Saturday, November 26, 2011

Peace Out

November 27, 2011


Well ladies and gentlemen, I have truly heart-breaking news for you: Peace Corps Kazakhstan is suspending its program in this country.  As a volunteer this means I am leaving my Kazakh village and going home to the United States. The decision was well deliberated by a committee in Washington, but the news was startling and devastating for me as a volunteer.


The past 15 months in Kazakhstan have been full of challenges, but those challenges yielded returns higher than I'd have thought possible. I have made wonderful friends, worked with remarkable students and teachers, and was just starting to understand this place and culture I've learned to call home- if only for a while. 


My homecoming is earlier than planned and I am still a bit shell-shocked by the whole thing.  Goodbyes will be abrupt and I can't fully comprehend how I can say "thank you" to my community for all the hospitality and love they have shown me.  Of course, it will be wonderful to see my family, especially in time for the holidays, but most volunteers have 3 months to physically and emotionally prepare for this sort of departure.  We have exponentially less time to digest it here in KZ.  And perhaps worst of all, the Peace Corps Staff must walk away from jobs and posts where many have served for a decade.  Prayers, thoughts, juju, whatever you believe in, would be much appreciated.



I'm not sure what to conclude with, perhaps because I feel no conclusion myself.  But I just wanted to let you know, with a tear in my eye.  It's been a wild ride and worth every minute.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Umm… Not the skill I was expecting

November 5, 2011

I knew I had it in me… I'm a fighter, not a lover!  My student's father is a general outdoors man and he and one of my teacher friends have taken it upon themselves to host me as if I were Queen Elizabeth herself, showing me all the best of Kazakhstan.


This is the same guy who took me fishing and now wants me to try my hand at hunting.  In addition to all that, he's a boxing champion in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  I like to mess with this guy, so when he asks me about hunting, I ask: "Agai (sir), when are you gonna teach me to be a champion boxer?"  Of course, it's a joke on two levels.  One: I don't really want to fight anyone and everyone here knows me as being all smiles all the time. Two: Girls don't really box that often.  So I ask him and everyone starts to laugh.


Last week I ran into "my coach" in the school cafeteria.  The usual conversation ensued:

-       "Anne, when are we going fishing again?  Wanna go hunting."

-       "Sure, I'll go hunting, agai.  But more importantly, when are you teaching me to box?"

-       "How about tomorrow at 5 o'clock?"


I almost died.  Uh… sure.  I can't be all talk, right?  So Thursday evening, at 5 o'clock I showed up at the sports school.  For an hour I practiced sparing, jabbing, and some foot shuffling technique with about 20 ten-year-olds.  They left, and I got another hour of self-defense training.  I can't say I'm really a fan of boxing to box, but I am a fan of knowing how to protect myself. Best of all- I love being in a gym and working out with a coach and everything.  Today, it was hard to pull my sweater off because my arms were so sore. 


Most volunteers learn a new skill while they're in Peace Corps. I never expected my skill would be boxing.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Do I Settle for Jack-O-Squash?

October 30, 2011


In my neck of the woods it's a little tricky to find a good old-fashioned pumpkin.  Most are about the size of a cantaloupe and you're really in the money if you can find one that's orange rather than green.  But this is Halloween, so you've gotta carve something. 


At the bazaar, I asked the lady: "Do you have any pumpkins?" She showed me a squash.  I asked another saleswoman to no avail.  After wandering the bazaar I was prepared to buy a stout squash and call it a Jack-O-Squash.  But then I saw it… the most beautiful pumpkin I've seen in ages (or since 2009) It looked like Bert from Sesame Street and was dull orange- but orange none the less.  I bought it. 


Back at home, a friend and I tried to cut into the thing, but remember the two days of snow we've had?  Well the darn thing was frozen.  


No problem… we shall overcome.  I decided to de-thaw it in my toaster oven.  It was too big. (Really, it's like, 15 inches tall and 10 inches in diameter.)


Next step: turn on the gas stove.  We roasted the poor pumpkin like a marshmallow for about five minutes before a knife would pass through its flesh.  It was slow going, but maybe that added to the adventure.  After 2 hours we have a beautiful ORANGE pumpkin to greet the abundance of trick-or-treaters who will rush to my door!

PS- I'm trying to attacha picture... would someone email me to tell me if it works?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bar-down the hatches… it’s winter

October 29, 2011

I'm considering hibernation this winter.  Yesterday it snowed about 4 inches. Today there is a snowy ice/rain blend coming down.  Add to the madness that heating has yet to be installed in my house. You can see why it's hard to crawl out of bed… ever.  I sleep in tights and a stocking-cap in addition to my usual pajamas, socks, and hoodie.  Once I don this ever-so-stylish attire, I crawl under a sheet, two fleece blankets, a quilt and a two-inch thick wool blanket.  Actually, I feel perfectly comfortable in the 6-by-3 foot haven that is my bed, but the workmen better get here soon because as it stands, I refuse to do any work that cannot be done from this little fort I've constructed.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Magical Mystery Tour

October 9, 2011


I have a social event planner in the form of a village English teacher.  At least once a month, she has some outlandish idea that she pitches to me. This month's craziness: a fishing trip. 


Why is that crazy, you ask?  Well, Missouri may be "where the rivers run" but I've relocated myself to the steppe of a "-stan." This isn't exactly Oceans of Fun. But sure. Lauren always told me "Anything's possible if you only believe," so let's go fishing.


The date was set and today we were to actualize our plan. My friend and three middle-aged men picked me up and we high-tailed it into the steppe… away from the mountains and the most promising water sources.  We sailed past villages and fields in a soviet-style Volvo, until we came to what looked like a small cornfield. 


Sure enough, if you weave through the stalks, you'll find a little lake/pond: a tiny menagerie tucked behind a forgotten village. I was impressed. But it got better.


The fish weren't biting in this oasis, so the men told me: "Anne, let's go. We'll find a better place."  Past some cattails we ventured back into open steppe.  The only thing I saw, besides "flat" was a telephone line accompanying a supposed road in the distance. I had to stop and laugh at my situation. Here we were, fishing poles in hand, walking into the arid plains in search of a "better place." 


The men wove around a bit, stopped, and lowered their lines into what looked like a ditch several meters from where I stood musing. (My thoughts: "Are you kidding boys?  Where's the water?") We got closer and I ate my words.  That was no little ditch.  Sure, it may have only been six feet wide, but it was eight feet deep and a stream jetted across the muddy bed.  What do you know… they found water after all.


We fished for several hours. Some of our fishing holes were obvious.  Others, I'm certain, were manifestations from a divine being. A questionable inflatable boat appeared like magic from one of the men's rice-sacks, and of course, the day was complete with home-made soup (made right there in the field), salads and sweets, and Kazakh tea-time as the sun and moon completed their changing of the guards.


Then the headlights of the car sliced through the darkness as we wove past sleeping villages and windswept fields before parking at my gate.  The men shuffled through the trunk and produced a plastic sack with two of my fish inside- still wiggling a little. "Anne, you know how to clean a fish, right?"  Ummm… no, sorry.  Don't think we covered that in 7th grade Home-Ec. I told them to keep it… that I live alone and it'd really be better if they shared Nemo & Company with their own families.  They would hear nothing of it and stuffed the bag into my hands. 


It would be easy to think that this day was an invention of my imagination. A lovely dream, perhaps.  But then I hear a rustling noise and I am reminded of how very real it was by the seizuring sack of scales sitting on my kitchen table.


It seems as though today is the day I'll teach myself how to cook a fish.

Let's Trade Rules for Eyeliner and Mud

October 8, 2011


I tell everyone about my super-stellar students.  They are all wonderful.  They are all thoughtful.  They are all the funniest and "bestest" kids in the world.  That is true.  They also happen to be some of the least-prepared kids in the world.


They come to class without their uniforms on. The bell rings. The lesson begins and the students listen.  So far so good, right? Right.

The vice principal pokes her head in.  "Saulie, where is your school tie? Go home and get it." There goes my best student.  She won't be back for another 2 class periods. 


English carries on and when we get to the new material I stop and verbally remind my students, "Guys, take out your notebooks. Write down today's date.  Write 'Present Perfect Continuous Tense' and the following rule…"


Then comes my favorite part of the class: "I don't have a notebook." (Are you kidding?!?! This is school. What's in your backpack?) Someone finds paper for the wayward scholar while some other jokester joins the chorus: "I don't have a pen." And so the class goes: Interruptions and hiccups as learning is foiled.


Not if I can help it.


Last week, Azamat was sitting idly while Zhingis wrote the grammar rule using their  "joint-ownership pen." No getting out of this one Azamat. I threw him my pen.  The one with the big maroon flower on top (anti-theft protection). "Write." He studied it very closely, then put it down. With an elkish groan he stated: "I can't write with this." I thought he was objecting to the girly flower before he appended his statement. "It's black.  School rules say we only write with blue pens."


It was my turn to groan.  Azamat is right.  The principal insists all writing be done in blue ink.  Once again, a student sits in class, silent.  He doesn't write the grammar rule, he won't learn the vocab words.  All because we don't have an extra blue pen for him.


We all know I love rules, but some days I want to throw in the towel and say, "Forget it. You can write with eyeliner and mud if you want, just take some darn notes!"

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Full Hour

September 23, 2011


Note: Banya = steam room where you bathe once a week (sometimes private, sometimes public)


Last week I was visiting my friends after school and the man of the house heated the banya for me.  This is a rare treat for a Thursday night, but I took advantage of the opportunity. Twenty minutes later I emerged from the steam room feeling refreshed and squeaky-clean.  I went to the kitchen for tea and Kadir (man of the house) looked completely astonished.  "Anne, you don't understand what it means to banya!" I told him of course I understood.  Before I was dirty and now I was clean.


Kadir is a wonderful man and a good friend, but I think I mortally offended him.  For the next hour, he lectured me and laughed at my antics. "Banya means to relax.  You sit. You enjoy the steam. You sweat. THEN you clean… and then you sit some more." He told me a true banya takes at least an hour.  A great banya takes 2-3 hours.  I looked at him a little befuddled.  I knew the reaction to my next question, but I had to ask: "Kadir, what in the heck do you do in a banya for 2 hours?  I get bored after 10 minutes!" His response: "Oh you Americans.  Always trying to DO something.  In the banya, you just sit.  You don't think, you don't do, you just sit."


This week I went back to their house.  Again, Kadir heated the banya for me.  He laughed as I approached.  "Okay Anne, forty minutes. Go.  Don't DO anything." 


I was resolved to sit for a full hour. I had my whole list of thoughts backlogged and a set of daydreams on stand-by.  I went in and took a seat.  I sat and I sat and I sat.  When I was good and sweaty and my list was expired, I moved into the pre-wash phase.  I started scrubbing at a week's worth of dirt and grime as the steam crept lower down the ceiling.  It was getting pretty hot and I stepped into the changing room for a breather.  At that point, curiosity got the better of me. I peaked at my watch lying on the bench.


Ten minutes. TEN LOUSY MINUTES!!! What in the heck was I supposed to do in a banya for the next fifty minutes of my life?!?!  How do they do this?  I can't even sit for a quarter of an hour!  I went back in total disbelief.  I sat. I sat. It was really stinking hot- not to mention humid. My eyes burned from the steam and no matter how much cold water I poured on myself, it just didn't help. Determined to stay for my full hour, I sought refuge on the cool cement floor.  Really, I felt like I was trying to escape from a burning building.  The firefighters always say to stay low to the ground, right?  Well, I made certain that my head was never more than a meter above the earth.


After fifty-two minutes I surrendered.  Some customs are a little harder to adjust to than others.  A full hour of just sitting? Really?!?