Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why We Walk

The Pleasures of a Village Stroll


Why We Should Move to Fremont

The average American family owns between two and three cars, though this number is declining in the face of the recent CRIZIS (as it is referred to in Kazakhstan, accompanied by a sympathetic nod). In your typical Kazakhstan village less than a quarter of families own cars, and many of those are old and dented Soviet models on their last legs. Instead of burning a hole in the ozone and spewing motor oil into streams and rivers, Kazakhstani’s get about mostly by foot.

I realize that foot travel is not possible for the typical suburbanite American, of which about half of Americans are a part. This is a tragedy, as foot travel has many advantages, the most obvious being environmental. It is commonly known that Al Gore discovered global warming and got a Nobel Prize for trying to light a fire under our asses. This has led many families to rid themselves of excess cars and become a single car household, but until we get out of the suburbs, we’ll be constricted to evening strolls around the block. These, however, lack the charm of stray dogs chasing you with hungry eyes and fierce barks which you find in a village.

As an aside, I want to have a small say about suburban life. While it can seem “pastoral” and great for raising kids, the homogenizing nature of suburbs is really a detriment to society. The multicultural melting pot that urban living can offer enriches children and offers them a world view that is clearly missing from life on the outside. You can get the small village feel in a rich and diverse city block, and as the green movement continues, there will be greater access to open spaces within the jungle.

Fresh air could be the one benefit of suburban life, and it is found readily (and bragged about readily) in villages. You aren’t choked in by smog and pollution. Here, again, however, Al Gore is saving the day by leading us towards clean energy and green manufacturing. It may not have taken hold yet, but given time, the air in the industrial neighborhood of Seattle could be as refreshing as Upland Green. In addition, getting outside provides the average person (read – obese lardo) some much needed exercise. Just the daily walk to and from work can start to rim off those unsightly chins and spare tires. Moving on.

People are the heart and soul of a village. In a walk to work you often pass such characters as the early morning drunk, the shop lady and the goose herder. If you were to breeze past in a car, you would be denied the magic of these people as they stagger, strut and steer through the streets. In a world where email and facebook (or blogs, for that matter) are not a household word, chance meetings in the street are the best method of passing on the news or latest gossip.

You won’t find the joke of the week in your inbox in a Kazakhstan village, but you might run into your acquaintance from the local butcher’s who has a new one to tell, even if you can’t understand it due to the colloquial language and odd sense of humor of the locals. This is the greatest benefit of walking your way around.

Walking about, and the slow speed of life here, is one of the greatest pleasures I’ve derived from my time here. Returning to the high speed, car obsessed world of America I’m sure will lead to me reminiscing about my idyllic life here, just as sure that my ruminations will drive you all nuts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sliced Bread: Not Just a Cute Metaphor

In the interest of doing more writing, I now present, for your reading pleasure, the first of many articles about the little things in Kazakhstan. I hope you find it stimulating and enlightening.

Sliced Bread: Not Just a Cute Metaphor

Americans who have never lived abroad take so much for granted. Our cars, internet connections, clean water and so much more. Among these is an item elegant in its simplicity which makes our lives so much better. I am, of course, talking about sliced bread.

Few of us think, when making a sandwich, realize the benefits of having bread pre-sliced for us, wrapped up in plastic that keeps it fresh and soft. In Kazakhstan, however, that is a luxury few people can afford. Our bread is bought in a large, crusty loaf. It is usually baked in a local bakery and each loaf is individual, with its own flaws and quirks.

When we want French toast, we just beat some eggs and add a few other ingredients, and then pull a couple slices from the plastic wrap and fry them up. In Kazakhstan, we must draw the knife across the bread in order to enjoy the sweet cinnamony taste our beret wearing brothers across the Atlantic bestowed on us.

Few Americans know the frustration of not being able to slice those thin pieces of bread off the loaf, perfect for surrounding a large, succulent stack of roast beef, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise. We don’t understand that in Kazakhstan, there are no sandwiches because the bread makes the meal too large to stuff in our mouths.

We can’t comprehend the pain of watching your bread tear and rip from a dull knife that prevents you from making that ideal piece of toast. No, we Americans greedily slather on the butter and thick cuts of cheese that form the core of a grilled cheese sandwich without a thought to how hard it would be to melt that cheese evenly if it were placed on a piece of bread more than a quarter inch thick.

The next time you make a sandwich or a piece of toast, be it French or otherwise, I hope you think of all the poor children who will never know the beauty of a sack lunch with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or tomato soup and grilled cheese on a cold winter day. Revel in the divine symmetry of your bread slices, but don’t forget your poor Central Asian brothers who must slice their own.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Keep Your Friends Close...

For those that do not know, I was on the verge of being sent home two months early. For the past three weeks I have been awaiting a decision from the local village government about whether or not I should be allowed to continue teaching in their schools. This action came about through no fault of mine, though it was set in motion by a mistake I made several months ago. I wrote an article that explained the situation and resulting problems for the Peace Corps Kazakhstan newsletter/literary journal, and I thought I would share it all with you.

Making Friends in Kazakhstan: A Cautionary Tale

By Jeff Whitehill

Some months ago I was the victim of a crime. I had some valuables stolen out of my apartment by some people I thought were nice. I was lonely and depressed and thought maybe I had found some new friends. Though my possessions were returned to me and the criminals were locked up, the situation became progressively worse in my village. I am providing this tale to all of you in hopes that you can learn from my mistakes. Pay heed, for this is a story of betrayal and deceit.

I play soccer fairly regularly with a group of men during the summer. I’ve been playing various sports with them for the past two years and they were all friendly and welcoming. This particular Wednesday, however, was not an ordinary day. I arrived at the school where the game was usually played to find a group of young men, about my age, loitering about. They were dressed to play, but none of the regulars were there. I walked up and changed into my cleats, thinking that the regulars were all running late, per usual.

The young men struck up a conversation with me and what followed was typical of most conversations between young men. Firstly we talked about soccer, my cleats etc. We then quickly progressed to girls and similar “serious” topics. After a few minutes some more young men arrived, toting a box. We all squatted in a circle, and I was introduced to the new comers as their new American friend. They produced from this box a large collection of beers, which they passed around the group.

Seeing as I was squatting on the edge of a soccer field next to a secondary school, I declined the beer. I declined many times, actually. The correct move would have been to excuse myself from the group and head home, but I was enjoying the company. Remember: I’m lonely.

One member of the circle, a squirrelly little Kazakh man, fell in love with my Washington Huskies hat. He wanted it as a gift, and became quite vehement when I refused to part with it. As a means of consoling him, I offered him any of several other hats I had, promising to bring them to the next game so he could look over them and choose his favorite. He proposed that we go to my apartment and get one now. After much pressure, I caved like a wet noodle and I led a small group of four “friends” back to my apartment to get hats and drink some tea.

Once at the apartment my new “friends” became fascinated with everything I owned. They looked at my pictures on my wall, played my guitar, looked through my books and gazed longingly at my iPod. We eventually made it into the kitchen where I brewed the tea. While we waited, they wandered about a bit; some going to smoke on the balcony, others going to the bathroom or returning to my living room. Once the tea was brewed we sat down and drank a cup. I then gave out my hats, and we said goodbye.

As soon as they left I looked about my apartment and noticed several expensive items missing. I’ll cut to the chase at this point, because the absurd details of dealing with the police is something many people are familiar with. I got my things back, more or less in working order, and the guys were caught. I thought the problem was settled, but it was only just beginning.

I returned from a summer camp in mid August to find out an article had been written about me in the local paper claiming I had gotten drunk with these boys, invited them to my apartment to imbibe some more vodka and “various other spirits,” and only after we were very drunk did they steal my things. The article said I was a bad influence and I shouldn’t be teaching the local youth. Like the great Richard Nixon, I had fallen victim to a liberal media out to destroy my reputation.

The local Raion took this article as canon and called Peace Corps to have me removed. Peace Corps took my side; they made a trip to visit the Raion, met with the Deputy Akim and followed up with a strong letter. Though we have the facts, according to the police report, on our side and every single person I know claims this article couldn’t be the truth, the government seemed convinced of my wrongness and disreputableness. As the letter from Peace Corps said, “We find it very strange that an American Volunteer, who is in Kazakhstan to help students learn English, should be victimized by local hooligans and then be accused as if he committed a crime himself." We all know, however, that logic is not always a factor in such decisions.

Not everybody in this country values our work or desires the presence of Peace Corps. There are a few people who would love nothing more than to discredit our work, as you can infer from a line in the letter to the newspaper from a so-called concerned citizen. “The Law-enforcement institution closed this criminal case very easily, but it suggested some ideas… Is it at all possible that all PCVs associate, without embarrassment, with such company? And what can such a teacher teach our kids, in addition to English?”

The actions of one volunteer reflect on all of us, and “someone” – I think we all know who - was using this situation to create the idea that all volunteers could be disreputable people, tainting their children with our improper action.

In the end, the truth set me free. The Raion and Akimat read the Peace Corps letter, reviewed the police report, which confirmed my story, and could not deny that I was, in fact, a stand up guy. The Akim himself gave me permission to stay until the end of my service. I was happy and grateful for this rational end to the problem.

It was a relief to know I would not be leaving my community under these circumstances. Now I have a chance to make sure I leave a lasting impression of goodwill, hard work and honesty with my community. This whole situation helped me to realize I am not satisfied with what I have accomplished here, and will strive to do more in my community.

My wish is that you can learn from my lesson and be very careful who you associate with, however briefly. Don’t allow people to take advantage of your kindness, generosity or naivety, as happened in my case. There are plenty of good people to befriend in Kazakhstan, they just aren’t found on the side of a soccer field drinking beer.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Panicked Buildup to America

It's all coming to an end. I've been in Kazakhstan for two years now. I have less than three months left before I am released and start toward home. It seems an appropriate time to do some reflection.

Has my service been exceptional and everything I wanted it to be? No. But has it been good, fun and fulfilling? Yes. I've second guessed my decision to join Peace Corps, but I believe the experience has been positive. I've taken a lot away from my time here: learning a bit about the world but even more about myself. In no other program can you get the same experience of living within a community, and becoming a part of it, than in Peace Corps.

I feel that a lot of the work I do is futile. The school children are not really learning much English. They aren't interested in foreign languages. Sometimes I think that this is through some fault of my own. Then I remember what I was like during High School, and how much attention I paid during German class. I like to think I've at least provided a good role model for the young men at school and left a lasting impression on the people I've met.

I had a nightmare the other night. I was home, in my old bedroom, and I was holding the door closed so none of my family could come in. I was feeling lost and apart from everybody. Since that dream, a sort of dread has begun to grow in me about what I will do with myself once I'm back. How I will go from being a local celebrity to another face in the crowd? How will I go from a setting where I'm experiencing something new almost daily, challenging myself and growing to the daily grind and typical mid-20's lifestyle?

On top of that, how will I find a job? What sort of career am I actually interested in? It's a lot to consider, and will likely lead to minor panic attacks as my Close of Service date (Nov. 6th) approaches. The closer I come to leaving, the more worried I will grow, I'm sure. I have friends, both Americans and locals, that I feel like I will be seeing for the last time. Leaving America to come here, I had the knowledge that in two or three years I would see them all again. Now, it's unlikely I will make the trip out here again, unless I find a job that will pay me to. How do you say goodbye for the last time?

All of these questions run through my head every day, and every night as I wait for sleep to overtake me and bring me that much closer to all of you back home. I'm immensely excited for coming home. The things I will do, people I will get to see and get to know again. Sometimes it makes it hard to remain here, sitting in my apartment or going to school. But once the fairy tale wears off and I've been home for a month or two, it'll be hard.

Sort of a morose blog post. I hate to leave all of you on such a down note. Summer has been slow though, and not post-worthy has happened. My days are filled with running, internet, tv and books. I visit some folks, I got to do a little bit of travel that was relaxing and very welcome. School will begin in about a month, at which point time will race by and before I know it, I'll be home. I'm savoring my remaining time here. It's been great, and the departure will be very bitter sweet.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ultimate Reloaded

The week went off more or less hitchless. A few hiccups, but nothing that truly mattered went catastrophically wrong. I am, of course, speaking of Ultimate Zhelezinka: Frisbee Camp 2009 (A title I came up with mid camp).

Nora Williams, volunteer legend of Zhelezinka, organized this camp last year and I was little more than an innocent bystander caught in her wake as she created dozens of teen "Ultamites." This year it was my turn. I decided to up the ante and work for 60 children, 15 more than last year. I won't bore you with the planning stages because, frankly, they bored me as well.

When the time came for the camp to begin, Zhelezinka was descended upon by five additional Americans who crowded into my cozy apartment and brought with them an arsenal of discs, energy and Americana. Camp began with about fifteen children standing outside my school swatting at bugs and wondering when we'd get on with it. We dragged them inside, ran through an abbreviated version of last years opening ceremony, since there were few people of interest in attendance to impress, then high-tailed it for the field.

Frankly, the details of the camp aren't all that exciting. Mornings were filled with demonstrations and training in the techniques of Ultimate: throwing, catching, cheering and running around, and afternoons were full of games or other activities. I will give you my top ten highlights of the week, some of which include out-of-camp antics.

Number 10: A six level card house built by the talented Mr. Fledder-Johan, with structural support provided by my foot.

Number 9: Rain dances and huddling in metal shacks waiting for the thunderstorm to pass directly overhead.

Number 8: Frisbee golf with the final target being an unsuspecting Aaron "Arboose" Hueth

Number 7: Ice cream and Coke floats

Number 6: Tie-Dye shirts and a camp banner. This was the favorite activity outside of actual Ultimate. The kids wanted to know when we would do them. There was some confusion, because I thought our local sports deparment of the education center was going to donate shirts for us to paint. When I showed up to get the shirts, they wanted to make sure I would return all 23 of the shirts I was taking. I said we had planned on painting them. Apparently they hadn't heard me the first several times I had mentioned that part, and it was a no go. Luckily, I had enough shirts left from least year that the kids could each get one, though some volunteers were left without one.

Number 5: S'mores and Shashlik on our final night. "Slav" pulled off a great feast and marshmellows were a highlight for a culture that considers pure sugar an essential part of each meal.

Number 4: The returning children from last years camp being pros already and improving greatly on their skill. Honestly, they were really good this year and defintely remembered a lot of what they had learned from last year, a testament to the success of the camp run by Nora and hope for future itereations of the camp.

Number 3: The amazing dinners cooked every night by various chefs. Meals included pancakes loaded with apples, chocoalte, bananas, strawberry syrup, powedered sugar, tacos!, and plof.

Number 2: Late night games of Oh, hell!" filled with anger, surprise and hilarity. It's a great card game, for those of you who don't know, where you have to try to make a bid and rarely manage to. I, the all-star, managed to get the all time highest single game score and still come dead last in the overall, end of the week, average score.

Number 1: America vs. Zhelezinka end of camp game. Five or six of us volunteers took on 15-20 children in the traditional Ultimate game to conclude camp. Last year it was a crushing by America. This year, the kids kept their own and brought the game to a 4-4 tie using a "mob" technique that left three or more kids on every volunteer. We did America proud, however, and scored the final goal and called it game. We'll see how America does next year though, when most of the original camp leaders are back in America.

So that was camp, and it was a load of fun. The kids loved it and want to know when we'll be playing more. The volunteers also had a blast. My apartment barely survived the invasion and after a couple hours of cleaning, was more or less back in order. Summer is just beginning and the good times will continue on. In a short while there will probably be another post, of more or less general musings as my service is winding to a close. It's hard to imagine I only have four more months left here. Bittersweet.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

King of My Own Castle

Well, here I am. Sitting in my apartment. Typing a blog on the internet in real time. Yes, you read that correctly. I am on the internet in my own apartment. On May 1st I packed up my boxes, said goodbye to my third host family and traveled twenty minutes across town (3 minutes by taxi) to my new pad. It's on the second floor of the only three story apartment building in Zhelezinka, so everybody knows where I live when I tell them "The 3 storier." My apartment consists of a spacious living room, a bedroom and a small kitchen. There is a bathroom (more on that later) and an entry way for taking off shoes and hanging up coats, plus a small, glassed in balcony that is currently overrun by drying underwear (hand washing is not fun).

After a couple days I had unpacked my boxes and suitcases, arranged my books on the window sill and hung pictures up on my walls. I rearranged some furniture in the living room, put new sheets on my bed and washed all the pots and pans that had been left for me. One huge benefit of this apartment is all the furniture and most of the dishes were left behind. I have barely bought a thing besides a sharper knife, bedding and hand towels. Megan came over for the first evening and we cooked pelmini, my favorite local dish. Jane came the next day to keep me company.

On Saturday some men from my school came by to do some work on my toilet that supposidly didn't work because of a bad tank. They hooked it up, put a bucket under the place it dripped and said they'd come back later with a new tank that wouldn't drip. That's when things started to go wrong. Sunday morning at 7 am I woke up to a pounding on my door. I enquired who it was and the reply came that it was a neighbor. She commanded me to open the door. Me being a obliging American, I turned the key and opened the door. I was nearly trampled by the small Kazakh woman who stormed in, screaming about a leaking ceiling. She charged into my bathroom to discover that it was flooded.

She ranted and raved at me until I finally pushed her out the door and called my landlady. She came hurrying over and saw the mess. She began mopping it up and blamed it on the workers from my school for hooking up a leaky toilet. I wasn't convinced that was the problem, since the leak persisted even after the toilet was unhooked and the tank drained.

The water got shut off after some time. It was a problem because the Soviets who built this apartment decided they could save money if they didn't put a shutoff valve in each apartment
but instead one for the entire building. So now all the neighbors were angry that the water had been shut off.

Over the next two weeks I was constantly hounded by my downstairs neighbor whose ceiling dripped whenever the water was turned on and other neighbors who wanted water. I, in turn, hounded my landlady, who assured me that she was working diligently on the problem. This turned out to not be the case. She didn't want to pay for this repair, so was pretending to get work done and really getting nowhere. No less than three different men came to look at the problem and all said the same thing: there is a pipe that is rotted and has to be replaced. Then nothing would happen.

After two weeks of no water, people were very angry. The water would occasionally get turned on and then the lady downstairs would race around until it was shut off again. I kept telling my neighbors that something would be done soon, and it rarely did. I missed a soccer game/tournament because I was sitting waiting for the plumbers that never came one Saturday. I developed a strong ability to yell in Russian as well. My neighbors came a few times yelling and telling me to do something, to call my landlady. She would yell for five minutes until I would become fed up and yell back that I can't do anything well she was yelling at me. I'd usher her out the door, getting angrier and angried (though I still empathized). Finally, the neighbor threatened to go to a judge and sue both me and my landlady about this. She ended up calling the director of my school.

I, Slave (my counterpart) and the vice-directors were called into a meeting with her. She wanted to know what was going on and what we were going to do about it. We explained it (Slava laying some of the blame at my feet for wanting to move out on my own) and she told us to get it
done now. Slava and a worker from the school ran off to get somebody who could replace the pipe.

The men came, they worked for a couple hours, and got it done. My landlady agreed to pay them for the work. They had to tear apart my bathroom a bit to get it done, but I didn't mind. Finally, the water was running, nothing was leaking and peace returned to the 3 storier. Lots of the neighbors came to watch the welder work and comment on it. I thanked them, and finally, after two weeks, relaxed and let the stress leave my body.

After that, I got internet hooked up. Now I'm online entirely too much. Even with all the problems and stress, I'm still very happy to have moved out, I like this apartment and I think my remaining time will pass quickly and happily.

In other areas of life, things are good too. School is over officially tomorrow. I have a frisbee
camp coming up in a couple weeks with five volunteers coming from out of town to help run it. I've got plans to do some work with the local hospital that hopefully I can begin on now that things are settled in my apartment. Things with the girlfriend are good, especially now that we don't have to impose on anybody if she comes to visit. I've got books to read, I'm cooking my own meals (which is nice because it fills up some of my free time that was incredibly boring before). Life is good.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

the update

People have been complaining about the snow adn teh cold and the wind for months now. So what do they do once it gets warm? Move into the shade.

The snow is finally all gone, the cold, biting wind has turned into warm, dusty wind and life is moving along according to some sort of plan, I'm sure. I am soon moving into my own apartment after over eighteen months of living with host families that feed and shelter me. There are many skeptics out there that believe I will go crying back to a host family in less than a month because men are incapable of cooking, cleaning and washing without somebody to guide them through it. I've assured the many people that I did live without my parents or anybody else to look after me for two years while I was in college (though mommy was always there to tell me what spin cycle to put my clothes on).

The apartment is definitely the most exciting thing for me personally right now. It's two rooms, a kitchen and a toilet. No shower, no banya, so washign myself will not be as easy as before. I will manage to afford internet and food at the same time (though time with one will have to be sacrificed for the other, and I think we know which one will win out). I move at the end of the month, if not sooner, and at this point teh anticipation keeps me up at night. I've always been that way, unable to stand the wait.

Other news, Jane took me to a Kazakh wedding, which was somethign I've been wanting to do for a long time. It turns out it's not so different from an American wedding. It started with a ceremony at the mosque which was in two languages, neither of which I understood, but I got the main idea being about love and committment to each other. We traveled to the family's house, where sixteen extended family members all live under one roof, though considering Kazakhs don't have the same temperance as the Brady Bunch, I imagine it was more like an insane asylum than a home. We left the group for a few hours and met them again for the reception that night.

Kazakh receptions again resemble American ones, except in two areas. The first is the importance of food, which is served all night long, with three main dishes that everybody sits down to stuff their faces with. They then get up and dance, preparing themselves for another round. In addition, all through the night, toasts are given by every guest at least once. Some run long and windy, others (like those given by an American who'd never met the happy couple before) are terse but thoughtful. I would say the same amount of time is spent toasting as is dancing.

We managed to get out of there around 11 o'clock or midnight, about three hours earlier than most other guests would. I had talked with several people and came away with some valuable knowledge. One man informed that the world is a cycle and America is at fault for the current crisis, which means capitalism is going to collapse and socialism will return followed by communism, which was great for the people of the Soviet Union and will work well all thruoghotu the world. I became frustrated when I couldn't find the proper langauge to tell him how absurd his theories were. The second story that I enjoyed was from the emcee, who came to our table to talk. He told me and my fellow Americans that Kazakhstan is a place without boudnaries, so once you get here and realize what you've fallen into, you can't get out.

I'm going to keep the update to that. I don't know if there will be more frequent updates once I have internet at home, or if I'll still have nothing exciting to talk about.