Monday, October 26, 2009

Around town

Our Kazakh language group, saying goodbye to our teacher Aigul. After spending 4+ hours together everyday, we've gotten pretty close.

Echo's awesome art project that she did with the kids. They picked up trash, mostly empty pop bottles, on the roadside and made them into flowers. Then Echo put together this awesome trash-flower mobile.

Walking around town, we saw a sign for "Tandoor Nan" scratched into a rusted gate. It smelled so good that even the sketchiness of the entrance couldn't keep us away.

The oven where they baked the bread - it was delicious!

The scariest bridge in the world. The floor bends under your weight, plus the whole bridge sways from side to side when you walk on it. Thankfully, I have brave Denise to keep me safe.

Kazakh fat-bottomed sheep, strolling through our village. Their fat bottoms are highly prized here as a delicacy.

The large pile of coal that will heat my house this winter.

Murphey's Law

In Kazakhstan, you can't procrastinate. Because if you do, then Murphey's Law will cause everything to go wrong.

Take, for example, the task of washing my hair. My host dad heats up the banya every Saturday, so I get a good bath once a week, but for the rest of the week I'm on my own. Greasy is the norm here, but I still feel the need to wash my hair once in the middle of the week. (That is, until I can find some baby powder. Apparently, comb a little of that through your hair, it soaks up all the grease, and you're good to go. One girl, in desperation, and without readily available baby powder, noted that the dirt on the side of the road is also fine and powder and rubbed that in her hair instead. As much as we laughed about it, her hair did look less greasy than mine.)

But for now, I still wash my hair twice a week. Normally, this process is simple, if time consuming. I heat up water in the tea pot on the stove, take it out to the banya building, and mix it in a bucket with cold water that I've carted in from the well in the yard. I have to be conservative, because one tea kettle of hot water doesn't go very far, and my back hurts after leaning over the bucket sitting on a low bench in the banya, but the whole process only takes about 30 minutes in total, so it's not too bad.

Well, it's not too bad until Murphey's Law comes into play. I haven't yet learned that I shouldn't wait until it's absolutely essential (ie, my hair is almost in dreadlocks) to wash my hair. One week, I put off the mid-week washing until Thursday night. Unfortunately, sitting at the dinner table that evening around 8pm, the power went out. We got out the candles, and finished our dinner, but I couldn't really bathe by candlelight. I decided to wait until morning, and woke up early to put the kettle on. I went to flip on the light, and found that the power was still out. I suppose I could have just worn my dreadlocks for the day (everyone here, at least my fellow PC trainees, would totally have understood.) But, getting creative, I took the cardboard out of the banya window that protects privacy, and then bathed as fast as I possibly could, jumping at every sound in fear that the neighbors were looking in.

Another week, I was silly enough to procrastinate until Friday morning. I got up early, to be sure to use the teapot before anyone wanted to drink their morning tea. Unfortunately, even a gas stove takes a long time to heat water, so by the time the water was hot Marzhan and my host mom were up. I graciously offered to let them drink tea first, then heat up the water again to take my bath. But when they went into the kitchen to get the water, they discovered why it had taken so long for my water to heat: we were out of gas. Gas here is not pumped into the houses through a line, but comes in big containers much like giant camping propane bottles. There would be no more hot water until the gas man drove by in his giant truck sometime later that week. Desperate, I washed my hair with cold water, but got a huge scolding for doing so because, apparently, anything cold will make you sick. So I guess that's the last time I'm doing that.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A hike in the mountains

One Friday, the Peace Corps took us on an excusion to the mountains. The day was beautiful, and we got to go hiking along a creek.

The mountains were incredible. This picture does not in anyway do them justice. Simply gorgeous.

At the end of the hike, there was a very nice waterfall where we hung out for several hours.

Our Kazakh teacher, Aigul, is amazing!

All 65 Kaz-21 Peace Corps trainees, in front of a giant "Golden Man" statue. The Golden Man, the greatest archeaological find in Kazakhstan, was found very near where I live now and is a national symbol.

The Russian Orthodox Priest

Several weeks ago, wandering through our little village, my friend Sarah and I stumbled onto a tiny Russian Orthodox church. It was perfect timing, because the service was just beginning. We donned headscarves from a box by the door and stood, enthralled, as a priest walked around the room, waving a censer of incense in front of the four elderly women in attendance and chanting in old Russian. We continued standing as he went behind a curtain and kept chanting. From an unseen balcony above our heads a woman would chant in reply, her voice drifting down almost like angels from heaven. It was all very beautiful, and the nearest equivalent I can give to the sounds would be Gregorian chants. We stayed for about 30 minutes, but not knowing how long the service would last, we slipped out early and spent the next 15 minutes talking about how fortunate we were to find that little church.

A few weeks later, a different friend, Denise, and I were also wandering around the village. Denise asked if we could go to the church, because I'd been raving about how beautiful it was. We made our way to the edge of town, where this time the service was just ending. Wanting to peek inside at the icons hanging on the walls, we edged toward the door. The same four old ladies shuffled past us, and last of all the priest came out. He was wearing a long, black robe, and had a beard that reached to his waist and a ponytail just as long hanging down his back.

As we stood in front of the church, he approached us, a welcoming smile on his face. Then, he asked if we were spies. At first, we didn't understand, but when he said “CIA” it became clear. “No, no, no!” we exclaimed. “We're certainly not spies. We have nothing to do with the CIA or even the embassy.” Then we tried to explain what we were doing in Kazakhstan, but when someone suspects you of being a spy, all of a sudden you're very nervous about what you say, and everything begins to sound suspicious. At first, I thought something like, “I'm here to learn about your culture,” but no, that sounds like I'm gathering intel. Then I thought, “I'm here with the Peace Corps,” but then he would be bound to ask what that is, and I would have to admit that it's with the US government. And all of this, of course, in broken Russian. Eventually, we ended up saying we were English teachers and then started talking about how Denise doesn't like the mountains because she's from Nebraska. It seemed the safest course of action at the time.

After we had established that we were not spies (although I wonder if he was convinced), he asked us if we knew why there was an economic crisis. “If we knew, we wouldn't be in one!” Denise exclaimed. So he offered to tell us. Below, I've given the best transcription of his speech that I can. It was very interesting, to say the least. I should note that this whole speech was given in a very nice and mild-mannered way, never accusatory or confrontational, so in person it seemed a lot less polemic than it does on a computer screen. That's probably why we didn't realize at first that he was accusing us of being spies. And why we stuck around even after we figured out that he was.

Before I begin though, I should say this: These are the words of one village priest, and do not necessarily represent the stance of the Russian Orthodox church as a whole. They also do not represent the Peace Corps (as none of my blog does) and they don't represent me. I hope that I've recorded them as accurately as possible, but something may have been lost in translation.

We are in an economic crisis because God told us not to lend money for interest, but we did. We have factories and farms built on nothing but promises to banks. How can we ever expect to build something out of nothing? We even lend to our own families, and expect them to pay us back with interest. We are only interested in earning dollars or rubles (the Russian currency; he never referred to the Kazakhstani currency, tenge). That is why we are in this crisis; God is punishing us for not obeying him.

Do you know the history of Carthage? It was a great empire. It had many great kings, such as Hannibal, who attacked the Greeks. But Carthage worshiped Mammon (money). They were very greedy, and they put Mammon before God. Mammon is the same thing as the devil, and because they worshiped him and not God they were destroyed and are not around anymore.

We are just as evil as Carthage, and that is why we're in the end times. The earth and human society is sinking into hell. Only a few people are hanging on with the tips of their fingers, fighting the descent. But most of the world is evil and soon we will all be destroyed.

That is, unless Russia saves us all. It is only Russia that can save the world, because it is a holy country. It's wonderful that we're learning Russian, because there are Russians everywhere, throughout the whole world. And Russia is a holy country, because it is led by a holy man. President Putin (this is how the priest referred to him) said that he was given two gifts by God. (I wish I'd asked him what these two gifts were, but I didn't.) Who would ever say that they were given gifts by God if this weren't true? And since Putin was given gifts by God, this shows that the government of Russia is sacred. Conversely, no American president has ever said that he was given gifts by God.

How can America expect to run well as a country if we're constantly changing presidents every four years? It's like driving a car and changing drivers every four hours, or running a factory and changing managers every four months; it just doesn't work. Besides, the president is just a puppet of the Anglo-Saxon and Jewish establishment anyway, and he doesn't have any real power.

America is a weak country now, because they don't work to produce anything. Thirty years ago, 30% of Americans worked in the production sector, but now only 10% do. And because we don't make anything with our hands, but import everything (and therefore have a huge trade deficit) we have become weak and fat. Both Americans as individual people, and America the country, is weak and fat. We just move money around and lend at interest, and that is why we are in an economic crisis now.

But we should come back and speak to him once we speak better Russian, and we can have many more interesting talks.

A Message from Bayan

Bayan, my 17-year-old host sister, wanted to say something to you all, but I made her write it in English, so this is what she says.

My name is Bayan.Im from in Kazahstan.Im 17 years,11 th class.I have a father,a mather,a brother and his wife,a sister and her husband.My hobby is listen to music and dansing.I like ice-cream,juise. My dream is tu graduate university.I want car.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Baursak is one of the national dishes of Kazakhstan. Basically, it is deep-fat-fried triangles of dough. One day, the staff in our village got us all together and taught us how to make it.

Sasha chops the wood to start the fire.

Once the fire is started under the giant kettle, Aigul pours two bottles of oil into the pot.

Meanwhile, Denise and Sarah cut up the dough. (Johnny and Marissa "supervise.")

Laura fries the baursak. Yum, yum!

How to Wash Laundry by Hand

Mix hot and cold water, add lots of soap, and then scrub, scrub, scrub. When you think you've scrubbed enough, you're about halfway done.

Wring out the clothes very well.

Hang them up to dry on the line, and hope it doesn't rain. 24 hours later, voila! Clean clothes that still smell strongly of the soap you clearly didn't rinse out well enough.

An Evening with my Family

In which my host sister has garlic stuck-up her nose, my brother plays fetch with our neighbor boy, and Barak Obama sings a Kazakh pop song

This particular evening starts when I come home to find my sister Marzhan with something stuck up her nose. At first I think it's a piece of tissue because she had a bloody nose or something, but on closer inspection I find out that it's garlic. (By “closer inspection,” I mean surreptitious glances out of the corner of my eye as we drink chai. I still haven't figured out the cultural norms for asking about ailments.) I'm still not sure why she had garlic stuck up her nose, but at least she took it out before she went to the store.

I'm getting used to strange medical practices around this house. Last week, my brother was complaining about an earache, so my mom got out a bottle and a hypodermic needle. She loaded up the needle with the medicine from the bottle and gave him a shot in the buttocks. Even if I have had to get 12 shots so far from the Peace Corps doctor, it still made me cringe.

But this particular evening, the illnesses aren't over yet. In addition to garlic up the nose, my other sister Gulya is wearing a SARS-style face mask. She says it's because she has a cold. I think, “How thoughtful of her, to think of the rest of us and not spread her germs,” until she takes off the mask to cough. And she still double dips in the apricot jam at dinner, so I eat the rest of my slice of bread plain.

Dinner is a real treat: pizza! I made pizza once before for my family, and I guessed they liked it enough to have it again. Or maybe they feel like they aren't feeding me well enough because I keep bringing home the congealed fat and slimy noodles that I get for lunch. This morning my mama insisted that, in addition to my fat and carbs, I take three handfuls worth of candy that she shoved in my lunch bag. And now we're eating pizza. I hope I haven't implied that I don't like their food; I just don't like it cold.

Luckily, I get in on the process of cooking dinner. I say luckily, because they keep asking if they can replace the cheese on the pizza with mayonnaise. And even though I keep saying no, they keep asking, so I'm glad to be in the kitchen, making sure that no mayonnaise ends up on my pizza.

Pizza is super easy to make over here. They already have a flat bread with a raised edge that works perfect for the crust. Then you just cut up and boil down some tomatoes to make the sauce, grate the cheese (tonight it was gouda), and cover it all with onions, peppers, and bologna, which was the only kind of meat we had in the house. Pizza is much more of a success than my other cooking attempt, Shepherd's Pie. One day, about eleven o'clock, my dad asked me if I wanted to make lunch. With nothing else to do, I said yes. He replied, “Great, so what will you need? You'll need meat, and what else?” Vegetarian is definitely not an option. Because of the time constraints, though, I ended up making a very interesting version of Shepherd's Pie. Basically, it was a little meat and a lot of onions with some Italian seasoning, and mashed potatoes on top. Although my dad said it was delicious, I haven’t been asked to make that again. I think pizza was a much bigger hit.

In the middle of our meal, a small boy walks into our house. He seems to be about one year old, since he's walking but not yet talking. There is no adult in sight. He's very cute, and comes right up to the table and grabs a handful of walnuts, still in the shell. We play with him; my brother throws walnuts across the room for him to go get and bring back, like playing fetch with a dog. At first, I think we might be babysitting him. But then he starts to get fussy and asks for his mom, so Bayan picks him up and takes him home. I think he might be our neighbor. I really hope he's our neighbor, and didn't just wander over here on his own.

After dinner, the whole family gathers in the living room to watch TV. Our favorite show is on, a kind of variety show with a lot of singing, some comedy acts and the odd juggler and fire blower. Tonight, for the last act, the guest star is “Barak Obama.” He's portrayed by a Kazakh guy in an afro wig, torn jeans and a t-shirt that reads “Roots Rock.” Is this really how Kazakhstanis see our president? I try to ask about the jeans, but my family is so into whatever he's saying in Kazakh (I hear “Hilary Clinton” several times) that they don't answer me. Then Obama breaks out into a Kazakh pop song, complete with back-up singers. I never knew he had such talent.

Next a show comes on called “Two Stars.” It's the Kazakhstani version of American Idol, complete with background stories and a panel of judges. Alas, there is no Kazakhstani Simon Cowell, because the singers are awful and need to be told so. I can actually understand their comments, because they almost all involve the words “zhaksi (good)” or “tamasha (excellent).” Unfortunately, not one of the singers or zhaksi or tamasha. Where are all the good singers in this country? I know they're out there, because I just listened to Barak Obama sing.

At this point my siblings start laying out their “beds” (mats laid on the floor) in the living room, and I know it's time to head for bed.

I really love living with a family, because it adds such an interesting dimension to my cross cultural experience and insight into daily life here. I mean, how else would I know that very small children are allowed to wander around at will, and this is a culturally acceptable child-rearing practice? Or that garlic stuck up your nose is a cure for…something? But in addition to that, I just love my family in general because they're such great people. There's a bit of a rivalry going on between the trainees in my village about who has the best host family, but I can say with (slightly biased) confidence that mine is by far the best.