Saturday, January 2, 2010

Holidays 2009

This has certainly been one of the strangest holidays I've ever experienced. For once I have people prompting and pushing to get the celebrations done -- usually it's the other way around in my experience. Lord knows this year I'm only half-heartedly into Christmas; I want to be back home with my family. Anyway, we start with the Christmas tree. Last year we cut off the top 1/3 of a tree in the yard and used that -- unfortunately, the top 1/3 of a tree doesnt really grow back (at least not in time for next year?). So we faced a conundrum when trying to figure out what to do, as my family understands that the 12 inch plastic trees that everyone uses here don't make the cut for Christmas (though they suffice for New Year's). So plan C: take the trunk from the top of the tree we used last year, cut off all the dead branches, and attach freshly cut branches from the still-living 2/3 of a tree to said trunk. We have, quite honestly, a Frankenstein's Monster of a tree on our hand. It looks pretty decent, even if a bit off -- I never thought I'd miss the infuriating color-coded branch system of my Grandfather's old plastic tree (measuring up and attaching live branches is a lot more difficult). Nevertheless, it worked out. Next came decorating. There's been no change from last year, so we have the same 20-odd small strands of very different-colored garland, one medium-length string of lights, a handful of ornaments (a good deal of which are the paper ones we made last year), and, of course, a return of the paper star to crown it all. I did the majority of the tree decorations, so the tree was pretty much all done by me. We also have a new addition to the room this year -- take colored streamer-type strings, a wad of cotton ('cause it looks like there aren't any cotton balls here), wet the cotton, stick the string to it, then fling it to the ceiling. Basically: a glorified spitball.

Our Christmas celebration went ok. There were some extra people staying around the house, so that was awkward to deal with, but all-in-all things were smooth. Santa came again and my family enjoyed their presents, though not all of his presents arrived for Christmas (so some were distributed at New Year’s, though there’s a little bit more on the way too it seems).

For my host family and for the volunteer get-together I made a billion cookies. Ok, not a billion, but ~300 or so. The fare? Gingerbread cookies and standard red/green sugar cookies. Of course, due to a lack of cookie cutters, I had to do everything with a knife – it was a lot of work – but I think things turned out decorative enough. My big project for the volunteers was making personalized gingerbread-people for everyone in the oblast, so 17 gingerbread men/women that had something unique to them. Quite a task! But I made it work, and thanks to a big bag of powdered sugar (that’s all gone now) I was able to frost them up nice!

Both celebrations were fairly relaxed. On Christmas day I celebrated with my family, opened presents, had some lunch, then came into the city to make more cookies. On the 26th I got together with the other volunteers and had some very good food, and we sang some carols and just hung out. I was awarded volunteer of the month at this event, which was surprising. Afterward I just went back to my village as most of the other volunteers went off to visit other places.

Right now I’m sitting on my hands, trying to prepare for the Talas Summer Camp (I’ve been recruited to be the director this year) and getting some needed R&R. New Year’s was a calm celebration, I made a velvet cake and some frosting because I don’t like the Russian store-bought cakes – they taste like cardboard. So all in all not too much is going on! Hopefully I get a good battery recharge during this break.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Kyrgyz Autumn

It's been a while since I last updated the blog.

October was a fairly busy. I worked throughout the month, teaching classes at a regular pace with my counterpart; we had started to form a better relationship during this time. It was also a stressful time because I was preparing for a Halloween concourse on the 31st. Most things considered it went well-- we had about 65-70 children show up, a haunted house, games, pumpkin carving, skits (though only 3 of the 7 groups performed...), and everyone wore costumes. It was valuable to me because I learned a bit more about management, and I realize I have a lot of areas to improve upon (especially since I'm planning on putting together the summer camp this year).

November was also busy, but in a different way. Right after Halloween, I went down to Osh for a week. My primary concern on this trip was being there for my buddy Daniel, who went down for a "big event." Things ended up going very well for him, so I'm happy for that. I also had a good time -- eating good food, getting a shower most every day, meeting with some good people. It's a very different place than what the rest of volunteers see in country.

After Osh I came back to Talas for a week, taught classes, then headed up to Chui Oblast for VAC. First I went to see my training family for a few days. It was really great seeing them again, I miss them a lot -- it always breaks my heart when I have to leave them again, they're really great people. After a few days with them, I headed in to Bishkek. I had intended on utilizing the internet at PC headquarters while there -- I had been preparing for a month and a half all the things I wanted to send/see/do -- but many people were falling ill so the doctor closed down the building (with me being quite disgruntled at this). All things said, though, it was a decent enough trip. The biggest news from VAC is that I got elected president of the body, so now I have even more responsibility -- it will be a challenge due to my internet situation, but I'm planning on trying to use it more, and also move to more cellphone communication (which is the primary mode of communicating here). I had to stay in Bishkek for most of the week due to dental appointments -- thankfully everything went ok, the dentists we go to are good practitioners and, sans flouride treatments, are on par with very qualified doctors in the US in my opinion -- some PCVs even say they're better than the ones that they themselves had back in the States! Anyway, my primary objective was picking up stuff throughout the week for Thanksgiving. I was charged with picking up the turkey, something which was 'finagled' into the country from the States and awarded to us, a 22 pound Butterball. Also I tried looking for things for my personal project, and ended up picking up a few important ingredients. Unfortunately the sweet potatoes that my friend found weren't very good so we went without for the holiday (sweet potatoes are not known here, I can't even find a translation of it in Kyrgyz or Russian). I ate some decent food, got to shower once again, and after my week was spent I headed back to Talas, with precious Thanksgiving charges in hand.

When I got back to site, I quickly learned that schools were closing throughout the oblast (another 'quarantine' or 'epidemic'), my school being no exception here. While in Bishkek I was shocked to see that a lot of people were wearing masks, especially because it reminded me of sars. Well, everyone is up-in-arms about the flu, particularly 'swine flu,' and the masks and 'quarantine' are all reactions to it. Now, Kyrgyz people are still very traditional or superstitious, esp. when it has to do with illness. I can understand this reaction, even if it's coming during cold and flu season. It's also a testament to the propagation of Russian news and how skewed it can (and tends) to be. Anyway, as far as I know there's been a very minimal outbreak of swine flu, something in the range of 25 people in the country, but given the trends of customs and the information they've been fed, people here are, quite simply, freaking out. Compile that with the season and regular colds or flus, and we have to present situation. Not to mention the "pig" aspect of it, pigs being an already abhorred animal here and the whole taboo that creates. Nevertheless, November was a month in which I did not work a whole lot. Thankfully I haven't been ill yet (knock on wood) and, despite my host family insisting that I devour raw garlic and lemon to stave off the epidemic, I've been watching what I eat and touch and have been washing my hands quite frequently (which is more than I can say for a lot of people here, despite trying to inform them of what to do...). Let's see how things go once I get back into the mix at school with all those kids and their unwashed hands and uncovered coughs...

Thanksgiving was a good time. I was planning for most of the month how/what I wanted to make. As some of you may have gleaned, I've taken up baking while here, and I dare say I've started to get good at it. Originally I wanted to utilize the internet at PC HQ while I was in Bishkek to get some recipes, but was foiled on that front. So I quickly found something on the net while back in Talas and got charged an arm and a leg for it. Anyway, I was given the charge of pies. Pies were my baby this time around, and I took them to heart. While in Bishkek I picked up some caramel, whipped cream, and an extra pie pan -- the plan was set in motion, I was going to make a work of art here. Now, we didn't celebrate on Thanksgiving day itself because Thanksgiving is a Thursday, not a holiday outside the US, and some volunteers had work. So we celebrated the following Saturday. I came into Talas City on Friday and started baking at around 2 pm. At 12 am the power goes off, so I had to stop then -- so I resumed at 8 am the next morning, and finished up at 10:30 am, plenty of time before our 2 pm get-together. What did I make? Well, I had a city volunteer pick up a pumpkin (5 kilograms, much more than I wanted/needed). I also picked up some apples, along with a whole bunch of other stuff (butter, flour, sugar etc) for crusts and fillings. The result? Five pies. Each one has its own name: "Latticed Cinnamon Apple Pie," "Basic Pumpkin Pie," "Cookie Crumble Crust Pumpkin Pie," (this one's name isn't fit to be published so I'll just go with...) "Big Pumpkin Pie," and my coup de grace pie: "Walnut Crusted Cinnamon Caramel Apple Crumble Pie." I was particularly pleased with my new crusts (I had only made the standard crust prior to trying these) and my second pumpkin pie recipe -- the basic pumpkin pie was ok, but the other two were much better. I think everyone enjoyed the pies. Also, there was a lot of pumpkin left over so I made some mashed pumpkin as an ode to my mother's butternut squash -- that turned out pretty good too. Thanksgiving went well (despite us not making hats this year by a veto from some volunteers, and my being upset at this having went out and purchased paper to make said hats), the turkey was delicious (very hard to cook one here with the big ovens not having temperature gauges) and I was once again full.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Beginning of the End

Year two is officially and fully underway, both as a full-fledged volunteer and my general time here in Kyrgyzstan. I know it's been a while since I last wrote on here -- there's a reason for that. My August was pretty wrenching, as things I thought to be were not (sorry for this ambiguity, I'd rather not lay my heart and soul out here) and I underwent a rather harsh period, probably my all-time emotional low in country. Feelings of isolation and abandonment kept rational thought at bay and a longing which was not to be quelled by the circumstances of the month. Things have since calmed and become better, but I can tell I am a changed person for these happenstances.

With August behind me, September started, and along with it the school year and the initial chaotic fury that accompanies it. The main challenges at the beginning of my school year are A) the schedule and B) students not showing up to class. First, the easy explanation -- children are out working in the fields, and since Fall is prime bean-harvesting season (of which Talas is particularly reputable) we get an inordinate amount of absences from classes. I'm told this isn't the case with all volunteers' schools or classes, which may be due to the presence of previous volunteers and their influence, or that other volunteers teach at specialized schools and not the local high school -- both instances are not applicable to myself, really, though maybe I can begin an influence towards the former for any future volunteers (or just the school in general). Second, the schedule...

This year started off using last year's schedule. This is an inherent problem for English classes as last year the 7th, 10th, and 11th grades studied the subject, so this year the 8th and 11th grades are studying (the previous 11th grade having graduated). The other grades (above 5th grade level) study German. So now I have to figure out which of my 8th grade classes are held at what time by deciphering the Cyrillic schedule and finding "Немецча" (Nemets-cha), using that as my guide -- the previous 8th grade, which is now the 9th grade, studies German. If all this wasn't enough, a few days into classes the school decided to switch the morning sessions with the afternoon sessions in an attempt to get more of the older children, who were working in the fields, to come to class. So now I not only have to transmute German into English, but I also have to metamorphose this schedule to find the right combination of times and days, which have all gone topsy-turvy. Oh, and I forgot to mention -- all the classrooms have changed too, so the listings on this old riddle of a guide only served to befuddle the mind. Another volunteer friend rightly told me that this sounds like some kind of Da Vinci Code nonsense, that I don't have my decoder ring (and the appropriate dates/keys to go with it), and that I should just sit and wait till they clean the thing up before bothering with classes. I stuck it out until the new schedule came -- and heavy rains (for Kyrgyzstan, which is to say a rather less-than-normal amount by my account for Connecticut) have ruined a good deal of the bean harvesting, so more children are showing up. And, thank Pete, the times normalized so morning classes are now in the morning and afternoon classes in the afternoon.

My one grievance with the new schedule, which hopefully (and should, but who knows if it will happen) will change soon, is the placement of English classes on Saturday. Now, I don't mind working on Saturdays, but this year I've come off right from the start and said I'm not working on the day (due to get-togethers et al tending to be weekend events), yet classes which I teach along with my counterpart were still slotted for the day. When I brought up the grievance with the vice-principal (the guy ultimately in charge of the schedule), he laughed, gave me the usual run-around, and said my counterpart can just teach the classes. Part of this is conforming to the rayon (district) English class schedule, which all have the same days of work and rest; part of it is pushing around my counterpart, a young woman who has a difficult time with getting results in this setting; and part of it is undoubtedly attributed to putting it past the American who will most likely forget and go on with things. Luckily my PC Program Manager came in from Bishkek a week later and the issue got brought up in it's entirety (discontinuity of classes being taught one way with one teacher present then another way when my counterpart and I team-teach, and the resulting confusion theretofore, me only having 9 hours of classes with the current schedule - stark contrast to last year's 36 - when I should have 18, and the majority of the classes are what I consider my students -- the ones I taught last year and who I actually want to teach) before the school's director. This actually got a little bit of a result in that she said the schedule would change and all the Saturday classes would be moved to Monday, but a week later change has yet to occur.

The other major thing I brought up with my director when my PM came out was the fact that over the summer pretty much all my teaching-oriented supplies, sent as gifts from the States, had been stolen. The situation is as follows: before the school year completely ended last year, I left aforementioned supplies in the room given to us to be the English classroom. Before even all that, I went out and bought a lock for said classroom, so only the vice-principal and myself have the keys to the room. Prior to the end of the school year everyone asked me when I was going home over the summer, and every time I said I'm not going home. About halfway into the summer vacation, the school started repainting everything inside (with the same colors, doesn't really look different or fresher in my opinion, and I believe it a needless task). Needless to say, when I went to the English classroom about halfway through summer, everything was gone -- under the pretext of having repainted the room, of course. My first thought went to the supplies -- where were they taken. The caretaker in charge of storage at the school had no answers, and anybody my counterpart and I asked either didn't know or gave a half-answer. The people and houses we went to were all big run-arounds to dead ends. Everybody, despite me telling them I wasn't going anywhere, had complete looks of shock on their faces when they saw that I was telling the truth and was actually in my village and not in America. After a lot of toil, and even paying a visit to a fortune teller to try to figure something out (the beans she read had promising news, but I don't put much stock in it, though my counterpart does), there's been absolutely no progress. In my session with my PM and director they basically chocked it up to "That's the way we are" saying it's shameful and they're sorry, but also having a bit of a laugh about it at the same time. I was and still am mad about this whole incident -- however, I'm placing the blame in three instances here. First to the perpetrator(s) themself(ves), for taking what was a donation intended for the school and particularly intended for the children (logic does defy the intention behind this act, as there is little to no practical use that people can get out of these materials here). Second to the school and general community, for both letting the perpetration occur (particularly when the school should have been watching such things) and for a seemingly universal reluctance to help and acceptance of shame in such matters. Third and finally it's to myself for having thought a locked door could safeguard the classroom's belongings and my naivety in such matters -- it would have been better if I had stored the materials in my own room (despite it being quite overflowing with my personal items and things that are ready to go into the classroom, if and when it ever gets completed) and anticipated the remodelling, which is a universal thing here. Despite my Program Manager and director trying to assuage me otherwise, I truly felt that this was an act to indicate that my village does not want or need a volunteer. At the time I did not believe it, but upon further reflection, introspection, and actual experience, I find it to be true, although perhaps not in the capacity they meant.

Currently I am in the process of working on two different grants/projects, trying to put together a Halloween concourse for my oblast (as the volunteers who did it last year are gone and I seem to be the only volunteer with initiative to undertake such a task), teaching classes in an improved capacity, and in general just trying to better my situation and purpose here. The first project is for the classroom, which we're writing a grant for through the Peace Corps Partnership Program, where I will be asking family and friends from the States to donate money for the cause. Currently my counterpart and I are working on the details, and though it's going slow it's actually going (it's taking time to get this new method of thinking and writing answers down, and I can't tell how aggrivating the "But, when it will be finished, what will we put on the walls? They will just be plain" comments are -- me always responding well yeah, that's what happens when what would have gone up on the walls gets stolen). Obstacles and aggrivations aside, I hope to have this done as soon as possible -- the biggest hurdle will be getting someone to go to Bishkek and get an account of prices, as my counterpart is prohibited by her family to do so and me doing so would be about the worst idea possible (being an American I'd get highly inflated prices, and it needs to be part of the community doing this work). The other grant will probably also be done through PCPP, but my good friend would be utilizing his own friends and family. This project is smaller but a pretty good idea and investment in my opinion -- my host eje, a seamstress, wants to get about four new sewing machines. With these she intends to both open a school for local girls to learn how to sew (which appears to be a reasonable and productive occupation for women in Kyrgyzstan -- men would generally never do such work here), and to improve her own business, particularly as the machines she has now are old and slow. Despite past misunderstandings and misgivings, I've come to realize my host eje is at heart a good, hard-working person and she's a step apart from the norm here -- I'm more than willing to help her out with this project. Currently we need to translate applications and get some examples of previous projects along similar lines (both of which are prospects at the moment, but are quite feasible).

The Halloween concourse is sort of a by-product of my desire to improve myself, my work, and my volunteerism for my second year here. This particular concourse came about as part of my intention to have major themes/events and involve my students/school related to the English language and American cultural events. Halloween is also a work-in-progress, but I have a frame to go off of from last year -- and it will be an oblast-wide event, so I'm looking at about 40-50 children or so showing up (maybe 5-10 of which will be mine). I'm also interested in holding some sort of presentation/re-enactment given by my students for Thanksgiving, and I'd like another event for Christmas (though what that could be I don't know).

As for work, things are going ok. Aside from the schedule and stolen materials issues, there's nothing too major. This year I started off from day one with a strict set of rules (which stunned a lot of my students -- and good for that! they need it in my opinion), laying down the law and letting kids know that this year will indeed be different than last. I'm utilizing a stick and carrot approach, with more stick than carrot at the beginning -- good kids will be rewarded, bad kids will fail class and/or be sent to the vice-principal for punishment (which, though despite my reluctance to endorse rectifiability of the physical nature, will hopefully serve more as a deterrent than something actually enforced). I have a lot of work ahead of me, especially with trying to shift the focus from teacher-domination to student-oriented methodologies and activities from my counterpart. But I'm actually optimistic about this year.

Which leads me to me actually sitting down and finally, after these past few months, finding the motivation to write. My counterpart recently fell ill and today I taught all our classes on my own. With the older grades it's fine, I'm used to them and welcome the relief of having my counterpart biting heads off when students are too scared to speak in English from fear of her reprisal. But this also left me with my fifth graders, who my counterpart sort of started taking as her own class, preferring for me not to show up to them (I believe). I was somewhat daunted at this task, both for not being well prepared for class and at the prospect of teaching the younger kids on my own (lord knows how badly that made me want to quit last year) -- not to mention I had two sessions to teach for the same class, which is quite unusual at our school for one day. However, I came in with a shakey plan built off of suppositions and hastily-gained half knowledge which I gleaned from my counterpart before she quickly departed this morning. Things started off alright, with me following through on their homework - which was 'learn by heart the vocabulary.' Then I decided to utilize the task/game I came up with to build off of the homework - a game we know as hangman. I don't think I've ever seen a class so excited, and they actually listened to me. About two or three tries into it, our first session ended, and they had math next before going back to English. So I went into the teachers' lounge, sat and chatted with the director and another teacher for a little bit (the director asked me something about Obama, to which I answered "I can't watch the news here -- I live with little kids who always watch movies so the TV isn't free" -- to which the other teacher asked 'so then why don't you buy your own TV' and got my standard I'm not rich answer -- then I badgered the director a bit about the schedule not being changed to which I got a hasty answer and a quick retreat). Anywho, after that I went back for the final lesson of the day, again with my 5th formers. At the beginning everyone was asking to play the "dead person" game again -- I said only if you're quiet and don't behave naughtily. For this session I brought in my (at the school) trademark crayons and paper, and had them write namecards, upon which had one sentence of what they like and a picture to correspond to that. Although a little bit of a hassle, and me losing my voice in the middle of explaining what to do, it was, I believe, a hit with the class (and only two of my crayons broke, somewhat miraculous for them being distributed to 13 children) -- although one boy hit a girl and made her cry, so I had to scold him for that. Then we played some more hangman until the bell rang and the day was done. After class everyone wanted their namecard graded (I gave a 5, the best grade, to everyone who did it -- two boys decided not to), and a gaggle of girls stayed back. Mostly they were asking me to give them pens, threatening to cry if I didn't (to which I replied 'I'm not a store, and I'll cry too' -- which got a good laugh). As we left, two girls gave me their pencils and another gave me a wooden stone...uhh... thing -- when I asked why they did this they said they were for me for letting them draw the pictures. They then followed me out of the classroom, asking me questions about this and that, and one girl was even holding onto my arm as we went to the teachers' room. Outside the lounge they had unrelenting questions, to which I mostly jokingly replied (and garnered some friendly smiles from surrounding teachers and students), and then they departed.

This moment is very profound. What started as uncertain dread became a great session with kids melting my heart and holding my arms as I left school. I'm slowly realizing that when competency and compassion mix and work together great and meaningful things can happen. My purpose here is becoming clearer -- it's not about being a great teacher or having the most projects or changing things the most or whatever we, myself included, as idealistic volunteers or people may have in mind. It's about how, despite me wanting so many times to call it in over the tough times, to see little to no progress in my work and actions, to reply to my friends and family every time they say I'm doing great work that I'm really not, that I'm still here... I didn't quit, and I'm still standing. It's not about being the best, but being different, being a role model, standing where so many other people would have (and in many cases actually have) fallen. It's how, at the end of the day, despite those people who wish you harm or to be gone, despite being laughed at as what you're doing to help is snatched out from under you, you can finally see and feel a real want for your presence. I realize now that vengeance would only come to hurt those I am here to serve, and I must look past my grievances, put aside my pettiness, and strive to be a better person... not for myself, but for these people I'm giving part of my life to. For when you come to such a realization as what I have right now, and you have tears in your eyes and a lump in your throat because you've come to learn that despite the seemingly desperate struggle there's meaning in this action, what power does an aggravator have? This is my place now, this is where my heart is, and I can call this home. And when my little angels who impart such hope, albeit unknowingly, ask me to give them pens, what else can I do but oblige? The dawn may rise slowly, but when it does...

Friday, July 24, 2009


So today, July 7th, is my one year anniversary in Kyrgyzstan. In many ways it feels like a long time has come to pass, but overall it feels like just yesterday that I was going to The Wood n' Tap instead of the Chowder Pot (who would have thought there'd be an hour wait on a Tuesday??), having my last meal in America at a weird Mexican/'punk' food place (the only place open on July 4th...), saying my goodbyes both in person and on the phone, then leaving for Kyrgyzstan on my two-day venture via plane. It's been a wild ride so far, and I think this next year will have quite a bit more in store for me. Hopefully things will be much better, particularly with what experience I have and my own personal expectations in hand. Thanks to everyone for your support during year one, particularly my family and friends who have sent packages and mail!!
After getting back from Turkey things have been pretty interesting. The first week back I was a bit depressed, not in the least because I was ill from some bad meat that didn't quite want to digest. I was also comparing things from Kyrgyzstan to Turkey -- not fair, in my opinion, or condusive to much if anything at all. After week one, though, things started to turn around.
First off, I must say that having an open schedule is so very redeeming. My mental health has skyrocketed, there's virtually no stress in my life at the moment, and I've started routines (like working out every other day) that have done nothing but good for me. Sometimes I'm a bit bored and feel like I'm not doing a whole heck of a lot, but it's so nice to take this time to recharge and look around me for once, instead of being tied down and working/fighting all the time.
My relationship with my host family is getting better day by day. There are still some quirks (like me not agreeing to my host eje trying to take money from a student who wants to come over and study English with me) but on the whole I'm getting much more comfortable with them and I think they're feeling better around me too. The one sister I was talking with regularly and was developing a good friendship with unfortunately just recently left for Bishkek in order to study at university (I'm happy for her but am sad to see my best friend here in the village leave). The food is hit and miss but usually it's something decent -- for example, today I got a plate of beans, a very good thing (esp. since not many Kyrgyz people eat beans) -- and if things keep up I'll be pretty content for the next year to come.
The biggest change for me, personally, is my attitude. I wouldn't exactly describe it as complacent, but it's fairly similar. I guess I'm just at peace with things at the moment. The feeling first truly struck my consciousness while in Turkey as I was travelling to Chanakkale (not truly knowing where I'd be staying the night or what was in store for me, but feeling that things would be just fine and to take things in stride), and has carried over to the here and now. It's a very good perspective to have here, in my opinion, especially with the norms and way things work in-country. I haven't lost concern and am still careful, but it's nice not worrying about things so much -- particularly about little things that irritated me beforehand. I'm feel like I'm at home here, and can actually relax for once.
Feeling at home here is also something new and good for me, in my opinion. I'm starting to fall in love with Kyrgyzstan and the people living here. I think that for my first year here I was unfair, for whatever/many reasons (putting Africa in as my preference, the general attitude toward foreigners here, troubles with work/counterparts, health issues, et al). Things have been changing in me, though. I'm starting to find myself internally rooting for the Kyrgyz more and more every day, and that for every bad thing that may happen here there's something good that will happen (and the good thing usually counts 10 times more than the bad). Things are interesting at the moment -- I'm trying to figure out how to channel my new perspective into something good and positive.
I've found a piece of heaven. That's more than I can say for America! Travel to one of the farthest villages in my oblast, so close to Kazakhstan you can walk to the hills that serve as the border. Once you get to the village, take one street north, then turn onto a street leading east after about 15 minutes of walking. Take this road all the way to its end, and you'll come to a local family's home. This home sits right next to a pond/lake, with reeds growing around it, sitting as a very striking view with the mountains off in the distance. All around this home there are trees -- I had something of a feeling of displacement due to how very similar this particular woodsy setting was to my home at Harvest Lane. Compile this with some of the most hospitable people I've seen in country, and a heavenly setting is just what I have in mind. A stroke of Cupid may have struck me at this particular location...
Last week was the Talas Summer Camp. Somewhere between 60 and 70 students, 20 volunteers, and a handful of others were present at this camp. The schedule was usually sessions in the mornings and games/activities in the afternoon/evening -- lots of good stuff, essentially. I was on bazaar run duty throughout the week, so I went in to buy food every day so missed out on the morning events. However, I think it was a very good camp, especially for the kids -- if nothing else it was an environment in which they could be free and act without judgement (presumably), not to mention time away from daily chores and working in the field. I think my primarly role at the camp was trying to pick up on how to do things for next year -- the K-15's have sort of deemed me as the one to put things together and run the camp next time around.
A trip to Bishkek for my VAC meeting, helping out with friends and birthdays, going to the gym three times a week. Not much more to my summer than this at the moment.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


There and back again, a hobbit's... nevermind.
But I did go there and come back again! I was in Turkey from May 29th to June 11th and got to do a whole heck of a lot of things. I must say that I feel quite a bit refreshed and relaxed and like I have regained some sanity. It's nice!
I went to Turkey with a fellow volunteer. We pretty much spent the entire two weeks in Istanbul. It was a great time, the city is large and has about everything one could think of. The view alone is worth the trip -- a city half in Europe half in Asia, right on the sea, with sites and remnants dating back from Roman times... it's truly a great city. In Istanbul I primarily went out site seeing, shopping, and eating. There are plenty of great things to see in the city, be it the Hagia Sophia or 'random stone A' which used to be part of a forum. The shopping is fairly standard for your big city -- which is to say something I haven't seen in 11 months and decided to take advantage of while I still could! The food... oh the food. I'm not sure what I was most happy with in regard to the cuisine, but man was I ever happy! Everything was so delicious, be it the fish or the Ottoman cuisine or the omnipresent desserts, it was a gluttonous heaven!
I did take the time for an overnight stay outside Istanbul. My destination: Troy. My plan of action was sort of indefinate but I had a general outline of what I wanted to do. The standard trip to Troy first stops off in Chanakkale, a pretty good sized city in and of itself, before heading out to the epic ruins. That's what I did in this instance. I must say that, although I enjoyed Troy immensely, I think I enjoyed the trip to and from even more. It was a pleasant surprise!
First: getting there. In Istanbul I hopped on the metro (switching lines once) to get to the bus station. At the bus station I was greeted by some random guy who showed me the way to one of 160 someodd terminals where tickets are sold -- within 2 minutes I had a ticket and was ready to depart. No reservations, no haggling prices down from 'tourist' or 'American' rates (as is often the current case with me), no waiting 2+ hours for people to fill up seats. Within 20 minutes or so the bus was set and we departed. At this point I was a bit too much in a comfort zone to realize just how simply amazing this whole transportation process was -- things working efficiently, no absurd waits, no 10-20 men crowding around the American to get a rate. Shocking! Now, as if that wasn't enough. The buses in Turkey have airplane-esque service. I've been on the Greyhound a couple times in the States -- Turkey's buses kick Greyhound's butt. There are stewards who serve drinks and a snack, provide a pillow/blanket if asked for, and wash your hands with (what I at first thought simply lemon water) windex-type cleaning liquid. Not to mention that, for the entirety of the ride, there were absolutely spectacular views, be it of the countryside or the sea or the towns along the way. I also made friends with my neighbor (the guy sitting next to me) on both trips - the there and back - and I have to say that, despite claiming not to know English, they sure know a heck of a lot for my standards. That, plus my crash course in Turkish (combined with the crossovers from Kyrgyz) made for a good time of communication.
To get to Chanakkale, we had to take a ferry to cross through a strait. The bus just drives onto the ferry, people can get off and enjoy the view, and then hop back on the bus before departing. Very cool! Once the bus got off the ferry, however, I had an interesting experience. A guy gets on the bus, comes to my seat, and says 'I have seat #x' which was my seat. I said I also have the seat. The steward comes up, tells me "Your ticket is to Chanakkale, we're in Chanakkale now, time to get off!" and I basically get booted off the bus. I was planning on going in toward the bus station, not getting dropped off right after the ferry. Luckily my neighbor decided to get off with me as we were going to the same (presumably) location. The place my neighbor had in mind was literally right across the street from where I was booted off, a hotel. I had in mind a hostel, which bears the same nomenclature as this particular hotel. I went in anyway just to see the prices and all -- "We have a room available for 75 lira" the man behind the counter says. I was thinking something more in line with 30ish per night. I told him I needed something cheaper, he asked my budget, I highballed it at 50 lira, he found a room for 60 lira. I then made a decision, "I'm in Turkey on vacation, it's time to enjoy myself, just go ahead and do it," so I splurged on the hotel room. If I had been with someone else, it could have been 30 lira per person, but as I was with myself (and not quite fortunate enough to have a partner for the occassion) I dished that out.
Once settled with my hotel, I decided to explore Chanakkale a bit. I first was determined to find the bus station that has buses to Troy -- I didn't end up finding it that night. What I did find, however, was a bazaar. A true, honest-to-goodness, bazaar. Now, in Istanbul, there's the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, but in going to both I was severely disappointed because they're primarily tourist traps and not true bazaars (living in a country whose primary commerce method is through the bazaar, I've learned a thing or two). Granted, outside of the Spice Bazaar there are streets that are more true to a bazaar, but I was put off by those. Anyway, the Chanakkale Bazaar was what I was really looking for -- vendors hawking out their wares, piles of random stuff just sitting everywhere, order to the place (general goods, clothing, produce, dry foods etc. sections), and most importantly Turkish people shopping there. I ended up buying a couple kilos of fruit, apricots and strawberries, before calling it in. I was thoroughly impressed with it all, though, and was so happy to run into this bazaar.
After the bazaar I went back to the hotel to drop off my fruit, then decided to head out again to explore some more. On a local map I saw there was a little Troy exhibit up by the dock so I decided to head that way. There's a mock Trojan horse up there (it may be the one they used in the movie) and a little diorama of what Troy looked like, along with some information. However, that's not was truly caught my attention that evening. As I was reading some of the info on the Troy exhibit, I noticed some music playing to my right and thought a concert was going on. Upon further investigation, I realized that it was a presentation put on by a local high school. They were raising awareness for conservation, pollution, consumption methods, etc. I was pretty shocked. The girl who seemed to be in charge was asking me if I had questions, and then a European with not-so-great English interrupted and captured her attention. I decided to check out the rest of the display -- the students had made arts and crafts as well. I was impressed right out of my pants (figuratively speaking) by all of this. After I was done with looking at the displays, I started talking to the girl in charge, who had become free. Once again, blown away. She spoke pretty impeccable English (not to mention that the displays were all in English, and fairly well written as well), but that's not what truly impressed me. She's interested in activism and helping out third world countries and generally most of the stuff that I'm interested in. We spoke for about 30-40 minutes about all that sort of stuff. I pretty much found my perfect student, if she were older I would be thinking a little bit differently... Anyway, as with all Turkish people I've met, she truly loves her land and wants to show it off (especially to the foreigners) so she directed me to the castle.
I took off and went down the dock in the general direction of the castle. I wasn't quite sure how to approach the castle because the streets seemed to be closed, and there were some police guards standing at what I presumed to be an entrance to a private home. So, I decided to take some side streets. If I hadn't been living in Kyrgyzstan for the time I have been, I probably would have been scared and not gone down these streets. But, I've learned fairly well enough that looks can be deceiving and that the best stuff is often found where those are least likely to look. The first thing I noticed were some kids playing in the street (something I hadn't seen since leaving Kyrgyzstan) -- they were staring wide-eyed at me, so I said hello to them in Turkish. I then had a little following (one girl asked if I understood Turkish, though I think my answer proved the reality to be no, heh) as I found my way to the walled-off side of the castle. As I was walking down the street, a guy sitting outside his home enjoying his dinner asked me what I was doing (in English) and I told him I wanted to see the castle. He said it's closed now (it's apparantely a museum) but that if I come back in the morning it will be open. I tell him I'm leaving for Troy in the morning and won't have time, I just want to take a picture of it. He says sure! Come on over here, climb the wall, and take some pictures from there. So I head over, but notice there's a security guard on the other side of the wall. I voice my concern, he comes over and talks to the security guard. The security guard is just fine with me on the wall taking pictures -- we talk for a bit, he's from Istanbul, knows Enligh (a reoccuring theme in Turkey...), and is happy to allow me to photograph the castle he's guarding! It was really cool, especially being in this neighborhood that I guarantee 99% of tourists would never think of walking down. I said my thanks and goodbyes, went off to find something to eat, headed back to the hotel, perused the 1200 someodd tv stations that they get (most of which are from Europe - some being inappropriate for the younger viewing audience - but also some really cool stations from Iran etc.), then hit the sack for my big day at Troy.
The next morning I got up and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast (for 60 lira it better be!). At hotel in Istanbul, the breakfast is basically fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, cheese, bread, and juice. Here there was more of a selection. Most notably was the cereal. Oh my. The cereal! Now, I've had a bit of cereal in Kyrgyzstan, but it's hard to come by and I eat it dry. But here, oh man, here I got to have cereal with cold milk! I haven't enjoyed a breakfast so much since... I don't know when. But oh was it good! Orange slices, tasty breads, eggs, and the cereal... I knew the day was going to be good! After breakfast I checked out early then headed down to the bus station. The bus apparently wasn't leaving until about 9:30 or 10, it was now about 8 or 8:30. I decided to just walk around a little bit, then came back. Lots of tourists on this little bus (more like a marshrutka to me, mini-van-esque) but that's ok, I didn't talk to anyone (really didn't feel like it either, the British couple in back didn't seem to be too nice in my opinion, plus I sort of enjoy my ambiguity -- I've been mistaken for many non-American nationalities, and in Turkey I've gotten some interesting ones). It only took about 30 minutes to get to Troy from Chanakkale, and for 4 lira it's not a bad deal at all. It was real interesting, though, when we got to Troy. The bus just stops in this open field-type area, everyone was sitting wondering what's going on, then he says "This is Troy!" and the dumbfounded tourists (me included) just sort of stumble off to find their way. After following a street for a little while, you actually come to the entrance to the park itself.
Now Troy, for most people, is probably just a bunch of ruins. It's nice to say you've been there and seen it, and many people probably are interested in it, but it doesn't hold much meaning if you haven't studied Homer or Virgil's work. I don't claim any special recognition on the fact, but four years of Latin in high school and a lot of time studying and translating the Aeneid (not to mention the Odyssey in literature classes) did put it in a special place for me. I was thinking quite a bit of Mr. Swanson, my Latin teacher, while I was going through the ruins. It would be nice if he could learn about my trip to Troy and perhaps see the pictures I took. Anyway, I found the ruins to be impressive and was trying to imagine things as they were depicted in the epics. There's a lot of stuff just lying around or waiting to be excavated, bits of columns, foundations of a home, parts of a wall, evidence of how the second Troy was built on top of the first (there are many different stages/several different Troys that were built). Overall an impressive place to be -- I was less enamored with the mock horse they have out front that all the kids were jumping into, and a bit miffed at the tour groups that would literally walk in front of my camera a I was taking a photo (luckily they rushed through everything anway so they didn't prove to be a big problem), but it was well worth the trip. I felt like I had come to a place of true significance.
During my trip I met up with an Australian couple who were there on holiday as well. They had been in the bus over, talking with the British couple. They proved to be very interesting people as well, recently retired, well-traveled, having knowledgable experience and expertise on a varying matter of subjects. On my last legs of Troy I spent some time with them, and after we left Troy and were waiting for a bus back, I spent time talking with them about most anything under the sun. It was a good time, I enjoyed meeting them. I should probably email them soon, seeing as how they gave me their business card...
Anyway, I got back to Chanakkale and right away got on the bus for Istanbul. No BS! I bought my ticket, was told to just hop on the ferry, and about 10 minutes later we were gone. I had a good neighbor again, talked it up a bit, and just had an enjoyable experience on my way back. I was a bit sad to leave Chanakkale, I really enjoyed it there and want to go back again. After the 5 or 6 hours to Istanbul, I just took the PT back to my hotel and crashed for the night.
The rest of my trip is basically me just enjoying the pleasures I wouldn't get to for the next year and a half. Excellent cuisine and service, daily showering, running water, electricity, daily (and free!) internet access, sea air, and a whole host of other things. It was truly an excellent time. Turkey is a great country! I want to go back again sometime, this time knowing that I should travel outside Istanbul (I'd probably spend most of my time travelling around the country if I could). My classification of Turkey: well-tempered people who love their country and are overall very courteous/accomodating, very beautiful (particularly the rustic bits), amazing food, overall an amazing country. I'd say it's a good place to fall in love, maybe one day I will get to find out. I give Turkey an A!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The New Times to Come

So I'm trying to remember the last time I was in town to use the internet, but for the life of me I can't remember. I think it's been about a month or so.
Interesting times. So, a couple weeks back I had a little bit of a going nuts phase. First there was no power in my village for three days straight (record is 4 days) which, though I'm getting used to it, is a bit aggrivating. I invited my friend over so she could take a banya but with no electricity my host family wasn't about to start it up -- when we finally got the power back I took a banya. Banyas are, essentially, a steaming room or sauna which is the only way of cleaning one's self in the village -- this particular banya session was excruciatingly hot. The water was boiling, the heat was immense (and this is after I told my family I'm not a piece of food, I can't handle a banya that hot). About five minutes in I was seeing spots and needed to get out -- it took me about 20 minutes just to collect myself and escape. Afterward I collapsed onto my bed, tried drinking some water, and just rest. Eating later on made me feel better.
After the power came back I was awoken to something rather unpleasant. There are five children in this family, two of them 17 year old girls, and they play music. They play it during the day, they play it during the night. On this occassion, after having no power for 3 days, they decided to blast their ruckus, starting at 7 am (waking me up, rather irritating -- they did so today too) and played it until who-knows-when (it was still going when I went to bed at 10 pm). Now, I'm not opposed to music or it being played in such a manner on occassion, despite my rather non-listening habits, but this excess and the same songs being played over and over (sometimes playing the same song 10 times in a row) drives me nuts. My fam knows I don't like it, but that doesn't seem to stop them from blasting away at any time of day or night. I'm going to have a word because today, in particular, I was rudely ripped from a decent dream at 7 in the morning.
On top of the power outage, banya incident, and music, my family was acting a bit weird. They conveniently forgot to notify me of a few meals that week and were acting standoffish toward me. Some of it, from what I've gleaned, is due to graduation woes -- my sisters are going through all sorts of drama and teenage angst over the matter (personally I'm more disturbed that they put more effort into all this drama, field trips, and dancing than they do into studying and learning). Still, it didn't make that week any easier. I needed a good wind-down session so I headed into a town (not Talas) with a couple other volunteers and hit the gym (which was just recently opened visa vi the health volunteer's, who lives in this town, project). It worked out and I got back a bit more of my sanity. Time away from site can be very necessary here.
One thing that's been disappointing is I haven't been able to start the classroom project. The reason for that is my counterpart hasn't been at work for so long. I know she and my school director think I'm going to write this grant myself, but that's not how I'm going to do a project here. My philosophy is that I'll help, but my counterpart should be the one doing the work (otherwise what's the point of all this team-teaching nonsense, there needs to be a skills transfer). However, when people are sick or busy following husband's orders to hold a party because some neighbor bought a car (essentially an excuse to gambol and imbibe), it makes doing something like getting desks and chairs rather difficult. I'm not going to start spoon feeding, and if there's no willingness to do work for such a prospect then it's not going to get done. One of the sad realities of volunteerism; good intentions don't necessarily add up to results.
I have to say that the hiking situation at my village is amazing! A fellow K-16 and I have been working on one path that goes into the mountains and have both gone to the end of it (a wall of mountains is there, can't really scale anything at that point) and found a side path that leads to the top of one of the mountains along the side path. It's absolutely gorgeous out there! It also kicks my lazy butt, which is something I enjoy (however, not too keen on taking a banya right after I get back from them -- need some time to recoup from my headache) and is doing my body good, I think. My family is scared, and has gotten the village on their side -- they think that wolves and coyotes and foxes and bears and bandits (quite possibly riding the bears, from what my family says) are all out to get me. More realistically they think that crazy drunk people will come after me, which, ironically, has happened quite often while in the village and hasn't happened at all while trekking outside it (I have met some awesome shephards though, very nice men).
Right now the K-17s are newly arrived and I must say I'm very excited. Yesterday I met with a couple of them, the two who are my neighbors, to spend the day with them, help them a bit, give them info, etc. I'm quite happy about the new group from this first impression -- they seem much more relaxed and mature than I remember things when I first got to site. Unfortunately Peace Corps is being a bit uptight about things and throwing out all sorts of mixed information which is putting a damper on the plans we made to welcome the 17s; it would be nice to have a clear answer and a clear policy from PC. Nevertheless, there are nine new volunteers here and they all seem so happy and fresh and full of good ideas, so it's a good time and something my oblast needs.
Speaking of which, I've had some interesting exchanges with the PC lately. As the VAC representative it's my duty to represent my oblast's concerns etc. so recently I've been doing that. I think we'll be able to make some progress with what's been going on, hopefully improving the relations between PC and my oblast (and, ideally, all the volunteers in country). We'll see how things go, initially I don't think PC was too happy with what I (we) had to say, but if the conversation continues things may get better.
For now, I'm getting ready for Istanbul. It's something that I think I need and I'm really looking forward to. Birthday in Turkey! I'm also trying to get some good pictures of my village -- if all works out I'll get to put them up while in Turkey, hopefully on more reliable (maybe free??) internet at the hotel I'm staying at. Good things to come, May 28th is my departure date!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The light

What's in a volunteer? A common feeling amongst my fellows is that we feel like we're not doing enough, not being effective, not fulfilling goals and ideas and dreams of what it is to be a volunteer. I know this is something I've had in mind for quite a while. Kyrgyzstan has a culture that will often make volunteers feel inept while they are performing well, mainly because of indirectness and because goodbyes are the time to show gratitude. In any case, I feel like I've had a a roller coaster of a time over here so far -- periods of feeling completely useless and periods of seeing the lights in eyes of people I'm dealing with. It's taken a lot of time and effort and will continue to do so. But I've learned fairly intuitively that more patience than what I have in stock is needed to be an effective volunteer; more community involvement and integration and just locally-focused initiatives should be the primary drive of a volunteer (which means being more of a guide/mediator/transitioner/voice than an actor, as many might see volunteerism); an exchange of ideas and skills and culture and generally everything is key to volunteer service, it's not just the "Hand of God" coming down to show a right way (something I believe integral to any, any volunteer work); mistakes and miscommunications are, while at the time of occurrance a burden and aggravance, some of the best tools for learning and developing. Slow, gradual development is what makes the world progress and it's the same regarless of whether someone is trying to get books for their school or implement a clean, safe, and operational new hospital. Volunteer virtues (many of which I need to improve on) in my mind are: patience, open-mindedness, tough skin, tenacity, humor, humility, awareness and perception, and having a positive mindset the majority of the time (particularly while doing the volunteer work).

I'm not sure why I chose now in particular to write about that. I guess it's just a state of mind currently. I've been here long enough to learn what I'm decent at and what I need to improve, and to gauge what's feasible with the rest of my service. In many ways it feels like I just got here, and in many ways it feels like I've been here for ages. It's an interesting situation. I'm in a spot now that I wasn't 4 months ago and I feel I've grown (hopefully for the better) quite a bit since the start of my service. I'm definately not the same person I left the States as, and with 16 months to go there's just so much possibility and potential.

Right now I'm really happy with my site. My host sister is pretty cool -- the rest of the fam is still a bit awkward and whatnot, but she likes it when I bring other volunteers over and how we talk and joke and are generally more frank and open. The food I get here isn't too bad most of the time either -- sure it's probably not the healthiest or tastiest food, but within the week I get at least some variety (some vol's go for weeks straight of the same food, which is usually just noodles). Annoying/naughty kids at school aside, classes are going alright and I enjoy teaching my clubs and motivated students. And, and, I found something really great at my site.

So one or two blog posts ago I put up my "excursion to the mountains" story. Hiking. My village has some truly amazing hiking, and my first trip out sort of opened the door to it all. A couple days ago some other K-16s (my group) and myself were planning to go visit some Australian residents for lunch; they cancelled the lunch, however, so I was asked if it would be possible for the three volunteers to come to my site and try out the hiking scene. I said yes, of course (I usually don't get many guests over). Once everyone arrived we made some lunch preparations, packed them up, then headed to the northern range that encapsulates Talas Valley and picked a destination. It was nice and sunny, and although most of us are lethargic and out of shape from the grueling winter, we made it in good time to the base of the mountain-mountains (again for me, though to the east rather than west, which is where I went last time).

On this trip I saw a lot more cool stuff than the first time I went. First, we went past the cemetary that's right outside my village, which is an interesting place in and of itself (though I think it's taboo for people to just wantonly go to it or take pictures or whatever, we stayed a good ways away, esp since there was a funeral that day). Walking past that, we decided to go to one of the bigger hill/mountain type areas just before the moutain range itself and set up our little picnic there. So we just walked up the road until we got to a decent spot near the hill where we could easily hike up. Everything out here was simply gorgeous, lots of interesting rock formations, colors, distant sites, everything. First, we saw that if we continued following the road it goes right into the mountains themselves, looking something like the way to Mordor. We also saw that it's possible to hike paths that go to the top of the mountains (we even saw a shepard doing it that day!) so, once (at least for me) in better shape, that will happen sometime in the future. I also learned what the heck "Purple Mountains Majesty" means because I got to see some purple mountains which were very amazing, or majestic as it should aptly be put. At the top of the hill we got to see lots of interesting tidbits of the surrounding land. The spot that drew my attention the most was this tower-esque looking thing that was mostly blocked by a smaller hill directly in front of us; we couldn't determine if it was natural or man-made. I'm going to go out on another trip and check it out sometime soon.

A couple days later, today (for me), I invited my friend Brock out again. Brock is sportsman! (Try to imagine that with something of a Russian accent) He's been wanting to go hiking and exercise a lot, but doesn't have the means to do so quite as readily due to living in the city. So he got to my place around 10:30ish in the morning and we decided to head out again, despite the weather being grey and misty. This time, instead of heading up a hill before the mountains, we followed the road into the mountains themselves. The road seems fairly used (esp since a truck was going along it while we were making our way up) so that's good in and of itself. Also what's good is that it seems vacant for the most part -- no bottles or trash or signs of people traversing it on foot, so it's just quiet and peaceful and beautiful. The road also has a steady incline, and despite my puffing (need to get in better shape... arg) it seemed to be very slight. When looking back after going in for about an hour or so, however, we could see that the incline was much more pronounced than what was perceived... not dangerous, just we were higher up than we initially thought we would be. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of really interesting formations and rocks along the way (some of the mountainsides look like trees instead of rock) and the road goes pretty deep in. We decided that after a while we'd head back, particularly since the rain was starting to pick up. But we got pretty far in, and almost reached another mountain wall (didn't go up to it and see where it went due to some people up ahead in that area, didn't want to bother ourselves with them). On the way back there was some mist picking up in the pass, making things simply gorgeous (and making me think of the Misty Mountains -- seriously, LOTR could have been filmed in Kyrgyzstan). It was just an amazing path to take, despite my not being in the best of shape to traverse it, and I'm really glad I did (despite being cold and drenched now -- hope I don't get sick!). I now think I'm going to try at least a weekly trek on different paths, and I may have something of a treasure on my hands as far as the volunteers go (as far as I know my village is the only one close enough to these mountains to go on a hike such as this, AND have a bridge that crosses over the Talas River -- which is necessary to get to these mountains). Hurrah!