Monday, December 29, 2008

My life continues

Wherever I left off – December 29th

Oh, how the time has flown. I've almost been here for two months, but it definitely doesn't seem like that long. This is a good thing, since I'll be here for two years. So, what has happened recently? Well, I took a break from studying my languages. According to one of the many handbooks so generously given to my by Peace Corps, “refusal to learn the local language” is a symptom of culture shock. So I credit, what would otherwise be considered laziness, to this. But, I'm back on track now. Though, I've mostly been focusing on learning Russian. My Kazakh has gone to hell. I realized this today, when I went guesting to a friend of the family's and they wanted to speak Kazakh with me. So, I'll be brushing up on that sometime soon.

But this family I visited today...good story. So it begins after I arrived home rather late from school. Today was the last day before the winter holiday, so as a result we only had two lessons. After which, we were free to go. But, after my second lesson ended, I was about to leave when I was introduced to the gym teacher's son. This guy speaks English well and lived in America for about four months, so I ended up having a two hour or so conversation with him at the school. His father, token gym teacher, had previously approached me about speaking to his son. I was paranoid that this was some kind of set up. I'm still not entirely sure it isn't. But we'll see what happens. Anyways, he offered to help me with some English Club projects, so that's good anyways.

Following this lengthy conversation, I return home. Whereupon I discover that we have guests. Normal for life here. Of course I am introduced as the American daughter and told to converse with the children, per usual. During chai time, my host mother informs me that I'll be going home with the guests and using their banya. Wait, what? I just met these people! And one of them is my student, awkward. But, I do as I'm told, and traverse to their house for the purpose of bathing. When I arrive at their home, I discover (not to my surprise), that their son needs to learn English, and I'm supposed to teach him. But of course! So, we converse via computer translator, even though I understood everything in Russian just fine, and we work out the details of my future tutoring work.

Now, one of the many chores endured as a guest in Kazakhstan, is viewing every last one of the family photos. I'm used to this by now. And these particular photos, were incredibly interesting. I basically discover that the family I'm visiting is Kazakh to the core. Like, you can't get any more Kazakh than these people. Traditionally, Kazakhs were nomadic people, similar to Mongolians. They lived in their yurts, moving from place to place, hunting with birds, dogs, horses, etc. They played their dombras (Kazakh guitars) and sang their Kazakh songs. The whole nine yards. So anyways, the son is showing me the family photos, which include a great deal of hunting snapshots. Yes, this family still hunts with birds. Eagles, to be exact. They own eagles. Badass. They also have hunting dogs and horses. And the father is a rather famous dombra player, who carves his own dombras out of trees. I could have guessed as much just by looking at the guy. He looks like the truest form of a Kazakh man you will ever see. Basically, they're awesome. So, I figure by tutoring the son, I'll get in with the fam, and get to hunt with the eagles. That's my ultimate goal. I'll keep you updated.

In the end, I got to banya alone, which is a big relief. Especially because this banya was particularly small and ridiculously hot. I honestly thought I was getting first-degree burns in my throat just by breathing in the banya air. I've never bathed so fast in my life. And my face was lobster red for like an hour afterwards.

Yesterday happened to be an eventful day as well. I was guesting, which I seem to be doing a lot of lately. Probably because the New Year is coming up. That's the big holiday here. Imagine a combination of Christmas, Halloween, and New Years. Yah. So anyways, I went guesting to one of my students homes and basically hung out with her family the whole day. This family was cool too. But they don't have eagles. They do have a ridiculous amount of chickens, a cow, and some sheep. I was present for the milking of the cow and probably one of the two funniest scenes involving a sheep that I've seen since coming to Kazakhstan.

The first scene involved a sheep falling off a bridge into a shallow stream and then kicking it's legs furiously in the air while bleating in distress. It's wool was soaked with water and it couldn't get up. Meanwhile, the man herding the sheep was screaming at it in Kazakh and beating it with his shepherd stick. Hilarious. I wish I had video footage.

Now, the second scene, which I witnessed yesterday, revolved around the feeding of the lamb. Now, I always thought that animals have a natural instinct to feed their young. Apparently, this is not always the case. After herding the sheep into the barn (which they share with the cow), my student and her sister attempt to cajole the mother sheep into feeding its lamb. When this doesn't work, they use force. You may wonder how it's possible to force a sheep to feed its young. I'll tell you. The one girl grabs the sheep by one of its feet and proceeds to drag it from one end of the barn to the other. She then pins the sheep against the wall with her body, while raising its leg in the air. Imagine a male dog taking a piss. Now the other girl grabs the lamb and forces it under the sheep so it can feed. Basically, the lamb rapes its mother of her milk. I don't really know how else to explain it. Again, I wish I had video footage. Hopefully I get invited back, in which case I'll ask to be present for the feeding of the lamb. Then I can film to my heart's content.

In conclusion, the past few days have been eventful. Probably the most interesting days I've had at site. It's good. It counteracts all the boredom I've been feeling.

The only other recent news is that my host mother's pregnant (at first I just thought she was fat) daughter moved into our house with her husband. This involved a lot of moving around. I get the impression that they will be living here for a long time, as it seems like they've brought their whole house with them. The whole situation seems like it will be both good and bad. The good is that I have more people to talk to and practice my Russian and Kazakh with. Also, since the daughter is preggers, she has to eat a lot, which means I will also get to eat a lot. This will be a change from my normal state of starvation. I might gain weight. This might be bad. Another con to this situation is the baby, when it comes, in about a month. A crying baby will in no way detract from my current stress level, which is rather high due to my living in a foreign country. And also, I just plain hate babies. I'm sure there will be plenty of complaining about this to come.

Here's some lists I've started, out of boredom. I find them amusing, perhaps my readers will as well.

Items I never considered to be technologically advanced until I came to Central Asia:

 Vegetable Peelers (I've complained about this before. Oh, and Norman, I gave my host mom the peeler you sent me and I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm crazy now. Thanks a lot.)
 Mops (No shit people. They clean their floors with dirty rags and sticks. But they do have vacuum cleaners. I don't understand this.)
 Bags (People carry their belongings in plastic shopping bags. Always. Women may also carry purses. But the idea of having a real bag, made of fabric or something, hasn't happened here yet.)
 Dental Floss (It doesn't exist here. Hence the gold grills.)

I'll add to this as my life continues.

On a completely different note, I love when people here want to prove their knowledge of America to me. They always want to talk about American history or politics or such. The problem with this is that I usually have no idea what they are talking about. It's not that I don't know American history. I just can't understand it when it's retold to me in Russian or Kazakh. Although, one time I did get told that the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is because when the pilgrims were starving, the only thing they could find to eat was turkey. Or something. Who knows.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


The Cabinet Debacle 11/12-11/16

My journey to the Peace Corps office took much longer than expected. I left my house at around nine in the morning and didn't return home until eight at night. I only spent two and a half hours at the actual office, so I attribute the remainder of my time to public transportation. I'm going to have to figure out a way to do this so I'm not getting home at night. Dangerous times, you know. When I arrived home I found that my host mother's oldest daughter, her husband, and three children were visiting. The daughter and son-in-law are currently in the process of learning English, so they spent most of the night trying to practice with me. They also informed me that there is internet in my house. Very Interesting. Especially since I just spent almost 12 hours and 500 tenge going to Almaty to use the internet. Very interesting indeed. Unfortunately, the connection is ridiculously slow. So, I don't know how much I will be using it, or if it will even work on my laptop. We shall see.

Thursday was the start of school. However, I had no classes scheduled for that day, so I was free from obligation. After classes ended, I went to the school to meet with my counterpart. We “planned” our lessons for the next few days and then we went to the director to sort out my classroom situation. Now, the first classroom I had been given, the one I had a key to, was a nice classroom. A real classroom. With desks and chairs and cabinets and the normal classroom amenities. Unfortunately, it was not mine to be had. The director suggests a different classroom and we go to investigate. Ah yes, the former teacher's lounge. Not a classroom, so much as just a room, and a significantly smaller room at that. There are two rectangular tables, a bookshelf, and a couch. No desks or chairs. Interesting. My counterpart seems convinced that this room is big enough for an English Club of 20 children. Unlikely, but I'll take what I can get. We go to get the key from the almighty key holder, whereupon we are informed that this “classroom” is too close to the medical office of the school and that I would be better off with a classroom on the third floor. Ok. I'm not sure how this makes any sense, but whatevs. We travel upwards to the third floor to my newest prospective classroom. We open the door and it's already occupied... by the psychology department. Apparently, this doesn't matter. The key holder seems quite convinced that they would be better off in the former teacher's lounge, while I should have this room. They go to the school director to confirm. Now, this room is even smaller than the last. No couch. Just two tables, one chair, and a book shelf. More of a large closet than a room. But again, I'll take what I can get, knowing that I'm one of the few volunteers who will have a room to myself. The key holder returns and the psychology department begins to move their belongings to the first floor. The deed is done.

The next day I move a large bag o'stuff to my new room and set up shop. It's nice to have a room where I can keep all my things. This way I can plan my future lessons in between my classes. This makes minimal work for me to do at home, and more time to study Russian and Kazakh. I have two lessons on Friday and one on Saturday. All three go fairly well. I'm feeling optimistic.

Friday when I return home I help my host mother prepare dinner. I get to peel the potatoes. Fun. Now, it's important to note that there are no vegetable peelers in Kazakhstan. It seems that sort of advanced technology has yet to reach this country. So, I peel my potatoes with a knife, and a dull one at that. As I peel away, staring out the kitchen window at the half-melted snow and distant mountains, I think to myself: “I am so Soviet right now.”

Saturday is spent studying Russian and preparing manta, a staple of the Kazakhstani diet and one of the dishes I actually really like. Manta is basically a big dumpling filled with anything your heart desires. Ours were filled with pumpkin, onion, meat, and animal fat. Yummy. I was excited about making the manta, mostly because I had always watched my host family in Shemolgan make it and it looked kind of fun. Soviet fun. But since they never let me help with anything, probably because they thought I would screw it up, I never got to experience the joys of making manta. So, Saturday was my time to shine. Making manta takes a serious long time. First, you need to chop all your fillings into tiny cubes. By hand, with a dull knife. And chopping an entire raw pumpkin into tiny cubes takes a significantly long period of time. Next, you need to make the dough. Flour and water. Simple enough. Then you take a giant stick and roll the dough into thin pieces. These thin pieces are then cut into squares, stuffed with filling and then folded closed to be steamed. I'm going to say the entire process takes about 2-3 hours depending on how many people are helping. On top of that, the manta take 45 minutes to steam. Considering that I'm used to making Easy Mac in 15 minutes, the manta was a chore.

Following our manta feast, we had banya time. Glory glory. This was by far the most authentic banya experience I've had so far in Kazakhstan. Mostly because my host mother insisted that we banya together. This provided me with the opportunity to watch her and see how it's actually supposed to be done. The banya here is a bit different than the one I had in Shemolgan. The one in Shemolgan was a network of four rooms, one for preparing the banya, one for changing, one for bathing, and one for drenching yourself in humidity. My new banya is three rooms, one for changing, one for bathing, and one for getting beaten with birch leaves. Even though it has less rooms, the new banya is much bigger and nicer than the old one. I like it.

Now, after bathing we go into “the room”. Since being in Kazakhstan, I've heard a lot of banya terminology thrown around by other volunteers: the difference between Russian banyas and Finnish banyas, dry heat and wet heat, etc. Personally, I don't have a clue. All I know is that my host mother poured some boiling water on a pile of hot rocks, the resulting steam almost killed me, and then she beat me with birch leaves. As I stand there, in the intense humidity of the banya, my contacts practically shriveling while still in my eyes, getting beaten with the birch branch, I think to myself: “I am so Soviet right now.”

I seem to be having a lot of these moments lately.

Now, I want to point out my favorite part of the banya. It happens after you leave the banya, when you've had all the bathing and beating your heart desires. When you are so ridiculously hot from being in a steaming room for over an hour... and then you go outside, and just stand there in the snow and feel the air. It's amazing.

Routine 11/16-11/30

Ah, yes. Routine. It has set in. These past few weeks have been nothing special, which gives me a sad glimpse into the remainder of my service. I have a permanent teaching schedule of 18 hours a week, teaching classes from 6th grade to 9th grade. I have between two and four classes a day, which really isn't all that much. I always have plenty of time to plan my lessons during the day when I'm not teaching, which is nice, because when I go home I really don't want to do work. My days are depressing enough that all I want is to drown myself in Russian vocabulary when I get home.

Oh, Russian. I have practically stopped studying my Kazakh. Which is rather sad. I do really want to learn Kazakh, and I really like the language. But everyone always talks to me in Russian, it's just more practical for me to spend my time studying that. Also, my Kazakh tutor abandoned me after our first lesson. He told my counterpart that I couldn't understand him, and he couldn't understand me. Well, obviously. The funny thing about my lesson was that he spent the whole time teaching me things I already knew, like colors. I know colors. He barely let me talk, which is why I find the claim that he couldn't understand me slightly hilarious. Oh well. The thing about people here is that they have no idea how to talk to a person who doesn't speak their language. Why? Because no one from non-Russian speaking countries ever comes here. Except Germany. I get asked all the time if I'm German. Apparently, German and English must sound very similar to foreigners. Who knows.

My Russian tutoring isn't going too well either. We seem to be focusing on pronunciation and reading. Not a whole lot of conversation, which is what I need to practice. At one point, I asked her to explain to me a certain grammar construction to me and she had no idea what I was talking about. I assume that most Russian speakers, as is the case with most English speakers, have no idea how to explain grammar. They just know that it's right or wrong, but they don't know why. Alas, I find that I will need to rely on my own studies in order to grasp Russian grammar concepts. There is no hope. My tutor also likes to make fun of me for not being able to spell words correctly. Of course, this is very encouraging. I also find this amusing, since as badly as I speak/spell/understand/whatever Russian, I'm still better than every other volunteer here, since I've been studying the language for more than three months.

This past Sunday I had another eventful trip to Almaty. My goal for the journey was to get home before dark. Things get sketchy after dark. So, I decided to take a taxi, as the cost is only 50 tenge more than the bus, which takes about two hours more to get to the city. So, I get to the taxi stop in Esik and I'm asking around for a taxi to Almaty. I find one, but of course he wants me to 500 tenge. Uhm. What. No. I love how people think that because I'm foreign I must be easy to rip off. Except that I live here. So I know how much things cost. This will be the bane of my existence for two years. I end up taking a smaller bus to the city, which I thought was a marshrutka. My host mother told me that the marshrtukas go straight to the city without stopping. I was wrong. The bus goes to Talgar, an entirely different town, and then to Almaty. After leaving Talgar, the bus breaks down. Fabulous. Nothing better than being on a broken down bus without the language skills to ask what is going on, or to understand the answer. Luckily, another bus stops and everyone piles on to that one. We get to Almaty after some two/three hours. My time at the PC office is short because it took me so long to get there. I leave around 3:30 and get back to the bus stop, set on taking a taxi even if I get ripped off. Lo and behold, there are no taxis. But I do find the magical marshrutka that will take me to Esik without stopping. The down side to the marshrutka is that I have to wait about 30 minutes for the damn thing to fill up. I finally get back to Esik and have a single stroke of luck when I find the gym teacher of my school, who apparently moonlights as a taxi driver, at the bus stop. He drives me to Koktobe and doesn't rip me off. Yay!

Another week at school. For the most part I like all my classes. Except for the 9th grade class. They are poopers. I think it's because they are older. And by older, I mean 15. They think they are cool and don't pay attention, etc, etc. The boys especially annoy me. They have this strange fascination with saying my name. Everyday I leave school I hear disembodied voices, calling “Megan, Megan”. They don't actually want to talk to me, they just want to annoy me. Oh, boys. The one good thing about being here for two years, is that eventually my novelty will wear off. In theory.

I can't believe it's been a month... 12/1-12/13

So, I've officially been here for over a month. Crazy. It doesn't seem like I've been alone for an entire month, yet at the same time it feels like so much longer. Conflict. The hardest part is realizing that Christmas is only 12 days away. It will come and go, and I have no real way to acknowledge it's existence. Although, there has been talk of volunteers celebrating Christmas or New Year's somewhere. I might hop on that bandwagon.

Last weekend I went to Almaty for an overnight fun fest with some fellow 20s and some 19s. We did the usual volunteer routine, rent an apartment, lie about how many people are staying there, and then traverse the city during the wee hours of the night/morning. It was good for me, to get out of my village. Sometimes I feel like banging my head against a wall here.

In the week that followed, I had the good fortune to make a friend. Gasp. I know. I actually found someone who speaks English. Not fluently of course, but we can converse. It's amazing. She actually came to me at school and approached me about helping her practice her English for her job. We had conversation practice for a few days and now we are officially friends. Really. She felt the need to tell me: “We will be friends”. But it was good. I'm excited to have a friend. She helped me buy nail polish. I also met some of her family and friends, all about my age. They also declared that we would be friends, although they don't really speak any English. But I see this as a future opportunity to practice my Russian.