Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Night Before (a Kazakhstan) Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the land
Not a creature was stirring
Not even in Kazakhstan

The volunteers were nestled
In their long underwear
In hopes that the summer
Soon would be there

We sit at the table
Drinking more tea
While visions of Turkey Sandwiches
Dance in my head

Outside the wind blows
With never a lull
But we keep warm inside
Another bucket of coal

As I lay down in my bed,
I wonder with fear
If my family is Muslim
Will Santa visit here?

I wake up the next morning
And head off to school
Cuz us teachers still have work
How can life be so cruel?

But I get the good news
From a man I pass by
There is a package for me
To the post office I fly

Running from dogs
And slipping on ice
I can’t help but smile
That the day is so nice

No brightly lit tree
Or cookies in cans
But Christmas is still awesome
Here in Kazakhstan

Far from our families
And our mothers all fret
But Peace Corps was the best way
To put off my debt

Times like this can be sad
Far away and alone
But our families are near
Just over the phone

Though we miss our families
We love to be here
We will be home in no time
No worse for the wear

So don’t worry too much, mom
Everything’s alright.
Merry Christmas to all,
And to all a good night!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Don't Antagonize the Geese Jeff

I hate the geese. They honk and honk like mad any time I go to the bathroom. Some of them hissed at me when I walked between a group of them. I want to kick them or something. I'm actually almost to the point where I'd be comfortable slaughtering one and eating it. In another animal anecdote, the dogs in town are really quite pathetic. They will bark like mad at you as you go by, and maybe take some steps toward you. I've dealt with it by walking towards them or stomping my foot at them. It usually gets them to back off a bit, but I'm afraid someday that will come back to bite me in the ass (!).

I was walking around town this evening, enjoying the clearish sky and warmish weather. It was about 3:30 or so and the sun was starting to get low in the sky. It was very calm and peaceful and I was feeling very content. I like it here, I’m very glad I’m not in a city (though that would probably mean a flush toilet). I walked toward the river, since I hadn’t seen it since it had frozen over. I saw some kids who said “good morning” to me (at 4 pm). They were sledding down a hill and out onto the river. It looked like fun and I wish I had joined them, because once they hit the river they would slide for a long time across the ice. Anyway, it was a really quaint site that I really enjoyed.
I also walked through the park some and took pictures of my favorite building in town, the Orthodox Church. It has two cool domed tops on the buildings that end in a point. They are checkered green and a dark red and it’s really a beautiful building. I hope some day when my Russian is better to venture inside and take a look around. It may not be as exciting inside as I hope, but I’d like to find out for myself. Walking through the park also revealed to me how much snow we really have. It’s over three inches deep now, the only difference is that in most places people walked it stays stamped down pretty thin. I’m still very much enjoying the snow, and I hope that lasts throughout the next few months.
In those same lines, Nora and I have started a contest to see who falls down the least this winter. I’m at 3 falls now and she’s only had 1. I’m going to have to be extra careful if I want a chance to stay in this. She’s already got experience on me, but I’m hoping my large feet will give me the edge in stability. I’ll keep you all updated.
English clubs are still a lot of fun, they have gotten bigger every time. The kids really enjoy the games we play, and so do I. They are active and eager, though usually pretty talkative. It’s not as frustrating as talking in the classroom though, because often they have an activity or I’m working with somebody and not trying to talk to everybody. Also, I’m teaching exactly what I want to teach, how I want to teach it, which is really satisfying. I was rewarded with some “good afternoons” by my students, which was so great to hear in the midst of the dozens of “good mornings” I get all throughout the day. My next English club I plan to teach about articles. Since the Russian language doesn’t use articles, students often forget about them in English. If I can get them using them, even if it’s the wrong one, that’ll make their English much better.
I had the chance to go to a student patriotism conference at First School the other day. I sat in a room with students from around the area and two of our teachers. Artur, the history teacher, and Tanya, the school psychologist. Artur was leading the discussion and he seemed to be doing a really good job, because the kids were active and had a lot to say. I had a lot of trouble following most of it, but I was filled in later. There were talks about citizenship and how a student body can improve the school.
They kids had a chance to ask me questions too, about American citizenship. I gave them the rundown about the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem at sports events, merit badges in scouts and all that. They asked about Student ASB in schools and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it’s really a popularity contest and the ASB has little to no influence on a school. I told them they have different positions and they work with the school staff to improve them.
Frankly, I feel I left the kids unsatisfied. I went there under th impression it was a roundtable discussion about patriotism in the socialist state (that’s what I interpreted from Artur when he first told me about it, in Russian) and I was going to give a couple minute speech about American patriotism. I had prepared about a page of material on Patriotism in the midst of the Iraq War and criticism of the government etc., which is now sitting in our coal oven waiting to be burnt. I did enjoy myself though, and am interested in what, if any, changes come about from this.
Speaking of coal, I tripped over a mountain of coal on my way to the bathroom last night. It was pretty dark out and we had just had the coal delivered that day. It was in a line about 2 feet high right infront of the gate in the fence. I didn’t see it, tripped, rolled and cursed my way to the ground. I was wearing my last clean t-shirt and my only pair of jeans. The jeans made it out alright, they only have a couple dark spots, but my t-shirt took the brunt of the abuse and now one shoulder is colored almost entirely black. I wasn’t too happy about this.

I ran into some students outside of school the other day who were laughing and having a good time (possibly booze was involved). It was the evening and I was on my way to the store to buy a pepsi and snickers bar that I could eat alone in my room. It made me think about how much we rely on relationships to get us through, and how absolutely necessary they are to survival for most people. I love my family, but it's our friendships and daily contacts with people that really make a huge difference in our lives. Being able to joke casually with people around you, remember past events and just relax is really important. Right now, I feel pretty isolated from all of that. I don't have the ability to do that with any of the people I know right now. Nora is in town, and really helps when I need to talk or vent or whatever about something, but it's relationships that grow over a few months or years with people you see every day that are the real life savers. So all you guys back home reading this, just know that I miss you a lot and appreciate how cool you all are. Even Ian.

Now I want you all to go back and make sure you noticed my awesome use of a pun. That's dedicated to three people who I'm pretty sure dont' actually read this, but somebody should let Tyler, Alli Sr. and Alli Jr. know to check it out.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Saturday, December 8, 2007

They like me, they really do!

I planned to start this blog with a big announcement: I fell for the first time on the ice today. It was pretty awkward, and I spilled my skittles all over, which was the biggest tragedy. Anyway, this isn’t such a big announcement since, five minutes later, I fell again. The second time was in front of people, though I didn’t hear any loud guffaws (which I probably would have done) so maybe they didn’t notice. In short: it’s slippery around here.
Volleyball has been getting better and better (except for last Friday). My spikes are looking more like spikes, and I’ve blocked a couple of the other teams spikes. At the same time, I’m still making some stupid mistakes and trying to figure out where I need to be all the time. The problem is my team is always winning, so I don’t ever get to sit out and watch other people and how they play.
I did both my English clubs, and by the time this is actually posted, I’ll probably have done another two. They’re good, the adult one is fun because I start at the very beginning and the people are pretty interested in the material. The students English Club is great too, though I only had six kids there. I think there will be more in the future. I’m working on correcting what I see as the biggest problem with English in this country: saying Good Morning in the afternoon. It’s a VERY common mistake, and even the teachers say it at times. Even I say it, if a student catches me by surprise with a good morning and I’m just not sure what time it is, I reply reflexively with a good morning. I’m working on it, and I think my six English Club kids have it figured out, I hope. We also talked about different ways people say hello in English speaking countries. Just so everybody knows, in Washington we all say Hey, California says Yo and New York says “Hey, how ya doin’.” It’s important to know, in case my kids ever run into you on the streets.
I just came from dinner with my family and they have learned that I have lost 30 pounds (look how I just drop that fact in there), so now my mom thinks it’s her job to make me gain at least 10 kilos (which is about what I’ve lost). She doesn’t seem to think that thin is good, though I assure her it’s exactly what I want to be. I’ll have to put up quite a fight I think to prevent her from force feeding me.
I’m going into Pavlodar on Thursday to buy my train ticket back to Almaty for New Years. I’m pretty excited to see my old family again, and Drew and Matthew are coming down as well so we’re gonna have a pretty good time I think. I need to work out when I can leave, because with the length of the train ride I would have to leave on the evening of the 29th to get there, and the 29th is my last day of work. I think I can work something out though, because I really don’t want to miss New Years, or spend it on a train. I also haven’t told people here in Zhelezinka, which I should probably do, since they seem pretty excited that I’ll be here for all the traditions. I didn’t want to say until I knew for sure, but as long as I can get a ticket, I’m going.
I think I’m settling into town pretty well though. My students are all saying hello to me in the halls, I’ve connected with my family for the most part and I’ve actually got night time activities. I need to know the language better (if I had a nickel…) if I’m going to make some real friends here I think, but there’s at least a crew of guys, some of which would be the ones that scared me if I saw them on the streets, that seem to like me and I enjoy them, even if I don’t understand them. I’ve gotta say thanks to Nora for this though, because without her I would probably spend all my free time here at my computer. It’s incredibly helpful having somebody who is knows the town (and English) and is willing to spend the time to help you get settled in and meet some people.
So how about the weather! It’s snows, then over the course of a week or so the snow sort of recedes or gets packed down really tight, then it snow again. It’s only been about an inch or two each time, and it’s not really getting much deeper, but it’s there. It’ll be quite an adventure when there’s waist and chest high snow on the ground, and it’s actually cold. The weather hasn’t been too bad, and I’m enjoying a weekend walk.
Other news, the playdoh I brought with me was a huge hit with my 7 year old cousin, Karina, and the rest of the family as well. We’ve spent a couple hours making all sorts of things, so I’m glad I brought that. I have yet to break out the checkers or the jacks, but they’ll come with time. Maybe when people have finally grown bored with me.
Also, I had an article in the local paper printed about me. I gave an interview and had my picture taken fake teaching. There were some strange questions in the interview, about when my brothers were born, are they married and do they live with my parents still. Aaron, were you born in ’78 or ’79. I said ’78 but later though maybe it was ’79. Anyway, you’re basically an old man. The article was half a page, so I’ll try to scan it or take a picture and send it to you guys to admire and attempt to understand.
I taught two classes all on my own today. The teacher had to go into Pavlodar for some reason, so I was left to fend for myself. I was excited about it, only a little worried. The first class was 7th graders. They were great, though slightly talkative. We did reflexive pronouns and it helped that I knew the Russian for them and could use that to help explain. We did some work, got it figured out then played a game with it that they enjoyed. They didn’t perfect it, but they understand how it works and which pronoun goes with which, so it wasn’t a total failure. Later their homeroom teacher found me and she told me that they loved my lesson and were really excited about it, which is exactly what I want from English lessons. If the kids are excited they will hopefully learn better.
The next class wasn’t quite such a success. Three of the kids were not paying much attention and didn’t seem to care about the lesson. They thought that since there was no “teacher” they could do what they want. I did my best to keep them in line, and it helps when they have nametags and I can call them out. Overall, I’m not entirely sure the grammar (passive voice) got through to them. It’s hard when you can’t explain something as complicated as grammar in Russian. They would translate it and I couldn’t tell them if they were right or not. I think they were. Anyway, at the end of class when I was giving marks, the three noisy kids got 3’s (grades are from 2-5, you never actually give a 1 and rarely a 2, so this was pretty bad) but two of them left the class before I could mark their scores in their books. I know their names though, so they aren’t getting off the hook.
On the connecting with family front, I’m doing pretty well. Tonight (the 4th) I did some actual chatting, managed to crack a joke or two (pretty basic slapstick stuff, but better than nothing). The more language I gain the more personality I’m allowed to have. Before, I was just the guy that nodded, smiled dumbly and spoke like a 2 year old. Now I’m the guy who speaks like a 3 year old, smiles dumbly a little less and genuinely laughs and throws in his ¼ cent to the conversation (I’m hoping to be up to 2 cents by the end of March). I still feel proud of myself when I feel like I managed something extraordinary in the Russian language, like explain that I always have marker on my hands because I make lots of posters for English class. Whoooo!
I was walking back from my counterparts house tonight (now it’s Thursday, the 6th) and it struck me how beautiful it was. It was lightly snowing and there was no starlight or moonlight, but it was still somewhat light out. The snow was covering everything and reflecting the meager lights coming from windows and an occasional streetlamp. It almost glowed with this light. The snow was frozen to tree branches and the shrubs lining the streets, making them look like ice crystals growing out of the ground. It silent except for my footsteps in the snow, and I was loving it.
I got all my affairs sorted out for my money and bank card since I lost my wallet a month ago. Thankfully that’s all done now and I can stop worrying about it and having to run into Pavlodar every other weekend to get something done. I have money, I have a train ticket, I shouldn’t need anything else from the city for three months.
I’ve been getting told a bit more by the guys around town that I need to get a girlfriend over here. It seems important to them, and they assure me I can have pretty much any woman just by telling them I’m a rich American with a car and tons of money. It’s an interesting thought, but I’m not really in any rush, and so far the only women I’ve really met are old enough to be my mother or kids in my class. Not too many options there. I’ve been told though that I’m just not looking in the right places. I’ll work on that.
That's about it for now. Everybody continue taking care and let me know what's happenign with your lives, as boring as it may be for you, I may find it interesting.

Quick Addendum answering Alex's questions: during the day it's been around -10 C here, at night it gets down to -20. It's really not all that bad, I've got warm clothes and since the heating died in our school they have been making it extra hot lately. My house is pretty warm too. The other day I learned how to scoop up coal and add it to the fire to keep the house warm. There are pipes that run heat throughout the house, all coming from this one wood/coal stove. Also, I learned where water comes from. What I thought were dog houses turned out to be wells, covered so they don't freeze. I got to lower a bucket on a long chain 22 meters to the water and haul it back up and fill our milk can with water. Pretty cool stuff. Alright, that's really all.