Friday, September 4, 2009

A Tour of My New Life

So much has happened these last few days, I hardly know where to start. Our flight went well, and we first set foot on Kazakhstansky soil, very sleepy, at 1:15am Friday morning. The airport at Almaty was impressively clean and airy, with high ceilings and no visible mold or crumbly tile (as compared to Pulkovo, St. Petersburg!) We had two days of orientation at “Sanitorium Kok Tobe,” in the city, most of which I spent recovering from the flight while trying to absorb the gobs of information that Peace Corps was sharing with us. I did learn this though: I must state in this blog that everything I write is my own personal opinion and not an official statement from the Peace Corps.

Then came the most exciting and fear-inducing part of the trip so far: we divided into training groups and set off for the villages where we will spend the next two months learning the language and culture while living with a host family. I will be living in a small town of about 5,000-10,000 only 30 km outside of Almaty. There are two groups of six Americans each living in my village, a Russian language group and my group, who's learning Kazakh.

Because I'm learning Kazakh, I'm living with a Kazakh family. I have a papa, Kozhabek, a mama, Mubarak, and a 17-year-old sister, Bayan. Bayan is very helpful and nice, and kindly shows me how to do things and where to find everything. Living at the house is also one other son/brother, Sirek, and his wife, Marzhan, because in Kazakh culture one son always stays home and lives with his parents so he can take care of them when they are old. It doesn't matter, however, if it is the oldest or youngest brother, although it's never a daughter. Kozhabek and Mubarak have several other children, but they don't live at home. They do come “v gosti” (visiting) quite often, completely unannounced. It seems that everyone here goes “v gosti” unannounced, just walking in without knocking, and immediately food is put out on the table and chai (tea) is served.

We live in a big house with 2 bedrooms, a small kitchen, a living room, a dining room, and another less formal dining room. I have one bedroom and the parents the other. Bayan sleeps in the living room on the couch, and Sirek and Mazhan sleep on a blanket in the dining room. There is not much furniture in the house; I think my room is the most thoroughly furnished, with a bed, wardrobe, vanity, and table. When guests spend the night (which they do regularly) they just lay out some more blankets on the floor.

We live in a compound of sorts. There are two houses, plus many outbuildings including the outhouse, banya (bathhouse), and garage, all surrounded by a tall fence. All of the houses here are surrounded by fences. In the other house in our compound lives another family who, as far as I can tell, is not related to mine. Bayan told me they are just renting the house from her family. Still, they share many things, and often drop in without knocking or sit on our back porch and eat pears from our tree together. There is no concept of knocking or privacy here. When the Peace Corps held orientation for our host families, they shared certain American customs with them, including the American love of privacy. Therefore, my family rarely comes into my room. (Although, right now, they are in my room, Bayan reading this over my shoulder to practice her English. I'm not sure if she understands what I've written, though, and I know Mubarak doesn't, because the only time she makes excited noises is when Bayan reads her name. I did leave the door to my room open, though, so that's clearly an open invitation.) Still, so far I've had enough space, and I was wondering if Peace Corps had exaggerated the lack of privacy until some of Mubarak's friends came over for dinner. They spent the night and in the morning, after eating breakfast, I went back into my room to get my toothbrush and found one of the friends sitting at my vanity, doing her makeup. I let that one slide; I think I left my door open that time too.

Because my family is Kazakh, at first I thought they didn't speak any Russian, which was both a good thing (my Kazakh won't improve as quickly if I can use Russian as a crutch) and a bad thing (it's very difficult to get to know your family when the only things you can say are “Hello,” “How are you?,” “I'm from America” and “Goodbye.”) I discovered about 2 hours later, however, that they actually do speak Russian, which, for the exact same reasons, is both a good and a bad thing. We've been able to have several interesting conversations, though, especially when I showed my pictures from home. (They think “Julie” is a very funny sounding name.) We also talked about money at dinner last night; Kozhabek wanted to know how much money my father makes, how much a house costs in America, how much bread and milk cost there, etc. Good practice with numbers.

The home is very comfortable, but it definitely doesn't have many of the comforts that many Americans consider essential. We do have electricity, though it often goes out, as it did on my first night here (but only for ½ hour.) We have a sink, but the water rarely works in the summer. Instead, we always test the faucet just in case, then go to the giant pot of water in the kitchen that they've carted in with buckets and scoop what we need out of there. There is a faucet in the backyard that always works, and apparently in the winter the faucet in the house works much more regularly.

Because we don't have running water in the house, we also don't have a toilet inside. (Although, oftentimes, even with running water there might not be a toilet.) Instead we have an outhouse out back, and it's of the “squatty potty” variety. I'm going to have very strong thigh muscles before this is all done! The method (we learned the proper way to squat in language class) will take some getting used to, and I don't really like to get up and go outside in the middle of the night, but overall it's not too bad. Still, in addition to the dangers you can foresee (missing the hole, or, much worse, hitting your pants) there are some unforeseen difficulties. The other night, stumbling around in the dark as I went out before going to bed, I unknowingly slipped on the pair of “tapachki” (plastic sandals that you wear around the yard instead of shoes) that will not stay on my feet. Normally, it's only a little annoying when the shoe goes flying across the yard when I step forward, and I have to hop to catch up to it. That night, though, there was the very distinct threat that I would fling the tapachka down the toilet hole. Considering that they don't even throw toilet paper down there (but instead but it in a bucket next to the hole), a plastic sandal would have been bad news indeed. And I definitely didn't want to have to explain why one tapachka was missing! Thankfully, I survived, and now I'm more careful about my choice of footwear.

It's amazing how many things take running water! We don't have a shower in the house, but only a banya out back. Oh, the banya is wonderful! (As anyone with whom I've shared my experience in Russia will know.) This banya is, of course, a small family affair, and any more than three people inside would be crowded. You undress (all the way) in the small outer room, then go into the steam room. There's a large metal canister filled with the hot water, which the men started a fire under earlier that day. (Saturday is always banya day.) There's also a large tub of cold water, and you mix the two in your own personal smaller tub until you get the temperature you want. Then you splash some on yourself, scrub all over with soap, and splash some more to get the soap off. Next you dump out the water, get some more, and scrub your hair. A third bucket gets the rest of the shampoo out, and you're done. Apparently the banya building is used for all sorts of washing, because when I came back from a walk with dusty feet and asked where I could wash them, they directed me to the banya building. And later in the week, when I wanted to wash my hair, I heated water up on the stove, carted several buckets of cold water from the hose in the backyard, and mixed the two in the same plastic tubs in the banya building. A very cold endeavor in the winter, but luckily the weather is nice and warm right now.

I also got to learn how to do laundry by hand on my second day with the family. Apparently they have a half automatic machine somewhere, but for some reason (they explained why, but I didn't understand the Russian) I didn't get to use it this time. Instead, I filled up two plastic tubs with water, half from the hose and half from a large kettle of hot water that was over a fire in the backyard. I scrubbed, my hands in the soapy water, but it was clearly not right, because my sister and several of the neighbor ladies were all sitting on the porch, watching me and laughing. Finally my sister came over and gave me a lesson in how to scrub clothes. It involved about 5 times as much elbow grease and 10 times as much soap. And I'm still not sure if I got them clean.

The contrast here between the ancient ways and modern technology is amazing. We might have an outdoor outhouse and wash our clothes by hand, but everyone (including both of my parents) has a cell phone. And when my host sisters came over to check out what I was doing on my computer, and asked if they could see what I had on it, it was clear as they easily clicked around that they were familiar with how to use Microsoft Word. They even got out their flash drive and asked if they could look at pictures that their sister had given them. (Their computer is broken right now.)

Well, since this post is already much too long, I will write more later. Stay tuned for news about several different goat head incidents (all in the first week!), going “v gosti,” and eating with my hands.


  1. Happy birthday, AMAZING LADY!.
    Hope your day is amazing.

    Скучаю по тебе, милая подруга.

  2. thank you for all the foreign details. i love hearing everything. happy birthday friend!
    miss you.
    sarah anderson