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.

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