 6 hour layover in Karaganda that started at 8AM so I walked around the city trying to find a place to eat and chill out at for a few hours. After walking about 2 miles with my book bag and messenger bag and not finding any place that was open, I went to a Turkish place I had been to before to have some coffee and food. The menu was really limited at 9AM so all I could order was samsa (kinda like a meat and onion hot pocket). I dug into my samsa and the meat was really pink. I'm not talking rare here... more like still breathing.

Not wanting to give myself some kind of horrible stomach problem for the last leg of my train ride, I scooped the meat out and ate the pastry and had a few cups of instant coffee before waiting out the rest of my layover at the train station. I was uber-alert at the station because I didn't want to miss my train (supposedly a Karaganda to Pavlodar train) but the train wasn't showing up on any of the alert boards so I stepped out onto the platform about 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave and asked one of the train ladies where the hell my train was. She pointed to a train that was a few tracks over and it turns out it was the Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) to Archangelisk (Russia) train that I had actually been on when I went down to Merke a month or so ago. I'm glad I asked though, I never would have realized that was my train otherwise.

So I had a 7 hour train ride to Shortandy and met Jess at the station. We walked to her new apartment and the air was rife with the smell of cow patties. We spent a couple of days "preparing" for her cultural camp and went swimming in her river (later I learned said river was a popular dumping site for the local hospital and even the kids won't swim in it) so Yay Biohazards! Her camp came and went with two other volunteers showing up to help. I did my old tried and true Ireland presentation and ate vegetarian food for a week since Jess is a vegetarian. It wasn't bad, but I was craving meat by the end of the camp.

Jess and Girl Jamie were going to travel from Shortandy to Zhezkazgan to do a version of the same camp in my city, but we got to spend a few hours in Astana before the train left. I got to see some of the city, my friend Kairat who moved to Astana from Zhez, and we also got to eat at a TGI Fridays! Now I'm not sure how a TGI Fridays wound up in Astana. I don't know who makes the decisions about what kind of culture America get to export, but after one bite of a bacon cheeseburger I stopped asking questions. When the server asked what temperature I wanted my burger I actually laughed at her. Not only does no one ever ask about meal preferences, I had actually forgotten how I like my burger. I got medium, but it was a little rarer than that (no complaints). We even got an honest-to-God appetizer sampler complete with potato skins, friend mozzarella, and hot wings. The meal was ridiculously expensive by Peace Corps standards (like 30 dollars a person) but worth every tenge.

We made it to the train and got to Karaganda, but there were no tickets left to Zhezkazgan so we had to buy bus tickets. I went to the ticket window and people were milling about forcing their way to the front. There are no lines in Kazakhstan, just people in a disorganized mass forcing their way to the front. I have no idea how a society can function without the order that lines provide, but I've learned to just accept it and adapt. So I snuck up along the side of the group and forced/elbowed my way to the front. Some people yelled at me, but that's par for the course and I got my tickets in about 10 minutes. Now 8 months ago I probably would have been standing there until the window closed, but this is the new pugnacious, scrappy Drew. No longer am I restricted by things like an unwillingness to cut in line or elbow and elderly woman in the face. Your shouts will not daunt me and your attempts to edge in front of me will be met with due vigilance and recourse.

The bus ride to Zhez suuuuuuuuuucked. I had taken a bus from Zhez to Karaganda once that was bad but only 8 hours. This one was for some reason 12 hours. I saw the sun set and rise over the steppe that day. We got to Zhez at about 5AM and promptly went to Man Jamie's new apartment and crashed. Eventually Leah showed up too and we had a fun week of good food, bowling (Girl Jamie kicked ass), and culture camp/ultimate frisbee camp (local kids love Ultimate). It was a blast, but I'm glad it's all over and I have a few days to relax until the real travel begins.

Also my sitemate Robert got the training position in Almaty for the new trainees. This is sad because he will be leaving in Aug now instead of Nov, but good because it means I will (hopefully) be moving into his apartment once I return from the States. Prepare yourself for weekly updates on culinary disasters and adventures in domesticity once I return from America.

Tonight promises bowling and drinks at our favorite hangout, Kros. I'll get back to you on that one.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yerke Merke Merke My

               So May’s been kind of a whirlwind what with a cultural camp, my birthday, and the end of school. I’ve had some unforgivably long entries without this much time to make up for so I will try to spare you the banal minutia of my days and skip to the exciting parts.

                In early May I went to a volunteer named Jamie’s cultural camp in Merke. Merke is right on the Kyrgyzstan border and as such the train ride there was fraught with skepticism and document checks as to our purpose in the town. It was a long expensive train ride with the Hubers (the married couple in Satpaev who are awesome and also have a great blog you should check out in my sidebar), but we made it there after a day-long layover in Karaganda complete with tacos (thanks to Corinne and Blake).

                Merke was surprisingly beautiful. I trash the steppe for being the most boring landscape in the world, but I should do a better job explaining that the steppe does not cover all of Kazakhstan (it only feels like it does). Merke was lush with green flora and is located at the foot of some amazing mountains. Tired, but reinvigorated by the scenery, the Hubers and I took an overexpensive taxi to Jamie’s new house and were greeted by a score of volunteers and beer.

                Jamie had been having trouble locating a place to stay in her town, but had finally succeeded in securing a house (albeit one up for sale that can be purchased any day). Her house was a lot more like what I imagined Peace Corps would be when I first joined. It came complete with a water pump, an outhouse, a banya, a garden, and a friendly dog named Norbert. For the next week volunteers came and went and we lived and tended to the homestead in a commune-type way. It was awesome. It was so much fun sharing the responsibilities with other volunteers and doing chores around the “farm.” We even termed our group “the farm friends” and have semi-matching bracelets that we made (though I am the only one who actually wears mine).

                We went to Merke for a cultural camp which basically consisted of volunteers picking a country or region of the world and teaching about it and then having students present dances/skits from their areas. My country was Ireland and I taught my students an Irish jig to “Flogging Molly” which was pretty hilarious. We also had Olympic games in which we pitted all the groups against one another and Ireland won the Olympics. Our motto was “Orange, Green, and White, the Irish will fight”. The colors refer to the colors of the Irish flag and I’m pretty sure we won because our motto struck fear into the hearts of the other teams.

                I happened to be in Merke during Cinco de Mayo and my birthday and it was great being able to celebrate with other volunteers. Michael Hotard even got a bottle of tequila for Cinco and we had a blast. Plus some volunteers made AMAZING food like Indian food and enchiladas and tacos and pizza that provided the best food I have eaten since I have been here. No hyperbole here… it was delicious.

                I hurt my knee playing freeze tag with the kids at Jamie’s school.  There’s not really any way to make that statement less embarrassing. I guess a bum knee comes with turning 23.Because of this I couldn’t go hiking into the mountains with the other volunteers. It wasn’t too bad because the vol’s had some problems with the overzealous Merke police (you can read about it in Nick’s blog). The knee’s been giving me problems off and on, but I think it’s getting better. All in all it was really a perfect trip and I’ll be having a culture camp like it in June so hopefully it will be as much fun.

                Let’s see, after I got back we had a teacher’s seminar that went really well which was good because our regional manager was in town and got to see some of the work we are doing. I taught about games in the classroom and taught teacher’s some fun English activities that can be done to get their students excited about learning. We also went bowling with our RM and I got my best Kazakh bowling score of 135. Good times.

                After this I had about a week left of school and now I’m finished. Yesterday I went t o a small mountain range called Ulatao (about 3 hours from Zhezkazgan) with Robert, Jamie, some teachers, and about 15 college students. It was a lot of fun. We climbed some mountains, ate some really good food, and saw a part of Kaz I had never been to. It was kind of an end of year celebration for the college students. Somehow I managed to get a sunburn on my head in rainy, overcast weather… my pale skin never ceases to amaze me.

 Tomorrow is the final bell ceremony at my school and then summer officially begins. I feel good because I have been making friends with some locals and will have an interesting summer full of travelling, camps, and hanging out with friends. I also now have tickets to America, so I will be in Georgia from Aug 5 to Aug 21. I am really excited of course. I can’t wait to see everyone and eat some delicious food. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sauna Drama

     Well let’s see. Life has been a little strange lately as Spring is more or less settling in. The teachers and students are brimming with excitement in anticipation of the summer holiday. I am no exception. My trip back to America is drawing closer and I am looking forward to the company of my loved ones, delicious varied food, and my Motherland. Say what you will about America and its positive and negative aspects, I miss my patria. There is nothing like being away from home for an extended period of time to change your perspective on just about everything.

                Last Tuesday I was told that the family was planning a trip to the sauna. I was really excited about this because I only get to bathe about twice a month (I know, but I’m still remarkably unstinky) and the sauna is a real pore-cleanser. So on Tuesday afternoon the family was bustling around getting ready and I asked where the sauna was. In Zhezkazgan? In Satpaev? There are only a couple of options seeing as how our cities are isolated on the steppe. I was simply told that the sauna was “far.” When it was time to leave I went outside and there was a guy with a stripped out van. Marshrutkas they are called. We loaded all of our things into the van and picked up a few friends along the way.

                After everyone was loaded up we went to the store and my family and friends went shopping. They came back to the van with six loaves of bread, a case of beer, a bottle of vodka, and a kilo of rice. I knew right then that it was going to be a long night. Having the necessities, we loaded up the van and started driving… into the steppe. I had experienced off-roading like this on my infamous trip to Kyzlorda, but luckily we didn’t drive nearly as far. After about twenty minutes we pulled up to a nice wooden cabin by the river (they call it a river, but I’m almost positive it is a lake). It was actually a really beautiful setup. There was a big house with a large table, a nice-ish view of the steppe across the river, and a volleyball net. All in all there were about 20 people and we ate a lot and drank and ended up playing volleyball.

                I made friends with this guy who was a family friend who apparently works for some ministry (like Ministry of Defense, not church). We talked for awhile in Russian and joked a lot, it was good to just feel normal and not on display for once. I think our volleyball team won, but no one was keeping score so it was pretty light-hearted. Eventually the women went to the sauna and the guys went back inside to drink while waiting for our turn. Drinking is one of the biggest cultural iffy zones here. I hesitate to make blanket statements about either American or Kazakh drinking culture, but I would say on the whole most Americans can drink to a comfortable level and stop well before getting drunk. This is what I always try to practice when I choose to drink here because as much as I stand out, a drunk Drew would stand out even more. I have learned the proper techniques to prevent getting sloshed at guestings and it’s not too hard to refuse drinks if you are persistent enough and act like you mean business. Basically Kazakh culture is really insistent. When it comes to food and drinking you are always being implored to take more. As Jamie put it, the appearance of being hospitable is more important than being comfortable. Being disgustingly full is better than being delightfully sated and being drunk is better than having a buzz on. Can’t fault anyone, it’s just the way things are.

                So I drank a couple beers and called it quits (it was Tuesday after all) but my companions proceeded to get pretty hammered all around. We went into the sauna and had a good ol’ sweaty, naked time. After the sauna we hung out in the antechamber and chatted. Then I ate some horse and shashlik and started feeling a little sleepy so I went to one of the rooms and napped for about an hour. I was woken up and everyone was clamoring about and hurrying to get everything on the bus. I was slightly disoriented and so I grabbed my flip flops I had worn in the sauna and was assured that all my other things had already been loaded into the bag. I got in the van, crowded with 15 drunk Kazakhs and people were at various stages of revelry. One woman wouldn’t stop singing, one man wouldn’t stop shouting, and one women… well she wouldn’t stop crying. I looked over at one of our family friends at one point and realized he was wearing my spare set of boxers. Those are now his.

                We dropped everybody off and eventually went home. Getting out the van I slipped and sprained my ankle a little and lumbered into the apartment around midnight. Somewhere in the chaos I lost my Puma’s. The steppe is just not kind to those shoes. Luckily I have another pair (albeit not nearly as comfortable) to last me until I can buy new ones in the States. All in all it was one of the more crazy nights of my life. Kazakhstan never ceases to amaze.

                On another note my birthday is in a couple of weeks and I am traveling to help out another volunteer with a cultural camp thing for her village. A bunch of great people will be there and it will be good to celebrate my birthday with friends I don’t get to see too often. Also it will be Cinco de Mayo and I have been promised tacos.

                I got a package from my parents which had an E-book reader and an amazing Coheed and Cambria concert set package. Coheed is basically the best music group ever so if you don’t know about them you might want to educate yourself. The ebook reader has also changed my life. Welcome to the future. Thanks Mom and Dad!

This entry is officially dunzo.

Yours Drewly

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Break '09 or Drew Goes Crazy with Parenthetical Asides or Don't Mess with Texas

Well last Tuesday I got back from Spring Break Kazakhstan ’09 and I have to say it exceeded my expectations. The plan was to go to Shymkent for Naurys (Kazakh New Year) and hang out with some volunteers for a few days before moving on to Almaty for a Peace Corps conference. I was really excited about this if for no other reason than I was going south and was promised warmer climes. The night before we left I gleefully packed T-shirts, a hoodie, my Pumas and everything I needed for two weeks into one backpack. I was trying to simplify and not have to worry about a ton of bags while travelling all over south Kaz, in retrospect this was a mistake.

Nota Bene: There are two ways to get to Shymkent from my town of Zhezkazgan.
1: You can take a 40ish hour train ride from Zhez to Karaganda to Almaty or Shymkent.
2: You can take an 8-14 hour bus ride from Zhez south to Kyzlorda and then an 8-10 hour bus/train to Shymkent.

I’ll let you guess which one I decided to take.

If you guessed option 2, you just won a year’s supply of kumis.

Now, I’ve grown accustomed to certain liberal smattering of hyperbole in my conversations with locals around my town, so when I was told on numerous occasions that the road from Zhez to Kyz was “the worst road in Kazakhstan” I took it to mean that I would be mildly inconvenienced during the trip. I knew it wasn’t going to be the cushiest means of transport, but Jamie and I were feeling adventurous and are fans of taking the quickest route possible.
So we arrived at the bus station at 7AM to jockey for tickets (can’t buy tickets in advance for private minibuses evidently) with my host dad Mukhtar to make sure we were able to get on the bus/van/marshrutka. As we waited for the bus to leave, the final snow of the season began to fall and I was anxious to get out of town and see the first signs of nascent spring. When the bus left the station we spent about 4 minutes on actual road and then immediately went “off-roading” on the long stretch of steppenroad to Kyzlorda. The best description of this “highway” was given by one of my English club students who said “it’s not a road, it’s a direction” and this is more than apt. For about 4 hours we bumped and sloshed through a mud slush mixture that wracked the 10 or so passengers back and forth through the bus. You really couldn’t even look at the road ahead without being filled with a pervasive sense of dread. After those four hours, the unimaginable happened… our bus slid off the side of the road into a steep ice ditch that nearly flipped us over. Now I invite you to remember that I brought zero winter clothes and am wearing my cloth Pumas.

At this point dear reader I would like to paint you a picture of the steppe. I’ve been in the southwestern Badlands of America. I’ve been through Texas (which in my opinion is one of the most boring states in our contiguous 48). I’ve seen some grim shit, but nothing, nothing compares to the sheer desolation and stark lifelessness of the steppe (I hope I’m not steppen on any toes here). Imagine being able to see for miles in every direction yet finding nothing worth looking at. There are no towns on the steppe, there are no casual passersby, there are no animals or plants save shrub brush. So when I was presented with the situation of being stranded in the middle of the steppe (still winter here) with no food or water and completely unequipped to handle the elements for any length of time, I immediately began to ponder my own mortality and wondered how Jamie would taste cooked over a shrub fire (I still think it was a reasonable assumption that they would have killed and eaten the Americans first and since I have slightly less meat on my bones, Jamie would have been the obvious first choice). Luckily the menfolk were able to push the bus out of ice and mud (nearly destroying my shoes in the process) and we lost about 30 minutes on the trip. I still lay awake some nights wondering what would have happened had the bus actually flipped and stranded us in that land God forgot.
I realize I’m being verbose, but I really want to instill that initial panic in you. I’ll nutshell some things from this point on. Jamie got some pictures that are worth thousands of my words so I’ll either link his blog or steal them from him and let you see what I am talking about (After writing I realized Jamie has posted about this already so if you want pictures go to the list of other blogs on the right and check out Kokpar and Carnivores).

Let’s see, after our near death experience we made it to a halfway café that was really someone’s house that they just fed travelers at. This place was ridiculous, they had goats that seemed to provide their only form of sustenance and I ate one of them in a soup they made. We made friends with this guy who drank an entire GLASS of vodka in one gulp and then ordered another (editor’s note: It was really good vodka). This guy proved to be a valuable friend as he somehow procured sold-out train tickets for us from Kyz to Shymkent. I got a decent night’s sleep in coupe on the way to Shym and we arrived in the morning battle worn and shell-shocked.
We got into Shymkent on a Thursday morning and hung out with the volunteers that were already there and spent the next couple of days watching others trickle in. Before I got to Shymkent my friends and host fam put the fear of God in me that Shymkent was “the Texas of Kazakhstan” and that I shouldn’t even speak Russian because I would get beat up, so I was expecting a crappier version of Texas (Texas already being pretty crappy in my estimation). Turns out it is my new favorite Kazakh city. It’s actually pretty and has some amazing and cheap restaurants. I ate pizza, I ate hamburgers, I ate nothing even resembling the 10 requisite Kazakh dishes that I have been eating for the past 7 months. It was wonderful. One day we went to this awesome café and I ate a chocolate lava cake that actually made me start crying. It tasted like America and culinary ingenuity. I had my first banya since I’ve been in Zhez too and it was great to sweat myself clean and be beaten with birch branches again. The night after the banya we went to a night club and danced a lot. There were 2 fights among the local guys, but no Americans were harmed in the making of this Naurys. The coup de gras however was Naurys day when we went to the stadium to watch Kokpar.

I’ve probably described Kokpar, but it’s the national game where two teams are on horseback and fight over a decapitated goat carcass, trying to throw said carcass into their stone goal. It’s definitely not PETA approved. There are also some pregames where a guy and girl race on horse down a track and the guy tries to kiss the girl before she reaches the finish line and if he doesn’t, she gets to chase him back and whip him. There was also some good ol’ fashioned horseback wrasslin’ Tayhaw style Yee-Haw! It would have been perfect had it not started raining so I was all cold and wet and had to leave before the end of the Kokpar match. Really if you watch 5 minutes of the game you’ve seen it all anyway.
Basically Shymkent was awesome and it was a great break.

Afterwards, most of us took a bus to Almaty and got ready for the conference. I took a side trip to my training village Kaskelen to visit my first host family. As I walked into my old house I kept thinking of that quote “you can never go home again” and thought how different everything looked after living in Kaz for 4 more months. My host mom was at work so I spent some time with Tima and Saniya and watched the Russian dubbed version of “Bruce Almighty” before paka-ing (paka means “bye” or “later”).

I went to my host mom’s café and we sat down and talked for about 30 minutes. This doesn’t sound that impressive, but when I left Kask, I had never had a real conversation with my host mom. Saniya was always a dutiful translator and my Russian was really awful so the two of us never talked much without an intermediary. How under these conditions we both grew to love each other so much, I am still questioning. We talked about our lives, now separate and she cried a bit and I fought some off myself.

When I first got here I wrote about how one of the hardest things to deal with is the knowledge that no one loves me in this country. It was a sad but true fact of the time. Somehow, in the strangest way, I have made a familial connection with my host mom and it’s just a beautiful and surprising outcome of my Peace Corps experience. I am happy to say now that someone in Kazakhstan does indeed love me and that small fact makes everything I am doing here worth it.

On a sadder note, I found out my cat, Mike, had died/ran away. He was a good cat. R.I.P Poor Mike.

Okay this entry is just getting unmanageable, I congratulate you if you have made it this far and I’ll reward you with brevity.

Had a 5 day conference in Almaty. It was good and really renewing. I got my last Hepatitis shot (which I swear I got in America and now think I’m so immune that I actually cure people of Hep when they walk by me). I also had a language test and probably went up a level. I also learned some great Russian slang like “superpooper” (just roll the R’s) which means like fancy-schmancy or something. I also got some good ideas for secondary projects like a grant for getting better books and maybe starting a health week that will teach about HIV/AIDS and germ theory (a noted point of contention between me and Kazakh society). I also made friends with some vols I didn’t know as well and now we are all deepest bros.

On Sun I left and took the 36 hour train ride back to Zhez and got home feeling pretty good. Things got even better though, because I went to the post office and found I had 3 PACKAGES waiting for me. It was better than Christmas! Here’s where I stop to thank the Coradazzi’s and my parents and the Tribe. Thanks for the SI swimsuit edition, food, music, and the camera. I am currently eating Cheeze-its and Jellybeans, does it get more American than that? Seriously though, I couldn’t have asked for better friends and family. I can’t thank you all enough.
It’s also Spring here now. The snow as I left Zhez proved the be the last labor pain of winter birthing spring and now everything is dusty and dry and will hopefully start turning green soon.

It’s amazing how much more I appreciate the changing of the seasons now, but that, my friends, is a story for another entry. Until our next meeting.