Kazakhstan Chronicles, October 2000 - January 2002, Peace Corps
Kazakhstan Chronicles 1: Nov 8, 2000
This is the first installment of the Kazakhstan chronicles, now coming to you from the fair city of Almaty in the southeastern corner of the country. I reached safely in Almaty on Friday, the 20th of October, after having flown from Istanbul via New York/JFK. Our Peace Corps group of 33 met in Philadelphia for
orientation on the 18th of October, and we had a few days to find out more about what we were getting ourselves into. The flight to Almaty was pretty long...a 3 hour bus ride to JFK from Philly, 9 hours to Istanbul, a 7 hour wait in the Istanbul airport (where the no smoking sign means exactly the opposite), and a 6 hour flight to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Upon disembarking from the Turkish Airlines plane in Almaty, I knew right away that I was in the former Soviet Union...stern looking military types with big hats stood by the stairwell, and the weather was at or below freezing. We were herded into the airport, where two Kazakh Peace Corps officials greeted us and
guided us to the baggage claim. The airport was small, and had the cold feel of the Soviet era, with a gruff, Soviet border guard type looking over my passport for what seemed like five minutes until he finally let me pass. We finally got all of our stuff off the baggage claim, made it outside to be greeted by some of
the American country staff, before boarding a bus that would take us to our lodging quarters for the weekend.
We stayed for our first weekend at what is called a "sanitorium," an old Soviet word for a place that is considered a health resort. (Note: remember, this is a Soviet-style resort, so we're not talking Club Med here) Upon arriving at the sanitorium at 4:30 in the morning, we found out that the electricity was out!
So, flashlights in hand, we trudged up the sanitorium walkway in the cold, finally making it to our utilitarian, yet adequate rooms for a rest.
The next day they had us up by 11:30, for lunch and a presentation of Kazakh culture. It was a very nice presentation, and all the Peace Corps staff made us feel very welcome. It also started snowing, which was pretty cool. The Kazakhs have various stringed instruments that they play, and they have various folk
dances that look like a cross between those of China, India, and the Middle East. I guess it's kind of hard to describe...the Kazakhs mainly look like Mongols, and their culture has elements of the middle-eastern world, from the religion to the language, but they also speak Russian from the Soviet influence,
and the country itself has a strange Communist/Third World feel that's hard to pin down. Almaty itself is a very nice city, with stunning mountain views, luxury cars (Lexus, Benzes, SUV's - for the very few who can afford them), and modern restaurants. Yet, however, most of the people are struggling to make a
living, and when you go to the bazaars and the villages, you feel like you are in a post-Soviet Third World.
Right now we are in the midst of training - an arduous 10-week Russian language immersion with technical training. Even when we were jet-lagged, they started us deep into the training, and I'm still in somewhat of a twilight zone, this being my 5th day in Kazakhstan. Russian is a somewhat difficult language to learn, but once my brain recovers from its exhaustion, I think I will be OK.
On Monday, we moved in with host families in villages near Almaty, where we will be staying for the duration of training. I am staying with an Uigur (Chinese Muslims originally from Xinjiang, China) family, with a babushka (grandma), grandfather, father, and a 10-year old boy in a village called Bisagash. They are very nice, and the grandfather has a good time talking to me in Uigur/Russian, and I just stupidly laugh and nod my head when they speak to me, understanding maybe 5% of what they say. My limited Russian and non-verbal communication methods take care of the rest. My little host brother is really
cute, and we've struck up a nice little bond. Everything's all so new know, so I'm just soaking it in, and trying to learn as much Russian as I can before I go to permanent site come December 23rd.
Thanks for letting me share with you. I have very intermittent e-mail access (really intermittent....I'm at an internet cafe in Almaty, 30 minutes from my village by bus), and I don't think I can e-mail more than once every couple of weeks, at least until the end of December. *So, please don't individually respond to this e-mail, as I won't have time to write back to you all, and I only get 1 hour of internet every 2-3 weeks. I do want to hear from you, but when I individually write to you we can have personal correspondence. I hope
you guys understand.*
Thanks a lot.
Take care. Hope all is well.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 2, Dec 2, - 2000
I guess it's about time for the second edition of the Kazakhstan Chronicles, coming to you from the Stalker Internet Cafe in Almaty. Well, I've already been in country now for nearly 6 weeks, and things are going well, as I am adjusting to life here in Central Asia. Well, it's hard to remember where I left off, so
I'm just going to tell you a little bit about my life here, and hope you may find some of it interesting.
I am still in my Peace Corps training period, living in a village named Bisagash, located about 10-15 km west of Kazakhstan's biggest and most cosmpolitan city, Almaty. I live with a Uigur family (ethnically Turkic, Muslim people from the area that is now Xinjiang, in western China), and they are
wonderfully hospitable and great people. In fact, my "babushka" (Russian for grandmother), has adopted me as her own son, and I feel right at home. There are 3 other volunteers living in my village with their host families, and we've become a pretty tight group over the past six weeks. We see the other 25 volunteers occassionally, but spend most of our time in our own village.
Right now I'm in the middle of my teaching practicum, and I've been teaching 45 minute ecology lessons in both Russian and English. It's amazing to see how fast you learn a new language when you're thrown into it, and my Russian has become good enough to hold decently intelligent conversations. Come next week,
my 7th week in country, I find out where my permanent site is. I'm pretty excited to find out....Kazakhstan is such a huge country....I can be anywhere from the Chinese border to the Caspian Sea, or from southern Kazakhstan to the Russian border. I'll let you know what happens.
This experience so far has been really great, and it's hard to put into words everything I've seen because each day there is something new to pick up or learn, especially since I'm trying to learn a little more of the language every day. Also, it's very interesting to be living in a place where you're the town
celebrity, just because you happen to be American and speak English. In fact, everybody here seems to want an English lesson, from the dozens of kids that constantly yell "Hello" to us when we're within sight, to the adults we meet at dinner parties and on the street. Here are some of my observations so far:
Transport: The cars here are pretty interesting - I thought I knew about cars before, but so many of these Soviet-style, boxy "people's cars" throw me for a loop. The strange thing, though, is that there are also many Benzes, Lexuses, Land Cruisers, etc., all sharing the road with these old cars, all speeding
along these icy, country highways away from the city. Also, the buses here are these dinosaurs that somehow manage to move people from place to place. In fact, it's my main form of transportation, and the bus conductors stuff as many people as they can to make as much money as possible. I was at least reassured a couple of days ago when I saw a truck dumping gravel on the highway to improve friction on the roads.
Schools: I've been teaching in the schools here, and it's been a interesting experience - There is one big school per village, and all the children, all ages, go to the school. The older kids go in the morning, and the younger ones in the afternoon. The kids are pretty well-behaved compared to most urban
American schools, and are extremely delighted and happy to have us. The schools, however, are these dreary, Soviet-style places, something out of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" video. It's kind of interesting to see how unimaginative the Soviets were with their architecture and some of their thinking. Talking to
even some of the older, Peace Corps Kazakhstani staff, I am amazed to see how their thinking has been heavily influenced by the Soviets. It's the younger generation that has to lead this country to bigger and better things, and hopefully that's what Peace Corps can help with.
Social scene: The big thing in Kazakhstan is "gosting", or going out to other people's homes for nights of feasting, and many times, heavy drinking. Guests take their duties very seriously, and after meals, there are many rounds of toasting. And once you start drinking vodka with your toasts, it's very hard to
switch to non-alcoholic drinks. It's pretty much either you drink all the way, or don't drink at all. So far, I'm playing it safe - I'm doing the Sprite shots, and taking the ridicule. Kazakhstanis, though, are great hosts, and I always feel very welcome here.
Miscellaneous: Bathing has become a luxury here - People usually bathe once a week in a bania, which is like a sauna. You enter this blisteringly hot room, where you throw hot water over coals, and sweat till your skin starts to peel. Then, you wash down with soap, clean up, and do the normal bathing routine. I
have come to treasure this experience - folks, don't take bathing every day for granted.
The bazaars here, too, are a real trip - they are these huge places where pretty much everything is bought and sold. In fact, it's pretty cool to bargain with people, and I bought a long, black wool winter coat, a mink hat, and boots, for only $120! Now I look like an Afghan, secret Russian agent, with my outfit and
my thick beard. I have to say now that I look pretty bad-ass when I see myself in the mirror. Just call me the "Hinduski Ruski."
Economy: The roughest part about Kaz is seeing how tough the end of Soviet rule has been for people here. Although not having the abject poverty of certain parts of the Third World (e.g. Africa, Latin America), people are struggling here. There simply are not enough jobs here, and many old people have lost their pensions. Even educated people like doctors don't get paid often for months, and have to resort to selling goods at the many bazaars that are around. In fact, I was talking to my babushka the other day, and she, like many people in fact, long for the days of the "Sovietski Sayuz" (Soviet Union), when people
had jobs and life was easier. I can definitely see where people are coming from when they say that.
Well, folks, my time's about up at the cafe. Thanks for reading. Hope all is well with you.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 3: Dec 31, 2000
This is the third installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles, coming to you now from the southern city of Shymkent, which is now my permanent site for the next two years. I moved here on the 24th of December, and met fellow volunteers currently living here, who met me at the Shymkent train station. We had a nice
Christmas with my new volunteer friends, and have been staying here at one of the volunteer's apartments for the last week.
It has been a really fast few weeks, as I finished training a little over a week ago...it was a good feeling to get sworn in as a volunteer..it was kind of like high school and college graduation rolled into one, although we are just beginning our journey here. I even made a little speech in Russian at our ceremony...it was pretty cool to see how far we've progressed in speaking the language. It was kind of sad to say goodbye to friends I won't see for a while, and it was also tough to part with my host family, who I had grown close to in the two months I stayed with them. However, I am happy to be in Shymkent, which is the third largest city in Kaz, and ready to begin my work here. From what I have seen so far, I like the feel of this city...it has the things most cities have - parks, bazaars, restaurants,etc., but it is pretty walkable and compact, unlike Almaty. Also, there is a good mix of Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Russians here.
My work counterpart, Irina, is very nice, and I will be working at a Russian speaking school near the city center, teaching ecology and English...I will have to speak mainly in Russian, which should be a good challenge. I also got an apartment recently....it's a big and very nice 1 bedroom place, located about 20
minutes by bus from work. It's clean and very modern, and I'm looking forward to moving in on the 9th of January.
I also have a new mailing address here. It is:
P.O. Box 62
486050 Shymkent ,Kazakhstan
Letters and packages mailed here should reach me in about 2 weeks via air-mail. Writing the address in Russian as well may expedite the process, but as of yet, I don't know how to send you that via e-mail without it getting all jumbled up due to font problems. I'll keep you posted.
Well, that's it from here for now. I'm just settling in and will write in more detail later. Take care, and Happy New Year!
Kazakhstan Chronicles 4: February 2, 2001
This here is the 4th installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles, once again coming to you from Shymkent. I have now been in Shymkent for a little over a month, and am slowly adjusting to life here. I now have an apartment, and have begun teaching at my school. My apartment is not too bad – it is relatively clean and
has gas and electricity (if not always consistently), and is a 15-20 minute bus ride from school. However, all the apartment buildings here on the outside look something like a cross between housing projects and bombed-out Sarajevo housing complexes. The first place I was supposed to move into fell through because the landlady we were negotiating with really wasn’t the landlady (she was her sister), and she was trying to sublease the apartment to me without her sister’s permission so she could pocket some extra cash. So, within a few days after it fell through, I got this place – it’s a one-bedroom, with a large living room,
cool Persian rugs, fully furnished, except with one minor problem – no telephone. Other than that, the place is fine. I have to see about the phone issue, but it costs a lot of $ to get a phone line installed, and it is a bureaucratic mess and long process here, like many things in this country. Also, like many places here, heat is a problem – it’s pretty much about 5-20 F every day here, and heat is very sporadic....that makes for some pretty cold nights sleeping with my thermal underwear on.
Hot water, too, is an adventure. In most apartments in south Kazakhstan, hot water does not flow freely from taps as we are apt to expect in places like the States. Over here, there is a contraption called the “klionka,” which heats your water. It is a metal box with a small opening to light the gas grill
inside, and it is connected to a large heating tube that heats the water. You first have to run the hot water tap (and only the hot water tap), light the klionka, and wait for the water to heat up. You can then take a shower, fill up the laundry bucket (good old hand-washing and line-dry), etc....when you are
done, you need to turn off the klionka first, let the water cool off, and close the tap. However, if you turn off the water before shutting off the klionka, or turn the cold water tap on, the heating tube starts to overheat, creating steam and leading to a possible explosion if let to heat up too long. I just have to
be careful to not let habit get the best of me and turn off the hot water after a bath....otherwise, I may be in for some trouble.
In terms of the bureaucratic hassles here, I have had some firsthand experience with them. When a foreigner moves to a new part of Kazakhstan, he/she has to register with the “OVIR,” the man in charge of foreigner registration. As a legacy of Soviet times, authority figures are suspicious of foreigners and want
to keep track of them....also, foreigners are often viewed as rich targets for hassling and possible bribes for the often underpaid police staff here. The supposed rule is that a foreigner needs to register within 3 days of moving to a new city. So, after arriving in Shymkent, my counterpart and I, after numerous
treks through dark, labyrinthine government hallways, finally found the mysterious OVIR, a man named Malik. He was sitting behind his desk...a gruff looking Kazakh ex-Soviet, in a huge room devoid of any wall decoration, with his desk positioned at the back of the bare, empty room. Many government officials’
offices are like that here....it’s kind of silly to see how large their offices are, and how little use they make of their space. Maybe it’s an authority thing...to show their power through the size of their office. Anyhow, we finally meet this guy, and he starts questioning me in Russian, hassling me and
getting upset when he finds out I am passed the 3-day registration deadline. He continues to berate me, but he finally lets up, becomes my buddy, and tells me I can register if he gets a letter from my school director saying that I work at that school. So, my counterpart and I trek back to the school, wait two hours
for the director to sign a letter, and return to see Malik. Seemingly without reason, however, he berates me again, and tells me that I am passed the registration deadline and I am in trouble. He walks to the other end of his office to find a government form to cite me. Malik’s memory apparently wasn’t so good. Pleading with him, I tell him that “I didn’t know” about the registration deadline, and that he should let me register. He finally reconsiders, but my counterpart had to write a written statement saying I was allowed to register, only because I didn’t know about the 3-day rule. He then suddenly becomes my buddy again, stamps my passport, and files away this flimsy piece of paper God knows where. It’s a pretty funny situation, but sadly is the norm here when dealing with government officials. I always have to be aware of the cops and “militsia” here, because sometimes they just want to flex their authority on you, or just want to get some bribe money.
As far as work goes, things are OK....I have started teaching both ecology and English classes, from grades 8-11. The kids are alright from what I have seen, but teaching solely in Russian can get tricky sometimes, even though it’s a good challenge. Like with many things in Peace Corps, it’s a real adventure in
trying to figure out a work plan, and what I am exactly supposed to do here. I plan on working on my lessons and teaching for the next 1-2 months, and will then work on secondary projects like community clubs and community outreach programs. Right now I see this time as just adjusting to a new culture. It helps, too, to have other Peace Corps volunteers (PCV’s) in Shymkent...right now there are 7 of us here, and it is a good support network. For instance, one of the volunteers here, Phil, was nice enough to let me stay at his place for 2 weeks, when my school was lagging in finding me an appropriate living space. I
usually see at least one volunteer once every couple days, and usually spend one night a week hanging out...one volunteer has a TV and VCR, and his mom sends him tapes of American TV shows and football games, so his place is definitely a popular hang-out. It gets easy, however, to hang out with other Americans, and I need to find a good balance between host country nationals and other Peace Corps volunteers.
Speaking of adjusting to the culture, I still sometimes can’t believe I’m in Kazakshtan...it’s such an uncategorizable place, that it often throws me for a loop. Like I said before, it’s not really the first world, but it is neither the third world, as it lacks the grinding poverty to qualify for that. It is kind of this post- Soviet netherworld...one of my PCV friends called it a “misdeveloped” country, which I think sums up a lot about this place...also, because of the Soviets and the lack of a real struggle for independence, there
is no real sense of national culture here. Kazakhs are struggling to reclaim their language and native culture, but after years of Soviet oppression, it is difficult. It is hard to say what is authentically “Kazakh” culture, and one national tradition that they do have, namely consuming large quantities of vodka, is actually Russian, and not a very healthy one, either. But, seeing as many people do not have many outlets such as movies, places to go, etc, they often spend time at home with friends and drink. Also, before coming here, I expected it to be more lively, a la countries in the developing world, where there is a real street life and a pulse in the streets. That is not too much the case, here, however....people often walk around with stern faces, and are not very outwardly joyful and lively. At home, however, this can be different, but their public behavior might be attributable to the Soviets, or maybe just to the cold weather. I have to see how things are different in the spring and summer.
In terms of food here, I think I mentioned some of it before, but in Shymkent, dishes that are popular are plov and shashlyk. Plov is a fried rice dish with meat, and often has onions, raisins, and chick peas. It is pretty tasty. Shashlyk is basically sheesh kabob, and the most popular variety is lamb. Plov and shashlyk stands are everywhere here. Although tasty, however, a lot of the food here is not very spicy, and can be tweaked a little bit to make it much tastier. For instance, plov is not bad, but Indian or Persian pilaf with
basmati rice just blows it out of the water. International cuisine is not too readily available here, and people are limited to the local Uzbek and Kazakh cuisine. So, seeing that the food issue can be a problem here, it will definitely make me a better cook....as long as I can have my spaghetti, burritos, dal and curry, I’ll be OK.
In terms of real Kazakh food (plov and shashlyk are really Uzbek dishes), it can be pretty funky. Kazakhs eat a lot of horse meat, which is actually not too bad, although the horse intestine sausage can be pretty gross. Also, Kazakhs like to eat a very popular dish for special occasions.....a sheep’s head......that’s right, a sheep’s head. I so far have not had the pleasure of eating a sheep’s head, but my PCV friend Steve had it, and told me it was “interesting.” He told me he got a piece with some skin on it, and the cartilage tasted “crunchy.” He finished off the meal with a drink of liquid sheep’s fat, mixed with camel’s milk. Umm.....can’t wait.
Well, that’s it for now. Hope all is well with you. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks for reading, and take care.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 5: March 09, 2001
Today I bring you the 5th installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles, once again
from that cradle of culture and cultivation, Shymkent, Kazakhstan. I hope all
is well with you in this new spring season. As for me, I am delighted that the
weather has turned pleasant these last few weeks – I no longer have to look like
a brown Russian secret agent with my beard, my long black coat and fur hat! It
is pretty amazing how suddenly the weather shifts here, with this being such a
continental climate without the moderating climatic effect that an ocean has.
One week it was freezing and snowing, and the next it was in the high 50’s/low
60’s, and it has stayed this warm since the end of February. It should stay
pleasant until about May/June- after that, the summer furnace starts, with July
and August having daily highs up into the 100’s.
To celebrate the new spring weather, our group of Peace Corps volunteers made an
excursion to a local park to play soccer a few weeks ago. It was great to get
some exercise after such a long winter hibernation. The park we went to even
had a ferris wheel and bumper car rides. The ferris wheel is this decaying
piece of work, which I guess was built some time around the time of Brezhnev’s
reign in the Soviet Union. We prayed as we were slowly lifted up into the air
in this creaking piece of machinery, but we came out of it alive, and saw some
nice views of Shymkent, which actually looked kind of pretty with a bird’s eye
view. It’s amazing how much the weather can change your perception of a place.
Speaking of the weather changing, it’s interesting how people are more active
now, and are actually going out and doing things. I have mentioned how grim and
serious the people are here, but now people definitely seem happier, although I
wouldn’t go so far as to say that the whole place is full of life. I definitely
hope that now with the better weather, I can get out and do things, like go to
the mountains, explore the surrounding areas, and meet new interesting local
people. For instance, last weekend, my PCV friend Steve and I hung out with a
local named Timur, a doctor at a Shymkent hospital.
Timur goes to something we coordinate that’s called “English Club” every Monday
and Wednesday, where local Shymkenters practice their English skills through
topic-based discussions. He invited us to go to the Shymkent museum to view a
travelling exhibit of tropical animals. The exhibit itself was decent, and the
museum as a whole was not too bad – it was small, but was not too shabby by
Western standards. After the museum, we had beers and just hung out and talked
for a while. Like many educated people here who can speak English, Timur wants
to get a job working outside of Kazakhstan, with an international firm or
agency. He is a very nice, well-spoken, and intelligent person, and I can
definitely understand why he wants to leave Kazakhstan.
For him, getting a job in Europe or in a country not of the former Soviet Union
would be a great thing. Although I am a PCV working in Kazakhstan and am
working here for the supposed betterment of the country, I can feel for someone
like him who is frustrated by living here, by the corruption and the lack of
opportunities that many people face. He mentioned how the old Communist
mentality still hurts the country, and how corruption is the name of the game
here. For instance, to even practice medicine in Shymkent, he had to pay a
bribe of $1,000, which is a huge amount of money here – and to top it off,
doctors rarely get paid, and often have to resort to asking for money before
treating a patient. It’s a really bad situation. For honest and hard-working
people like Timur, I hope the situation changes, but I am not too optimistic.
Changes may come, but maybe not too fast for someone like him.
As I have often mentioned before, the Soviet past weighs heavily in Kazakhstan,
affecting the country’s future direction. In a more tangible sense, the past
really is alive (well, dead actually), in the form of old Soviet memorabilia,
from flags, to pins and war medals. In fact, at the museum I mentioned, there
is a man who sells all these old Soviet items, including busts of Lenin. I even
bought a pin commemorating the 50th anniversary of the CCCP (USSR in Russian).
For me and other Americans, it is really is neat to see all these things
(especially old Soviet flags) that would be very valuable in America. Back when
I was growing up, the USSR was this strange land of repression, that somehow was
our greatest enemy, and now here I am, living in the former USSR. Pretty wild
stuff. However, a certain part of me wonders about my interest in this
memorabilia, as for many people, these symbols that I think are “neat,” are
actually symbols of repression and suffering. That really sobers my outlook on
getting too involved with buying some of these items. However, if some of you
are interested in things like pins, etc., I might be able to send some of them
Everything else here is fine. I am right now near the spring break for the
semester, and so far it has been a challenging experience trying to do all my
lessons in Russian. It’s also kind of funny how my school does not really know
what they want from me – I guess that just gives me more free reign as to what I
choose to do. As I get more solid ideas for possible projects, I may need to
ask for some of your advice and help down the road in terms of getting materials
and information from America.
Well, thanks for reading. Take care, everybody, and I will talk to you again
when the next issue comes out.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 6: April 20, 2001
Privyet (Hi) everyone,
I am pleased to present you with the sixth installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles. This time I am writing you this letter on my laptop in my new apartment, which I am happy to say is walking distance to school and has a phone! I would love to speak with any of you who are ever interested in calling me. With all the international codes and everything I think it goes like this: (011-7-3252-42-04-32). Keep in mind, however, that I am a whole 1/2day ahead of U.S. time – 14 hours for the West Coast, and 11 for the East Coast.
One of my school’s assistant directors lived in this apartment, and she is now renting it out. It’s a little bit fishy, though....she works at the school, but the school technically pays for my apartment rent. So,basically she’s getting paid two times by the school – once for her salary, and once for the apartment. For these reasons, she’s tried to keep the whole fact that I’m living in her old place hush-hush, as she doesn’t want
any of the other teachers to know. As with so many things here, I just have the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, and just accept that this is Kazakhstan and things just work differently around here.
Speaking of living situations, the current state of utilities (gas and electricity) in Shymkent is quite comical. The availability of gas and electricity is inconsistent, to say the least. Currently, the whole city does not have gas, and electricity periodically goes on and off. To make matters more annoying, there is no pattern as to when the gas and electricity go on and off. For instance, as I am using my computer now and the electricity has just gone out, I don’t know if I’m getting a 5-minute or a 2-day outage. People seem to get by here by buying huge gas canisters for cooking, but those freak me out with their potential for very bad accidents, and I prefer to use an electric plate (assuming of course I have electricity). For baths and shaving, however, I have to do the whole heat my water on the stove routine, and make economical use of my hot water.
What tops it all off for me, though, is how the people react. Or, I should say, the people’s lack of reaction. People basically tend to accept the current state of affairs, and feel they have no power to change their
current situation. Instead of getting productively angry and protesting or writing letters, they have a sense of resigned apathy. As with so many things I observe here, I can’t but think how much the Soviet era has created this type of behavior. People accepted orders from leaders without question, and those who did “rock the boat” were sent to prison or to very bad places like Siberia. Old habits die hard, and I can understand why people seem to be apathetic and do not feel they have an ability to make any changes in public institutions. In fact, a huge problem I see here is the lack of accountability on the part of public officials and those in charge. Furthermore, nobody really seems to know who “really” has power, as no public officials seem to take real responsibility for problems. It’s always somebody else’s fault....add to that the corruption of most officials, and it all adds up to a big mess.
What I am really starting to appreciate now is the open atmosphere of public discourse in democratic societies, where grass-roots organizations can put pressure on public institutions to make changes in policy. That’s what we have seen, for instance, in the passage of laws in places like the U.S. Here, however, it is difficult to make headway in a society that for many years actively discouraged and threatened those who tried to agitate for change. It’s too bad that that legacy still hurts the people in countries such as Kazakhstan.
Shifting to more upbeat topics, I am continuing to feel more acclimated to life here, and have started to create a network of local friends. Many of them attend the English Club at the Soros Center that I and fellow volunteers help conduct every Monday and Wednesday afternoon. On the 21st of March, some of my local and Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) friends went to the Centrl Asian spring celebration called “Naurooz.” The celebration in Shymkent was held at the soccer stadium, and the whole event was very impressive. It was like a big football halftime show, with floats, dancers, and balloons. They even had a huge picture of Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev hung in the stadium, and had card tricks, spelling out the city’s name, as well as different messages in Kazakh and Russian.
A week later, some of my local friends and PCV’s went to one of our friend’s summer houses (dacha in Russian), and hiked in and around a nearby canyon. It was really a nice experience....it was great to breathe fresh air and get out of the city. There is really nice scenery here just an hour or so out of town, something similar to places in the western U.S., probably like Colorado or Utah. Spring is really beautiful here, and I am still planning a trip to the nearby mountains in about a month or so.
In other news, my PCV friend Steve and I just got back last week from a trip to Bishkek, the capital of neighboring Kyrgyzstan. I have to say we were both very impressed with that place. It’s about an 8-hour bus ride from Shymkent, but it is like a world of difference. Kyrgyzstan in general is cleaner than Kazakhstan. Moreover, Bishkek itself is a beautiful city....it sits at the edge of snow-capped mountains, and has quiet, tree-lined streets, with a cosmopolitan, almost European-like laid-back attitude. It was neat to feel like a tourist again walking around there, and I could escape from my PC duties for a while. It also has great resaurants....we never had a bad meal there....from an American-run pub, to Pakistani food, to Italian....it was cool, and the quality was just as good as in the States or Europe. I’d definitely like to visit that place again.
As for life here, things are not too bad. I am still teaching, but I’m looking to lighten my load next semester, and try to do more coordination work for the school, like helping to develop curriculum, develop an Ecology and English library, and create an environmental/health themed children’s theater. I’m also excited about some summer projects I’m going to work on. I will help to coordinate a camp for visually-impaired children in late-June, and might be able to work in Almaty for Peace Corps training during the summer for the new group of volunteers coming in. Another project, more of a long-term deal I’m working on is trying to create a documentary film on Kazakhstan. Peace Corps wants to work with Steve and me to do the project, but funds may be a problem. I am currently trying to look for alternative sources of funding. If anybody has any leads as to how to fund a film project such as this, please let me know.
Well, that’s about it from here right now. Hope all is well with you. Take care, and write me whenever you want to. I now have fairly frequent e-mail access (2-3 times a week for an hour each) to handle the increased e-mail reading load. Talk to you later.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 7: May 18, 2001
I am pleased to present you with the 7th installment of the Kazakhstan
Chronicles, once again from Shymkent, Kazakhstan. When I last wrote to you
I was talking about how nice the spring weather was, but now it’s a
different story. Although it is technically spring, summer weather has
arrived this past week. It’s starting to blaze right now – the temperatures
are into the 90’s, with a bright Central Asian sun. I sure am glad that I
brought a pair of prescription sunglasses with me from the States – they’re
definitely coming in handy. The scary part about the whole thing is that it
is only May, and summer has yet to arrive with a vengeance. Locals say July
is the worst month, with temp’s soaring sometimes to 45 C, which is about
110 F. The only thing I can compare this weather to is Southern California
in August, but with a brighter sun. It might be the lack of clouds in the
sky, but it just seems so bright here.
My friend Timur told me jokingly that the climate here is like living on the
moon. On the one hand, it’s very hot, and on the other, it’s cold. There
is very little moderate weather in between. Being a person that likes cool,
temperate weather, I can say that this climate ain’t my bag. Anyhow, I’ve
got to start getting used to taking cold water showers, and that’s very easy
since the whole city is still without gas. The new word on the street is
that gas will come back at the end of May. I don’t buy it.....we’ve been
two months without gas and all the days that the gas was supposed to have
come back on are long passed. Such is the life of the citizens of Shymkent.
Going back to the summer theme, I found out a few weeks ago that I got a job
with Peace Corps for the whole summer. I leave for Almaty this Sunday, the
20th, and will stay there until the 17th of August. My job title is
“Technical and Cultural Assistant,” and I will essentially be a trainer for
the new Peace Corps group of volunteers coming on June 10th. My group of
volunteers that came in October 2000 is called “Kaz 9,” and not
surprisingly, this new group of volunteers coming in will be called “Kaz
10.” I will work mainly with the language side of training, and will try to
help new volunteers during their training period to pick up basic
conversation skills in Russian. Part of my work may also entail doing
presentations on Kazakhstan culture, and on successfully adapting to life in
a different culture. It hopefully should be a fun and interesting
With this in mind, if you want to mail or send me anything during the
summer, don’t send it to the Shymkent address, as I won’t be living there.
If you want my summer mailing address, drop me an e-mail and I will try to
send it to you.
Right now, I’m basically winding things down in Shymkent as I head out of
here for the summer. I’m in the process of giving final exams to my
students, and they are having a difficult time with the concept of “not
cheating.” Students here routinely “help” each other during exams, and
though officially prohibited, it is a practice that is condoned by most
teachers. It’s probably a leftover from the Soviet era, where
“collectivism” and the welfare of the group was more valued than
“individualism.” I tell my students that in America, cheating would result
in an “F,” but they don’t seem to get my point. I personally abhor the fact
that they cheat and get away with it, but there’s nothing I can do. I just
have to have fun with the whole situation and not let it bother me too much.
May has been a big month of holidays in Kazakhstan, starting with May 1st’s
“Unity Day” celebration. During Soviet times, this was Labor Day, the day
of the diligent worker, but now it is a kind of nebulous celebration of the
different peoples of Kazakhstan. This celebration took place in Shymkent’s
central square. It included the obligatory long speeches, and then had
dances from the different ethnic groups in Shymkent – Kazakhs, Uzbeks,
Persians, Turks, Chechens, Kurds, Tatars, Uigurs, Russians, Armenians,
Azerbaijanis, etc. There is actually a great amount of ethnic diversity
here, but I was not able to stay for long and enjoy the presentation of it
because of the searing heat.
The other big celebration this month was May 9th, the celebration of the end
of World War II. It was really cool to see the celebration from the Soviet
side, and see old war veterans walking around with their medals. It was
really a touching sight to see old couples strolling together, the men often
in their best (and maybe only) suits, holding hands with their wives. Many
of these people are pensioners now, but get a meager amount of money now
that the Soviet Union is defunct. It is thus both heartwarming and sad to
see these people.
I heard recently that the Soviet Union lost 23 million people in World War
II. That is a huge amount of people – I can’t begin to comprehend that.
The amount that they suffered in fighting Hitler’s army sometimes goes
unappreciated and unrecognized in America, as we usually focus on the
American heroics and forget about the others who were just as, if not more
important, in stopping the Nazi scourge. The suffering that the Soviet
people went through was amazing.
Thinking about the war and especially its outcome, I couldn’t help but feel
a tinge of irony. Even after fighting “The Great Patriotic War,” as the
Soviets called it, they underwent even more suffering during the terrible
reign of Stalin. The Soviet Union eventually crumbled, and countries like
Kazakhstan were born out of the ensuing confusion, and are still struggling
to come to grips with their nationhood. Meanwhile, Germany slowly rebuilt
itself and now stands as an economic power in Europe and the world. It is
definitely strange to think about who “won” or “lost” if we take a look at
these two sides now.
Well, folks, that’s it for now. Take care, and I will write to you when I
am in Almaty. Talk to you later. Also, before I forget, I am attaching
some pictures from Kazakhstan. Enjoy.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 8: July 31, 2001
Greetings and salutations from the heart of Central Asia, as I am writing to you from the village of Talgar, located in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. I am pleased to present you with the much belated 8th installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles. Before beginning, I would like to apologize for my tardiness in the issue date. I am working this summer as a training assistant for the new group of PC volunteers, and have had sporadic e-mail access, and have not found the sufficient inspiration to begin putting my fingers to the keyboard and typing out my tome. Alas, I now have recovered from my lack of motivation, and would like to share with you again my musings on life in this very strange part of the planet.
I arrived in Talgar, a small town 30 minutes outside of Almaty, on May 22nd. PC gave me a nice, large apartment, and I started work as the “Language Coordinator’s Assistant.” My basic job entails helping trainees improve their Russian language abilities, and it really hasn’t been too demanding. I have spent a lot of my free time going out to Almaty with other PC volunteers, eating at good restaurants and buying cheap, pirated CD’s. I will be here at this job until the 17th of August, after which I plan to travel for a week or so (maybe Turkey or Thailand), and return to Shymkent for the start of school on the 1st of September.
Almaty is pretty cosmopolitan for Kazakhstan – it’s also much better in the summer, and I have a better impression of the place since the first time I was here for training in the winter. It’s pretty modern, but still has a little bit of a Third-Worldy feel to it. Despite this, however, it’s alright....definitely a different place than the rest of Kazakhstan. Pretty much like comparing NYC to the rest of the United States. They actually have really good Indian, Korean, Chinese, Pakistani, Turkish, etc. restaurants here, all decently affordable. As for CD’s, I’m trying to load up on pirated stuff. I’ve gotten some pretty good Eagles, Louie Armstrong, The Doors CD’s, all for about $3 a pop. Not too bad, and the quality is fine. I think I’ll load up some more before I head back to site. Also, Almaty is definitely modernizing – there’s a Western-style supermarket called “Dastarkhan” which has almost all the kinds of food items you can get in America, and also has a huge outdoor cafe area, almost European-like. It’s amazing how much this part of the world is changing. There are also quite a few ex-pat restaurants and bars here, and it’s interesting to see the kinds of lives rich foreigners live. Many of the American/Western European foreigners are businessmen or embassy staff, and they make pretty good money, and have most of their expenses paid for. Almaty is pretty cheap for Western standards, so many of them spend their money in the bars and restaurants. I’ve met some of these people, and I can’t say that I would want their lives. Many ex-pats live in this unreal world where they literally live on an American/European island, and don’t have much contact with the locals (other than the girls who throw themselves at them), and don’t really speak Russian worth a lick. Many of them are unhappy and don’t like it here, but it just seems like they have gotten used to this foreign lifestyle and can’t go home. I’ve met some children of American diplomats, and their lives seem kind of miserable. They don’t make an effort to get to know the culture, and hang out and party with the Marine embassy guard staff in their free time. I never really considered a life in the Foreign Service, but just looking at these kids just reinforces my feelings about that lifestyle and makes me realize that I don’t want to do that to my kids.
Moving on to happier topics, I have been pleasantly surprised by all the new volunteers. They have been in country since the 11th of June, and they are all optimistic and have positive attitudes about serving in Kazakhstan. Part of the reason that I applied for this summer job (other than gettting out of Shymkent for 3 months), was that I could meet the new volunteers and hope that their fresh perspective and optimism would rub off on me. That has been the case to some degree, and it has been a good feeling to know that I have been really helping them get adjusted to life in Kaz. Being here for so long, I sometimes forget why I came here, and it’s good to see the new volunteers’ perspective. It’s amazing, though, how much they haven’t complained, and how normal this group is. Every group, including mine, has its share of freaks and characters, but not with this one. I guess that’s a good thing, though perhaps not too interesting. It definitely will be interesting to go back to Shymkent at the end of August, as I have gotten used to the “big city life” here in the Almaty region. Part of my on-going challenge will be to stay motivated and engaged during my next year, and make it feel worthwhile being here. I definitely know that I am growing here, as I am living in a different culture and speaking a different language. After a while, though, life becomes normal – you guys sitting at home must be thinking how “exotic” my experience is, but it just seems pretty usual to me now. The real challenge, then, will be finding ways to be happy here. However, I don’t think I will truly understand the meaning of this experience until after I go back home to the States and reflect upon it. Well, folks, I hope you enjoyed this installment. Here’s to more in the near future. Take it easy, and show me your love by writing to me some more.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 10: Sep 21, 2001
I was intending this e-mail to be engaging and full of detailed experiences like previous Kazakhstan Chronicles, but disturbing current events have set that aside for now. Like all of you, it has really been a shock and a surreal experience to see what has happened in the States. It is even more surreal, however, when you are on the other side of the world and very far from home. I heard about last Tuesday’s events by listening to my usual evening Voice of America broadcast, and the newscaster was discussing the events just within a couple hours of their occurrence, at around 10:30 PM my time. The other Americans and I got together the next night at a local cafe that has a CNN satellite feed. We sat together and watched the news for a good 3 hours before heading home. Local Kazakhstanis have been very supportive and sympathetic towards us, and that has been comforting. I know many of you may be wondering about my safety here, since I am near the vicinity of Afghanistan, but I can assure you now that I feel pretty safe here, and there is no immediate danger. Kazakhstan does not share a border with Afghanistan, and a flight from Shymkent, say, to Kabul would take at least 2 hours.
As I have discussed before, Kazakhstan strongly bears the imprint of its Soviet years, and does not have any currents of Islamic fundamentalism. The only future concern may be that if the U.S. continues with its plans to bomb Afghanistan, public opinion may shift against the U.S. Only time will tell how things will transpire. Other than that, things are OK. Life continues at its normal pace. Adjusting to the frustrations of being a volunteer again after an enjoyable working summer has been tough. I am currently trying to get some grants together, and do as little teaching as I can. My focus has shifted to working with children’s theater and developing local educational materials.
Wish everyone well. Take care.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 11: November 02, 2001
I am pleased to present you with the 11th installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles. I think I may have erred by calling the last installment Kaz 10 (when it should have been Kaz 9), but we’ll just go ahead and ignore this mistake. This is coming to you again from Shymkent, where I have made my home for the last year. Speaking of that, I cannot believe how long I have been here. October 21st marked the first-year anniversary of my arrival in-country, and this has caused me to reflect upon my experience thus far. Now, as I sit down and write this letter, I realize how normal life feels here, and how the exotic notion of living in a strange and distant land has faded. I speak Russian, shop in the bazaar, ride the buses, go to work in a chaotic and disorganized school, live a pretty comfortable life in my apartment, hang out with some local friends and explain to them the nuances of American life, spend time with other volunteers, and get stared at all the time. I guess this is what “cultural assimilation” means. Still, however, life is definitely different here, and it lacks the vitality that I see in other parts of the world. This was clearly evident after my August trip to Thailand. Being there, it was such a change to see people smiling on the streets, to see the richness of the tropical colors, and for once, to eat really great food. Kazakh and Russian food, to be undiplomatic, is pretty lacking in both flavor and creativity. To be fair, however, the Kazakhs were nomads for several generations (and nomads ain’t known for their fine cuisine), and Russians are from a frozen land that doesn’t generally offer up nature’s bounty in terms of herbs and vegetables. It’s so hard, though, not to hurt the locals’ feelings when eating the food. There’s only so much meat and potatoes flavored with mutton fat that I can take....it definitely has been a blessing to get food mailed from the States and to cook my own stuff at home. To be brutally honest, there is not of much interest here to the traveler, whether in terms of culture, food, and scenery. Other than the southern mountains area (near where I live and in Almaty), the rest of the country is either desert or steppe (flat, as far as you can see grassland), that howls with winds in the sub-zero winter and bakes under the unforgiving sun in the summer. In terms of culture, the Kazakhs in general are a confused people whose culture was brutalized under the Soviets, and now they are recreating an imagined past to derive cultural pride from. The Russians and other ethnic groups begrudgingly accept their place in Kazakhstan, and many Russians dream of a better life in Russia.With this background in mind, however, what makes it rewarding to be here is that it definitely is a challenge to stay happy and upbeat. Being here has forced me to look at things in different ways, to search for the beauty in things when it is not always so visible. It has really made me think about the true source of happiness, which comes from mental outlooks and attitude, and is less dependent on outside circumstances.
At this point in my service, I am kind of in a limbo situation. I have learned a lot and grown here, but there comes a time when you have to move on. I’m reaching that point now, but won’t make a final decision until the end of the year. It has been a great ride, but I have feel I have gotten what was needed from being here.I hope all of you are doing well. Talk to all of you later.
Kazakhstan Chronicles 12: December 11, 2001
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For your reading pleasure, I present you with the 12th installment of the Kazakhstan Chronicles. The Chronicles are nearing their end run, so enjoy them while they’re still rolling off the presses. Seeing as Iam wrapping up my time here, I would like to do something a bit less structured, and give you an insight into my wandering thoughts and musings these past 13 months.
I am presenting you with a random Top 40 list (however, these random thoughts are in no particular order of importance), as a way to paint a written picture of this place, as seen through my own eyes. This is also a great way for me to reflect upon this eventful and interesting year, and try to bring closure. Hope you enjoy.
Kazakh Kasem’s Top 40
1. Expect the unexpected
2. Sliding on icy sidewalks can be a sport
3. I never knew that you could make that many salads with
4. How many food combinations with dough and meat can I eat?
5. The beer tastes like shit, but hey, it’s only 30 cents!
6. I’ve entered Bizarro World!
7. Playing Nintendo, and then relieving yourself in the
8. Drinking tea is a religion....” Yeah, sure, I’ll have my
9. Hello America!!!
10. Why don’t you marry a nice Kazakh girl?
11. Foreigner, foreigner, oh my god, it’s a foreigner! Pakistani!
12. I never knew the sight of me could be so interesting to so many
13. If you want to get something done, prepare to wait......Oh,
you want to talk to him? No, he’s not in.....No, wait a minute, you
need to go to that office at the other end of the city.....No, no,
maybe it’s in this office.....
14. Is it a bribe you want?
15. How much should I pay to get a job?
16. How beautiful snow-capped mountains can be, how their character
changes with the sun’s angle of light
17. Teal blue mosque dome with jagged, snow-capped peaks in the
18. Just when you’ve lost hope in this place, something nice
19. The nefarious cops....We love them....”No! You can’t have my
20. Don’t let outward appearances fool you
21. Internet for $1/hour
22. The joy and the frustrations of the bazaar....I never knew how
fun bargaining was!
23. The real challenge in life is the one within, not without
24. Damn, I’m so busy! My 6 hours of teaching take up so much
25. Sipping tea and watching CNN with swarthy Turkish men really
makes the time pass
26. Pacing and listening to Russian techno pop is a good time
27. How do the locals squat like that? I mean, their asses are
hanging down and their feet are flat on the floor!
28. The cutest kids
29. Man, those Kazakh guys, really impressing the ladies with their
black leather jackets, their spitting, squatting, and chewing of
sunflower seeds – how charming!
30. Green snot......’nuff said
31. Adversity builds character.....uhh, at least that’s what they
32. Damn, I look pretty good with a mink hat and a black winter
33. Benzes, BMW’s, Land Cruisers, when the average salary is
$40/month?....OK, something’s not adding up here.....
34. Seek out the beauty in everything
35. Any car’s a taxi, any car
36. OK, uh huh.....so, you were telling me that life was so much
better under Soviet times?
37. On the bus, if they push, you push back!
38. I never knew how assertive I could be with people, especially
when they’re messing with me
39. It’s so much fun to give local merchants a hard time and get a
rise out of them
40. Can’t change Kazakhstan, can’t change others, can only change
Well, guys, that’s it for now. Should be another Chronicle on the
way, most probably the final one. You guys have been great, and
your positive feedback and support has been highly appreciated.
Take care, and talk to you soon.
Khazakhstan Chronicles 13:The Final Chapter -Wednesday, January 30, 2002
I am writing to you today not from Kazakhstan, but from the relative comfort of my mother’s home in San Diego. This is the last Kazakhstan Chronicle that I will be sending you, as my Peace Corps adventures have come to an end. The experience I had in Kazakhstan was a great and rewarding one –one that challenged me and helped me grow in ways I did not think I would. I left there knowing that I had done all that I wanted to do, and am happy to be back home.
What I take back from this experience is, knowing that I was able to adapt successfully in another culture, learn a new language, and to serve to the best of my ability under the given circumstances. Moreover, the real work in Peace Corps is not your projects or job, but interacting with the people and sharing with them.
For instance, now as I am a little removed from Kazakhstan, I think about my time there in terms of my local friends. My friend Timur, a doctor with dreams of getting a scholarship to study in the United
States. My counterpart Irina, who just got married this past summer and in the year that I was with her, grew into a more confident teacher and person. Knowing that I had some positive effect on their
lives makes all the time I spent there worthwhile.
Foreign travel attracts us because it exposes us to different sights, people, and ideas. We want to travel to experience these things, but in general, once we get over the differences, life is life everywhere. People share the same dreams we do, but just in different contexts. What made KZ so interesting at first was it’s weirdness and differences to U.S. life (which I tried to convey in the last e-mail), but as I said before, it is the people that were the most rewarding part of the experience.
On a side note, being back home has made me realize how fortunate I am to be living in the States and to have the opportunities that I do. Being abroad makes you realize there are places out there where life is
indeed a great struggle, and we should all be fortunate for what we have here. Many people just don’t realize how good we have it compared to so many others in the world.
In conclusion, I would like to thank everyone on the list, for all their kind words and support the past 15 months. I really looked forward to writing these letters, and getting your positive feedback was a real help, especially on some bad days in KZ.
Take care, everybody, and we’ll be in touch.