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…