Saturday, August 30, 2008

Finally, an Internet Connection

The Neverending Journey (8/17-8/21)

Friends and Family,
Our story begins in Philadelphia for the beginning of my Peace Corps experience: staging. I awoke at 3:30 am for my flight to the city of brotherly love. My travels went as well as could be expected given the unfortunate timing. I arrived, met some fellow colleagues and departed for the hotel. The first day of staging was a bit of a struggle given my state of sleeplessness. I don't think I've fallen asleep sitting up since my high school American history class. The next day proved to be much easier. Overall, staging consisted mostly of safety guidelines and icebreakers (my personal fav). Then, on Tuesday morning, we departed for Kazakhstan!

The bus ride from Philly to New York took about three hours. We experienced a pleasant ride through the heart of The Big Apple. Then I was able to catch a glimpse of what I believed to be the largest cemetery in existence as we were leaving the city.

Now, for whatever reason, Peace Corps scheduled us to arrive at the airport about six hours before our flight would take off. These six hours were filled with general conversation amongst the volunteers, along with the regular consumption of food. Then, the flight to Germany! All goes well, I catch a few hours of sleep and we arrive in Frankfort. Just as we are getting settled into our terminal to await the arrival of our flight to Almaty, everything goes horribly awry. We are told that our plane is experiencing problems with its landing gear and that we are to be updated on its status at 6pm. Note: our flight was scheduled to board at Noon. Also note: our flight will not be leaving at 6pm, we will only be told updated information about the progress of maintenance at this time. So basically, we are stuck in a German airport until God knows when. It is also important to note that no one working for Peace Corps accompanied us on this journey. We are alone.

About an hour or so after this joyous announcement is made, we are informed that another flight is departing from our gate and that we need to leave. When I approached a friendly German airport worker and informed her that we were a group of 60, 30 of which had left to find food, she informed me that we would be responsible for all of their “hand-luggage” and to move everything to an empty gate. In order to make up for this lack of hospitality, we were offered free food. Alright. Thus begins another waiting extravaganza. At some point we are informed that we will either take another plane to Almaty or be put up in a hotel for the night. Luckily, the former proved to be the case. Our flight for Almaty left around 8pm and we finally arrived in Kazakhstan at 6am on Thursday morning! Note: do the math here. Time zone changes included, we were in transit for about 42 hours. Ridiculous. Not to mention, I, and many of the others, got a total of maybe 6 hours of sleep?

Almaty (8/21-8/22)

Finally! We are in the great nation of Kazakhstan! Now as we have arrived at around 6am on Thursday we have a whole day ahead of us, and there is no chance of that being wasted! After arriving at the sanatorium (yummy), we eat breakfast and immediately begin training. This consisted mostly of information seminars, an hour or so of language training and the joys of vaccines. And it was then that I made the most important decision of my life: to study Kazakh for PST (Pre-Service Training)! I was assured this was the best decision given my prior experience with the Russian language.

After this harrowing day, our trainers were kind enough to cut it short so that I was able to fall asleep around 5 pm. I slept until 6am the next day. And what an important day! The day we met our host families! Since I am study the great language of Kazakh, I am living in a village (pop. 6,000?) called Shamalgan. Their claim to fame is that President Nazarbayev was born and raised in their humble village. Pretty cool I guess. When we arrived we had an amazing welcome. Our host families and teachers from the school played music for us while some village children danced the national dance of Kazakhstan. The volunteers that went to the other villages didn't get anything but signs with their names written on them so they could identify their host families!

Interestingly enough, we are supposed to be only one volunteer to a family. But one of the host families hasn't yet finished construction on their volunteer's room, so she is staying with me for two nights. This is actually somewhat of a comfort because I wasn't alone for my first night with complete strangers. Also, there is a high school aged girl who lives across the street who speaks very good English, and so she came and ate dinner with us and talked to us for most of the time. Unfortunately for me, my family doesn't speak any Russian. I mean, what are the chances of that? While Kazakh is the national language, only around 60% of the population speaks it, while 97% speaks Russian. My family must fall into that last 3%. Lucky me. I suppose this will serve as my motivation to learn Kazakh. I am also lucky because my family has running water, an indoor toilet, and a washing machine. No shower. Instead, my family has their own personal banya in the backyard for all of our bathing needs. And for those who are ignorant of Russian and Central Asian culture, a banya is a steam room where you sweat out the dirt and use buckets of water to wash.

In conclusion, the food is tasty. This is really the most important party of my experience thus far. I don't have diarrhea yet, and that's always a good thing. We have our first real class Saturday at 9am.

First Lessons and Banya 8/23

Today was our first real lesson in Kazakh! We had learned some useful phrases in Almaty but today we solidified some basic “getting to know you” phrases. Kazakh seems to be more simple than Russian in some ways. For instance, Kazakh has no gender, but it also has postpositions instead of prepositions, which can be confusing. Note: with the exception of the Cyrillic alphabet, Russian and Kazakh are completely different. I was not expecting this.

After our lessons the class walked around Shamalgan and we got to visit each other's host families. This was fun because we got to see each other's houses and exercise a bit, but we also got stuffed with tea and food at every place we went. Now I love tea, but these people drink so much that my body cannot handle it. I probably had at least 20 cups of tea today, no exaggeration. The reason for this excess is that they make giant kettles of water and tea and set them at the end of the table. The mother or eldest sister of the family sits next to the tea and pours everyone their drinks. She is the designated “tea lady”. She will watch you drink until your cup is empty, and then she will hold out her hand for your cup in order to refill it. Saying no to more tea is very difficult, because the tea lady might take offense. So basically the only way to avoid drinking copious amounts of tea is just to leave your cup full or half-full. But then you risk the chance of the tea lady yelling at you to drink more. It sounds silly, but Kazakh people are very hospitable and they will feed and water you to death.

After our lesson today I got to use my host family's banya. That was nice since I was definitely in need of bathing after walking all over Shamalgan, which is a very dusty and hot (as it is in Southern Kazakhstan) village. The banya will take some getting used to. It seems like it would be nice in the winter when it is extremely cold. But as it basically forces you to sweat the dirt away, in the summer it can be a little overwhelming. I was glad to get out of there when I was done. However, the results are worth it. I'm clean and that's about all I care about at this point.

I also found out today that I have a host mother and father and that they will be here tomorrow. Right now it has just been two sisters and a brother taking care of me. And I admit, I was a little confused about the family structure. Luckily, Boda (the girl from next door) has been able to translate important information for me. I hope she stays here until my first three months is over.

Sheep is Delicious 8/24-25

Yesterday, Sunday, was the designated day for volunteers to spend time with our families. During the night my host mother and father returned home with my youngest sister. This cleared up the family structure of my home a bit, as before I was confused as to who were my actual parents. My host mother and father, whose names I don't need to learn because I can simply call them Mama and Papa (haha), have five children. The eldest daughter is Aisha, followed by twin girls, Shnar and Jenar. They are all older than me. The only boy, Quanush, is the same age as myself. Then Anar is the youngest girl. She is currently studying math and physics at the university in Almaty. Shnar teaches biology at the school where I am studying Kazakh. My family also owns a small grocery store in town. Aisha, Jenar and Anar are usually at the store, while Papa drives a taxi. Mama tends the house, of course. And last but not least, Quanush works as a mechanic. There are usually four or more cars at my house. Three belong to the family, and the others are being fixed by Quanush. He graduated from the university in Almaty, but he is self-taught in mechanics. Since none of the children are married, they all still live at home. In Kazakh and many other Central Asian cultures, children do not leave the home until they get married. This means that my family is very well off because all the children work, but all the money they earn goes to the family. This explains why we have a new and fairly large home, three cars and our own banya. We also have a washing machine, an indoor toilet and today Mama informed me that we would soon have a shower. Very exciting! Oh, and I almost forgot a very important member of the family. Aktus! He is the family dog. In Kazakhstan all dogs live outside and there are many stray dogs that wander the streets as there is no animal control. I consider myself lucky because Aktus is a very nice dog. We don't keep him chained up like many other families do with their dogs, so he likes to follow us around when we are outside.

So on Sunday, Jenn (the girl who has been staying with me) and I went to the bazaar with Boda to buy alarm clocks. Unfortunately they did not have the ones we wanted. But we did buy sponges for the banya and some candy for the family. The rest of the day we spent with the family and studying Kazakh. Jen and I also started using the outhouse. Up until now we had been using the indoor toilet, which we also accidentally clogged. Plumbing is not so good in Kazakhstan. The outhouse isn't so bad, except at night when you cannot see what you are doing. I definitely peed all over my own shoe without noticing. I guess I will have to get used to that.

The best part of Sunday was sheep! Papa brought home an entire sheep carcass (see pictures), and Mama cooked manta, which is like dumplings filled with sheep meat. It was delicious!

Today we resumed class. I don't feel like I learned much today, but I attribute that to the fact that I have been studying ahead. The faster I learn Kazakh the better. It is incredibly difficult to live with a family whom you cannot speak to. I am lucky because I have Boda to translate, but I need to learn for myself. Tonight Jenn left and moved in with her own host family. After dinner, Boda and I sat at the table and I helped her with some homework. We also talked about American culture and she asked me about the bloods and the crips. I was amazed she even knew who they were and we had a good laugh. Then I showed her some gang signs and taught her some slang phrases like “for shizzle my nizzle”. She thought that was very funny and told me she would share it with her friends. And thus I begin corrupting the Kazakhstani youth!

Although I have only been in Kazakhstan for five days it seems like a lifetime. I can't imagine how I will feel at the end of my three months! Banya again tomorrow!

Training Galore 8/26-31

The last couple days have been a conglomeration of various training seminars, including health, safety and security, technical, cultural and language training. Our topics have ranged from the differences between American and Kazakh schools to diarrhea. The latter is actually the favorite topic of our PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), Viktor. Viktor is a pretty sweet guy. He served as a doctor in the Soviet Army for much of his life until the USSR collapsed. We've seen pictures of him in Angola caring for land mine victims and he's always good for inspirational speeches. I look forward to his seminars more than any of the others, simply because he has a good sense of humor and is an interesting guy. Viktor also informed us that three PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) have already dropped out. Although I can't attest to the living conditions of these individuals, from my understanding Shamalgan has the least infrastructure of all the training sites. Of course, this leaves me wondering why they left. Oh well.

Other than the usual training nothing exciting has been happening: go to school, learn, come home, eat, spend time with the family, go to bed. Friday marked the anniversary of our arrival in Shamalgan. To celebrate we went to a local cafe and had a piva (beer).

Today we are going to Kaskelen, which is the next village to the west where we have volunteers stationed. This village apparently has internet, so I will finally be able to upload these blog entries and answer some e-mails. I've definitely been looking forward to this all week. One week from now is Almaty entry, which means I can finally buy a cell phone! Not that I really need one yet, but it would be nice to have, especially considering I have no watch or alarm clock, so I'm constantly in a state of confusion over what time it is. Tomorrow is the first day of school in Kazakhstan. This means that we are to start our class observation, which will eventually lead to teaching. I'm not going to lie, I'm a little nervous about this. Mostly because our language skills are still poor. We've only been here a week and they expect us to be able to teach a class! Oy.

So I meant to add pictures but this internet connection is ridiculously bad, so that's not happening. Stay tuned.