Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Not Enough Sunlight Hours in One Day

I have just noticed that over a month has lapsed since my last post – a good sign that I’m keeping busy. My uncle Eric came for a 3 day visit over Thanksgiving weekend, leaving me a bit homesick (I got greedy for the framiliar), but mostly refreshed and inspired! After a rediculously complicated drive to my house, he arrived on a Saturday afternoon and had rallied a neighborhood game of Nerf football in our street an hour later. It was funny because he is fluent in Russian and I only understand Kyrgyz, so all the locals (including my host family) had to address us in separate languages…they all thought this language triangle was pretty amusing. Anyways, we played American football for somewhere around two and a half hours – until the cows came home, literally. We had to step aside as cows flooded the street, mooing and wandering around aimlessly. Then came the wave of sheep and goats, kicking up a cloud of dust that you’de rather not taste, if you can help it. That night we shared gifts and my host mother made pizza and a small batch of the Kyrgyz national bread: Borsok.

Early Sunday, we got up early to start cooking the Butterball turkey that Eric had brought. I’m simply amazed that he got it through customs in that little blue backpack of his; and my family was amazed to find that it wasn’t a live turkey (they had envisioned him arriving with a live turkey under his arm, aha). So, in order to beat the afternoon power outage, we put it in the toaster oven to cook while we went to the bazar in Balikchey to buy supplies for our Thanksgiving feast. Eric got really into the scavanger hunt for food products and we ended up finding ingredients for tuna salad (with a substitute fish), chili, sweet carrots, and mashed potatoes. Plus, he brought stuff for rice krispie bars and hot chocolate…it’s like a mild form of self-torture to even write about this food right now;) So, we invited the other volunteer and her host family, along with some family friends, over for our American style feast and Eric kept everyone engaged with stoies and jokes in Russian and English. Both of our host families showered him with national gifts and our time together went so incredabliy fast. On Monday, he came to school with me, as a Guest Speaker for my English classes. He wore the Kyrgyz Kalpak (a tall whites national hat) to class and everyone got a huge kick out of it. He introduced himself in English and then went back and forth with Russian so that everyone would understand him. They had lots of questions for him and it was encouraging to see my students so engaged. It made me even more anxious for the day when I am able to hold meaningful discussions in Kykgyz…as it currently stands, my Kyrgyz level doesn’t really allow for me to go off on tangents that may very well help engage students. Eric was such a hit that we had one class yelling, “we love you,” as we were walking out the door. Of course, we also met with the school director and other important figures in the village – Eric has such a dynamic personality that everyone enjoys talking with him. We hashed out some project ideas and accomplished a whole lot more than I had thought possible in the span of three days.

After school, we went to Bishkek and met up with my host family’s eldest son (who studies in Bishkek) for an endulgant meal at New York Pizza. It was perfect.

As I understand, the cold weather is harsher back home, but I suppose our winter hardships even out because we don’t have the advantage of central heating systems and unlimited power supplies here. I’m keeping myself busy with organizing a charity holiday party this December and planning a New Year trip to Kiev to visit family for the holiday season. The idea behind the holiday party is to engage my students in a volunteer activity that will benefit members of their own community. I’ve got other volunteers committed to helping out with gifts, food, and a performance and we’ve got all major sectors of our community taking responsibily in the event as well. It’s a bit chaotic, but I have faith that eveyone will pull together and make it happen. While I’m on the topic of projects, in repsonse to requests for University advice from my students, I’ve also been working with my Program Manager and other Peace Corps staff and volunteers on compiling a first-even Higher Educaton resource book for Secondary students in Kyrgyzstan. It’s strange how ideas like this just suddenly present themselves. I suppose I had just never considered how students acquire Univerisy information/decide how to apply to University, until my students pointed out that access to this information is limited (ie. no internet access, not all instutites provide advertisement material, no college fairs). After talking with local Peace Corps staff, I found out that the most common way for students to learn about Univerisy is through relatives that recommend certain Universities or through brief newspaper advertisements that Universities publish in the spring. Therefore, in collaboration with Peace Corps colleagues, we are aiming to gather the necessary info from all Higher Education institutes in Kyrgyzstan by January and then we will compile/organize some sort of resource that can be distributed throughout the country to serve in lue of a college counselor.

It’s true, that when you stay in one place long enough, stuff accumulates: projects, paperwork, to do lists, personal belongings, all of it. I’m loving my time in Kyrgyzstan and even when I have a difficult stretch, I work hard to keep perspective. Challenges are innevitable, even if I was back home. Besides, I think challenge is a healthy part of life…it makes our accomplishments meaningful and forces us to always strive towards personal growth.

I had better be on my way; I’ve got some traveling to do and I want to get home before dark (about 6 at night). Thanks to all who have called me/send letters! I really appreciate it! Don’t even think that my lack of communication means that I don’t care, you all mean the world to me. It’s support from family and friends back home who make my Peace Corps service possible!

Oh, and this entry wouldn’t be complete without a shout of praise for our new President, Obama! I couldn’t be prouder to represent America in Kyrgyzstan! I heard the good news on a Russian radio stations in a taxi…it was memorable;) Then we explained that the work “nigger” is an innappropriate way to address the American president to all of my students the next day – most of them didn’t even know it was a derogatory word, yikes!

In case I don’t write before Christmas, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

ps, pretty sure the word format I used didn't have spell check, so sorry about that;)

Friday, October 17, 2008

This weekend I am back in Karakol, spending some down time with the other area volunteers and making American food. The last time I came, we went on an overnight hiking trip into the mountains, something I had never done before. I looked like an amateaure, using my school backpack as a hiker's bag, but it was one of the most refreshing things I've ever done. It took around 4 hours to make it to the camping site - a few Russian family owned buildings and land - but we were allowed to pitch our tents for free becuase she had a heart for volunteers. Then we soaked in some natural hot springs for a couple was heavenly! When I got back home, late the next evening, my host mother had recreated the pizza that we had made together the previous week. She is so spot on when it comes to reading my thoughts and my mood.

Anyways, apart from all the holiday breaks and weekend exploration, I swear I do work. I go to school five days a week and team-teach 18 hours of English lessons to students in grades 6-11. I’m not really sure that I feel very effective in this setting yet, because a lot of times I am just observing and then improvising various activities when I’m put on the spot. I need to play a larger role in creating the actual lesson plans, so I can be more prepared….hopefully I can make this happen in the near future.

I’m having a lot more fun with my English Club. I’ve got a dedicated group of 20 or so younger girls who come to the first session and then maybe 10 who come for a more advanced session. I’m scheming ways to get more boys to come, because a lot of activities could be more entertaining with the wild imaginations of young boys. Basically, I just like to have fun with it. Unless students start begging me for grammar charts and written exercises, I plan to keep club pretty informal. I figure it’s about more than perfect English…it’s about building life skills like self-esteem, creativity, healthy relationships, and curiosity. Therefore, one of my bigger plans, is to introduce the concept of Volunteerism to my older group, where we can do more discussion based sessions. I just feel like Kyrgyzstan has such a unique opportunity to make great strides in development over the next couple generations and I want to encourage leadership/humanitarianism/self-empowerment/pride amongst my students, who will play such a crucial role in their country’s future.

I manage to keep everyone amused (including myself) with activities like scavenger hunts, crafts, and show and tell. Probably one of the more amusing things we did, involved building a human pyramid to begin a lesson on nutrition. My girls thought I was absolutely nuts for wanting them to get down on their hands and knees and then climb onto of each other, but they had fun with it. I love challenging students to step outside their comfort levels, probably because it’s secretly nice to be on the other side every now and again. When they asked why I had them do the pyramid, I told them it was the same shape as a food pyramid – aha – a pretty pointless correlation, but it was still worth it. Now I’ve got to start making plans for Halloween. The school director is willing to throw a Halloween party at the school, as a way to share American culture. My job is pretty entertaining.

Now that I’m actually living life as a volunteer, there are lots of things to keep my busy. Send me any questions you have about my job, living situations, the country, the culture, anything at all. Once I get a bit deeper into some projects, I’ll be sure and post that info as well. For now, I’m just living at the mercy of fate, trying my best to tap into the humor, the language, and the new concept of Kyrgyz punctuality.

Here is the link to Dawn’s blogg (she is the new health volunteer in my village, so we know each other pretty well):’

Peace out!

Friday, October 10, 2008

My working life...

On September 18th, I swore in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer…and so my two years of service have begun. By this time I post this entry, I will have completed the third week of my so-called work experience. However, my work schedule insists upon taking on a life of its own. Where has that left me? Somewhere blissfully lost in a marathon of holiday celebrations. I’ll start from the top:

As fate would have it, the first three days in my new village coincided with the 100th birthday celebration of a local icon, Doctor U (we’ll go with a nickname). Evidently (if my facts didn’t get lost in translation), he was the first Doctor in Central Asia to perform a successful open-heart surgery. His patient lived something like 40 years, after the surgery; and this Doctor served as a successful mentor in the medical field. So, in a grand display of village pride, all school faculty renovated the village community center, Sunday through Tuesday. We’re not talking about a little sprucing up, either – we basically gutted this building. I was lost in a massive cluster of students, village government officials, and teachers, who all seemed to be working with a purpose, unbeknownst to me. I figure this time spent together outside of school was a blessing in disguise because I was able to bypass the pressures of meeting in a more formal atmosphere. Come Wednesday, they were still scrambling to plant flowers in the front before the holiday celebration began. At my host mother’s request, I was busy taking photos/attempting to record this historical day in Toruaigyr. The event began with a couple hours worth of singing, national instrument performances, speeches, and the revealing of a giant bust of Dr.U.

Then, we shipped off to the lake in busses for an afternoon filled with national games and traditional feasting. Yurts lined the shore – each family had prepared their own yurt and, if I had to guess, I’d say there were about 40 yurts in total. Inside, I joined my extended host family for a traditional feast (see photos on flicker). After, I caught a glimpse of the wrestling match that had drawn a very intense crowd of men. Some grandpa say that I was trying to take a photo over everyone’s head and decided to escort me into the heart of the crowd. It took a pushy (possibly slightly drunk) old man to make me infiltrate the scene, but my heart just about dropped when he almost pushed me into the center clearing. A quick getaway and I was making my way over to the field, where men were competing in national horse games. Unfortunately, I missed the game where a man chases a girl on horseback and has to catch her to win…it has a name and some cultural significance, but, at the moment, both escape my memory. I did catch some long-distance races and another game, which involved two men wrestling on horseback. The objective is to pull one’s opponent off their horse. The only other national horse game that I’m aware of involved the carcass of a goat/sheep. Something else to look forward to I suppose.

The following week, on Wednesday, we celebrated Ait (the breaking of the Muslim fast). So, no school, again. I woke up and had some Borsok with my family and a few guests came over to recite the Koran and share some Borsok and tea. The first house we went to, was a relatives house down the street, where I self-indulged on lots of fruit, nuts, and sweets. I had picked up on the hint that there would be a lot of food today, so I ate slowly and stopped before I was full. Ten houses and 11 hours later, I was painfully forcing down my last sip of tea. If I were to make a modest estimate, I’d guess I consumed 22 cups of tea, in total…you can just imagine how uncomfortable I felt. The meals at each house seemed to go in cycles: meat and rice, then fruit and pastries (with constant tea, of course). Essentially, we did a clean sweep of our neighborhood street, eating at everyone’s house. The rooms were usually separated – women in one and men in another. Somewhere around the 8th house, one of the women showed-off her elastic band skirt and they joked that I needed an “expando-skirt” too. I felt like I was back home for Thanksgiving with relatives making the same jokes about overeating and having a hay-day kidding me about my single status: “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Do you want a Kyrgyz husband? I know a guy that is tall and handsome, for you.” Some humor is universal, I suppose.

The following Mon. was Teacher’s Day, so instead of class, I joined in on a teacher party in the cafeteria. There was the familiar spread of food, accompanied by vodka and wine (I politely declined b/c drinking with co-workers is a slippery slope). There was dancing and singing and lots of games/skits. We’ll just leave this scene to your imagination, which probably won’t be that far from the truth.
Now, for a detailed recap of Wednesday, Oct. 8, because I think it deserves the attention. My day started with one English lesson at 8AM and then I had until two in the afternoon to prepare for my second English Club session. I attempted to show the movie “Cars” but was completely ambushed by a group of 30-35 students – note: I only had like 15 students show up for the first day of Club. My small computer screen and I were pretty much ineffective in entertaining a large group of 10-17 year-old students. In an effort to redeem myself, I will be reworking my English Club schedule over the weekend. I can chalk a few flops up to inexperience, but I also don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Then, back at my family’s house, I was introduced to a beautiful horse with an auburn mane, a momentary breath of fresh air. However, within the first five minutes, I confirmed that this horse was going to be on our dinner table in a few weeks and decided that I had best not become attached. Note: Apparently horse meat has a different protein and the odds are, a foreigner’s digestive system will react violently to it. Dawn, the other volunteer in my village, learned this lesson the hard way because she chowed-down on what she though was cow meat.

Then night came, and my host mother, who told me we were going to a wedding celebration, whisked me away. The son of a teacher at our school had just brought his bride to our village and we were invited to partake in Kyrgyz wedding protocol. First we went straight to see the bride in a private room, where she is waiting behind a white curtain that is draped with silk head-scarves. We added to her collection and then went to join in on the feast. Almost our entire school staff was present, so I silently quizzed myself on their names while I unconsciously downed three cups of tea. The food spread with impressive, but I always have a hard time pacing my appetite when the dessert foods (Borsok, fruit, pastries, candy, salads) are served first. When I heard about the “Singing Cup,” though, my stomach did a somersault and killed my appetite. The women were passing it off to one another like a microphone at a Karoke bar. Fortunately, nobody decided to victimize me my third week on the job. I’m wondering what my go-to song should be…any suggestions? Then while we ate some meat stew dish, something even more interesting was brewing. Yeah, that mix of techno/German/R&B/Indie music that I heard outside was for our two-hour dance party. By this point, half of the teachers are fearless from all the toasts that they’ve drank to and we’re dancing in a giant circle outside. My dancing performance was pretty weak, but the draw of the scene was far too interesting to run away/hide from. It’s funny, but the reality of the situation is that any dance move is less embarrassing than just standing still, so I’m working on retraining the threshold of my comfort level. After this, I thought we might file out, but I learned that we were to go back inside the house and have more tea. Then, we relocated to another room, where the meat was served. Part way though this segment of the feeding extravaganza, the power shut off and they brought in candles for light. I definitely felt privileged to be sharing in on such an important, private celebration. I realize I’m not really an inconspicuous addition to their social circle, but I feel welcome in their presence.

To be continued…

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tory-Aygyr, plus some

I had wonderful intentions of updating everyone last week – but somewhere between saving a thoughtfully drafted entry to my USB and attempting to open the document at an internet café, my words completely vanished. Now that I have my language proficiency exam tomorrow, procrastination has prompted me to rewrite this post rather than spend time studying. Things have a way of working themselves out…right!?

Starting with the major news, I recently returned from a 5-day overnight at my permanent site (Tory-Aygyr village). It was a refreshing break in routine and most importantly, I felt like things were finally falling into place. Where to start?

My new host family dynamics are wonderful. Aizada Apa (my mother) is the Russian teacher at the school I will be teaching at and Baktibek Ata (my father) is one of the school’s Physical Education teachers. Both are healthy/active people, who have good reason to be proud of their home…especially the apple orchard in their backyard. As for siblings, Daniar (my 17-year-old brother) will be studying in Bishkek during the winter, but I had the chance to meet him before he left. He reminds me of my own brother: a genuine guy of few words; and I sense the potential for a great sense of humor once I become a more familiar face. I hope you’re reading this Chris;) Then there is Dilbar (my 16-year-old sister), who I may very well be teaching in the 11th form. She helped me iron my outfit for the first day of school, so that was nice. I’m looking forward to getting to know her and am hoping that she’ll give me perspective on being a teenager in Kyrgyzstan. The last family member is Almaz (my 10-year-old brother) and we spent a substantial amount of time bonding during my brief visit. He made us Ramen noodles the first day, and retrieved my sandal…which leads me into an interesting little story.

Within the first five minutes at my new house, I excused myself to go use the outhouse. So far, I’ve done my best to be consciously aware of outhouse dangers. However, in one fateful moment, I managed to dropped my left sandal down the hole. After warding off irrational thoughts of rescuing it, I hobbled back to the family and managed the situation with a little self-deprecating humor. Miraculously, Almaz fished out the victim, but I’m afraid it’s one of those things that just isn’t salvageable.

I’m trying to think of the best way to describe my new village. I’ve already mentioned Lake Issyk-Kul, the secret envy of every Volunteer not placed in the Issyk-Kul Oblast. It has a unique effect, because even though it’s set against snow-capped mountains, it’s made of salt water. This means the lake never completely freezes and the bottom is free of slimy weeds. Basically, the water is crystal clear and there are no dangerous sea creatures to zap the lure of swimming all summer long. So, from my front door, the lake sits at about a twenty minute walking distance. Behind the village, I can admire the mountains, which are further away than they appear to be. There are also a lot of donkeys, cows, sheep, free-ranging chickens, and dogs. I think the horses are somewhere in the mountains right now, where they are brought to graze during the summer months. There are fruit trees everywhere (apricots, pears, apples) and it feels like a mini-utopia because you can just pick off a snack as you’re walking down the street. All the apple trees, combined with the cooler air around the lake got me kind of nostalgic for fall in Minnesota. Maybe if I bring caramel apples and bon-fires to Tory-Aygyr, I’ll momentarily loose sense of the distance between the two places.

I also have a better idea of my primary role as a Peace Corps Volunteer, now that I’ve had the opportunity to visit my school and talk with my director and counter-part (the female I will be team-teaching English classes with – Ainagul Eje). Somewhere around 18 hours a week, I will be team-teaching English for the secondary level students. In addition to this, I will incorporate English clubs after school for those who wish to further improve their conversational skills. Since the school year is broken into quarters, I will spend the remainder of the first quarter mainly observing and becoming familiar with my new surroundings. The fact that Ainagul Eje’s speaks wonderful English makes the situation more convenient than most, but I’ve got a lot of Kyrgyz to learn if I want to fully earn the respect of the students and my other colleagues. I plan on starting with names, something I’ve never been that good at, even when it’s something as familiar as “Sarah or John.” Just being able to address someone by name, though, goes a long ways because it shows that you care enough to recognize him or her on a personal level.

From here, there will be a lot of loopholes in my report, because I will basically be learning as I work. Our pre-service training equipped us with a lot of resources and prepped us for likely challenges, but it’s pretty much up to us to carve out our own niche within the community and to achieve our own degree of success at work. For me, I already know, from talking with my school’s director, that incorporating one of their top priorities is learning how to navigate the Internet. They just purchased a wireless box, but asked me questions about the scope of the internet. This is exciting because they already have 12 computers, so now the students have a new educational resource and teachers have a way to seek out future donors/grants. I imagine this project could take some time…teaching how to search with key words, how to distinguish a creditable site, and informing users of the major resources on the web. Here is where I call upon the assistance of whoever is reading this: I will be learning as I teach, so if you have any internet/computer savvy suggestions or recommendations, please send them my way! I don’t have the luxury of dinking around on the internet in my free time, so that makes prep work a bit more difficult. It’s exciting to consider the possibilities that this holds for the school.

On the downside, the presence of a wireless box within the school is no defense against the inevitable power outages this upcoming winter. Electricity (which, powers all running water, light, and heating – a basic fact that is easy to loose site of) is a national crisis and to convey the magnitude of this issue, I could discuss “winter break.” Because no school has the infrastructure/can afford to supply heat during the harshest winter months, nationwide, schools will be closed from sometime around Christmas, through late January (or possibly even later). This is a huge disruption in the educational calendar and the reality of the situation is that all anyone can really do right now is speculate. This break will vary from school to school and my director even told me we may conduct classes from teachers’ homes, if need be. I suppose I’ll just have to wait until the situation presents itself before I can truly tackle it. Right now, though, I’m thinking of creative ways to pass the winter. I’m predicting that I’ll be spending a lot of time in my sleeping bag, huddled up with a booklamp and whatever book I can get my hands on.

From more of a cultural perspective, I also want to share my first day of school experience. In Kyrgyzstan, school begins September 1st, with some sort of ceremonial “First Bell” event. So, I walked the 7 minute route to school with Aizada Apa and got really excited when I saw all the school children – it made all that I had been working towards these past three months a reality. Baktibek Ata had work to do in the field (since it is also harvest season), so he didn’t come to the first few days of school. Come to think of it, neither did my host siblings, which is kind of ironic, considering both their parents are teachers at their school. Attendance is an anomaly in itself here, something I’ll save for a later date. Anyways, I got to see the English classroom and met with all the other teachers for brief introductions. I had a very welcoming experience, which may be accredited to the fact that I am the school’s second teacher volunteer. The students wore black and white uniforms: suits/dress shirts for the boys and skits/dresses for the girls. The white lacy aprons and eccentric bows (typically only on the younger girls) made for some pretty standout outfits. When we all crammed into the auditorium for the “First Bell” ceremony, the fidgety first-year students just made my heart melt. And then something not so cute took place….

My school director invited me to give an introductory speech in the middle on the assembly. Thankfully, I had been warned that this might happen; so, with my host mother’s help, I had prepared a little something in Kyrgyz the previous night. Making my way through the throng of people, I stood in the center of the room and embarked upon the strangest first-impression experience of my life. Immediately after I had addressed the audience with “Welcome parents, teacher, and students,” a huge round of sympathy applause erupted and put my nerves at ease. After the ceremony, I was released from my first day of work. Even though I observed two classes the next day and got a thorough tour of the school, I still don’t really know much about the typical schedule. I can guarantee, though, that my work environment is ripe for amusing stories.

As for interaction with other volunteers, I actually have a site partner. Her name is Dawn and she will be working with the Village Health Committee. There is much potential for project collaboration, especially since the school is interested in incorporating a health curriculum in the near future. We will be working out possible approaches together and it’s always nice to have someone to speak English with when you get worn down. The closest city is Balikchey, which is about a 20 minute taxi ride away. There, we met two current volunteers who gave us a tour of the city, along with the three other new volunteers in Balikchey. The group dynamic feels healthy and travel beyond this cluster is definitely feasible, especially during the summer months. The last thing to mention about my site visit, is the fact that I am serving as the replacement for a male volunteer who finished his service this summer. I had the opportunity to meet with him and he passed on a wealth of information, advice, and resources. This puts me in a very fortunate position, because I will be building upon the things he has already established. For instance, he assisted the school in acquiring some of it’s newer technology resources and now it is my job to teach everyone how to utilize it. He also broke down some negative American stereotypes and, even though we will inevitably be compared to this successful volunteer who left on such a high note, people seem excited to work with us. Complete language submersion, lesson plans, English clubs, learning to cook, winter survival….I am entering a whirlwind of events.

I apologize if you eyes are beginning to burn from staring at the computer screen for so long, but I’ve got some more recent news to add. FYI, I just got wind of an amazing communication option. If you search for and select the SMS option, you can send free text messages to my cell phone in Kyrgyzstan. I haven’t browed the site myself, but I’ve been told that it works well and all you have to do is enter 996 550 458144(my cell number) and type a message to be sent. Conversely, it’s not cheap for me to send text replies, but I’d love to receive little messages when you are bored at work;)

Roughly three months in-country, and I finally braved cooking on my own. Of course, I chose to make chocolate chip cookies, drawing inspiration from my own cravings and the fact that my five-year-old brother wants to be a pastry chef when he grows up. Together, we mixed the batter and I had some serious doubts about the improvisations that I was making (ie. casually substituting the generic yellow oil for butter and nixing the vanilla and brown sugar all together). My Eje kind of took over when it came time to bake them…because she insisted they brown one the bottom AND the top, just like the bread she makes. I thought they turned out pretty good – it probably helped that we ate them all while they were still hot;) I think I’m ready to take another cooking venture, even though I realize that every time I tamper in the kitchen, I risk the possibility of losing all credibility as a female. It kind of makes it exciting that way, aha.

There is also a new addition to our family. When I went to a track-and-field event, organized by some volunteers in a neighboring village, we found a stray puppy that had to have been no more than 4 weeks old. I had told myself that I wouldn’t open that can of worms (worrying about the stray animals that dominate the streets here), but by some unanimous decision, I was chosen as the pup’s new care-taker. I called my host grandmother on the phone and asked her if she wanted a new puppy and all I could make out was “Jakshee, Jakshee” or “Good, Good” and then a boisterous laugh before the connection died. For the sake of clarification, I asked a native speaker to call back and confirm. So, I brought the mutt home and they named him “Macho” as in “Macho, Macho Man. I want to be….” I consider Macho my first success story because now he gorges on milk and runs around with my younger brother, who has claimed ownership.

Last note: I received my second package from mom about a month and a half after she sent it and it was pilfered, again. Bummer. The strange thing is, only two select items were taken and they happen to be the exact two items that didn’t survive the trip last time – a Nalgene and sweat pants. So strange. I’m hoping my new address will be more reliable, but it is best to use an entire roll of duck tape on the package so that the box has to be torn apart in order for its contents to be reached. This shenanigans is getting real old, real fast.

In case I haven’t told you in awhile…I love and miss you all!
Enjoy the photos!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Beautiful News

While I’m not qualified to pass judgment on any of the oblasts (the equivalent of a county, I suppose), I’m certain that my permanent site placement is premium. I’ll be moving to Tory-Aygyr Village, in the Issyk-Kul Oblast, where the infamous beaches of Lake Issuyk-Kul can be reached within a twenty minute walk. The view sounds gasp-worthy: tucked between the mountains, autumn colored by apple and apricot trees, plenty of horses, all overlooking the lake that never freezes. It’s beginning to sound like a vacation get-away…and Tory-Aygyr actually sits on the outskirts of the nation’s most popular summer tourist destinations. However, I’m aligned with the locals in the sense that I’m living on a local budget and competing with touristy prices, I’m working in their school, and I don’t escape when winter comes. From what I hear (i.e. “It’s not that the winters here are any colder than in the states; it’s just that you are never actually warm for like three weeks straight.”) there will be plenty of hardships, so I’m going to celebrate every chance I get. Right now, all I know is that I haven’t been allowed to swim all summer long and nothing sounds more appealing than a lake-side residence.

Another advantage of my placement is that I am replacing a former male TEFL Volunteer who was very ambitious. He left me with a wonderfully unexpected amount of teaching info, community background, other reading material, and project development guidelines/suggestions. Honestly, it’s a bit intimidating to come into a community that’s built such high expectations. However, I’ve got the benefit of building upon existing projects/development within the school and can grant myself the necessary grace period while I discover my own niche within the social network. My new host father works as a physical education teacher at the school I’ll be working at and my host mother is the school’s Russian teacher, so at least I’ll have these connections.

This weekend we prepare for a 4-day visit to our permanent sites, so the excitement of the big move is near. Fall season is refreshing, with crisp weather keeping minds alert; and the urge to start hording books, snacks, and other coping mechanisms will be my saving grace this winter. Speaking of squirrel-like behavior, today I went to the Dordoy Bazaar in Bishkek today with another female volunteer and our host Ejes. I’m still not sure how anyone is able to navigate this bazaar, but we were able to make a few successful winter gear purchases. When I think back on it, I want to laugh thinking, “How far does my loyalty to fashion run. At what point am I willing to compromise my style and purchase a sweater vest?” Also, despite my valiant attempts at finding size 10 ½ boots, I had to accept the fact that Kyrgyzstan may not be able to accommodate all of my needs.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I think I’m finally able to describe Pre-service training. It’s like I’m doing a study abroad right now: majoring in Kyrgyz language, with a minor in drama/acting (I’ve never done so much role-playing in my life!). In all honesty, I’m restless with training and ready to start my service as an English teacher. I’m ready to feel like I’m serving a purpose/have responsibilities, even if it takes me an entire year to work out some of the kinks. When I break it down though, this week looks promising. My training group is going to some hot springs on Sunday for a relaxing day-trip. Although we are not allowed to swim during training (aka all summer) I’ve heard that the hiking is worth it. Also, one of the more monumental moment of my Peace Corps experience will take place this Wednesday. Our permanent site placements will finally be announced…which means we find out who our Volunteer neighbors will be, whether our winters will be intense in the north or manageable in the south, how rural our schools are, and the reality of beginning service will sink in because this place will be “home” for the next two years.

Today we met with all the other volunteers and their host families for a Culture Day. Each community prepared a skit to perform and then we ate picnic style. The menu consisted of plov (a traditional rice dish), borsok (a traditional bread/ pretty much “doughnut squares”), and melon. Going back to the skits, it was entertaining because Kyrgyzstan has an unexpected blend of culture. Russian, Kyrgyz, and Turkish customs were represented through everything from wedding rituals to musical/dancing talents. Everyone shed their inhibitions and decked out in traditional clothing: head scarves, vests, kalpaks, skirts, frilly dresses, you name it. We also helped built a yurt. I thought we were going to play some games after lunch, but it turned into a huge dance party instead. (scroll down to see new photo...not sure why the application worked this way)

In honor of Becky’s birthday, I made “Blinchky” (those delicious crepe things) a second time – under the guidance of my host aunt, of course. If I were to create a recipe right now, it would look something like this:


Step 1: Beat 2 eggs. Add a heaping spoon of sugar and beat some more.
Step 2: Add a smaller spoon of baking soda, which you activate (word choice?) with a few drops of vinegar.
Step 3: Beating this mixture is fun because it gets real frothy/reminded me of a science experiment.
Step 4: Add about a Jiffy PB sized jar of milk (it’s gotta be whole milk) and I didn’t really catch how much flour, which is probably vital. Next time.
Step 5: Break up all the lumps and add a splash of (unidentifiable) oil.

Cooking: Well, there are no oven dials, so cooking temperature is a bit of a mystery. Anyways, pour just enough batter into the frying pan because the blinchky should be thin. Flip and reassess the amount of batter you used (for me, this is almost every time). As for the frying pan, I’m convinced that a new pan wouldn’t work as well as the one my host aunt uses. Basically, I can never recreate these once I leave this kitchen. I should also confess that I bought Nutella to put in them, because chocolate makes anything taste 10X better.

Because phone calls are a privilege and I just can’t personalize enough emails, I’ll take a moment to debrief on this public blog. So, I’m going on week #7 of being in-country and I have already dealt with a wide range of adjustments. I can improvise with my Kyrgyz, but I realize that there’s a difference between my forgiving environment now and trying to get 25 students to take you seriously when you fumble with your words. I should start developing a strategy. Something like memorizing a bunch of basic classroom commands, because right now I never conjugate word in the informal plural form (what a nightmare). Mom, you can be expecting some more teaching questions...the reality of this gig is beginning to preoccupy my thoughts. Then I always think about friends back home and wonder how their job/school searching is going. Then I get nostalgic for Gustavus and realize how jealous I am that Chris starts his Freshman year in a couple weeks. There are plenty of high points, but one of the biggest adjustments has been learning to enjoy them without the friends and family I relate with best. My attitude right now just has to be “roll with it” because training is tiring, but I have faith that one of these days I’ll find a routine that suits me in Kyrgyzstan. Then we can start coordinating everyone’s plane tickets to Kyrgyzstan;) I should probably just request that those able to afford a ticket donate a fraction of that money to my future school/community projects; however, I am not that pure of heart. My approach is this: I’m promoting travel to a little-known country and there is a lot to be said for the positive impact face-to-face interaction can have on international relations. If nothing else, consider your trips/continued letters and emails integral to the success of my Peace Corps service. Well, that’s enough rambling for now. Send any questions you have my way…when I sift through everything, there is a lot that I neglect to share.

Peace out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

P.S. Did this still smell when it got to you?

Actually, Peach, it did. Your perfume soaked letter is actually serving as an air freshener in my room right now. Thanks! I’m thinking I might even rub it across my wrist tomorrow morning before going to class…

Thanks to everyone who has written me. I feel like a Freshman in college again – I just can’t shake the perma-smile. I appreciate the hand-written stuff because it’s so personalized with the handwriting, creative envelopes/postage, blurry water spots, whatever. It’s refreshing to hear news from home (that place I’ll return to in two years). FYI, I recently realized that it’s actually more expensive to send mail via the Post Office than it is to send e-mails. I guess I had just assumed that the “old fashioned” method would be less expensive. So, what does this mean for the future of my loyal pen-pals? Let’s just compromise on an e-mail/Air Mail combo. I’m willing to splurge for the sake of amusing myself with trips to the local Post Office. One other note on lines of communication: I purchased a cell phone and am exploring options that fit within my Peace Corps budget. Basically, I can accept incoming calls from the U.S. free of charge, and if you set up an account on Skype, the long-distance calling fee is substantially reduced. If you are desperate to hear my voice, then call my mom for my cell number. That being said, don’t feel that you have to invest money you don’t have in long-distance phone conversations….we can keep in touch all the same!

So, my first package from home was pilfered. Apparently, U.S postage makes you personal items a target. Unfortunately, there’s not really anything I can do about it, other than to have a sense of humor/readjust my expectations. As it turns out, only a few items were stolen: Candy, a Nalgene, and a pair of work-put pants. I’d consider myself fortunate, considering three pairs of shoes, two shirts, and other items didn’t strike this thief’s fancy. I just imagine some slob pigging out on my candy, and then squeezing into my pants (swinging my Nalgene in his/her free hand) to work off all those calories/clear their guilty conscience…exactly what I would have been doing;)

Thanks to mom’s birthday (Aug 5th) I wasn’t without sweets for long. My host family bought a cake so that we could celebrate here, which I found pretty touching. The other volunteers in my village joined us for a few rounds of toasts, which we read out of our notebooks. One translates as “May there always be Peace on Earth, and bread on your table.” Then there was my improve. toast in Russian, which was basically me yelling out “I love you” towards the sky...kind of melodramatic now that I think back on it.

I’ve had a couple requests for more info on my current living situation. I’m already going on my fifth week in Kyrgyzstan and it’s easy for me to bypass the details of my daily life without even realizing it. Let’s start with a legitimate dilemma – I don’t speak fluent Kyrgyz. I think I’ve learned quite a bit in a month, but I still have a ways to go; and from here on out, the drill doesn’t get any easier. Basic communication with my host family exists, but I feel like they have the toughest job. They provide for me there first three months and then, just when I’m able to speak Kyrgyz better than a 4 year old, I leave for my permanent site. Sometimes the biggest frustration is not being able to demonstrate a sense of humor or share an opinion that doesn’t rely on charades or painstaking dictionary scanning. My host family knows some English vocabulary, but no complete sentences, as far as I know. Of course, some days are better than others, as far as my ability to communicate goes. Sometimes it’s the useless phrases/situations that I can relay the easiest. For instance, the other day I was taking a sun shower and the water shut off. I had just lathered my hair into a huge white afro and suddenly found myself stranded in a potentially awkward situation. Fortunately, I scavenged some water off the banya supply and lived to share this story with my host family. I could manage phrases like “no water,” “much soap in my hair,” and “banya water.” We all laughed and then my elder host sister sent me back with a bucket of warm water, even though I was already done, because all that cold water could make me sick. Gotta love the self-prescribed health measures;)

My Chong Apa (grandmother) insisted that I send my mom a picture of the birthday cake, so here it is. Revealing the cake was a pretty proud moment! I also want to point out the mug in the left-hand corner – I start every day with a cup of coffee in the “Daily Delight” mug.

My host family, whom I’ll refer to by relationship titles (I don’t want to post their names). Starting on the left, there is my Bauke, Eje, my two little brothers, and Chong Apa. We get lots of visiting family, which I have trouble keeping up with at times…and that explains the young boy in the middle, who I have not officially met.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Picture time...

My spirit booster.
One of my favorite marshrutkas. I’m still in disbelief over the life span of some of these marshrutkas – constantly surviving a checkerboard of pot holes, while getting rock-and-rolled by oncoming herds of sheep and cows.
Rating outhouses is becoming impulsive…and I keep envisioning this take on that “Doors of Ireland” poster, except it’s “Outhouses of Kyrgyzstan.”

I helped my host aunt make Blinchke (a crepe-like food). For my first time, it turned out alright…but I’m thinking I should attempt an American dish next (say, pizza), so they won’t be able to make such a blatant comparison. Meanwhile, I’ll keep working on the Blinchke. I saw Nutella in the grocery store, so it’s pretty much fate:) By the way, this is my younger host brother...pretty charming;)
My village against the mountains. Even though you are in 108 degree heat, you can still see snow.
All I had to do was step outside the front door and I instantly smiled.

A wedding party...pretty much everybody's mother plus Ann and I.
Besh Barmak (FYI)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wedding Party Frenzy

I think I’ve been to three separate wedding celebrations in the past week and a half. I say “think” because I’m not always completely sure of what’s happening. When a feast is laid out – the situation becomes is pretty obvious. But, when my family got me dressed up at two in the afternoon, in the anticipation of a celebration, and by nine that night nothing had seemed to develop, I become accepting of this new dosage of confusion in my life.

If you’ve done any sort of Wikipedia research on Kyrgyzstan, the term “Bride Kidnapping” probably caught your attention. Rest assured, I’m an unlikely candidate (even though records mention a people with light skin, red hair, and blue or green eyes- ironic, isn’t it?). Anyways, this tradition remains a reality for women around my age, especially in the more rural areas. My first related experience took place about a week back. I went with my host grandmother to a neighbor’s house, where we paid our respects to the new in-laws (the groom’s parents). We brought a scarf for the bride. Through my fuzzy interpretation, this case of bride knapping was more of a charade, for the sake of custom. By this, I’m assuming the new bride was expecting to be kidnapped, so it wasn’t a traumatic, forced union. Either way, it’s a difficult circumstance to digest. Think about it: in Kyrgyzstan, you are basically married once you are brought to the groom’s house and claimed with a white head-scarf. Then, for the next few days, the new bride is required to stay behind a white curtain in a private room, where other women come and pay to see her.

There are other ways to go about marriage, such as having the groom purchase his wife (paying a bride price upfront) rather than stealing her. I also know a neighbor who went this route because their desire to wed was mutual.

Today (7/27) I went to another wedding feast. I’m still not sure of all the intricate details (ie prayer, preparation, official dress code), but there are two distinct social spheres – the men and the women. Since two other volunteers were there, I suppose we formed a third posse;) Everyone is given a place around a table (the longer the better) and bombarded with food. There is always candy, cookies, fruit, bread, and tea. My fault is filling up on these tasty treats before the main course is served…or maybe I do it on purpose. One more note on the bread before I reveal the mean course. Various types of bread are always deliberately scattered around the table. Rarely does it keep its place on a plate, at any meal. Sometimes I wonder…will I develop this habit of scattering rolls between dishes when I have people over to eat back home? It really is that easy to amuse myself;) Getting back on track, the traditional dish is Besh Barmak (sheep noodles). Allow me to arouse your senses. The Besh Barmak I’ve been privy to is made with Ramen noodles that are mixed with generous hunks of sheep fat, meat, and bone. These noodles take on a very potent sheep taste, something I’m pretty sure you can’t buy at your local Cub Foods (sorry Peach, I know how much you love your Ramen variety). I’ll just say my palate is still adjusting; but I always try everything that I’m served.

The last point of interest I’ll cover now is my fascination with the “grab-bag.” At my first wedding feast, I witnessed more than 30 women receive plastic bags and simultaneously claim (in a semi-competitive fashion) portions of the leftover food. Today, when I was given a bag of my own, I got really excited about it. I was sitting at a spillover table apart from my grandmother, who was inside the house with all the other elders. I was determined to live up to the standard she had set at the prior party and my competition was pretty limited. I snatched a couple meaty bones, threw in some cookies and bread, and sprinkled in some candy – the perfect combination. Don’t worry Chong Apa (grandmother), I can pull my weight;)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Captions: A fellow PCVT on our street, my host mother's dog "Marta", My host sister milking the cow and the rolling hills of Kazakstan (as viewed from our Kyrgyz village)

This evening completes my first official week of living at my pre-service training site. So far, my stomach has been cooperating with the new diet: lots of potatoes, noodles, rice, bread, tea, some meat and fresh vegetable salads. I’m quickly becoming the next Pillsbury Doughboy. Seriously, though, as long as I can keep my health in-check, I’m content!

I’m pretty sure Google Earth doesn’t cover my village, so allow me to paint a picture. The general layout is 4 parallel roads, lined with family farms. My family owns cows, chickens and sheep….some of the neighbors also have horses. The farm smells are pretty familiar, but the outhouse is in a league of its own. I was invited to try milking a cow a few days ago, but I still need to work up the courage to help around the kitchen. There’s a very good chance I could become domesticated here. Another example would be the laundry experience.

I shower in a banya (just go along with my phonetic spelling). Fortunately, I’m able to shower every day…and now for the explanation. A banya is a little enclosed building were Kyrgyz people bathe. Basically, I undress in the first room and enter the second room, where I mix a tub of water, taking cold water from a ground faucet and warm water from a water basin that is heated with fuel. I’ve got no complaints – but I’m leery of any communal banyas that the future may hold.

As far as the weather goes, it gets pretty hot during the day. I thought rain was rare, but we were assaulted by some misty rain on our walk to the internet café today. I’ve got a week of Kyrgyz under my belt, but I still sound like a two-year-old. This week should bring some more interesting news!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Touching Base

So, I have 4 days of Kyrgyz language lessons under my belt...and a daily routine is beginning to take form. I get up around 7:30 and have breakfast (bread, cookies, and coffee) then walk three blocks down the road to our teacher's house for 3 hours of language lessons. I didn't have time to download an entry to my USB, so I'm kind of crunched for internet time right now...
How about I just share some bullet points:
  • I did my laundry by hand yesterday and my knuckles are still raw. It was a good feeling, though, to realize how self-sufficient I can be.
  • My host family has been geusting quite a few visitos who are interested in talking with an American. I help them practice their English and they clarify whatever phrase my host mother and I have been struggeling with over the past 24 hours.
  • The community I'm staying in feels very safe. Everyone knows everyone else, so people are held accountable for their actions. I feel very furtunate to have landed such a warm host family/community.
  • I discovered the post office today, so please send letters when you get a chance!
p.s. Can someone please give Holly Cooper a hug for me?!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Safe arrival

The flight panned out as anyone who really knows me might expect: I got a good 14 hours sleep on the plane. We had a 7-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey, so I bought a $20 Visa and ventured out with two others in our group. We navigated the metro and found our way to the Blue Mosque – a serious bonus! Then we ordered lunch at a nearby café and bought some trinkets outside of the storefronts. With about 10 minutes to spare, we were invited into a man’s shop, where he was very proud to display his Turkish rugs. He shared a cup of apple tea with us and even though we had to explain that such rugs were outside our budget/reality for the next few years, he was simply happy to visit with us.

For our introduction to PST (Pre-Service Training), we are staying at a hotel outside Bishkek. I’d have to say, this huge concrete building is Soviet architecture at its finest. Here, we are about to complete our third day of orientation, in preparation for the transition to move in with our host families of three months. We have had some brief language lessons – I’m learning Kyrgyz- and our professional missions are beginning to take shape. As for our host families, our group of 63 new volunteers is divided amongst 8 villages near Kant. I am grouped with three other TEFL volunteers, who all happen to be about the same age as myself. There will be plenty to follow once we hammer through the fist week of PST, but for now, my thoughts are set on tonight’s matching event. These families have been preparing for our arrival for months, without so much as a photo.

There is plenty to process…but my pen can’t seem to keep pace with my thoughts right now. Send your questions my way because, even though we are separated by an 11 hour time difference (Minnesota-Kyrgyzstan), there are internet cafes within reach. Bye for now!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Staging in Philly

So, I had good intentions to touch base with everyone before I left Minnesota, but it seems that I had a bit more packing/repacking to take care of before I left early Thursday. Sorry friends - I have a bad habit of leaving in a whirl-wind fashion, which you probably already knew;) Anyways, I'm here in Philly right now for the segment of orientation known as "Staging." We are getting a general overview of all the elements of Peace Corps service and the anticipation of leaving for Kyrgyzstan is definitely building. I don't have much time to write now, but I can honestly say that I feel like I am in the right place!