Thursday, December 25, 2008

A late Christmas poem

Here's a Christmas poem for you guys, in the tradition of last year. You may not understand all the jokes, but I hope you enjoy:

Twas the night before Christmas
and all through the land
not a creature was stirring,
Not even in Kazakhstan
This ain't a repeat of last year
I'd never be so lame
give me a little credit
I do have a modicrum of shame
Since landing in this country
over a year has gone past
where I used to daily freakout
Now I'm sure I can last
Bring on the vodka
Bring on the Russian
Though after a few shots
I may star blushin
I can tell a good joke
and give an eloquent toast
these people now love me,
though I do hate to boast
I've learned to love this country
where I'm too small for my pants
and people seem to think,
I know how to dance
I used to tremble and cry
when I thought of the time left
now thoughts of leaving
leave me quite bereft
Not to say I don't miss home
and this season is quite hard,
when I prefer eggs and coffee can bread,
I get porridge and slices of lard
My presents are stacked
beneath my glass mirror
though they lose much meaning,
without those I hold dear
With all of the new 20's
I must be a rock
cause with their tear filled eyes
I see they're still in shock
Trust me young ones
when I tell you this fact
of all the 19's
Not a one hasn't cracked
Not a year ago
I was crying for mommy
now all that I need
is a sandwhich of pickles and salami
Now a short message to mom
who may end up in tears
I assure you all is well
Nothing I can't fix with a few beers
Now it's time to celebrate
this wonderful time
cause soon we'll be home
with no job and not a dime
The economy is failing
and jobs are not found
all through Kazakhstan
talk of the criziz is around
Better to be in a job
that pays us no bucks
than begging for work
at one of Sasser's Schucks
So thank your lucky stars
you're in this crazy place
your service may feel like forever
but it flys at a quick pace
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all. Goodnight.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Seasoned Greeting

To start, I just want to say, I don’t think this entry is my finest work. I was distracted, it’s been written over many installments, and frankly, it could be better. That being said, enjoy.
Let’s begin with the unhappy, angriness. Walking through the city with some friends, we decided (I decided and dragged them along) to play soccer with some local kids. We walked over and I asked, in Russian, if we could play with them. The ringleader, an obvious punk, turned to me and gave me a firm “no.” No explanation, no nothing, just a no. I tried to reason with me but he didn’t say another word, so I stormed off in a huff, my friends tailing behind and listening to my angry muttering.
To counter that encounter, today I was carrying all my things from one friend’s apartment to another, and had just walked out the door, when I started getting honked at by a car. I thought it was just some jerk, but it turned out to be Nikolai Mickaelovich. I didn’t know him, but he drove a truck for the Red Cross and offered me a ride. After forcing open the canopy on his truck with a wrench, we threw my things in and I climbed in the cab. We shook and introduced ourselves and he proceeded to tell me that Americans are good and everybody in Kazakhstan drives like there are no laws. The few minutes we rode together to my destination were pretty enjoyable. He asked for me to give him a few tenge, for his grandchildren, which I was happy to do and we parted. It’s the kindness of strangers and not the bratty insolence of stupid kids that makes this job really fun and worthwhile.
Other brief thoughts and anecdotes: I saw a half eaten cow leg along my path to school the past two days. The bottom half of the leg, with half the bone exposed and the hoof still attached. I’ve had very strange dreams, one of which involved me having to do calculus and left me terrified (a sure sign I’m in the right place, far from math). I’ve taken up the guitar finally, and progress is slow but steady. There isn’t a lot of snow but there’s a lot of cold. This year I like it a bit more and am enjoying the beauty of the frost on everything.
Other news is that I spent the last week down in Almaty for a gathering of all the 18’s and 19’s left in the country. Those are all the volunteers that have been around for at least a year. We got together to gossip about the new volunteers at our sites, drink some beers, make plans for summer and listen to a few seminars. Besides the chance to reconnect with some old friends, I believe the biggest benefit of these biannual events is they reenergize and motivate me to get more work done and be a better volunteer. If that feeling can last the 30 hour train ride back to my site, then I’m in good shape.
Nothing overtly amazing happened this week. I spent some time with my original host family and they once again gave me the huge self-esteem boost of telling me how thin I’ve gotten and how great my Russian has become. I am able to hold real conversations with them and discuss a variety of topics. Sharing jokes and relating various stories about the past half a year in Russian without having to fake a laughter or get something explained to you makes the experience that much more enjoyable.
On the topic of my Russian, I took the language test that the Peace Corps gives out. They have among the staff accredited testers, so it’s an official thing. During the test I was explaining things like the difference between American and Kazakhstani schools, what a White Elephant Christmas Party is and other things that I couldn’t even imagine having spoken about a year ago. When I finished my training I had a score of Intermediate Low. It ranges from Novice Low to Advanced High and finally Superior. This time around I got a score of Intermediate High but the tester, Lena, told me that I had come as close to Advanced Low as I could without actually reaching it. Grammar. Go figure. Who needs it? Anyway, she told me that I have a real gift for the language and talking to me had been a real pleasure.
When I told her what my plans might be for after Peace Corps, being a school teacher, she was appalled and worked hard at convincing me to continue my studies in Russian. She didn’t want me to waste my talent, she told me. So she has me looking at programs to study in Russia or elsewhere in Central Asia, and also proposed that I would be an ideal candidate for Kazakhstan’s flagship program where they hire native speakers to teach English. It would be the same I’m doing now, only paid and working for Kazakhstan and not Peace Corps. It’s just some things to consider, I don’t have anything in concrete now.
On the way back to site Mary, a fellow Pavlodar volunteer, and I were riding on “the peoples train” which is the official name for the open wagons where you intermingle with all the folks around you, when the two older women across the table from us stroke up a conversation. We did the general talking but then feeling bolstered by my new language confidence, I tried to make some point about discrimination in Kazakhstan in the north, where many ethnicities and cultures mix, versus the south with is more or less homogenously Kazakh. I’m pretty sure I lost them at some point, but I managed to pull it back together with some references to America’s south and all that. It was an awkward bit, but in the end I think we really entertained each other and understood most of what each of us was saying.
Having a decent ability in the language makes the Peace Corps experience so much more enjoyable. Talking with people, finding out their stories and all that, is incredibly interesting to me. I see these new volunteers and how incredibly awful their Russian is (sorry Jane, Emily, Sean, Ryan) and think how that used to be me. As your language gets better and you gain in confidence, the experience becomes much richer.
Kazakhstan Independence Day has come and gone. I hung out in the city with the other volunteers, and we celebrated Jane’s birthday, who is the awesomest awesome volunteer in the awesomest awesomey oblast (did I get that right Jane?). That was a lot of fun, and then it was back to Zhelezinka, where I’ve been for the past week.
Two days after I was back we had our KBH comedy competition final. We had won the first round earlier, now we were up against two other teams from our county, I suppose you’d call it. Long story short, we won it again. If you want the full story, find me in a year when I get back, because you probably had to be there for it to be funny. The point is though, that after we won, we took our prize, a glass vase, around to various shops in the village trying to sell it so we’d have more money to celebrate with. The night ended at the cafĂ© with lots of food and lots of vodka. Let the pictures speak for themselves.
Tomorrow is Christmas, and though I’m not as down and filled with feelings of loneliness like I was last year, I still miss my family. When I look at the pile of presents they sent me, sitting on my vanity, I get a bit homesick. I enjoy presents. Who doesn’t? But I enjoy them so much more when they are surrounded by other peoples presents under a festively lit Christmas tree that can barely be seen beneath the hundreds of ornaments that have been collected over the years.
This is a tough time for many people, wherever you are. I can get through this Christmas without a problem because I know that my family is thinking of me as much as I am thinking of them, and I keep the thought that next year I will be back with them, telling jokes and laughing at all the dorky comments getting tossed around.
This year I’m hoping I will have a chance to get into the city on the weekend to celebrate with all the rest of the volunteers. I have another obligation that I’m regretting agreeing to at this point, though. My school needed somebody to play the Kazakhstani version of Santa Claus, called Grandfather Frost, for their New Years celebration. This apparently happens multiple times, and of the times they want me is Saturday evening, when I expected to be celebrating Christmas. If I can, I’m going to get somebody to cover for me that one day, but as all things go in Kazakhstan, getting definite information and a solid schedule is impossible until the day of. I think I can make it work, I’ve learned a thing or two in this country, and they love me here so they’re often willing to work around my needs.
I’ve had lots of great comments from people about how much they enjoy me and what a good person I am, which is part of the reason I love doing things like this for them. But I also need to think of myself and my own personal needs. This is a hard time, and being able to be around close friends relieves a lot of the depression. A little alcohol doesn’t hurt either.
So with that thought, I’ll leave you all. I miss you guys, I love and I’ll be there next year.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cross-dressing for the win!

Those of you who have been following this blog for quite awhile may remember an event last year called Kavan (KBH in Russian). This is a team comedy competition that last year was held at our village’s concert hall. This year it was in another village. I had the dubious honor of joining teachers and a few students from our three schools to create an ultimate Zhelezinka comedy team.
The way Kavan works is you put together a few skits for various competitions. There’s an opening hello set of skits, a musical group, another they call homework where you have to do some sort of skit based on a theme they give you and a funny speech or story given by the team captains.
Our team ran on a platform of gender-bending and An-American-speaking-Russian-is-automatically-funny. I can’t really relay the jokes (you had to be there), but needless to say with my flawless delivery of lines I barely understood and struggled to remember, our team took first place!
This was coming off of a day and a half of preparation. On Wednesday a teacher came to me asking if I wanted to be in the show. I of course agreed, and I showed up for “rehearsal” at 3 o’clock that day. They gave me my lines, explained to everybody what we would be doing, and then we went home. I was told we would be recording our lines so nobody had to memorize them.
The next day I show up in the morning and am informed that my lines won’t be recorded. I have to memorize a dozen lines of Russian. Fine, I said, I can manage that. And I did. I must have read my lines over 100 times. I had them down (pronunciation was another matter). The time came for the show. I hit my first parts without a stutter. Third couplet I stalled on a line, but luckily my partner knew my part and fed me the line. The final couplet I was going along with it, then for some reason got drowned out by our cheering section. They must have realized that I was going to screw it up and figured it’d be safer to just scream and shout. They were right, actually.
So in the end, we were the funniest of four teams and now, for better or worse, we have a final competition in about four weeks. I am going to once again have about two days to prepare because the week before the competition I will be in Almaty for a Peace Corps conference that I don’t plan on missing.
Otherwise, things here have been pretty calm. My sitemate, Megan, is getting along and seems to be doing pretty well in the village. I have come to respect Nora (yes you, Nora) even more for being able to listen to all my complaints and stress relieving diatribes, as I am now doing the same. I don’t mind it because I know how much it can help to unload.
As for my depression loaded previous blog, that time has passed. That’s what happens in Peace Corps. Things get bad, then time passes. You find a distraction, you get a package from home or you email bomb all your friends (except Alex, sorry) in order to get a lot of love in return. Time passes, and soon you’re home.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cynicism, seeds and send offs

My first draft of this blog was full of cynicism and bitterness. I had had a run in with a local, all of ten seconds, but it had left a very bad impression on me and I wrote this immediately after that. I’m rewriting it now because I believe the first iteration showcased too much of the bad, and not enough of the good. I’ll now repeat the cynical part, though in a less grumpy and fed up manner.
I was walking home from school when a car pulled up beside me. The driver rolled down his window and, without a word of greeting or an excuse me, asked me where a certain address was. I informed him he was on the correct street but I didn’t know which house it was he was looking for. He drove off without a thank you or goodbye. This was made me so bitter and angry. Just writing about it reminds me of how annoyed I was at this man.
My mother and grandparents worked hard to raise me to be polite. I was taught that if you want something, including directions, you should use a please, maybe say excuse me and thank the person afterwards. I believe most people would agree that this is a mark of a civilized, cultured person (though “your face” jokes and bodily functions at the dinner table often contradicted my manners).
In Kazakhstan, it is rare to hear a person say “thank you” for dinner, or include a please in their request. In America this would be considered rude. I’ve spent many a wasted breath on a thank you that goes unanswered or gets just a grunt. It’s not as normal here as it is where all you guys live. That doesn’t make it rude; it’s just a difference in culture. I realize that now (and probably did at the time it happened as well). I think some of the bitterness came from a long downward spiral I feel I’ve been on, starting with the theft of my wallet and bank card and ending with the director of my school getting very angry with me. Allow me to elaborate.
My new sitemate came up for a visit a couple weeks ago, along with Nora. They spent a week in Zhelezinka where we saw the sites, attended a lip/accordion synched concert and baked chicken flavored cookies. At the concert we were approached by the director of the concert hall, as well as a government man who I take to be the minister of culture or some such. He had asked me (repeatedly) if I would play the saxophone in a concert. I always told him yes, then avoided him as long as I could. I’m not big on taking solos in front of large crowds of people, even if they wouldn’t know good saxophone playing from bad.
Anyway, this time they asked Megan, my sitemate, to play. She whole heartedly agreed (she’s much more enthusiastic, in general, than I am). Anyway, this made me jealous so I’ve played since then, though not in a concert. This event put me in a bit of a funk. The big downer was when we went into the city, as Megan and all the other new volunteers had to leave. Let me make an aside here.
New volunteers are so incredibly American! They dress, talk and act totally American, and stand out like nothing else. I realize now how much I have changed in this one year and have become pretty well integrated into the culture. They things they talk about as so silly or outrageous seem fairly commonplace to me at this point. Now I am one of the experts on this country and will be helping (and laughing) all these new souls.
I also want to give a quick shout out to the group of volunteers before me (Kaz-18’s) that at this point are all back in the states. Likely, now that they are free and clear, will never read this blog, but thanks anyway guys. My Pavlodar boys, and Nora (especially Nora), were a great help in keeping me sane. It’s hard to imagine service without them, but as I said, I’m the old volunteer now, so I’ll have people relying on me. I hope I can do as much for them as the older volunteers did for me.
Okay, so in the city we were going to meet up with a group of these new volunteers. Along the way I realized that my wallet was missing. It had been stolen, and I’m pretty sure (in retrospect) I know who took it. If I see him again, he’s gonna pay. Literally, I want my money back. That put a damper on the whole trip and my lack of money made it so that I had to skip a soccer match and borrow money from my new sitemate just to get home again.
The next weekend I went into the city to apply for a new bankcard so I could withdraw money. Normally this process takes about a week. After waiting outside in the cold for an hour for the bank to open they informed me that because of some problems in Almaty, it would take three weeks. This was three weeks without money. I had to borrow another large sum of money from another volunteer in order to pay my host family for November. Another bump down the ladder of happiness and stability.
The final shot came when what I thought was going to be a huge pick me up, turned out slightly disastrous. We celebrated Halloween at my school on Monday with a party in our school auditorium. I organized games, kids wore costumes and it was a lot of fun. It included bobbing for apples, pin the nose on the pumpkin and guess how many sunflower seeds are in the bottle. It was this last game that would prove to be such a problem.
I had spent the last night counting out 4929 sunflower seeds and filling a liter bottle with them. The winner guessed 4000. I awarded her the bottle. Thinking that students would be responsible and wait until they were outside to start eating them, I was way way way wrong. When the lights came on, after the students had left, I observed the destruction. There were shells all over the floor.
Needless to say, when my director saw the mess, she was not happy. She yelled at my counterpart, my counterpart got mad at me, then the director got mad at me. It all helped to drop me into a deep funk. The mess got cleaned up, but it left me in quite a bad mood. I’ve already started feeling better, but it’s definitely a couple weeks that will live in infamy for me.
So that’s that. I’m now sitting in my school killing time. We are on break, which means the students all get to go home, but for whatever reason us teachers are required to be here from 9 until 1. I miss being a student frankly. This weekend I will be house-sitting for my counterpart, where I plan to cook French toast and other tasty treats, abuse his internet and walk around the house in my underwear. It’s going to be my trial at living alone, the idea of which is becoming more and more appealing in general (not because of problems at home, but because of the extra freedom and independence [and maybe loneliness] I will have).
I have about 11 more months of service. That’s less than a year. All the volunteers leaving recently has made me think a lot of what’s waiting for me at home, and that thought is very exciting. Until then, I’ll persevere. Think happy thoughts for me.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Grammar, Common Sense and Heartiness

Russian grammar is like improvisation in jazz band. For me, whenever Mr. G would stand at the front and start pointing at people to throw in a solo during some song we were practicing, my heart would begin racing and I’d do everything I could to avoid eye contact. Inevitably he would cunningly call my name, thus avoiding any chance that I wouldn’t notice, and I would have to stand and plug out an awkward and rhythmically painful twelve bar stretch of notes.

Let me explain the metaphor. Russian grammar has a lot of different endings that identify the purpose of the various nouns in a sentence. There are a total of six cases and depending on which you use, the noun can have very different meanings. The classic example is “The father gave the son a car.” In English, it’s the word order that matters. Thus, “The son gave the father a car” has a whole new meaning (and of course we know this would never happen in real life). Also, “The car gave a father to the son.” Just think about that one.

In Russian, any of those word orders can be correct, as long as you put the correct ending on each word. Now the metaphor will become clear. I studied musical theory in school and could write out the scale for different keys with few mistakes. I am studying Russian grammar and am getting better at writing the correct endings and figuring out what goes where. When it came time to play these scales, my brain became befuddled and I couldn’t identify the correct notes fast enough. The same with Russian, unless I’ve had lots of practice orally, I mix up or forget altogether the endings.

Frustrating, to say the least. But there is progress, and it keeps me hopeful that by the time I leave this country I will have a tenuous grasp and be able to apply what knowledge I have effectively in conversation.

I am nearly the senior (along with a few others) volunteer in this crazy oblast we call Pavlodar. The old guys are all leaving for America to join the ranks of the unemployed, stressed out over the economy, growing beer gut American middle class. I have another year for you guys to get it all straightened out before I come home. I am excited and a bit apprehensive about instilling my vast knowledge on these new, wet behind the ears volunteers we’re getting soon, but I think I will do my best. I would like to provide a short list of the common sense I have picked up here:

1) If you have an indoor toilet, it’s always best to make sure the water is running before going number two

2) If you have an outdoor toilet, wait until the afternoon when it’s warmest to go number two

3) Bring your own plastic bottles to fill at the beer stations to save money

4) Avoid complications. Get a signature every time you give money to your host family

5) Count the stray dogs around your favorite shashlik stand. If there is less every day, don’t eat the shashlik.

6) Be assertive about what your name is from the beginning or it becomes awkward to correct people later. “Yes, I know you’ve called me John for twelve months, but I thought it was finally time to tell you…my name is actually Jeff.”

7) Vodka is good for any occasion. Wait four or five toasts in before giving your own, you’ll be much more articulate.

8) If you shine your shoes, people will forgive frumpy hair

9) Kazakhstani fashion may look silly to Americans, but we aren’t in America. Buy the pointy shoes, wear the jean jacket and strut your stuff like JT (that’s John Travolta).

10) Ask where the tram or bus is going, don’t rely on the sign or you’ll find yourself stuck out in the boonies.

I have to add an amendment to this entry since writing it yesterday on my computer. Last night I had a great time with my English Club and post English Club. It was my adult class, and today I only had one student, but he is very enthusiastic and already can speak English decently. Anyway, he asked a question and it led into a side topic that developed into a full, improve lesson. We were speaking about excuses and how to use phrases like “I’m too tired” or “I’m too busy.” I started to feel a bit like Robin Williams during it, explaining situations. Afterwards he said it was the best ever.

Upon leaving, he invited me to his house for dinner. I accepted, thinking this is a great way to get out of the house and meet new people. Long story short, I met his mother, brother, uncle and his niece and nephew. We talked, ate good food and shared some vodka. It was a really uplifting experience, and let me tell you exactly why.

Earlier that day I had read a short essay in a book called “At Home in the World: The Peace Corps Story.” The essay was about a woman who helped build a school, and ended up getting it named after her. I was thinking, how can I leave a mark like that on Zhelezinka when I leave? This dinner made me realize that the mark the woman left was more in the hearts (sappy, I know) of the people, and the school was just a result of how much they had come to accept her and love her. By going to this dinner and talking, making them laugh and sharing stories with them, I was doing the same thing.

That’s all I wanted to add, it was a great night for me and I hope I can have more and more like it. Sorry there are no pictures.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Deep Thoughts

Nothing interesting or exciting has happened lately. This update is more to talk about a couple thoughts I’ve had. First is the ability to adapt and change. The second is thoughts about home.

I realized today that some things that I couldn’t stand or completely baffled me about this country have become completely common place and even enjoyable at times. This epiphany came as I was buying a bottle of mineral water. When I arrived I could not understand why anybody would carbonate plain drinking water! It was difficult to gulp down, tasted funny and was in all ways unpleasant. Now I realize that I prefer it to normal water. It’s like a party in throat every time I take a sip and the tiny bubbles race around inside my mouth.

It was teachers’ day on Saturday and like is usual we had a big lunch at school with the teachers and other staffers of work. At about 9.30 one teacher came to work, already having drunk a significant amount and was obviously drunk. He explained that it was okay because it was a holiday, plus it was the 30 year anniversary of him teaching. He showing up like that was a small shock still, but not so much as it would have been. What was totally ordinary was drinking vodka at 11.30 with all the other teachers in our school cafeteria and making toasts to everybody, then going home slightly tipsy at about 3 o’clock. Drunkenness is not looked down as much, as long as you aren’t wild and out of control, as it would be in America. It’s just a result of having a good time. Maybe college prepared me for that a bit too.

My point is that this country seemed very foreign and bizarre when I came here, and now it’s nothing new. I feel pretty well adapted and at home among these folk, though I’m pretty sure I still baffle them at times, but that’s part of my charm as an American.

This other epiphany was my big one, concerning homesickness. I believe that there is a large distinction between wanting to go home and wishing you were home. Wishing you were home usually comes because you are bored; sitting around in the afternoon or evening, and wish you were with your friends or family. It’s much more fun to sit and hang out with people you can freely chat and joke with, than playing out their awkward lives through a video game (The Sims 2 takes up much of my free time lately). Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing Ian fall in love with Nick and Tim or Randy electrocuting himself trying to fix the dishwasher, but I’d prefer to see it in real life.

The thing is, wishing for home only comes from boredom (or having to poop outside in the middle of the winter with -40 degree temperature surrounding your bare…skin) and is not a result of my actual situation. I still love going to school and teaching the kids (those that aren’t a pain in the ass) English and chatting with teachers about home and whatever else they want to talk about. It’s a desire for more meaningful human contact that you can only get through deeper relationships (which are much easier to develop when the two parties fluently speak a shared language).

Wanting to go home is a symptom of an unhappy situation. You don’t like your school, or the family you are staying with. Maybe the climate is not to your liking or Peace Corps didn’t turn out to be at all what you thought it would be (in a bad way. I think most of us had our opinions changed upon the first two months in country). In the end, your situation weighs down on you until you crumble and have to go home. It’s not an easy choice and it can take months and months to come to the point where it’s just too much.

For me, I often have the desire to be at home among all my entertaining friends (and the fact that half of them have also scattered to different parts of the US doesn’t really factor into it). Rarely have I ever wanted to go home. At this point in our service we are pretty solidly entrenched in our communities (and I have an indoor toilet) and those feelings will be less and less.

Plus, I’m getting a new volunteer. Thought I’d mention. Her name is Megan; she’s from the D.C. area, which is really going to confuse people when they hear she’s from Washington as well. Most people can’t grasp the difference between the two Washington’s in America. Anyway, she’s coming to visit in about a week and change along with my old matey Nora and I’m pretty excited. Hopefully nothing happens to chase her off. I won’t mention the outdoor toilet.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Check back in a day or two and there will be pictures

Sorry to have kept you all waiting for so long, but I'm back! And by back, I mean back to work! I've gotten over 20 hours of classes a week, which keeps me busy six days a week. During the morning, up until about 2 pm I am at school teaching 5th to 11th graders. I have about 2 hours for lunch then I head back to school for my favorite part of the day, the 3rd and 4th graders!

These kids are terrific! They are starting from the beginning, so I don't have to spend time unlearning things or reviewing past material. A lot of the time is spent playing games and things like that. They love me and are always asking when the next English class will be. They are absolutely adorable and excited about learning! It's a great feeling for a teacher, those of you that know. Life is so much easier when you don't have to force feed them the material. Things like colors, family and animals are super fun.

Among my students my favorites have to be the 4th "B" class. There's little Lea (this girl is eerily similar to a mini Lea, at least in my eyes), Arina and Sveta who have big eyes and goofy smiles. My 3rd graders include Rima and my ex-cousin Karina. Overall, I couldn't be happier to go back to school after lunch, when most people just want to relax.

Other classes are not too bad, I have a pretty fun time with most of my classes. I get tired of my older classes though and rarely look forward to them. 5th grade is good too, and I can always count on them to do their homework. The 6th grade has been begging me to come teach their class as well and I'm about to give in to them, even though I really don't need the extra 2 or 3 hours a week I'd have to be working.

I've decided that if I really want to leave my mark in this community, I need to be working a lot more on the English teachers than on the students. I'm only here another year and I can't improve English all that much, but what I can do is improve on very outdated methodology so that the resident teachers can carry on with amazing lessons. In this way though, I'm being resisted. It is very easy to rely on Russian and translate texts, and trying to get teachers to completely stop that is proving difficult. Some find it funny that I've started to become a "methodologist" as they say, but I'm going to persist. I've made a few advances, but it's going to take the whole year to get to a point that I'm satisfied.

I have also learned about the other side of potato planting. That is, the digging of potatos. I went out to a field one Saturday afternoon when I thought I was going to get to relax with a shovel and a pail. As the men dug up all the potatos we had planted five months ago (men being Slava and myself), our two women went around gathering them up. It was a pretty pathetic turn out, and we only gathered five sacks. These would not last through the winter and I heard lots of complaining about it from all points. This work was not nearly as hard as it was made out to be and we finished in the early afternoon and headed home. In most respects, it was identical to planting them, just in reverse. That's all that can really be said about this topic.

Other news, I'm officially a year older! Yeah, this old man just turned 24. I'm starting to feel it in my bones, the hair line is receding (or already receded) and my eyes are turning on me. I celebrated on the 16th pretty tamely. I had no classes that day amazingly, so I was able to relax. I got some happy birthday messages, the first at 7 am from my family in Almaty, when I was not in the right state of mind to fully appreciate it, but overall it was good. I had adults english club that night and talked to them for a bit, but there was no real celebration.

That weekend I went into the city and hung out with "the guys." We first went to a public banya in Pavlodar where we steamed, drank beers and did "man" things. Leave that to your imagination. We then met up with a local friend who I was told is "the greatest guy in Kazakhstan" which he would have to be to spend an evening with some crazy Americans. We went to a cafe and did the traditional bottle and toasts, did some dancing, then hit the town. All the details aren't necessary, but I would say I did any Kazakhstani proud, and many of my friends back home. I never went on a 21 run with my buddies, cause I'm older than most of them, but this pretty much made up for it.

I got back Monday afternoon after spending all of Sunday...recovering. Wednesday at school Slava comes up to me and tells me he has a surprise. I was thinking maybe a belated birthday present or something... but no, not exactly. Apparently Tanya, Slava's wife, had pointed out the wrong field to us when we were digging potatoes last time. We had dug up somebody else and had to go back and get our potatoes still. So Thursday morning when we had no classes and I again thought I was going to relax, Slava dragged me out to the fields.

This time it was just the two of us and it took a much longer time. Same process, but now i had to gather as well, and this was the hard part. By the end my back was killing me and I still had to go back for English club. Our driver was about an hour late coming to pick us up and Slava and I had some good philisophical discussions. Mostly about video games, movies, girls and the like. We really got deep and emotional. You can imagine.

Friday morning I learn I'm running in a race. From what I understood (and I'm getting better at understanding by the way), it was to be a relay race and I would be picking up the second leg and had to run 500 meters. At 1 pm I ate a light lunch of soup and at 3 pm got to the center where the race was to be held. It was there that I learned that I still had some work to do in understanding the Russian language. Apparently I was running my own race in the 20-29 year old mens catergory. And they had lied about the distance. I'm still not sure of the exact distance, but some say it was 1800 meters (that's more than a mile).

So I get all lined up with the other guys, most of whom are in much better shape than me and likely have been doing some running to get ready for this day. Me of course, I've been wearing my legs out digging potatoes and the like. My legs felt pretty heavy, but I figured I could do alright. So at go I took off and not wanting to look like a fool, tried to keep pace with the leaders. This quickly wore me down. As I got to the turn around point I was at 6th out of 9 or 10 people. I was wheezing and flopping my arms about, but still chugging along.

The whole time one of the kids from my school was riding beside me on his bicycle, offering me encouragement. Maybe it helped, I don't know, but as it was, I was slowly catching up to the guy ahead of me. As I neared his back, he must have heard my labored breathing or felt the spittle landing on his neck because he turned, saw me, and turned up the gas enough to get about 10 feet ahead of me again. This happened 3 times and after the 3rd I actually yelled at him, half jokingly, to slow down. He didn't listen.

As we came into the home stretch I decided I was going to get some sort of victory. So with all my students lining the track and cheering I turned on whatever I had left and came up behind the guy again. He saw me and tried to pick up his pace but he was no match. I lurchingly stumbled past him and beat him by some sort of distance, I don't know cause I was too tired to look back. I took a respectable 5th place overall. I was met by the winners and we all congratulated each other.

Then I wandered about the parking lotish area trying to hold down my lunch and stop my lungs from burning. This was the tiredest I've ever been. I tried to sit on the curb but was promptly told by a complete stranger that my butt would freeze to death or something, I was too tired to understand. Anyway, after about 10 minutes of fighting the urge to vomit, I gave up. Again, use your imagination. Though, I want to say I was not the only one from my group that hurled.

Okay, so now my legs are really, really tired. And today the school is going on a hike. Or have already. I hiked out to the woods with them, and in the interest of not using up the last of your patience with this blog, I'll keep it short. We went to the woods for Tourism Day, built fires, stomped down a beautiful meadow, ate lunch and drank tea, played games and left the place a mess. There were candy wrappers, plastic bottles and tin cans. Areas of burnt up grass and basically everything I had learned not to do in Boy Scouts. I wasn't too happy with the result, and I'm thinking of ways I can undo dozens of years of "who cares" attitude.

Alright, so that's the long (not the short) of what's been going on this last month. The weather is turning cold and before I know it I'll be trudging across ice and snow. In a week I will find out who my new American buddy will be and I've been assured that one is coming. I'm pretty excited to be the old salt out here. The guys from the city are all taking off in the next few weeks and I'll be sad to see them go, they've been a lot of fun and I wish them luck in wherever they end up (though I doubt they read this so it doesn't really matter what I say. They all smell terrible. Worse than Randy). That's all for that. Oh, also, I've reached the half way point (most volunteers leave after 26 months, 27 is the absolute limit). See you all in another 13 months.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Week for the Record Books

This blog is dedicated to the awesome camp I just finished a few days ago. This was the best time I’ve had in Kazakhstan so far, and I can’t wait to get back and do more like it next summer! I spent a week in the “mountains” of Bayanaul, about three hours south of Pavlodar at an English Camp. Seven Americans, six local teachers and around forty ninth and eleventh graders all came together for a week of English.
We met at my friend Mary Couri’s school in her village of Bayanaul. All the volunteers from the Pavlodar region, plus one ex-Pavlodarite traveled down together. We met our children and organized into our teams. The first meeting was a bit awkward, since we didn’t know the kids and they didn’t know us. They were very quiet and I was afraid it would be a very unenthusiastic camp.

Our groups were divided up by countries. I was the leader of team Japan. The other countries were Spain, India, Egypt and…Canada. Yes, Canada. Most of the kids on that team didn’t know it, but they had one of the least interesting countries in the world to represent, don’cha know. The Americans with us were Andrew (Spain), Scott (Egypt), Mary (Canada), Jeffrey/JOCAP (India), Adam (Director), and Nick (Cameraman). After a little while we piled on some more buses and headed about 30 minutes south to Lake Zhasubai and the small village that surrounds it.

Each day of camp was dedicated to a different country. We had five 30 minute lessons to teach each day, and my subject was culture. The teams would rotate through the different themes, which included history, biography, art and language. Here’s a quick rundown of my lessons by day, so you can see how exciting they were.

Day one was India day. I taught about a type of Indian theater called Kathakali. Mind you, I don’t know anything about it, and did my research on Wikipedia two days before in Pavlodar. Day 2 was Egypt and this was my most exciting lesson. I created a dead body and had the kids dig in it looking for body parts. Day 3 was Japan and I taught about Haiku’s and Japanese poetry. Day 4 was Spain and I taught bullfighting and we simulated a bullfight. Day 5 was Canada and the only thing I can think of were beavers and Mounties.
Okay, so back to that first night. We did some games to get to know each other, created flags and a small skit to tell a bit about our countries. My kids became slightly more enthusiastic but sadly, we knew very little about Japan. We came up with the capital, samurai, that it’s two islands (not true, but I was told not to correct) and a couple other things. It didn’t seem especially wondrous or anything, at least until that night.

Sunday night (first night at camp) we did something called “The Big Game!” Andrew, Scott and I painted our faces to look monstrous and put on capes. We carried stockings stuffed with flour. When the game started we came running out of a building swinging the socks. The kids had to find different stations around camp and answer questions or do a task. If they were caught between stations by one of us monsters, we hit them with the socks and they were frozen until a “medic” came and freed them by making them do another task. All I remember of the game was running through this camp howling and hitting kids with socks. It signaled the beginning of the fun and was a great start. All my fears were put to rest.

Rather than go day by day at this point, I’m going to give a few highlights. Swimming at the beach was nice, but the water was a bit cold and most days were windy which made it pretty unpleasant to get out of the water. At one point on the beach four of us Americans were standing around and put on an impromptu Three (4) Stooges act that had the kids in hysterics. We got a round of applause at the end.

Sumo wrestling on Japan day was also a lot of fun for me. We stuffed pillows in the kids’ shirts and went to the beach. We drew a ring and they had to shove each other out (kind of like sumo! Duh). Not everybody wanted to, but there were some kids that were into and pretty fierce. When nobody would step up, I volunteered and beat up two girls at once! I also managed to toss another American on his back five times, which was nice because we’d been having a friendly rivalry all week.

I learnt a game called Potato that is played with a volleyball. You stand in a circle and if you let the ball hit the ground after it touches you, you sit in the middle. People then can hit you with the ball or you can try to catch it to get out. It was a lot of fun until our cheap volleyball burst, but by that time the American football was flying around and kids were getting into that too.
My mummy I built was also a highlight from lessons. I like to believe I had the funnest lessons. There was always a game or something to go along with the information, and I didn’t have a boring subject like history. The mummy was a poster board drawing of a man with a long and narrow opening in his stomach. I taped my shirt to the back of it and closed off the holes. I then stuffed it with shredded wrapping paper for blood and guts. There was a paper heart, liver, lungs and stomach inside, and a rolled up bed sheet for the intestines that the kids had to pull out while I timed them. Everybody went crazy and our cameraman got some pretty good pictures.
Every night we had a review game that got really creative.

First night was simple Jeopardy. Egypt night the kids were tied together at the ankle as a team and had to shuffle in a circle to different stations to answer questions. They all seemed to enjoy it, and it was really simple. I used the same sort of idea, and called my game Chasing the Dragon. Each team had to stay in a line under a blanket and answer questions. Each one right they got to take a step and the team that was the furthest in the end won the game. Another volunteer came up with a version of Double Dare, for those of you remember. The final game was a kind of scavenger hunt with kids searching for maple leaves around the camp.
Overall, the volunteers came up with some really creative activities and games for the kids. I know the kids loved it, as did we Americans. We often wanted to participate. Other activities were tie-dye, bracelets, henna, calligraphy and baseball.
Before I go on, I have to mention team points. Teams could earn points for different things in camp, the biggest being the review game at the end of each day. Now, team Japan, for all their efforts, were not the smartest bunch. From day one we were in dead last. Then, we pulled off a surprise second place win in a review game and hope was restored. The next day we proved we were the most athletic team in camp. That day was the big dodgeball tournament.
Dodgeball actually took place over two days. None of the kids knew what the game was but once the balls started flying they caught on pretty quick. It got pretty wild pretty quick and tempers soared. There were lots of people calling others out and claims of cheating, but it all went smoothly. We started with a round robin. Japan beat every taker hands down, until we got to Canada. The Canadian game was epic, but the medic (who can bring people back in) got taken out and Canada was able to clean up in the end. In the final Japan faced Canada again. Japan played a solid game and pulled out a pretty heavy victory.

That win put them in the game against the volunteers. Five volunteers went up against team Japan, myself and our ringer, Nick. The Americans managed to win the first game, due to Japan’s tiredness and their experience. Luckily, this was two out of three (mostly because the Americans wanted to keep playing). In the end, heart won out over experience and Japan took the next two games and a bonus 200 team points.
After the week was done Japan had earned enough points to take 3rd place. We were ecstatic (me most of all) and celebrated our victory (relative) with cheers of Bonzai! So many other things happened during that magical week, I can’t possibly relate them all. Know that I have not had a better time while in Kazakhstan.

Five of us had to leave a few hours early to catch a bus back to Pavlodar. As we left, there were lots of pictures and when we finally got on our bus, the tears started to flow from some kids. Then one girl got on the bus and did a walking hug tour and soon it was a stream of kids coming on to give us all hugs. It was pretty touching and we could see how much we’d touched these kids’ lives. I think all of us were a bit down as we pulled away.
Now, another story about life in Kazakhstan. We arrived at the bus station in Bayanaul an hour ahead of time, expecting that to be plenty of time to get tickets. The problem was, however, that bus stations don’t talk to each other all the time. So the Bayanaul bus station had no idea how many tickets were left and weren’t selling any. We were some of the first to arrive at the station, but as we waited at least twenty more people came. The bus ended up late and by the time it arrived people flew to its doors and there was no way to get on.

Three buses went through the station this way with no chance to buy tickets or get on. After the second bus we asked a taxi driver how much to take four of us (out of 6) to Pavlodar and he said 9000 tenge (around 80 dollars). We just laughed and walked away. After the third bus we asked again and he said 13000 tenge. Now he was laughing. We had been sitting there for over two hours at this point and some people really had to get back to the city.
Some of our guys talked to the taxi driver and he called a friend who said he’d do it for 8000 tenge but it would take him an hour and a half to get to the station. That being the only option, we agreed. Two of us were going to stay in Bayanaul the night and catch a bus the next day. We waited, wondering if this other taxi would ever show up. While waiting we tossed a baseball, met a girl who spoke English quite well and played some guitar. Another guy started waving down cars trying to get a ride into the city.

Finally a different van pulled up and we started the haggle. He didn’t want to go to Pavlodar, but he was going to another city called Icky-Bastus. He guaranteed us a bus from Icky, and if he couldn’t get one, he’d drive us from Icky to Pavlodar, and all this for 1000 tenge apiece. It was a good deal so we got on. The drive to Icky took almost two hours. From there, with help from the driver and some money in the right hands he got us on a bus to Pavlodar for another wad of cash. Thanking him, we got on and after another two hour ride made it to the city. All together it was about 8 hours to make a 3 hour trip. That’s travel in Kazakhstan.
So now I’m back at site, waiting for school to start. I realized that after such an amazing week with such great kids, sitting at home is that much more boring. I’m eager for school to start and have plans for lessons. I’ll be teaching 3rd and 4th graders as well now, which I am looking forward to very much. Hopefully the school year will fly by and before I know it, there’ll be more camps to attend. Ah, also, the Kaz-18’s are all getting ready to leave and it’s pretty crazy listening to them talk about their plans and all of that. It’s exciting for them, and I’m excited to meet this fresh crop of volunteers that arrived about a week ago that Nora is dealing with. I’ll keep you all posted.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

There and Back Again...A Volunteers Tale

I am back. This blog has been a long time coming, but I didn’t feel all that inspired to write it. I felt that not much had happened worth writing about, but I know that there is an ache in all your hearts for another blog update. I couldn’t leave all my fans hanging, frantic to hear more news and witty commentary about life in Kazakhstan. So here you go. Actually, no you don’t. Here goes a short update about my return trip home, and the few things that have been going on since I got back. There is another update below this one about what was going on for the few weeks before I left. Start there if you want continuity.
Lots of flying homeward, a layover in Frankfurt (worst airport in the world) and an agonizing stop in Portland and I finally was back in my mom’s arms! Hurray. They probably would prefer I didn’t mention how they weren’t right there to meet me, but instead I had to wander around looking for them, thinking they hadn’t even shown up yet. (They had, they just got turned around or something. I don’t blame them). Anyway, I won’t bore you all with specific details about my trip; I just thought I’d regale with my favorite PG rated memories.

-Making my niece cry the first time she was left alone in a room with me
-Hiking the top of Iron Peak with my brother and realizing I’m in pretty good shape
-Surprise return of Alex (that’s all I can say to keep it PG)
-Playing 4th Edition hockey (you folks won’t understand this one, so don’t worry about it. You wouldn’t understand my excitement even if you knew what hockey was).
-Making myself sick on good food my first day in America
-Trivia night, even if the “A” team lost to the “B” team
-English everywhere I looked or listened
-Hitting a couple good drives that stayed on the fairway
-Discovering the awesome music of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Gomez
-The Dark Knight (I had a dream about it last night. That I got to see it again).

So that’s what was great about the trip. See all you guys, answering your silly questions (not all were silly) and realizing how much I had missed you guys. And I do miss you all. But I also realized that I don’t need to be in America right now. As much as I loved being back, and loved doing all the things I used to do, I discovered I didn’t need any of it. By the end, I wanted to be back in Kazakhstan, probably the greatest realization and result of my trip (besides mom hugs). I confirmed what I was already pretty sure about; I will survive the next 15 months in this silly country. Life had not changed so much in America and it lacked the excitement and daily interestingness that I find here in Kazakhstan. I get bored sitting in one place, not doing anything. By the time I left, I was spending mornings and afternoons playing computer games at the kitchen counter because I had nothing else to do. Now I’m back, and even if I’m not teaching, I’m at least speaking Russian and getting blindsided by presentations nobody told me I’d have to make. More on that below. Anyway, it was good to see you all, and it’ll be great again in a year, but for now, I’ll get on without you.

Camps out the Whazoo

So whether you read this blog first or the above, you probably know that I’ve been to America and back. This entry here is about what happened before, with a few things that happened after. It’s a little hazy at this point, but I’ll give you the important details.
Baseball camp. Officially it was called a Linguistics camp, but there wasn’t all that much linguistical about it. For five days about a dozen kids would show up in the morning at my school. They came for the baseball, but constrained by the name of our camp, we were forced to do some language work. I did my best to teach some English, and used American games to practice the language they learned. Games included: Crazy Eight’s, Duck, Duck Goose, Head’s Up 7 Up (they really couldn’t get this one), and Steal the Bacon.
That was the early morning. It was all just a stall until baseball time. Baseball is an incredibly hard game to explain. Especially when you don’t speak the language fluently. What’s the infield fly rule? What does tagging up mean? What’s a pickle? These were the problems we encountered in explaining this, my counterpart and I. He didn’t understand the game either, so I would have to explain what I could in English to him, and then have him translate.
We decided the best thing to do the first day would be focus on how to throw and catch, then later hitting. The kids decided the best thing to do would be immediately start swinging away. They didn’t get what they wanted. Most Kazakhstani’s throw like girls (except for one girl that threw like a man) and many were scared of the ball, which makes baseball a very hard game to play. We went through flyers up and other games until I felt they could get the ball at least fifteen feet through the air to their partner.
As time went by over the week, they started to get the basics down. Now, my counterpart on the second day didn’t show up, so I was left on my own. It was a struggle to teach the sport and help everybody who needed help. So the next day when he again didn’t show up, I called Nora, the site mate (ex) to assist. She was amazing. She took the role of batting coach while I was the pitcher/manager. She helped out for two days and got the kids figuring out how to hit, for the most part.
By the last day, my Slava had returned and the kids understood enough to play. I felt pretty successful teaching them, and they were bummed to find out they wouldn’t get another chance to play for over a month, but I have hopes that I can get some sort of game together come fall. Before it snows. So I’ll have about two months.
Okay, other camp. Frisbee camp, which was way better. Nora organized this with a small amount of help from me. We brought in four other Peace Corps volunteers: Aaron, Mary, Justin and Nathan. All of them better than me at Frisbee. There were about 30 kids, all of them wondering what the hell a flying plate is (Frisbee’s a pretty new concept in Kazakhstan).
After an opening ceremony we headed to the park and got the kids practicing. Some of them caught on very quickly, learning the backhand then the forehand without too much of a problem. It was a little more complicated to get all the other rules down, but they managed to figure these out as well. That’s important, because technically in Ultimate, there is no referee (though we supervised the games and acted as referees). The kids learned to call their own fouls, and how to Ro-Sham-Bo to end an argument.
One of the highlights was the tie-dye shirts we made. Thanks to a generous donation from my parents who sent us a kit, we had enough supplies to make at least 50 shirts. I don’t remember if I already told this story, but in getting these fifty shirts, Nora and I made no less than 3 trips into the city. We would go to a bazaar and look for a likely vendor and ask for their smallest white shirts. Usually there were only four or five shirts, if any at all. On one occasion I went to a vendor and he took off running around the bazaar looking for shirts for me. After he came back and I bought about 20 from him, I continued my search. I’d stop somewhere and ask, and they’d already know who I was. I quickly learned that the man had completely cleaned out the bazaar and it was fruitless to keep looking at this bazaar.
Anywho, we eventually got 51 shirts (the exact number we thought we needed). Then only about 30 kids showed up and now I’m left over with 15 extra shirts. The kids spent an afternoon dying them and had a great time. Then they had to wait a couple days to unravel them and wash them out. We made a mess of the sinks in Nora’s school rinsing them out, but the result was terrific. On the last day of camp all the kids wore their shirts and we were thrilled.
That’s the long and short of that camp. It was amazing, we got our picture in the newspaper, and the kids are already asking if there will be another one next year. I tell them of course there will be, because I had as much fun as them. It was Nora’s last big mark on the village before she left to be a new volunteer trainer in Almaty.
Now, for the present day. I went to a presentation today of all teachers in the region who held summer camps. Each teacher presented their camp in hopes they would be chosen as the best and would be sent on to the oblast wide competition. Yeah! I was surprised as you all are (I hope this surprises you). Asking Slava about it, he explained that just about everything they do is turned into a competition. His theory is that it’s just a left over from Soviet times. Perhaps it’s used as a motivator, but I was disappointed with that thought. I was hoping teachers would be motivated by their own selfless hearts to do this. I’m learning more and more that things like that don’t happen. So much seems to be a competition between schools.
Anyway, I went because I thought I was presenting our Linguistics camp. I sat through two and a half hours of boring, god awful presentations. They stand at the front and read the information off their slides that are so full of text you barely notice the tiny photographs they put on them. I’m going to give a public presentation course or something so that people will learn the proper way to do it. That’s not the point of this story though. Here’s the point.
Nora’s counterpart got up and put in a CD with a presentation about the Ultimate Frisbee camp. Too my surprise, the judge then demanded that somebody who worked at the camp do the presentation. The people all turned to me. I turned around to make sure Nora hadn’t snuck in behind me. No, she hadn’t. With much encouragement I got up in front of the room and commenced a spur of the moment presentation.
It was not eloquent. It was in Russian. All by myself. If I’d had a few beers or shots of vodka I probably would have spoken much better. As it was, I got through it, quickly. The judge took my picture, I’m not entirely sure why. I was glad I had shaved that morning though.
My linguistic camp presentation involved Slava do all the talking until it got to explaining baseball. This was my explanation. “Two teams, nine players each. One team hits the ball, the other team catches it. You run around bases.” They all seemed satisfied with it, but I doubt we won. When it was all over I treated myself to an ice cream for a job well done and headed home.
Since I’ve been back my days typically involve sleeping until 10 o’clock, waking up and playing the Sims 2 and reading my books until 1. I eat lunch, read some more, study some Russian, read Russian history and play more computer games or watch TV shows and movies on my computer or television. It’s lazy. It’s boring, but it’ll hold me over until school starts. Don’t expect another update until it does. I have another camp I’m traveling to at the end of August, but other than that, not much is going on.
Now scroll up if you want to read the goodness of coming home.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Value of Family

The most important thing, I believe, in the Peace Corps experience is to have a good family. The times you struggle the most are when you feel alone and the distance between you and your loved ones seems insurmountable. Loneliness is the biggest problem for volunteers, and is likely what sends the most packing within the first six months. That being said, if you find a family that you can connect with you are likely to survive your time in country.
The family has to provide more than just a room to sleep in and 3 meals a day. They have to provide conversation, entertainment, a sympathetic ear and all the things that make a family a family. They have to be totally inclusive. Let me join in with the choirs, the house projects, the excursions! Now, after seven months at site, I think I’ve finally found that.
My new family, though I’ve only lived with them a few days, are already doing great things for my morale. I wasn’t always unhappy with my first family in Zhelezinka, but I was never really happy. I was renting a room there. I wasn’t family, at least not completely, not at home. Moving in with Tanya and Slava was a big step up for me. I was family there, Uncle Jeff. But I always knew that it was temporary, so I never felt completely immersed.
Now I am living with a family of three. My sister, Sasha, has just finished school and will be moving to the city (that’s Pavlodar) in August. She will be going to a medical college there. We had a discussion how it’s possible for people to buy diplomas for about $1000 (though thankfully doctors aren’t able to buy theirs). My grandma, Baba Lena, is retired and will also be returning to the city where she has an apartment in August or September. That will leave just me and mama Lena, who works at a gas station in the mini mart. I slightly worry that the dynamic will shift a lot with this, but I get along really well with my new host mom that I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
My new family, as I’ve said already, lives in a very nice apartment in a great location in town. I’ve already had 2 banya’s in 5 days (though this has been an exception due to visitors), painted a fence with mom and sis, and watched plenty of movies dubbed into Russian on TV. I spend more time involved with the family instead of sitting in my room with my computer (though that’s what I’m currently doing).
My room is getting all set up with pictures on the wall, though one keeps falling. It’s a picture of Randy though, so it’s probably weighed down by all the dork. It’s left a big dork stain where it normally is though, so I know I’m still looking at Randy. Sorry, that was a personal aside; most of you will probably be confused. Until you meet Randy.
Aaaaanyway…Life is very good. Next week begins the first of two summer camps that will lead me right up to my trip home. Oh yeah, I remembered something I wanted to say to y’all. I get the feeling that if I had moved in with this family from the beginning, first of all it would have been awesome, and second of all, I might not have felt the massive need for this trip home. That may make some of you very sad, especially the ones that are paying of my credit card bill, but hey, I bought my ticket already, so I’m going to use it.
Alright, that’s that for this post. I just wanted to offer that insight for any of you reading this and considering Peace Corps (or preparing to go). Find a terrific family. Don’t settle for something less that amazing, because they will help you so much in your time here. It took me 6 months to learn this, so take advantage of my great wisdom before you become quagmired.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Toilet Sweet Toilet

Okay, just a quick update for all you folks dying to know what happens next in this exciting saga:

I have found a family, I am moving in on Saturday. All contracts have been signed, my room has been picked out and the indoor toilet has been tested (not really, sorry Randy). The family are three women, three generations. The youngest was a student at my school, but she didn't study English, she chose that silly Germanic language...German. She just graduated and is heading off to some medical university, not sure where though. Her mother is single and works and Grandma is visiting for the summer but then will go back to Pavlodar where she has an apartment. So, after the summer, it will be me and mom. I've been warned that there may very well be gossip, but I shouldn't let it worry me. Plus, Nora has found me a Kazakh wife, so that should shut up all the Nosy Nancies.

It seems like a good quiet house, in a good neighborhood much more central than before. There are shops nearby, my commute to Nora's is cut in half and I'm not all that far from school. This neighborhood is apparently where all the old Communist bosses used to live, and now it's filled with various directors and hospital managers and the like, so basically the same people.

That's all the real big news as of late. The countdown has begun for when I'm coming back, we're under a month now. I'm extremely excited about it, but I also decided it's not something I need as much as I felt I did before. This last month or so I've been in a really good mood and feel much more comfortable with this village. Peace Corps has their charts with all the ups and downs PCV's go through during service, mentally, and at first I laughed at it, but now I realize it's pretty accurate. I've had months that I'm down in the dumps, depressed, missing home (and it's shown in my posts I"m sure), and now I've hit a peak again. Everybody says that after 9 months in the country, things are generally all pretty good. Language is really good, you're making friends, and it's not winter anymore. Don't feel that I don't need you folks anymore, cause I still do, but I'm pretty sure I can survive two years here.

Alright, well that's that for now. My next post will include some pictures of my new family, the house and all that good stuff. Look forward to seeing all of you, it's gonna be quite the wild time I'm pretty sure. Until then, take care.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Time on My Hands Now

Today was the final bell that marked the end of this school year. Hurray! A very big hurray! I’ve finished my first year of school. I got through the English Clubs, Teachers Meetings, Classes and various other events without losing any fingers or toes!
Looking back on my year, I definitely see room for improvement. I can spend more time making sure my students are engaged in the material and are really learning it, not just regurgitating the lesson. End of the year testing I think reflects as much on the teacher as it does on the students, and most students did not do as well as I’d hoped they would.
I think overall though, it was a good experience and I’m going to consider it warm up. I only spent 6 months at this school instead of the full 9 (the first three months were at my training site). Next year I will have the entire school year, from first bell to last, to work with my students and perfect their English…or at least get them all to say Good Afternoon instead of Good Morning at all times of the day.
Slava, my counterpart, is no longer going to be a zavuch (vice principle) because the Education Department doesn’t think our school needs two. He’s happy with the decision because now he can take more classes. He tells me that he will work with the elementary students (those are the cute 3rd and 4th graders) and younger grades. I’m excited about this because I enjoy those kids and am eager to work with them as well. He’s also going to take more of the younger grades, 6-8th, which I also enjoy.
Let me switch it around and tell you about this final bell ceremony. As you can guess based on previous posts, it was an event marked by music and speeches. The graduating 11th graders paraded out of the school in their uniforms to rhythmic clapping and stood beneath their balloon arch. Various speeches about the end of school and taking the next step were given by teachers and administrators. The 10th graders and 1st graders both made presentations to the 11th graders. It was actually fairly similar to an American graduation, except it was also a ceremony for the younger grades.
There was another ceremony inside the school where the 11th graders sang songs to thank their teachers. This was the time for tears! Oh man, it was like watching sprinklers go off in a line. The first girl started crying, then those next to her joined in, and it continued down the line. Hopefully they were all happy tears.
Sadly, for the 11th graders, their school isn’t over yet. They have another week of consultations with teachers as they prepare for their big exam, the ENT. Every student takes this and is tested in the typical academic subjects plus one of their choosing. Only one kid is doing English, but that’s fairly normal. This test decides their academic future, even more than our SAT’s do. Depending on the subject you choose you will enter your field of study and get a job based on that.
Anyway, that’s on June 2nd, and their final graduation ceremony where they get certificates is on June 20th. I imagine they’re all fairly nervous.
Now I’ve got about three weeks to sit around, trying to think of things to do. On the 15th I have an English camp here in Zhelezinka where I will attempt to teach baseball. On the 23rd our Frisbee camp begins which is pretty exciting. Right after that, I’m coming back to you guys! August will be my slow month, with much sitting around. All throughout summer I will also be running English Clubs as normal, so that’s at least something to keep me busy.
Lastly, I have found a new host family. I will be moving in with them on the 1st. Highlights include: cows (no geese), chickens, sheep, a summer kitchen, running water (no indoor toilet though), a live in grandma and grandpa and another wild toddler (though this one seems quieter). They seem like a friendly and warm family. There will be the before mentioned grandparents and baby, plus the mom and her brother. I imagine this will work out much better than my last family, I’ve got faith.
That’s all I have for you guys. My brother is planning a big bash including soccer and BBQ to which everybody is invited. I’ll get anybody interested my new mailing address once I know what it is. See you all in July.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Potato Stories

It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in a short time. 18 months doesn’t seem that long when you’re living with fun, entertaining people. 43 days seems like forever when you’re waiting to see people you love and miss. And 50 potato holes don’t seem like much when you have hundreds more to dig…
Last weekend was potato planting time in Zhelezinka! There are fields that spread out over the step, tilled by the government and sold to families and organizations that need somewhere to plant their potatoes. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into when I piled into the car with Slava, his wife Tanya, best friend Sasha and Sasha’s mother, Vera. We had a trailer with several sacks of potatoes, four shovels and some buckets.
The trip was over dirt roads that remind you of the 25 cent massage beds in cheap motels. After a short search among fields, looking for our specific plot of dirt, we pulled up next to a strip of dirt that looked like any other to me, but Tanya assured me we got stuck with bad dirt! The nerve of these people! Giving US bad dirt.
There were people all over the place, digging small holes and tossing chunks of potato into them. That day at school many students were absent, and excused, because they were planting potatoes. The process is pretty simple, but the more people you have the better. At least two people are required, and three makes it twice as fast.
The first person starts to dig small holes in a straight row. A woman, typically, follows with a bucket of potatoes, tossing them into the holes. Another man follows, digging new holes and tossing the dirt into the first hole. Potatoes are also thrown in his hole. In our case, we had three men so I came last, making the third line and filling the second holes. It was pretty efficient and I was impressed. The first day we worked about 3 hours, until we ran out of potatoes. I wasn’t feeling too tired, and didn’t think it was too bad.
The next day we went out to the fields at 9 am. There were even more people, and this time we were planting Sasha and Vera’s plot. It was wider than the first one, which made the work harder. We continued the process as before, and after a few hours my forearms were really starting to kill. We took a lunch break: tea, hard boiled eggs, pickles, cucumbers, radishes etc and then set back to it. It was a six hour day and by the end I was pretty beat.
We probably planted over 1000 potatoes. I imagine I personally dug over 300 holes. I also managed to get a slight sunburn, though Slava and Sasha, who didn’t use my sunscreen, got it a lot worse. I enjoyed the work though, being outside in the nice weather and being able to mostly zone out during the work. In August I’m going back to dig them up, which I’m told is a lot more work…
I’m in my final two weeks living with Slava and his family. Peace Corps wants me moved out, but family searching is not going so well. Apparently there are some families out there that want to host me, I just need to visit their houses with Slava some time and see my options. I looked at an apartment for rent, where I would be living alone, but it doesn’t look like it will work out.
I pay 20,000 tenge a month to families to stay with them. That includes food, rent, utilities etc. The man wanted 18,000 just for rent, and I would have to buy furniture, utensils etc. Tanya figured it would cost about an entire months pay (40,000 tenge) to get settled in, and then 25,000 to 30,000 every month, something I can’t afford. Other problems would be the loneliness. Living alone I would not have somebody to talk to every day like I do here. My Russian would suffer and I think homesickness would be much worse. Finally, Tanya warned me that some of the dumber people in the village, when finding out there was an American living alone, would come and vandalize my apartment, throwing rocks through the windows and things like that, so it’s better if I don’t live alone.
That said I never really wanted to that much. In Seattle, I might enjoy my own apartment, but I can always go visit someone and hang out, or they can come to me. My friends here are still pretty limited, and we only hang out in the space we see each other regularly. I have my soccer friends that I play soccer with, I have teacher friends I see at school and I have Nora’s friends that I mooch whenever Nora and I hang out with her friends.
That’s all that’s new in life here, as far as I know. I’m counting down the days until I get to see you guys. Now that I have bought a ticket, thoughts of home occupy a lot of my time. We’re also getting all the work done for our various camps we have coming up, which should keep me somewhat busy in June. It’s the last week of school and everybody is getting a bit antsy, this guy included.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Little Rascals and More

Mark your calendars everybody. July 2nd to July 19th. I’m coming home! I’m hopping on three planes and spending 24 hours to arrive in Seattle (still on July 2nd). I’ve got some plans already in motion, others still in planning phase. I have a feeling my time will be scarce though, so book me in advance, and I don’t take personal checks.
Okay, that’s covered. Other news. First off, fishing. I went fishing when I first arrived here, in the winter. That was okay, but really cold. I have now discovered that fishing in the spring and summer is no different, except it’s a bit warmer. There’s no reel on the poles here, so you just kind of toss it out there and watch it drift back towards you, hoping the fish think the corn kernels and seeds are more appetizing than they appear. I went with four of my students: Albert, Dima, Sasha and Dasha (the token girl).
We met up at the school at o dark 30, fishing poles slung over our shoulders, and trekked out to the river in the morning twilight. I pictured myself walking along with Spanky and the gang, and wishing I had had a river or lake nearby my house that I could walk to through fields as I grew up.
Sadly, we didn’t catch a thing, though the kids claim there were some nibbles, I somewhat doubt it. After awhile fishing degenerated into wresting matches and throwing contests. I easily won the wrestling contest (I almost weighed as much as all three combined). It was a really good time, and I feel that I bonded with my kids. They also managed to get my phone number out of me, so they have called me almost everyday. “Can Mr. Whitehill come out and play?” Not today kids, he’s got grown up things to do.
Frisbee has also been catching on here lately. Nora and I (mostly Nora) have put together a Frisbee camp for the end of June, and so we brought them out to show off. I’ve got to say, I’m pretty sure my kids will dominate this camp. They’ve got the form, the energy and the can do attitude! Though, as Nora pointed out, they are also tiny. Some of my 7th graders look like 5th graders. But that’s okay cause the Little Rascals taught us that it’s heart that really matters.
Other things: holidays. In traditional Kazakhstani style, the latest holidays have been celebrated with singing, dancing and costumes. There was the 1st of May celebration, which was a cultural show. Schools and other organizations were given a culture to represent that lives in Zhelezinka. They came in costume, sang traditional songs and dance and occasionally food. My school represented the Caucuses (white people). The winners of that portion were the Ukrainians, who had recently bought new costumes and danced every chance they could get, showing them off.
The other events were fitness competitions. The first was jump roping and my (ex) host sister Ramzea dominated that with 115 jumps in one minute. Most people couldn’t finish the minute, so props to her, I didn’t know she had it in her. The next was lifting a weight over your head as many times as you can in a minute. I was tossed in to help represent our school. I pulled off a gentleman’s 26 lifts. The winner did 63, but I’m pretty sure he was juicing. I asked for a drug test, but no dice. I won for the most laughs though, because on my 27th lift, I tried to sneak my left arm in there to help. You should have been there, it was hilarious. On paper, not so much. The final event was tug-o-war, which our school was terrible at, but we won one match by forfeit, which was enough for us to get 2nd place overall in the entire competition!
There have been two other holidays in quick succession here as well. Young soldiers’ day, which, as you can imagine, involves the older students dressing up in uniform and parading around. There was a chemical weapons suit relay race, another race carrying a girl around, marching and shouting contests. Our school managed to get 1st place in this competition. This was followed by singing and people laughing as a small child tried to drag his brother out of the middle of the circle.
Finally, today, 9th of May: Victory Day. World War II is still a massive event over here. With the millions of Soviet soldiers that fought in the war, every village, no matter how small, has dozens of men who fought, and plenty that died in the Great War. They honor their soldiers greatly here, as incredible heroes. The day began at 10 o’clock at my school with a service to honor the village hero, Babin, who has a statue in front of our school. It moved onto the park, where there was another ceremony. I didn’t get to watch this though, since I was on the soccer team.
Earlier this week, soccer season started, and it’s been pretty good. I have become pretty rusty, and I’ve got a list of excuses why I’m not playing as good as I am…and here they are: horrible bumpy fields, 8 months since I’ve played, no jerseys to distinguish players, bugs, lack of vocabulary for soccer. I think they’re all pretty good excuses. I’m getting better every time though, and once I get enough practice, everybody will be happy again.
Anyway, there was a big 11 on 11 match at the park today. I was put on the team with 3rd school, in the small blue uniform. It was a good game, and I played my best yet (uniforms, better field, a little practice earlier) and had a good time. I didn’t appreciate being put at midfield though, and being told to constantly run back and support our 6 players defending two of theirs. It didn’t make sense, but who am I to argue? In Russian. Our team ended up winning 4-2, and I didn’t do anything to amazing, but I didn’t make any big mistakes either, so hurray for that!

The day ended with a bbq back at my house. Slava invited a couple locals over and Nora came as well. We BBQ's Shashlik (meat kabobs), had salad and played frisbee. It felt very American, except for the Russian pop music playing in the background. It was a really good time, and very relaxing. I can tell you more about it when I see you in July though.
That’s going to end this update, except for a few quick notes: I bought pointy slip on shoes because I lost my old ones, so now I look more Kazakhstani. Summer seems to finally have arrived. We had snow on the 3rd, but today it’s 30 degrees Celsius (that’s pretty hot). I’m still looking at for a host family to take me in permanently; I’ve got two lined up to look at next week. School is going well, but it’s all turned pretty lazy as the end of the year gets near. That’s all; see most or at least some of you in about two months. Take care until then.