Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why We Walk

The Pleasures of a Village Stroll


Why We Should Move to Fremont

The average American family owns between two and three cars, though this number is declining in the face of the recent CRIZIS (as it is referred to in Kazakhstan, accompanied by a sympathetic nod). In your typical Kazakhstan village less than a quarter of families own cars, and many of those are old and dented Soviet models on their last legs. Instead of burning a hole in the ozone and spewing motor oil into streams and rivers, Kazakhstani’s get about mostly by foot.

I realize that foot travel is not possible for the typical suburbanite American, of which about half of Americans are a part. This is a tragedy, as foot travel has many advantages, the most obvious being environmental. It is commonly known that Al Gore discovered global warming and got a Nobel Prize for trying to light a fire under our asses. This has led many families to rid themselves of excess cars and become a single car household, but until we get out of the suburbs, we’ll be constricted to evening strolls around the block. These, however, lack the charm of stray dogs chasing you with hungry eyes and fierce barks which you find in a village.

As an aside, I want to have a small say about suburban life. While it can seem “pastoral” and great for raising kids, the homogenizing nature of suburbs is really a detriment to society. The multicultural melting pot that urban living can offer enriches children and offers them a world view that is clearly missing from life on the outside. You can get the small village feel in a rich and diverse city block, and as the green movement continues, there will be greater access to open spaces within the jungle.

Fresh air could be the one benefit of suburban life, and it is found readily (and bragged about readily) in villages. You aren’t choked in by smog and pollution. Here, again, however, Al Gore is saving the day by leading us towards clean energy and green manufacturing. It may not have taken hold yet, but given time, the air in the industrial neighborhood of Seattle could be as refreshing as Upland Green. In addition, getting outside provides the average person (read – obese lardo) some much needed exercise. Just the daily walk to and from work can start to rim off those unsightly chins and spare tires. Moving on.

People are the heart and soul of a village. In a walk to work you often pass such characters as the early morning drunk, the shop lady and the goose herder. If you were to breeze past in a car, you would be denied the magic of these people as they stagger, strut and steer through the streets. In a world where email and facebook (or blogs, for that matter) are not a household word, chance meetings in the street are the best method of passing on the news or latest gossip.

You won’t find the joke of the week in your inbox in a Kazakhstan village, but you might run into your acquaintance from the local butcher’s who has a new one to tell, even if you can’t understand it due to the colloquial language and odd sense of humor of the locals. This is the greatest benefit of walking your way around.

Walking about, and the slow speed of life here, is one of the greatest pleasures I’ve derived from my time here. Returning to the high speed, car obsessed world of America I’m sure will lead to me reminiscing about my idyllic life here, just as sure that my ruminations will drive you all nuts.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sliced Bread: Not Just a Cute Metaphor

In the interest of doing more writing, I now present, for your reading pleasure, the first of many articles about the little things in Kazakhstan. I hope you find it stimulating and enlightening.

Sliced Bread: Not Just a Cute Metaphor

Americans who have never lived abroad take so much for granted. Our cars, internet connections, clean water and so much more. Among these is an item elegant in its simplicity which makes our lives so much better. I am, of course, talking about sliced bread.

Few of us think, when making a sandwich, realize the benefits of having bread pre-sliced for us, wrapped up in plastic that keeps it fresh and soft. In Kazakhstan, however, that is a luxury few people can afford. Our bread is bought in a large, crusty loaf. It is usually baked in a local bakery and each loaf is individual, with its own flaws and quirks.

When we want French toast, we just beat some eggs and add a few other ingredients, and then pull a couple slices from the plastic wrap and fry them up. In Kazakhstan, we must draw the knife across the bread in order to enjoy the sweet cinnamony taste our beret wearing brothers across the Atlantic bestowed on us.

Few Americans know the frustration of not being able to slice those thin pieces of bread off the loaf, perfect for surrounding a large, succulent stack of roast beef, lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise. We don’t understand that in Kazakhstan, there are no sandwiches because the bread makes the meal too large to stuff in our mouths.

We can’t comprehend the pain of watching your bread tear and rip from a dull knife that prevents you from making that ideal piece of toast. No, we Americans greedily slather on the butter and thick cuts of cheese that form the core of a grilled cheese sandwich without a thought to how hard it would be to melt that cheese evenly if it were placed on a piece of bread more than a quarter inch thick.

The next time you make a sandwich or a piece of toast, be it French or otherwise, I hope you think of all the poor children who will never know the beauty of a sack lunch with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or tomato soup and grilled cheese on a cold winter day. Revel in the divine symmetry of your bread slices, but don’t forget your poor Central Asian brothers who must slice their own.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Keep Your Friends Close...

For those that do not know, I was on the verge of being sent home two months early. For the past three weeks I have been awaiting a decision from the local village government about whether or not I should be allowed to continue teaching in their schools. This action came about through no fault of mine, though it was set in motion by a mistake I made several months ago. I wrote an article that explained the situation and resulting problems for the Peace Corps Kazakhstan newsletter/literary journal, and I thought I would share it all with you.

Making Friends in Kazakhstan: A Cautionary Tale

By Jeff Whitehill

Some months ago I was the victim of a crime. I had some valuables stolen out of my apartment by some people I thought were nice. I was lonely and depressed and thought maybe I had found some new friends. Though my possessions were returned to me and the criminals were locked up, the situation became progressively worse in my village. I am providing this tale to all of you in hopes that you can learn from my mistakes. Pay heed, for this is a story of betrayal and deceit.

I play soccer fairly regularly with a group of men during the summer. I’ve been playing various sports with them for the past two years and they were all friendly and welcoming. This particular Wednesday, however, was not an ordinary day. I arrived at the school where the game was usually played to find a group of young men, about my age, loitering about. They were dressed to play, but none of the regulars were there. I walked up and changed into my cleats, thinking that the regulars were all running late, per usual.

The young men struck up a conversation with me and what followed was typical of most conversations between young men. Firstly we talked about soccer, my cleats etc. We then quickly progressed to girls and similar “serious” topics. After a few minutes some more young men arrived, toting a box. We all squatted in a circle, and I was introduced to the new comers as their new American friend. They produced from this box a large collection of beers, which they passed around the group.

Seeing as I was squatting on the edge of a soccer field next to a secondary school, I declined the beer. I declined many times, actually. The correct move would have been to excuse myself from the group and head home, but I was enjoying the company. Remember: I’m lonely.

One member of the circle, a squirrelly little Kazakh man, fell in love with my Washington Huskies hat. He wanted it as a gift, and became quite vehement when I refused to part with it. As a means of consoling him, I offered him any of several other hats I had, promising to bring them to the next game so he could look over them and choose his favorite. He proposed that we go to my apartment and get one now. After much pressure, I caved like a wet noodle and I led a small group of four “friends” back to my apartment to get hats and drink some tea.

Once at the apartment my new “friends” became fascinated with everything I owned. They looked at my pictures on my wall, played my guitar, looked through my books and gazed longingly at my iPod. We eventually made it into the kitchen where I brewed the tea. While we waited, they wandered about a bit; some going to smoke on the balcony, others going to the bathroom or returning to my living room. Once the tea was brewed we sat down and drank a cup. I then gave out my hats, and we said goodbye.

As soon as they left I looked about my apartment and noticed several expensive items missing. I’ll cut to the chase at this point, because the absurd details of dealing with the police is something many people are familiar with. I got my things back, more or less in working order, and the guys were caught. I thought the problem was settled, but it was only just beginning.

I returned from a summer camp in mid August to find out an article had been written about me in the local paper claiming I had gotten drunk with these boys, invited them to my apartment to imbibe some more vodka and “various other spirits,” and only after we were very drunk did they steal my things. The article said I was a bad influence and I shouldn’t be teaching the local youth. Like the great Richard Nixon, I had fallen victim to a liberal media out to destroy my reputation.

The local Raion took this article as canon and called Peace Corps to have me removed. Peace Corps took my side; they made a trip to visit the Raion, met with the Deputy Akim and followed up with a strong letter. Though we have the facts, according to the police report, on our side and every single person I know claims this article couldn’t be the truth, the government seemed convinced of my wrongness and disreputableness. As the letter from Peace Corps said, “We find it very strange that an American Volunteer, who is in Kazakhstan to help students learn English, should be victimized by local hooligans and then be accused as if he committed a crime himself." We all know, however, that logic is not always a factor in such decisions.

Not everybody in this country values our work or desires the presence of Peace Corps. There are a few people who would love nothing more than to discredit our work, as you can infer from a line in the letter to the newspaper from a so-called concerned citizen. “The Law-enforcement institution closed this criminal case very easily, but it suggested some ideas… Is it at all possible that all PCVs associate, without embarrassment, with such company? And what can such a teacher teach our kids, in addition to English?”

The actions of one volunteer reflect on all of us, and “someone” – I think we all know who - was using this situation to create the idea that all volunteers could be disreputable people, tainting their children with our improper action.

In the end, the truth set me free. The Raion and Akimat read the Peace Corps letter, reviewed the police report, which confirmed my story, and could not deny that I was, in fact, a stand up guy. The Akim himself gave me permission to stay until the end of my service. I was happy and grateful for this rational end to the problem.

It was a relief to know I would not be leaving my community under these circumstances. Now I have a chance to make sure I leave a lasting impression of goodwill, hard work and honesty with my community. This whole situation helped me to realize I am not satisfied with what I have accomplished here, and will strive to do more in my community.

My wish is that you can learn from my lesson and be very careful who you associate with, however briefly. Don’t allow people to take advantage of your kindness, generosity or naivety, as happened in my case. There are plenty of good people to befriend in Kazakhstan, they just aren’t found on the side of a soccer field drinking beer.