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!