Thursday, November 29, 2007

Things that Haven't Been In my Nose

It would seem important to talk about the new family I have moved in with, but in my excitement to talk about frozen boogers, I forgot to mention it, and a few other things that have happened since I’ve gotten here. Now that I’ve gotten boogers off the brain, I’m free to talk.
I am living with a Tatar family. A mother, daughter and son. The mother, Galiya, is divorced and stays at home most of the day, cooking etc. The daughter, Ramzea, is a young teacher at my school. She teaches chemistry, and this is apparently her second year. She is four days older than me (Sept. 12th). The brother, whose name I have yet to learn, is studying at the Pedigogical College in Pavlodar, to be a geography teacher. He is home rarely I understand, but we just celebrated his birthday, so he has been home all weekend.
The birthday celebration was the typical Kazakhstani event. There was plenty of food, family and vodka. I ate my share of food and drank my toasts of vodka, which is getting easier every time (maybe that’s not a good thing). Anyway, my host moms brother and sister were there with their families, three young daughters. They were entertaining, saying they would take charge of teaching me Kazakh, which they study in school, and their parents speak some too. They are around the ages of 8-10, and a 13 year old daughter who is in one of my 8th grade classes apparently. It turns out that my other option for a family had been my current host-moms brother and sister-in-law, along with the two of the girls. I guess I’ll still be seeing plenty of them.
I always enjoy when families get together because the conversation is usually interesting, even when I don’t understand much. I try to absorb. The women are all very talkative while the men are quiet, especially my host brother. After all the toasts went around he stood to say his thanks, which amounted to a few words of his own, then his aunt feeding him the things he should say. It was pretty entertaining and I think this family will also be a lot of fun.
I also have an “adopted” host sister, Julie, who is Ramzea’s (remember my sister) best friend. She is over fairly often and is a lot of fun. We’ve played cards some and she likes to chat, so she’s been helping me to speak a bit more and practice my Russian. Apparently I don’t speak enough for them, which I think is just how I am usually. They think I should do a lot more speaking in order to practice what I’ve learned (which makes a bit of sense I suppose). I’m working on it, but I need to do some better independent study to expand my vocabulary. I can listen in to conversations, but without any context I have a hard time learning what they are talking about, then using some of it myself later.
My home is pretty small. There is a narrow kitchen, a central hallway/room, my bedroom across from the kitchen, a living room with a couch, two chairs and a massive cabinet, an entryway where the shoes, coats etc go, a heating room where water is heated, the sink (no running water) and the oven used to heat the coal that warms the house is. Finally, there is some sort of long closet which I think is also used for laundry. It’s behind a curtain and I’m not entirely what’s there, I haven’t looked too closely. We have a yard that in the spring and summer looks like it’ll be quite the garden, then behind another fence is the woodpile, the geese and the outhouse. There are some outer buildings, one of which has stacks of firewood, another has a large amount of coal and I’m not sure what’s in the other two. I live a very short walk from the school, which I can see from my front gate. I’m kitty corner across town from Nora (Hi Nora’s parents), and that walk only takes about 15 minutes. Not a big place really.
(Writing this a few days later after the rest of the stuff). I did my walking tour of the town because Peace Corps wants a map of the village in case they have to come find me. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to get to the main places in town now. It was pretty interesting. I walked around for the better part of two hours. I apparently missed the hospital, but I can get out there again if I need to. I found all three schools, the main shopping stuff, a coal factory thing, etc etc. It’s pretty interesting, the town isn’t all that huge. I live in the corner of it though, so I’m pretty far from everything.
I’ve been pretty busy the last couple days, which has been great. For a few days I was spending a lot of time playing games on my computer and I felt like I was hiding in my room. The last few days though I’ve gone and visited family, played volleyball, taught late classes, and today I had adult English Club and then visited my counterparts family. Slava’s wife, Tanya, is a lot of fun. She’s a mom now and all, but she’s definitely still young at heart, and she loves to play cards. We played for awhile, and I finished 5-7-2. Not too bad, but I was up 4-2 at one point. She wants to make sure I come again for more cards, and I assured her I will.
Adult English Club was fun, there were only three people. Two teachers from my school and a man who Slava was giving private lessons too that I had met earlier. He’s the dentist in town and has a very nice house. If you remember in a past installment I mentioned a two story house in town. It’s his, and the bottom floor is his clinic. Anyway, they all knew a little bit. We went through greetings and introductions, started some alphabet, then asked and answered questions after that. They want to read some comics, since they are pretty simple English. Parents, it’d be cool if you could send one or two of my Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield comics. They’re in a box somewhere. (I’m a fan of Scientific Process Goes Boink! And Two-headed Deranged Mutant Snowman). I’m excited for more adult English clubs, they’re pretty easy to teach and I have more freedom. There’re no tests, so I don’t have to follow a curriculum.
More volleyball, by the way. Last night there was a record turnout I think. Over 20 players, and maybe half as many watchers. When I showed up I was afraid it was a tournament or something. Anyway, I got on a team with only one guy I knew from before. Most were friendly, except for the one intense guy that was freaking out if there were some mistakes late in the game. We won three in a row though, until we finally lost. One of our games was really epic, with a late comeback by my team then a fierce battle, ending something like 28-26 us. (25 to win). I’m enjoying it, and definitely getting better. The guys are friendly and it’s a lot of fun when the games get intense like that.
Other events so far: ice fishing! This guy has gone ice fishing. It’s not the most exciting event. I went with Sasha, the military instructor at my school, and two of his friends, Sergei and other guy. We walked out onto the frozen river (frozen in November mind you) drilled four or five holes, put some sort of fish food in them, plopped down stools and sat there. Sasha showed me how to put the worms on the hook, how to watch for the cork to bob, and how to yank out the line. It’s not too complicated. About 20 seconds into the fishing I saw a bob, yanked the line and had a fish about 6-8 inches long. I thought, “at this rate I will clean out the entire river of fish in no time!”
I apparently didn’t have the process entirely figured out however. With Sasha’s help I had five or six fish pretty quickly. Then it slowed down, since I was putting the worms on wrong, wasn’t setting the hook when I yanked the line up right, and I was getting frustrated. It didn’t help that every time I had to pull the line up to add a worm or grab a fish, my gloves had to come off. It was cold. Soon I was dreading the bobbing of the line when a fish was hooked. My fingers and toes were getting very cold and I bitterly wanted to head back inside.
3 hours went by like this, and though I was enjoying the idea of what I was doing, the reality was cold and I was about ready to be done. Sasha came over, handed me a bag, and I knew it was done. I scooped up the pitiful dozen fish I had caught, looked at Sasha bag that had to have over 30 fish in it, and headed for the car. I did enjoy it though, I just needed an extra pair of socks for my toes, and to be faster at getting the worm on the hook. I told them I would go again. I was also told by Slava, my counterpart, that the reason I was so cold was because they weren’t drinking. An interesting idea, but I wasn’t looking to get buzzed at 9 am in the morning.
I’m getting comfortable in my home now, not sure if I mentioned that already. My room is getting all set up. I have my cup full of pens now, pictures lining my bookcase of all you guys, everything in its place. It’s feeling more homely now, which is something my room in Kaskelen didn’t have. I felt since I was there only temporarily I shouldn’t put up tons of stuff. It’s a helpful thing to feel really comfortable here. I can retreat when I’m getting frustrated or homesick or just plain grumpy, and since this is where I’ll be making lesson material and studying and playing on my computer, I’ll have you guys around me the whole time. There’s some pretty good pictures. Superbowl 40 (it’s not all bad memories from there), camping with the guys, Alex’s birthday, Huckleberry Picking, Safeco, Kayaking and plenty of the Family. I think I’ll start a collection of Addison pictures as she gets older. When I was at my CP (counterparts) house tonight, I kept thinking of what a little terror Addison will probably be in about 6 months when she’s running around tearing up Randy and Ellie’s condo. Good Luck you two, I’m sure you’re going to love it.
Another, shorter, story involving the cold. School has been cancelled two days in a row now, likely it will be a third by the time I post this, because the heating in our school hasn’t been working and it’s too cold to teach lessons. This is still in November!!! It’s going to get colder, much colder. When it was 0 degrees Celsius out, I was told it was a warm day. It’s gonna take some getting used to I think. Anyway, that’s it for this post. Oh, no its not.
Nora tells me that if you want to send me mail and you don’t want to bother writing in Russian or anything like that, it’s possible to just write:

Jeff Whitehill
Zhelezinka Village
Pavlodar Oblast
Kazakhstan, 140400

It got to Nora, so it will probably get to me too. Otherwise, email me and I will give you the full address.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Frozen Boogers

So I thought maybe I should class this up, since I’ve discovered that more than just my family and friends are reading this blog now. People that maybe potentially I will ask for a job later, and they will say “Hey, aren’t you the frozen booger guy?” and I will have to answer that yes, in fact I am. But then I thought, what the hell, that just wouldn’t really be me. Okay, onto the booger story.
Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) said it best. “There’s nothing worse than frozen boogers.” Or something like that. Anyway, I think I will develop a new temperature scale, measured in Calvins. It will be based on the temperature boogers freeze at, which I would guess is around -10 Celsius or so. Anyway, my boogers have been freezing when I go outside, and it’s really not all that pleasant. Something to think about.

Just yesterday I had one of those epiphinous moments. I was walking away from Nora’s (you remember Nora, the Kaz 18 here) English Club which I had attended. I looked to my left at a beautiful sunset (5.30 pm) and thought “Holy cow, I’m in Kazakhstan. I’m teaching English.” As many people have told me, this is an incredibly unique experience. Even when volunteering you don’t often get as integrated or as grassroots as we do here in Peace Corps. So I guess what I’m saying is, Lucky Me! I thought I’d add that for anybody who was thinking I was struggling (I am, but it’s worth it).
On the train from Almaty to Zhelezinka, my village (I’m now an official volunteer by the way, and have moved permanently up into Siberia), we met some young students who attend a quad lingual school (Turkish, English, Russian, Kazakh) who were in Almaty competing in the Academic Olympiads (a big thing over here, I’ll try to learn more real info). They were competing in physics, but at least two of them spoke pretty good English so we (me and the four other volunteers going to my oblast) talked with them for an hour or so. They seemed interested in us and America. We talked music, some history, geography etc. It’s always good when you meet somebody interested in what you are doing and that wants to learn more. They seemed like bright kids and I imagine in a school like theirs they can do quite well.
A sadder story, somewhere between the train and the bus station I lost my wallet. It may have been stolen, but I think it probably fell out of a pocket somewhere. Who knows, anyway, it’s gone.
On the bus to Zhelezinka I also met a few good people. The first was a woman who was an English teacher in Pavlodar. She saw my confused look about what to do with my two giant bags after the man at the back of the bus closed the doors and said something in Russian to me. She got the rest of the people to make way so I could shove my bags up into the bus. They filled up the aisle in the back, but I guess it wasn’t really a problem. I clambered over things to get to the back and squeezed in next to an older man. Sadly, I still can’t get a handle on names, so I can’t tell you what these two people’s names were, but they’re good people.
The older man began making a couple jokes that I didn’t understand but people who heard seemed to like them. Then we started talking in Russian. He told me I was the first American he had ever met. He had met a man from England, but no Americans. He also kept asking if I was married. He seemed to think it was strange. Maybe he thought I was older than 23, I never told him how old I was. He proposed I marry the English teacher sitting next to me but she insisted she was married and seemed quite embarrassed by the questions. Other interesting things he told me was that the only beautiful people in America are in Hollywood, but in Kazakhstan they were everywhere. (Considering I was on a bus whose occupants were mostly middle aged and older women, I couldn’t whole heartedly agree).
At our one stop on the 3 hour trip to Zhelezinka the man led me off the bus, smoked a cigarette, offering me one. Then he asked if I wanted a beer (it was 10.30 in the morning). I said I didn’t have enough money (which was true, but not the actual reason I didn’t want a breakfast beer, don’t worry mom). He took me inside and bought a sprite, offering me a drink. Then we went back outside for a minute, then his nephew and niece took us back inside. They bought me a cup of chai and a samsa (sort of like a triangular hot pocket, no cheese). They were friendly and we talked a little then everybody piled back on the bus.
I got to Zhelezinka a little after noon, where Army man from the school (remember: Hey, Shtata Washington!) met me and gave me a lift to my host family’s house. I greeted my new family, brought in my bags and sat down for a lunch. My host mom is quite the gabber, and I understand about 20% of what she says. That afternoon Ramzea (my host sister) left for a week long seminar somewhere. I didn’t understand and thought she said she’d be gone until 5, but I guess maybe it was five days or something. Who knows? Anyway, now it’s just mom and me. She talked for about an hour after dinner the first night, with me contributing a comment when I understood what she was talking about. She’ll probably realize soon what exactly I don’t understand because I don’t have anything to say about it except “mmmhmmm. Interesna, ahhh, xopowo (read harasho = good). Anyway, it’s fun because there are not a whole lot of awkward silences at this point where we’re still adapting to each other.
My good byes to my first host family were a little rough. Vala (my mom) gave me a quick hug and then turned around, I think she was crying. The guys were guys, handshakes and one armed hugs. Karolina (my sister) held out a hug for about a minute, which made me feel very good and loved. I’m glad I had the same impression on them that they had on me. Karolina has told me a couple times to not forget them, and I have assured her equally that’s not remotely possible. I’ve said it all before, but this family meant so much to me when I came to a strange country, didn’t speak the language and was freaking out on a fairly regular basis. They were a good filler for my American family, and don’t worry guys, I miss you too and love and all of that good stuff. I’d love to have you here with me, but I like to know I can do it without you. So far so good.
School started the day after I got into town. I attended four classes, which were pretty good. There’s trouble kids, like everywhere. For about 10 minutes in the first class I was alone with the kids and two of them decided that meant they could talk all they wanted. I tried to warn them that Slava would hear about it, but either they didn’t understand or didn’t care (I’m guessing it was the understanding) and so at the end of the class they got 3’s (out of 5). And if that doesn’t sound bad, on a scale of 1-5, the lowest students ever get are 2’s. Grading is different here; teachers do not want to fail the students. It looks bad for the teachers if they have failing students. I don’t know if I’ve explained this, but basically there is no such thing as cheating. Tests and any other work are all group projects as answers are passed around the class in not quite suppressed whispers. Anyway, it can make it frustrating for those of us that grew up in strict cheat-and-fail classes.
I played volleyball Wednesday night with Nora and 10 other men from the village. Volleyball here is a national sport, which I didn’t really register on my way to play. I’m used to sand, a bunch of people that include the likes of Julie Bunger, Luigi and other “odd” characters. Now, I’m not so good myself, but I figured I could hold my own and not embarrass myself. Boy, was I wrong. The guys were all friendly, but they’re intense too. It was a friendly game, but watching them warm up (I’ve never warmed up for volleyball), I thought any mistake would put me immediately on the blacklist. So what did I do right off the bat…tripped into the net and got tangled up, completely destroying it as I fell to the floor…
Not really, but wouldn’t that be sad. No, I wasn’t looking when they served the first ball and it landed basically at my feet. In addition, it was served by Nora. It wasn’t a big deal I guess, they didn’t seem to mind to much, but I embarrassed myself. I persevered though and manage to get a point or two for my team out of 5 games. Now, I’m taller than just about everybody in this country, but my spikes were next to nothing. I don’t know how these guys do it, but they can slam the ball over the net with more force than a cannon. I would “try” to hit the spike when it came at me, but not really. I was more thankful that it hadn’t knocked my head off. Anyway, my team won 3-2, so I guess it was a success, and I was invited to come back on Friday, which I am doing. Go me.
That night…wait back up. My host sister left for a seminar in the city the day I showed up, so it’s just been me and my mom. Anyway, last night her best friend came over, another girl that works at the school. My mom and I hung out with her. I showed pictures again, everybody agrees that Addi is super cute, my parents are beautiful, and Randy and I could be twins (much to my dismay). Oh, and they think Lea is our sister, and me and my friends are crazy when they see the picture in the Superbowl regalia, complete with facepaint. Anyway, apparently I’m the youngest brother, since Julie (Yulie) has adopted me as well. Ramzea, my sister is four days older than me and Julie is about six months. After pictures we played some cards and drank some chai until they could tell I was falling asleep at the table (11.30 at night, class at 9 the next morning). It’s a fun family, especially when you include the extended and adopted family members.
This is getting written up on my laptop so it will be a few days installment before I get it online, but I will have pretty consistent internet access. Basically anytime I’m at school and want to make the effort to get online. Send those emails, letters are going to be much appreciated too, there’s something very heart warming about having a physical letter in my hands, and in Siberia, anything that warms me is good. Include pictures if you want, because those are maybe even more awesome. You can send letters to the Almaty address and they will be forwarded here to Zhelezinka. Then when I write back, I will include my new address. This is the address the PC really doesn’t want the terrorists to know, so I can’t put it online. You can also email me for it I suppose. Anyway, write to me because I like to know what people are up to.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Homesickness and other News

I miss all of you guys, quite a bit recently. I have been done teaching for over a week now, and I took my Russian test last weekend, so I have had a lot of free time to just hang around. So I have had lots of time to think, and look at all my old pictures. I've come to the conclusion that I miss everybody at home quite a bit, and it's no good when you have time to just dwell on these thoughts. I've been feeling pretty homesick as of late, but I think part of the problem is also that I'm leaving all my friends here in Kaskelen, and also my host-family who I've become incredibly attached too. It's amplifying the problem, and the thought of going off to my far away village without the vast support group I've developed here is pretty terrifying. They may only be a phone call or email away, but it's obviously not the same. Hopefully I can make some local friends quickly, and Nora will be able to put up with me while I'm there. I'm excited to get going on actual teaching in my school, but I've already said goodbye to a few friends and my teacher, which has not been easy. I made a couple toasts when we wer sitting around some meals last night, and I surprised myself by getting a tiny bit choked up. No tears, but that's how much these people have meant to me in my almost three months here already. So to any of them that may read this, or their parents, Jackie, Drew, Matthew, Kim, I couldn't have survived here without you. My host family was also a big part of my survival, I had doubts about Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, but they were a great influence and showed me how great the people are here. Indira, my teacher, had incredible patience in dealing with my early frustrations (and they were huge) and her perseverence has made me into a semi descent Russian speaker. The rest of the volunteers, including Daniel, Chelsea, Chrisconsin, Darkside Chris, Casey and Jessica more than otehhers, you were always great for a laugh and I enjoyed the bus rides to Hub Days and all the rest of the time we spent together, and look forward to seeing you all again in a few months.

My Russian test: Peace Corps has some sort of scale, I think it's an official sort of thing used by governments and whatnot. It is from 1-10, rating Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Superior, and then low medium and high in each of those categories. Peace Corps wanted us to get Novice high (OCAP was supposed to get Intermediate Low - they are the business developers). Well Matthew, Drew and I all got Intermediate Low, which we are very proud of. That basically means I am able to carry on a basic conversation in limited, slow and erroneous Russian with somebody patient enough to listen to me. This is pretty good. I can survive. At this point as well, our Russian I think will improve faster, and in the next few months I hope to be able to do a lot more. Anyway, kudos to me.

What else...oh yeah, I am now an official volunteer. I have been only a trainee, but on Friday we had the official swearing in ceremony where I had to promise to uphold the constitution and defend America from enemies etc etc. I hadn't realized we were going to have to say all that stuff, it was interesting, but now I guess I have some big responsibilites. The ambassador to Kazakhstan swore us in, which was cool, but my camera died so I couldn't get my picture with him, or with anybody else, or of anything there. So just imagine a small auditorium, kinda nice, filled with our families and people we have worked with. Rows of chairs with the volunteers up on stage, speeches by people in Russian and English, songs and slideshows (ours was the best song, Kazakhstan Living, if you remember) and then a big Repeat After Me. Afterwords was food and hugs and everything, most volunteers said goodbye to each other there. It was interesting, but nobody thought it was any sort of big change. Anyway, I can probably get pictures from other people, it'll just take some time.

That's about it, I'm going to get on a train in about 7 hours and head up to the frozen North. It's been really cold in Kazakhstan so I'm expecting lots of snow in my village. Ihad a dream that I couldn't get a bus or taxi to take me out there because the roads were all closed, but hopefully that doesn't happen. Anyway, take care all, I miss you and am thinking about you a lot. Take care and write often.


My Russian test

Friday, November 2, 2007

The need for more language

Alright, so I've got some free time, I'm hitting up the internet. Somet deep thoughts for y'all.

I haven't been able to choose my friends. Us five volunteers got thrown together in this village, learning Russian, trying to survive the various ins and outs of Peace Corps life, and we are forced to be friends. Thankfully, this has turned out very well. I've become great friends with the two guys, and though I hang out with the girls a little less, they're always fun in class and I enjoy our friendship. I don't know if its the fact that we're going through this all together, but we have all become very good friends. I bring this up because we came to the realization that in aobut a week, we will only see each other a few more times over the course of two years. None of us are "near" each other in this country. I think the closest person is Jackie, who is probably a 20 hour train ride away. Not exactly a day trip. It's not going to be so easy when I vanish up to the cold north and my only companty for a few months, until I've made some good local friends, will be snowmen and small children. Granted Nora is up there, but I've spent these last two months creating some great inside jokes with my training group, and I'm going to have to start that all over again. I think I'm lucky though, because Nora seems like she'll be fun, and not some weirdo I'll have to avoid.

Whate else is going on. My language test is tomorrow, though I'm not too worried about it. Coming to Kazakhstan, we were warned about all these things that could get us kicked out, and we have to pass this and that test and all sorts of things, but we've come to realize they don't want to send us home, and we're almost guarenteed to be able to continue. We would have to do something really stupid or irresponsible to get sent home. Therefore my training group, and I hope to spread it to the rest of the Kaz-19's, has adopted the slogan "What're you gonna do, send us home?" Hopefully this comment won't get me sent home. John Drodos, the Country Director reads this, Hi John, but I think he can have a good sense of humor. Either that or I'll hear about it next hub day.

I met a man today, a construction worker, and if I understood him correctly, he was telling us a story about how he fought for the Soviets in Afghanistan, and he showed up a large scar on his chest. He said something about how we are similar now because my people are also fighting in Afghanistan. it was interesting and I look forward to the time when I can really understand what peopel are trying to tell me, and respond with real comments or questions besides just, "oh, yes, interesting!" I missed this converstaion, but I guess my host uncle was telling two of my friends aobut how he served on a Soviet submarine during the Cold War. It will be very interesting to hear all the stories from this side of the Iron Curtain.

I now own a really sweet fur hat, complete with ear flaps.

I talked with my host family last night about American politics a little bit, but honestly I don't follow the subject closely, so I didn't have a whole lot to say. My family was telling me they think Hilary Clinton would make a great president and I should vote for her, but Barack Obama (they only knew him as the black guy), would not be good. I couldn't get any solid reasons, at least that I understand, but it's interesting that in a society where women have set roles in the house and kitchen, they would think a woman would make a great president. Again, the need for more language skills. My teacher praises me for how I"m doing now, but the problem is my language doesn't extend beyond basic needs and chit chat type conversation. I'm eager for it to get farther along, and the process is slowly driving me insane I think.

I think that's about all I have to talk about, I can't think of any really good anecdotes to tell about my time. I'll try and work some mroe out, get them down on paper somewehre so I'm not trying to do this all from memory. Until then, take care everybody and write often, I love hearing from you guys.