Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I know, you just finished reading the last post

Things have been going really well lately. I’ve been in a good mood and been having lots of fun all around. I think this mostly comes from being busy for most of the day. For the past week or so I’ve had very little downtime to just sit and relax. School is back in full swing (mostly), so I’m there until 1 or 2 o’clock every day. I come home, relax by reading a book, listening to music or reading Newsweek. Then it’s time for lunch. After lunch I’ve often had additional lessons or something else school related. I get home around 4 or 5 again, then relax a little more. I’ve started volleyball again, which I found I really missed, so that keeps me busy until about 9 o’clock. Interspersed throughout the day I’m planning lessons and preparing materials for the next day.
I realize that I don’t do well when I don’t have anything to do. Too much just sitting and thinking, and I get antsy. I start to think, "Is there really a point to me being here?" I’m not working, I’m not really getting out and doing much. It’s a depressing time, and so I’m really happy that I’m back and contributing.
After my visit from Natalya, I’ve been working harder and preparing better lessons. Before I go to lesson plan I try to review the material and come up with some good ideas of my own, so we don’t waste time just sitting there trying to think of something. I’ve gotten back to having an actual objective, and remembering everything Peace Corps tried to teach me in my twelve weeks of training. I think lessons are getting better, and I’m definitely more involved when I’m part of the planning process.
All of this will come in handy when I have kids and can say "You need to learn the value of hard work! Why, when I was in Kazakhstan…(at this point they stop listening). Anyway, long story short, I’m back to work and it’s made me a lot happier.
Now, a short story long. I tried cross country skiing for the first time the other day. This was the first time I had ever had skis on my feet in my life, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fall over as soon as I was strapped in! I waited about five minutes, then fell over. Also, in order to click my feet in, Nora had to stand on the skis so they wouldn’t keep sliding away from me. I managed to get all set up, had no idea what I was doing, and began to move. Nora, whose skis I was borrowing, was my coach.
She tells me the easiest way to do it is to point my feet straight ahead and push myself forward with my poles. This went fine, until I realized that my arms were dieing, and I had to try real skiing. She has some fancy type of cross country ski where you have to basically ice skate to get anywhere. I think they’re speed skis or something bizarre like that. Anyway, I gave the ice skate technique a shot, with a large amount of help from my arms.
Nora was strolling behind me, keeping up without a problem as I wobbled back and forth and tried to avoid the piles of frozen horse manure (poop). Things seemed to be going well, when my skis decided it would be more fun if they crossed over each other. My eyes bugged out as I flailed about, then slowly toppled sideways onto my knees, then a face plant deep in the snow. Nora started cracking up, I laughed and tried to figure out how to get up.
My feet don’t move like I want them to when they’re strapped into ski’s, and I was having a lot of trouble, so Nora had to reach down and grab my feet and twist them around until they were lined up again. I just lay there, patiently staring at the snow surrounding my face. She told me I was ready, and I started to shove myself up. That’s when I saw IT! The piece of horse dung, right next to my head. I had narrowly missed braining myself on a piece of poop with the density of a rock.
I managed to struggle back to my feet and wobble my way around a bit more. I traded the ski’s over to Nora, who was much better than me (she’s from Minnesota). She came around the track, handed them back off to me and sent me off into the woods, all alone…She wandered off to look at the horses. I started along the track, enjoying myself. Over all, I managed to get the entire 2.5 km lap in over the course of our time there, and only fell about 5 times, with many…many…more near misses. I’m a fan of skiing, and I’m going to try to borrow a pair from my school, so Nora and I don’t have to trade off constantly.
Volleyball was back on to, and rather than start up with the really good guys at the sport school, I went with Nora to First School, where the scrubs (me) play. We played with some teachers there who are all as bad as or worse than me. Also, the net was barely above my head, so it made spikes and blocks a lot easier for me. I’m not sure who exactly won, but I had fun.
The next day I went back to the sport school after being away for a month. The guys seemed happy to see me, and thought it was funny that my excuse for not coming was that it was so cold. Anyway, I got in a few games with them, and was reminded how bad I still am. The best part about me going again, though, was I learned of a Sunday afternoon soccer game in the gym every week. I told them I’m better at soccer, and I’m definitely going to go and play. I’ll let you know how that all went. I’m not sure if it’s like court soccer, or if the volleyball net will still be up and we’ll play like soccer tennis. Either way, I’m excited for it.
I finished Silk Road to Ruin, and I really recommend it to anybody at all interested in the area or American foreign policy. The book is really pretty funny, especially during the beginning. The last third or so is a bit more focused on the future of the area, and moves away from the more light-hearted beginning, but by that point you are so engaged in the area and politics that it doesn’t matter at all. I do have to add a disclaimer though. The author, Rall, claims that the majority of people in Kazakhstan do not support President Nazerbaeyev, which is absolutely untrue. Nazerbaeyev is a pretty popular president, though this may be due as much to propaganda as any of his programs might.
That brings me to one final point I want to vent out. I have mentioned before these Interactive Boards, which are basically fancy blackboards connected to computers and projectors so you can write directly on them with a light pen and also show movies, pictures or whatever. They cost thousands of dollars, and rarely get much use in the schools. Anyway, my school already had one, and now we just got a second. This wouldn’t be a problem, if all our computers had internet, or up-to-date software, or worked at all. Or if we had blackboards in the classrooms you could actually write on. This is one of Nazerbaeyevs projects, is to put these boards in the schools where the money could be spent so much better in tons of other ways. With the money the Interactive Boards cost, you could buy a whole new set of computers with educational software. Just something to think about. Also, enough textbooks so every student can have one would be great too.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Playing Catch up...here's the news

PlI had a good time chatting at the table tonight with Ramzea and Galiya (the host family). We were just chatting away, and then it somehow turned into an impromptu English lesson. Ramzea was listing the phrases and words she knew in English, mostly gained from Hollywood films. I’ll be back, Hasta La Vista (I explained this wasn’t English), Oh my God and Oh Shit is just some of what she knew. Then I started giving them the names for things in English. We were on lights vs lamps, and suddenly we seemed to change topics. Galiya asked what “bra” was. It’s the same in English isn’t it? I stuttered, not sure if I was hearing this right. “Bra,” she said. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. So she grabbed a spoon, put it on the wall and said something about a lamp. “Nightlight (thank God)” I told her.
Then we moved to the head, and facial features. Ramzea started describing Galiya’s head in Russian while I gave the translation. It came out as “Silky hair, red face, white head, brilliant eyes, coral lips, white teeth and potato nose.” I liked it. Galiya is actually the one who came up with the potato nose.
Also on looks, I’ve finally grown tired of people talking about how much weight I’ve lost. I haven’t weighed myself in a few weeks, but I was down 40 lbs to 210 just after New Years. Anyway, one of my sisters friends (I suppose one of mine too at this point) was over and asked to see my pictures. She saw some from Aarons wedding and exclaimed how healthy I used to look. I need to learn the words for heart attack, high blood pressure and unhealthy cholestorel to explain that I’m actually healthier now. In addition, I’ve had everybody that hasn’t seen me in a few weeks exclaim how thin I’ve gotten, and that I will disappear in a few months completely. It makes me feel pretty good, but it’s getting a little repetitive.
Another story. How often has it been so hot in your house the wall paper has literally peeled from the walls? Well last Sunday my sister, Ramzea, got a little over eager with the coal stove and got it really fired up. The kitchen is the first room to get heated, and along the line where the pipe runs with the hot steam, the wall paper was peeling back and hanging down the wall! The next day we went and bought some clay paste stuff and got it put back up, and it looks great, but it was a pretty funny day. It was so hot in the house that night that I couldn’t sleep with any sheets. I guess that’s what I can expect in the summer too. Fun stuff.
Alright, the news since coming back from vacation. It’s been pretty cold here lately (it is winter after all) and the furnaces have to work over time. The main heating plant in town apparently broke down a few weeks ago, and it feeds a number of buildings in town, including apartments and Nora’s school. So they’ve been shut down until a couple days ago, when they opened for half lessons. At the same time, my school apparently bought some inexpensive coal, which translates to ineffective. It doesn’t burn hot enough or something, and our school isn’t heated very well either.
Since coming back there has been little real school, and it’s usually only in spurts. We were all closed for over a week because of the cold and bad furnaces. We had 30 minutes classes (normally 45) the last two days, but now the schools are closed again. Students and teachers were going to class in their big bulky coats, huddling up and shivering. It hasn’t been all bad though, because students suffering from hypothermia are much less rowdy and appear to be paying attention.
I had a site visit from my regional manager this week. She came to watch two of my classes in the cold. They were pretty bad. Which is normal. Her visit forced me to have a good look at how I’m doing here after two months, and it wasn’t good. My kids aren’t learning too well, and our methods are ineffectual. Tatiyana (English teacher) and I got a kindly lecture about improving our lessons. I have to admit, it’s mostly my fault for not doing a better job and being assertive. Peace Corps did a good job drilling me with the techniques for good lessons, and upon my arrival, I was afraid to challenge the teachers. I didn’t want to seem like I was telling them how to do their job (which is exactly what I was supposed to do). Anyway, now I realize that if I’m going to do any good work here, I need to step it up and assert myself. I’m an adult for Pete’s sake! What’re they gonna do, fire me? From now on, P1, P2, and P3 all the way!
Natalya (my regional manager) was assured that the kids do really like me, and that I’m needed in the classrooms. I still enjoy teaching, and Natalya claims that I was very good during training and she put me in this site for a reason, so I think I can do better, and will. Not to worry folks at home (or rejoice), I’m not coming home any time soon.
Actually, on that note, I’ve been thinking about what my summer plans will be. There are some places around here that I would like to visit. China is up at the top of the list, as is Nepal. I just read Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (I spelled his name right without checking, I know because I checked after I spelled it), and now I want to travel the trails in the Himalayas and look at Mt. Everest from the lowest elevation I possibly can. There are also plenty of other places I’d like to see, like most of SE Asia and any number of islands in that area. I’ll have to see other PCV’s plans.
I’ve also been thinking I might like to come back home for a week or two. I can get an injection of all the friends, family and food I left behind (though leaving that food behind is probably why I’ve become so “unhealthy”). I miss camping trips with the guys, beer pong, Sunday dinner, my niece that I’ve barely seen, my mom (I didn’t put you first for added suspense) and a thousand other things. I’ll have to make up my mind about where I’m going by May I suppose, so I’ll keep you all informed.
Also, and I meant to put this at the top (and probably still could without any of you knowing I typed it down here), I want to thank everybody for the many Christmas cards and other mail I’ve gotten over the past few weeks. They’re still coming in, and it’s really nice to know you folks are all thinking about me and to find out what you are up to. Everybody who has sent a letter or card is getting some loving mail in return. Consider that it takes a month for it to get to me and a month to get back to you, it may take two months before you know how much I really appreciate it, so this is pretty good turn around time. (Remember it takes me a month normally to write a thank you note).
On top of that, if anybody wants to send me an insta-message, you can find a website for the company “beeline.” They are a cell phone service provider here, and you can send a text message, for free I believe, to me at any time, from the internet. I can’t answer of course, but if there’s something urgent you need to say, that’ll reach me. Please though, I am usually asleep from 10 am to 7 pm Seattle time (that’s Midnight to 9 am over here), so maybe not send one at that time.
This is already longer than I planned to write, so I’m gonna cut it off here. Not much else is really going on. I’m reading a lot of books, I recommend Silk Road to Ruin by Ted Rall for anybody that wants an insight to this region and its insane politics. It’s not just educational, it’s entertaining! That’s all from this side of the world (new catch phrase?), take care America. Stay classy Seattle.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Holy Cow, is this a long update

I think I may have been the only one to see the irony of listening to “Hava Nagila” in my all Muslim household. It came on their disc of mp3’s that must have been a New Years present, because I had never heard it before, and if I had, I would have let all of you know about it. I laughed to myself, then immediately sat down here to write this so I wouldn’t forget it. The next song was Hammertime, by the way.
Religion is one of the things in this country that irks me. (For me, an irk is something that’s not that bad, but I secretly roll my eyes at it all the time it occurs. That may not be the standard definition, but it’s what we’re going with here). The Soviet Union did everything it could to stamp out religion, so the people really can’t be blamed. They lived in a system where you were persecuted for your religious beliefs, so it’s just normal that nowadays most people have very little real devotion. My family is Tatar, which also makes them a Muslim family. My sister washes her face with her hands after a meal, but beyond that, religion doesn’t really enter the household. Personally, I feel that if you are going to claim a religion, you should embrace a lot more of the aspects of it. You aren’t really a Christian if you just celebrate Christmas for the presents. You have to hold the beliefs of that religion in your heart, and I’d be curious to know how much people here really know their religions that they claim to be a part of.
Okay, on a lighter note, it’s a New Year and I’ve got some stories to tell:

I went back to Almaty and Kaskelen for New Years with my host family and a couple friends from training, Matthew and Drew. It was really great to see my family again, who seemed really excited to see me. I showed up two days before the other guys and got to spend some time just hanging out and relaxing. Drew was the next to show up, on Sunday afternoon. We planned to meet up in the city and hang out there for a bit, but it turned into a bit of a fiasco. For those of you who have never been to Almaty (that’s pretty much all of you), it’s a massive, sprawling city. It has a population of 2.7 million people that spread out, not up. The bus system is chaotic and it can take up to an hour to get anywhere in the city. That sets the stage.
I was going to take a mashrutka (sort of a mini van but a little bigger) to go and meet Drew. I thought we were meeting at a place called City Plus, which is a bizarre mall near the edge of the city. Drew thought we were meeting at a place called the Silk Way, which is like a big old strip mall. I forgot how to get to the mashrutka stand in Kaskelen and spent close to an hour looking for it before one passed me and I asked if it was going to Sairan, my stop. The guy told me to climb on board so I did. It took me to Altan Orda, a bazaar not even in Almaty. I said “Sairan?” The man said “No, Altan Orda…of course” and kicked me off the bus. I was beyond irked at this guy. Anyway, I stood around for 10 minutes, asking various mashrutkas if they were going to Altan Orda. One guy finally told me to get on and I thought “oh, man…where am I going now” as I climbed aboard. Luckily, he took me to my stop and I made my way to the mall.
I messaged Drew that I was there, only to discover he had been waiting for me at Silk Way. I convinced him to come to me since this was the way back to Kaskelen anyway. He agreed, though he didn’t want to try to find me on the city buses. (This was the same reason I didn’t want to go to him). I spent an hour or so wandering around this mall, looking at various gadgets. At one point I wandered into a supermarket. The supermarkets here are insane (like all other public places) and I couldn’t find my way out. All the lines were packed with people or blocked off by big metal bars and I have a deathly fear of being yelled at by large Kazakhstani man that I can’t understand who eventually throws me in prison for cutting. Anyway, I decided to just buy something and stand in one of the insane lines.
I chose a bottle of fanta and a Twix bar and got in what I thought would be a quick line. I was behind a woman with a shopping cart loaded with various New Years food. I had resolved myself to waiting behind her when a man with a single bottle of champagne, using his language skills he had developed for 40 years asked if he could jump in front of her since he had only one item. She politely agreed and I thought of how, in one year, that man could be me. Once the women got to the front and her items were scanned, it seemed to be going quickly. That was, until the checker decided it was a good idea to scan this cake five times! Why…I don’t know. There were five tags, so the woman scanned them all.
The money was exchanged but then the checker realized she had just charged the woman an extra few thousand tenge (maybe 20 dollars or more). She had to work for five minutes to get the charged erased and the money given back. After a couple minutes, I did the half turn to the people behind me and gave the eye roll, half smile that’s necessary in such situations. I was happy to see that this gesture seems to be international, as I got the head bob shoulder shrugs from the folks behind me. I was working out some cross-cultural integration there!
It was after this that Drew and I talked again and he had given up on the buses and was going to head home and I was tired of waiting, so I headed home too. I got back two hours before he did, too. The next day Matthew showed up and we had a big old family reunion. It was a really good time, just hanging out and sharing various stories.
New Years started about 9 pm with a big feast and various toasts around the table. It continued with various games that people had either thought up or seemed to be old traditions. The big one was called Fanti, and it was sort of like charades. Everybody either got a piece of paper that told them one thing they had to do. Sometimes people had to guess what it was, other times it was just something funny. An example was, wish everybody a Happy New Year five different ways (angry, happy, sad etc). I managed to get juggle three apples. I busted that out without a problem. There were some other games that had people making fools of themselves, but I’m going to save those to use on you all when I get home.
Right around midnight the radio was turned on and people listened to President Nazerbaeyev giving his traditional New Years speech. At the stroke of midnight everybody chants Happy New Year (in Russian) then races outside for fireworks. Kaskelen was a war zone that night! All over the sky things were exploding and whistling. I did my part to add to the chaos. I had bought two packs of Roman Candles and was firing them off. The most exciting part was they only went about five feet in the air most of the time before exploding, so there were sparks and fire raining down everywhere! After that it was back inside and exchanging presents.
It was very informal; you just walk around and hand out your things, unwrapped and all that. My family told me they had a gift for me waiting for me up in my room. No, it wasn’t a girl. It was a new sweater (think Cosby Show) that was incredibly warm. I’ve been putting it to good use up here in the North, but it was too warm for down south. Very comfortable and nice, I was very touched. I gave out the gifts I had bought as well, and got various candies and a reindeer candy cane mug from Lena (host Aunt, Matthew’s mom).
Then more food came. After midnight is the Pelmini time. I only had room for a couple of those (like most people it seemed). We ate, and then resumed the different games. This lasted until about 3.30 in the morning, where exhausted, I crashed in bed. The next day the three of us from my language group and Daniel, another volunteer in town, went to visit Indira, our language tutor. She was very happy to see us and we had a good time talking with her and showing off our awesome new Russian skills. Most of the talking was in Russian, which I was impressed with. We are all fairly competent, especially when put in a room with each other and nobody points out the tons of mistakes we are making.
Daniel got love advice from Indira; we drank a good number of toasts again and ate more good food, then made our way home. The rest of the vacation involved just hanging around and relaxing. My train back, I managed to get on the right wagon with help from my host family. We said our tearful (not me of course) goodbyes, assuring Karolina I would be back in March, hopefully in time for her birthday (day after Randy’s), and I climbed aboard. I had managed to pick up a pretty bad cough and a case of the sniffles while down there, and my family included some powder drink to help with it on the train. My host dad told the woman sitting next to me to make sure I drink it on the train.
I ended up talking to this woman for a while when the train first got started. She was wondering why I was taking the train to Pavlodar instead of flying. I explained that I can’t afford a plane, that I’m here as a volunteer. We chatted some more, explaining that I was an English teacher here with an organization, living for two years. She told me about her daughter studying English in Moscow and about her family that all lives in Pavlodar. She herself was a retired engineer of some sort, I couldn’t understand the entire details, but she said she was very good at math.
I was feeling pretty good about how my chat had gone as she got up to head to the bathroom, and rather than jeopardize what so far had been a great conversation, I put my head phones in and listened to Dane Cook for a bit. She came back and we spoke a bit more, but then she went to bed and I contentedly listened to music and worked on my book.
Over the course of the train ride, I managed to read all of Catch-22. It’s a pretty interesting book, though it gets depressing throughout it. When I got to Pavlodar, I met up with my buddy Adam and crashed at his place. I saw a Steinbeck collection on his shelf, so I’ve borrowed that now and am working through some more of the classics. I decided that this is a good time to get some serious reading in, and maybe break myself away from my computer a bit more (ironic that as I say this I’m sitting at a computer). Anyway, if you have some recommendations on what I should be reading, as far as really awesome books go, let me know and I’ll see if I can get my hands on them.
My big project in Russian now, actually, is to read a Stephen King book. I asked Karolina (host sister, remember) if she had a good, not too difficult, book in Russian I could borrow and try to read. She gave me The Green Mile. Not the simplest book, but interesting so far. At this point I have finished the first chapter (about 4 pages) in about a week. I read 30-60 minutes a day, dictionary open and notebook at the ready for interesting words I find. The first bit was very slow going, but I’m getting better at looking up words and I’m moving a bit quickly. The rare instance that I can understand something without a dictionary is cause for a small dance and celebration in my room. Also, thanks to the parents who have explained the more confusing sections in English to me.
School has started up again, and I’m trying to turn a new leaf. With most of my classes I was teaching with a young teacher, but we rarely worked together. She had been sick and I was teaching alone for awhile, and when she came back, we didn’t plan lessons together much. That led to me not doing much in classes besides a few minutes in the beginning. I’ve now set up a time each week (hopefully) that we can plan lessons together and get me involved a bit more. It should be pretty good, because I’ve got ideas for lessons that I’d like to try, but I can’t do much without her help.
I was pretty depressed before my vacation, but coming back now, I’m happy to be here. I really prefer village life to city life. It’s quieter here, and much cleaner. In Kaskelen, you get black boogers and everything stinks. Out here it’s fresh air and frozen boogers. Though I enjoyed a shower and indoor toilet, those things are less important to me than I realized. They are things I can adapt to and, though maybe not enjoy, tolerate. I had the thought that maybe the reason I have been thinking how much greater Kaskelen is, has to do with my friends there. I had people I could talk and joke with on a regular basis in English. Language class was some of the most fun I’ve had, and that’s gone now. As time goes by here though, I’m enjoying what I have.
I definitely needed that vacation, and I will probably need more in the future, but for now I’m settled. I’m happy, I feel productive (which is key to my happiness) and I have no complaints (we’re down to seven geese). I’ve got a whole year ahead of me in Kazakhstan, and that’s both daunting and exciting. I think about the changes that may happen in a year; changes in me and changes around me. Hopefully I can be a part of some very good changes in Zhelezinka. And for all of you folks back home, hopefully you can do the same. Here’s wishing everybody a happy and productive New Year.