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.