The End

1 12 2011

I’m guessing most of you already know what I’m about to tell you, but I haven’t officially informed anyone or give any sort of statement, so I figured it was time. Everybody I know is just too aware of the world, I guess, and figures out information on their own, the sneaky little bastards. Anyway, Peace Corps has officially suspended its program in Kazakhstan. What does this mean? Well, as of 11:36 pm, Tuesday, November 29th, this means I am back in Missoula.

Woah, right? This was a very sudden thing for everyone, from volunteers on the ground to the country director, to the families in the US who love us, but weren’t expecting us quite yet. The program was suspended due to a combination of many complex factors, the largest of which was security and safety of volunteers, and the smallest, at least according to official reports, was political. Now don’t get too excited about that first one; I personally was safe for the entirety of my service. However, I was not the only volunteer in the country and some other people had issues. Altogether this was a difficult move for everyone, and absolutely shocking to me and everyone I’ve talked to, but in many ways it makes sense.

So, I’m home. Much earlier than expected. No, I have no major life plans yet, and I’m not in a big hurry to formulate any. Just going to decompress for awhile, process it all. I left Kazakhstan without much closure, so it will take a bit to figure out how I’m feeling about it all. I know I had a tendency to highlight the negative side of things, but the truth is that my life was there. My friends were there (though they are here too), my work was there, my students were there. I was a volunteer, that was my identity even on my bad days, and now I am not. So, I am happy to be home, to see my friends, family, and the haven of joy that is the bakery, but I am also very sad to have left so much behind. I had three days in which to get rid of/pack my things and say goodbye to the people in my community. It’s just going to take awhile to figure out what sort of impact that has on my life.

Thank you, those of you who kept with this blog. Maybe I’ll start something new soon, but don’t hold your breath. For now, this is the end, as Clara is no longer in ‘stan. I hope anyone who did read learned at least a little bit about a very large country that is so often overlooked by the world.

Peace Corps Out


A Much Needed Break from the Village

13 11 2011

Last week was the end of the first quarter here, which meant we got a week off. Most teachers are still required to go to work for half day during this week, which in my limited experience entails sitting in classrooms, staring at the walls until lunch time, and occasionally filling in some numbers on some charts, that surely only seem arbitrary because I don’t have a full understanding of the system. However, I cannot even fill in the numbers which means during previous school holidays I have sat for hours on end in the English room, twiddling my thumbs and trying to come up with more posters I could draw and ways to make my lessons exciting. Worthy tasks, both of them, for about 3 hours. One day. So what to do with the other 5…?

This time, in anticipation of the monotony, Sarah, a fellow volunteer, and I planned a trip to spice things up. We decided to travel to Almaty for a few days and then move on to visit another volunteer at her site and basically just have a very good, very relaxing week. And it was a wild success.

Our first stop was actually not the city of Almaty, but the small suburbish village that we lived in during our training. We stayed for two days with our respective host families from those two months. It was nice to see them again and it felt somewhat like coming home. That was the first Kazakhstan I knew so there’s some nostalgia. Plus, the family I lived with has, since I left, built an indoor bathroom that has a flushing toilet and a shower with hot water. Look out! I like visiting them, and will do it again at least once more before leaving the country, but even with my improved language skills we run out of things to talk about within about 30 minutes. School, family, romance, its amazing how quickly such topics get brought up, talked about, and dropped again. We did make some amazing pumpkin dumplings and I had what my friends have since told me was a date with my 18 year old former host brother. I still disagree with that. Girls and boys can hang out without it being weird, I swear. It was a bit weird though.

So, after a couple of days there Sarah and I ventured into the belly of the Beast, Almaty itself. Its amazing how modern the city seems. I go into Shymkent pretty frequently, more than I should really, and it seems to be pretty modern, but still looks like a village in comparison to Almaty. The bus system is a bit confusing, however. I’ve gotten used to the conductors that yell out all the stops and without them I have no idea where I am going. We had a bit of a misadventure as regards the buses, but ended up having a lovely walk because of it. We saw some of the newer volunteers who were there for a conference and a bit more of the city than we previously had. I bought some amazing boots that are reminiscent of Victorian England, which I expect to be one of the only items of clothing I own that will be appreciated by my local friends and teachers. Try as I might I just can’t get the fashion thing down. Honestly, I’m not trying hard.

We got back on the train and headed South once more, for Turkestan and Jennie, the third member of our holiday trinity. I had accidentally purchased our tickets in the private compartments as opposed to the open cars that we usually favor, but I actually enjoyed the luxury. Usually I like mingling with the people in the open bunk cars, but this time it was nice to be able to close a door and have some privacy. Well, from everyone but our compartment mates. Babies and trains, no good.

Turkestan was wonderful. I like it much better in Fall when it’s not 90 degrees with gale force winds. Yes I wore long underwear most of the trip, but it was possible to walk around the bazaar without dripping. Actually, Jennie, Sarah and I spent most of the week in Jennie’s new apartment. Sounds lazy right? It was, and it was glorious. We did get in some pretty intense cooking though. The first night we made gnocchi, which was the first time for me, and then we made calzones. Breakfasts were pancakes, french toast, and oatmeal. I always think that I will eat so much healthier when with volunteers, and not feel as overfed as I usually do after a local meal, but that’s false. We just feast on foods that remind us of home, regardless of their nutritional value. All of our adventures were a wild success and brought with them the feeling of satisfaction that comes from creating something good.

On Friday we went to a university club and “worked” for a whole hour. It was so taxing. Afterwards we rewarded ourselves with some amazing Yuigur food and a night of dancing in a local discotech. Leaving on Saturday was difficult, but it was good to have spent a week with good friends and get a break from work. I think I will be able to head into this term with a more positive frame of mind than I had a week ago, and with some fresh ideas from other amazing volunteers.

Now I’m back in the village, eeking every last bit of vacation time out of today before classes start again in the morning. I’m thinking positive, or at least telling myself too. If you say something enough, it becomes true, right? Yes, it does, and this is going to be a good term. It helps that it is also the shortest of the year, and Thanksgiving is only a couple of weeks away. How’s that for positive?

Joys and Frustrations

30 09 2011

There was once was a young woman named Clara,

Who thought Mary, as a name, was much fairer

Because, you see, Mary

It rhymes with contrary,

And nothing but that was her character

Ha, ha.  Yeah, that’s how good I am at poetry, because “Clara” totally rhymes with “fairer” which rhymes just as well with “character.”  Its a good thing I wasn’t so stupid as to dedicate three years of my life and buckets of money to studying something silly like writing.  Oh wait…

When I was young my parents sometimes repeated the young children’s rhyme for me because it seemed so suited to my personality and over the years not much has changed.  If anything I’ve likely become more stubborn and argumentative.  You tell me what to do, or how to do it, and chances are I will find a way to do the opposite, no matter how much sense you make.  Strangely even being aware of this, and knowing that it is usually a flaw, and one that puts people off, I seem unable, or perhaps unwilling to change it.   Sadly, unless among close friends, I am not very outspoken or aggressive, so that makes me in to a passive aggressive little “Mary Contrary.”  Bundles of joy.

Sadly, this has been manifesting in a major way in my life of late.  I feel like last year I did a decent job of accommodating and adapting to new things.  I ate the unidentified pieces of animal, I let my hair grow out a bit, I word skirts with tights, even heels, occasionally.  Then there was summer.  Now when my director tells me it isn’t okay to stand with my arms crossed I grumble under my breath, scowl, and resume the stance as soon as I leave her office.  If someone tells me I look beautiful on a day I wear a dress and makeup, I refuse to put one  on again for weeks.  When someone tells me to eat, repeatedly, I obstinately set down my fork and shake my head, even if it is one of the rare local meals that I do really like.  It’s as if I’m trying to make up for all of last years accommodations by being the opposite this year.  And it’s absurd.  Yes, the new school year has not been quite as easy, organized and full of joy that I was hoping and expecting it to be.  We’ve had challenges in the form of a class schedule that still changes almost every day (a month into the school year…), English books that never came in, new uptight administrators, frequent students absences, and a general lack of motivation from students and teachers alike.  Still, these are challenges I should have expected, ones I’ve been warned countless times about.  They are part of what makes what I’m doing now and adventure.  Heck, if I wanted to teach in a school that worked like they do in America, I could have just stayed home, studied a few more years, and done that.  But that isn’t what I wanted.  I wanted new, different, challenging.  And that’s what I got.  So, come on little Mary, duck your head and power through it.  It might not be necessary to completely change your stripes, but at least allow room in the jungle for other animals too.  They may not function the same way I do, I may not understand anything they do or why they do it, but they have their own reasons, their own culture.  If I could just step back and observe that a bit more often, get out of my head once in a while and realize I’m not the center of it all, then it would be a lot more enjoyable.  It really is a beautiful place, or would be if they picked up the trash more than once a year.  The culture is fascinating, many of the local customs intricate and more historical than anything I belong too.  Yes, there are things I don’t agree with, things that frustrate and irritate me, but without those things there wouldn’t be the great stuff either,  the wonderful dances, the nearly weekly feasts and holidays, the costumes.  It’s all interwoven and you can’t just take away the bad, because without it the good would just seem…normal.

I hate to admit it, but my argumentative nature and ever shortening temper have led me to snap at some of my students this year.  Already.  This can be necessary sometimes, when they get too crazy.  Every substitute teacher knows that if you walk into a class full of kids armed with nothing but a smile and energy, they’ll most likely eat you alive.  You’ve got to have a backbone under there somewhere, and the knowledge of when and how to put your foot down and stop smiling.  Last year, I didn’t do this very often.  I don’t like being hard on the kids, they get that often enough from other teachers.  I really should have been a bit harder at times, but it just wasn’t my style.  Sadly, this year I’ve had more snaps in the first month than I did two terms last year.  Gotta find a happy medium there.  No, the students are not allowed to shout all through the lesson, but does me shouting back really prove anything, other that when you get older yelling gets you places, so you may as well keep practicing?  Nope.

Luckily, the kids, though at times a frustration, are my main joy here.  No matter who I am that day, happy-helpful-volunteer-Clara, or in-you-face-angry-homesick-Clara, they always greet me with a smile.  They sympathize with me on bad days, explaining that they miss their families enormously after a week at boarding school, so two years would be impossible.  They find ways to make me laugh without even trying.  On my good days they sit and talk with me even after classes, exposing their curiosity through hundreds of questions, asked in an awkward mixture of Kazakh, Russian and (sometimes) English.  Today was one of those days, much needed after a week of pretty rotten ones.  I taught 6 classes, more than I like to do in one day, but they all went well.  After lessons, a bunch of 8th grade girls came into the English room and, entranced by the new world map, bombarded me with questions about America, about travel, about movie stars and everything.  On Fridays the students have to clean the school, so they all took turns, one at a time, cleaning a portion of the room while the others crowded around me to ask.  It’s amazing that even after a year I am still such and attraction.  After that, the 10th form girls came in and did the same, though they tried a bit harder to figure things out in English.  I was supposed to have an extra lesson with a few advanced students, none of whom came, except one, 15 minutes late, to tell me he was tired and was going to sleep instead.  Even this didn’t upset me at all.  It had been a good day.  Maybe that’s a place I need to put my foot down, to say no, don’t sleep, let’s study, but I wasn’t in the mood.  He just looked so goofy and not really at all apologetic, just like a normal 16 year old boy should.

Earlier this week we *cough I cough* put on an English concert.  It was decided that previous school concerts had been way to boring, going from song to dance to speech with no connection between the elements.  Just a jolted showcase of talents.  So our concert was modeled after a Greek heroes quest.  We had three heroes, each hoping to become immortal, and they had to complete a series of four tasks.  One cheated, one used bribes, and one legitimately did the tasks.  It was supposed to be a metaphor for getting through school and becoming and “alten belgi” or gold medal student.  Gold metal students are basically valedictorians; they get only 5s in all classes from 5th form on, and then get a free ride to their university of choice.  It’s a big deal, but sadly a lot of kids and their families do use questionable methods to achieve the prize.  Anyway, the actors in our sketch had a lot of fun, especially when we brought out the togas.  We did of course have a few obligatory songs and dances, and those were fun too.  The school director walked in half way through, with no idea what was going on, just as on of the actors began throwing candy into the audience.  I still don’t really know how she took it…but at least I think she managed to dodge all missiles.  Most of the students probably didn’t understand more than 20% of the English words, but we got a lot of laughs and cheers.  It was really stressful to put on, something I hope to avoid in the future, at least as a solo venture, but as always the kids never cease to amaze me.  They had fun with it, and that meant I did too.  When I was freaking out 30 minutes before showtime, when all of the actors had been stolen by a huffy dance teacher and we still hadn’t actually run the whole thing through, one boy came over to me and asked “Are you upset?”  I said “Yes, of course.  We aren’t ready, and I’m worried.”  He just looked and me and said “Don’t worry,  just smile.”  Seriously kid.  Shouldn’t I be helping you?  What are you doing?

Anyway, the moral of the story is there are ups and downs to everything.  In our training we were told again and again and again about how cultural adjustment is a roller coaster full of high and low points and we rocket blindly through them.  But that isn’t just true here.  That’s life.  I could be at home, in Missoula, with everyone and everything I love surrounding me, and find a way to work myself into a tissy.  But its so much more interesting, more fulfilling, to be doing it here, and to figure out how to work through the bad things here.  Maybe by the time I come home I’ll have worked out a sure fire way to work through all of my problems, both external and internal.  Yeah, like that will happen.  But maybe I will at least have taken the edge off of my own contrary temper.

Around the world in 7 pages

18 09 2011

The summer is full of camps.  That’s how it is supposed to be anyway, but I didn’t do a good enough job filling mine up.  Stupidly enough I thought that if I left some gaps in the summer plan I would fill them up with work in my community.  Common, Clara, you know yourself better than that by now.  If you give yourself unscheduled time with nothing you must do, then odds are you won’t do anything.  So, I spent a large chunk of my summer on my bedroom floor, reading books, doing crosswords, and watching movies.  Oh, and one of the dogs that lives in our neighborhood had puppies, so I spent some time with them.  One of them got sick and was having seizures and seemed to have lost its eyesight, so I spent a couple of days trying to nurse it back to health.  I had to go to a camp not long after it fell ill, but I promised the puppy that if it made it through and was still alive when I got back, blind or not, I would take it with me when I found an apartment and take care of it for at least the next year.  Sadly, I think I jinxed the poor animal.  I have seen its two littermates and mother almost everyday since I returned, but the little black puppy seems to be no more.  I’ll just have to take one of the other two, though the mom has been growing on me, and I might just end up with all of them.  That is if I can find a damn good flea medication, because you can see the bloodsuckers on those dogs from a mile away.  Okay, but really, back to camps.

The first camp was women’s camp, which I helped a friend organize.  When I say help I mean I stood on the sidelines waving imaginary pompoms while she did all the heavy lifting, then got to put my name on the project next to hers and claim some credit.  I know, I know, and yes, I do feel like a scumbag for it.  I am hoping, however, that next year I will have the chance to take someone under my wing and do the same for him or her.  I think I have already written a fair amount about women’s camp, but I’ll check on that.  For now I will just say it was an awesome whirlwind of chaotic energy and fun, and I’d do it again any day.   Onto the next!

I guess I do owe my traveling some blog space.  I was going to just skip over it, but if I do that I might forget some of the amazing things, as one so often does, and view it as just another place I went that wasn’t home.   From the airport in Abu Dhabi I flew to Manila, the capital of the Philippines.  This was my second time flying into this airport and I told myself it would be all different.  I had learned my lesson last time and didn’t have any checked baggage that the airport could misplace for three days, so I just had to get through customs, find my way to the parking lot and I’d be safe.  Right?  Somehow I did not learn to set up a concrete meeting place with my friend.  I mean, there’s the parking lot where friends and family wait for incoming passengers, so I just sort of assumed we’d meet there.  The problem with that is that there are always about 200 people waiting there and while I may stand out in a crowd of short, dark Filipinos, my friends, a short dark Filipino herself, doesn’t.  So, once again I spent a good 20 minutes searching the crowd for a familiar face before we found each other.  I did manage to make it out of the airport without terrifying any poor security guards by breaking down and sobbing in front of them though, which I definitely did not do last time I was in Manila.  The day after I arrived we took an overnight trip to Subic/Zambales.  We went to see the Subic Safari, and may I just suggest that no one ever go see a zoo in a 3rd world country.  Tigers and lions are amazing and beautiful, yes, and I’m glad I got to see them, but I really wish it hadn’t been in a place that they were so obviously cooped up and exploited.  A thousand pound cat need more than 12 feet to pace around in an a couple of frozen chicken carcasses a day.

After the trip to the zoofari, or what have you, we drove another couple of hours to a small village on the beach.  The cheapest accommodations we could find were these tiny little bamboo huts, right on the waterfront.   The owner was an American expat and because it was the off-season and he had no other guests he gave us two huts for the price of one.  Rough deal, I know.  The next day he and his inappropriately aged girlfriend took us up to a waterfall in the mountains and we spent a few hours swimming, then a few hours on the beach before making the long drive home.  Back in the city we took a day at the Mall of Asia, either the biggest or one of the biggest in the world, which I’m sure I only saw a fraction of, toured some of the residential areas via tricycle taxi, saw one of the dirtiest lakes on the planet, and played basketball with some local youth.  Well, okay, my friend did, I was merely the photographer.  All in all it was a good trip, wonderful to see some faces from home and to eat food that had a variety of spice and flavor.  Oh, and of course to sing karaoke with the neighbors.  What would a trip to the Philippines be without hanging out around the karaoke machine at least once?   And on the fifth day they took me to the airport and I set out for Vietnam.  Well, with a few minor hiccups.  I’m just really not good at doing the whole airport thing.  First I went to the international terminal because, well, Vietnam is a different country.  I assumed it should be an international flight.  However international flights via domestic airlines require going to the domestic terminal.  And of course the two aren’t attached, aren’t even within walking distance.  So, I overpaid enormously for a 10 minute taxi ride to the other terminal, only to find out I had forgotten to print out some important documents pertaining to my visa.  The people at the check-in desk were nice enough to let me print them there, then hurried me along the way.  I did have a brief relief from the stress of traveling when I stopped at a coffee kiosk in the airport and had the first thing that came close to a real hazelnut latte in almost a year.  It was heavenly.

I landed in Ho Chi Minh city in the middle of the night.  I knew there was a backpackers district, and I had written down the address of the hostel I’d chosen, based on the online pictures and price of $4-6 a night, but I hadn’t a clue where it was or what the best way would be to get there.  So, I hoped into a taxi, again, and set off.  And, of course, was ripped off again by my driver.  It’s a hazard of traveling, and one I don’t feel too bad about falling victim to in countries that are still struggling to get their feet under them.  However, my one am taxi ride through the city showed me that this might not be the case in Vietnam, at least not in the cities.  It seemed to be standing on pretty solid ground, covered in steel skyscrapers and neon lights.  Not in a gaudy way either.  Even in the dark I was pretty sure it was going to be a beautiful place to spend a week.

My first day I set out on foot and immediately realized that traversing the city, by any means of transport, was going to be a challenge.  The guide book said that there are over 4 million motorcycles, scooters and mopeds in the city of Ho Chi Minh but I think they might have underestimated that.  They are like schools of fish, zooming down the road, looking to outside observation like they are following no set of rules, weaving in and out of cars, pedestrians and each other without a second thought.  And it’s amazing some of the things they pile onto their two-wheeled vehicles.  Baskets of food, families of five, dogs, birds, washing machines, refrigerators, 15 foot PCV pipes, just to name a few.  And they just go about their business like there is nothing to it.  The trick to crossing the road is to just go.  Yes, there may be about 500 vehicles coming at you, but as long as you don’t hesitate, if you keep a steady pace and walk a straight path, they will move around you.  Pedestrians, buses and cars pose no challenge to the master navigators on those streets, as long as they don’t act too idiotic.  So, I walked around.  I took a rickshaw ride to a few Buddhist pagodas, which are amazing.  One was actually a monastery, so there were all these tiny little monks and monkettes walking around in gray cotton scrubs, praying, eating, tending the garden.  Beautiful, peaceful.  Then I abandoned my slightly upset rickshaw driver, and the peace of the temples, for the War Remnants Museum.  Anyone who ever finds themselves in HCM should stop by.  It’s amazing.  I cried, I felt ashamed to be an American.  The travesty of some of the things we did there is indescribable, or rather can only be depicted through a serious of heartbreaking of the country and people before, during and after the war.  Villages of rice farmers, later destroyed by bombs, the children that are still being born with horrid deformities from agent Orange.  I’m not the most emotional person in the world, but it kicked me in the gut, in a good way.  It was nice to know more about the war, about the people, and then to pair that with the fact, that as an American traveling through Vietnam I had so far experienced nothing but courtesy and hospitality from the few locals I had encountered.  I doubt many countries would be so forgiving after something like that.

I went to the market in the middle of the city, crowded, hot, full of people vying for the attention of all the foreigners.  Turns out that Vietnam is riddled with backpackers and tourists, mainly from Europe, especially the UK, and therefore all of the vendors speak either some English or have developed a very effective system of hand gestures.  Walked around a bit, was overwhelmed by everything from the Good Morning Vietnam tee-shirts, to the food vendors with dried lizards and other unidentifiable things.  In the afternoon I returned to the hostel for some R&R and met some of the other guests.  A large group of us went out for dinner and enjoyed examining the difference between what we thought we had ordered and what was actually on the plates they put in front of us.  The next day I explored again, this time with company, a young guy from Holland.  We saw some of the same things I had seen the day before, and some new things.  Good times.  At dinner that night the group was taken in by a somewhat odd young local, with perfect English who had spent some time in England.  He took us to a rather ritzy night club, which due to its newness was almost empty, but it was still a good time.  Neon lights, loud music, terrible dancing.  Most of us had scheduled a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels the next day, which left the hostel around 8, and for some of us it was a bit tricky to get up in time.  The tunnels were crawling with tourists, but still worth seeing.  The Vietcong used the tunnels during the war to travel around under the American army.  The US was never able to effectively infiltrate the system.  There was something like 250 km of tunnels, and they are tiny.  We wet down in some of them, and you have to crawl.  The Vietnamese are a bit smaller than westerners, so they troops could run, at a crouch through the tunnels.  Sometimes they spent up to 10 hours a day down there.  Very well constructed, well hidden.  Smart guys, those Vietnamese.

The next day, my last day in Ho Chi Minh, I absolutely did not rent a scooter.  I did not rent a scooter because that is not allowed by the organization I am currently working for, too dangerous.  So, I did not spend a few hours zipping around the city with a fellow backpacker from England.  Well, zipping only after an initial accident, in the middle of downtown traffic.  Actually, I did not crash a scooter twice and have to pay $20 for a few minor repairs.  I did not giggle like a fool the whole time either.  Nope, I’m too sensible for something like that.  However, not driving a scooter in HCM has made me think that when I get home that might be a good means of transportation to look into…

Are you still with me?  Have you gotten bored yet?  Sorry, I know I’m a bit long-winded, it’s why I don’t post very often, and why I need to do it more often so I don’t have to cover this much every time.  Anyway, I left HCM and went up north to Hanoi.  Side note; one week is nowhere near enough time to spend in any country really.  I would have loved to take a train or bus up to the north, stop off in some other cities, see the beach, etc, but there was no time.  Too bad, I just might have to go back later.  So, after having so much fun with the backpackers I met in HCM I decided that I am indeed a social butterfly, so I checked into a hostel known for its social environment and traffic of partiers.  I checked in, took a shower, went to one of the two bars inside the hostel, and immediately realized that my ability to socialize in HCM had been merely a fluke.  Large groups of strangers are not one of my strong suits, I prefer quite and calm.  Whoops.  So, I took one day to explore the Temple of Literature, the first university in Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh museum, and some other important sites.  In the process I sweated more than I ever have in my life.  My clothes were literally soaked.  Heat and humidity, why do you exist?  If not for those things I could almost live in Vietnam, but I guess without those things it wouldn’t be quite as stunning as it is.  It would probably look a bit like Kazakhstan, or Montana.  Both beautiful in their own ways, but there’s just something about the tropics, all that color and life.  After bathing in my own sweat I decided to sign up for a three day tour of Sapa valley, which is where most of the picturesque photos of mountain rice terraces come from.  Me and a group of 7 other backpackers, all from the UK, took the night train, arrived in a small town at the base of the mountains and were driven 2 hours up a narrow, windy road to Sapa itself.  The village is amazing.  Its on the face of a mountain, so full of staircases.  There are three main ethnic groups that live in villages around Sapa; the Black H’mong, Red Dao, and Zai, whose color I’ve forgotten. Many of the women still wear the traditional clothing of their people.  For the H’mong this means navy jackets, skirts, leg and arm warmers that are all heavily embroidered by hand in elaborate, colorful patterns.  If you find yourself in Missoula on a Saturday, go look at the crafts market.  We actually have a large population of H’mongs and they put some of their wares on display there.  But in its native context their traditional artwork seems so much more authentic, maybe because it is.

We left for our first day of hiking through the patties followed by 10 or twelve H’mong women.  We were all outfitted in our fancy hiking shoes and packs, and these women were wearing slip on plastic sandals and baskets tied to their backs.  They kicked our butts up and down the muddy slopes.  Almost every member of our group fell on the slick clay mud multiple times and the tiny H’mong women would gasp, giggle, and then hold out a hand to help him or her up.  Turns out that’s their plan.  They help the tourists navigate the tricky trails through the rice patties, then when you stop for lunch they open up their baskets to showcase their products.  It’s like, ‘we helped you silly foreigners not die on the mountain, now give us your money.’  I guess that’s a fair trade, plus what they are selling really is quite beautiful.  Overpriced, of course, and a bit sad that they followed a bunch of 18-20 somethings into the mountains, only to discover that that demographic doesn’t usually have much money on hand.  We all tried to get something though, because they did help us, and its cool stuff.  The H’mongs left us at lunch, and when we set off again we were almost immediately beset by another group of helpers, the Red Dao this time.  These women wear these large, read headdresses, sort of Princes Amidalla style, and colorful lighter blue short pants and jackets.  I didn’t get a great picture of them, because it felt rude, but it they looked neat.  Sadly, I had spent all the money I brought into the mountains on the H’mong wares and didn’t have any left to buy from the Dao women.  Neither did any of my fellow backpackers, so we tried to tell them to stay behind, that we could manage without hand-holders on the next leg of the trip. And truthfully it did get easier after lunch.  They still followed us, but didn’t seem too upset when we didn’t buy anything other than a friendship bracelet or two.  We spent the night in a lodge in one of the villages, which had a hot shower and served an amazing dinner.  It’s amazing because I took more showers in that week in Vietnam than I think I have in the whole last year here.  Hot water coming from a tap, how I’ve missed you.  I’m now solidly back in the world of bucket bathing.  The next day we hiked out, but sadly this time the crowd of locals that followed us was almost all little children.  Tiny children.  Sweet and cute, but we still didn’t have any money and they walked with us for hours.  Also, they were not quite as good at helping as the older women.  Much better at getting underfoot and making you feel like a mammoth that was going to crush them accidentally at any moment.

So, after two days of hiking we got back in time to spend a couple hours exploring Sapa.  It had been rainy and chilly in the mountains, so we had some spiced wine and coffee before wandering the markets.  Man, I still regret not buying more things.  I know that material things aren’t what makes a trip, it’s the experiences, but still, there was some neat stuff there and who knows if I’ll ever be back.  Ah well, I perused, almost bought a modernized embroidered jacket, didn’t, and then it was time to head back down the mountain and get on the train.  After the night train I got back to Hanoi just in time to rush to the airport for my flight back to dear old KZ.  I choose a motorcycle taxi, which seemed like the cheapest and maybe quickest way to go.  About five minutes into the 45 minute trip to the airport it started raining a little.  Then a little more.  And then I was convinced we were caught in a monsoon.  Sadly, motorcycles don’t work too well in the rain, so our 45 minute trip turned into nearly an hour and a half.  I made it to the airport in time to zoom through check-in, dripping wet, change quickly in an airport bathroom, and hop on my plane.  I had two stops in China, but didn’t actually change planes so I figured there would be no problems with visas or anything.  Wrong.  Even though it was like a 30 minute stop, they make you get off the plane and go through customs.  And surprise, I didn’t expect that so no visa. After the airport officials hemmed and hawed at the computer for about 25 minutes they presented be a 24 hour stay permit, saying I would be find as long as I left the country within 24 hours.  I told them I would be leaving in about 3, if I didn’t miss my plane, so they rushed me back on to the same exact plane, the same exact seat, and we took off.  Jeeze China, really?  Let’s just say I love traveling, but I am always happy to be home, even when home isn’t really home.  Coming back to Kazakhstan, where I mostly speak the language and know how much a cab ride costs, was a huge relief.  I arrived at night, of course, but without any of the nervousness I felt when arriving at night in Vietnam.  It was home, sort of.

After I got back from my travels through I had one of the aforementioned gaps in my schedule.  I had all sorts of ideas; I would go visit my students, I would look for an apartment and move out, I would cook lots of amazing food, I would buy a bike and start getting back in shape.  But the first day of course I was a bit jet-lagged, so I just stayed in bed.  And then that felt so good that I did it the next day too.  And so on, and so forth.  I did a few things here and there, but needless to say, two weeks went by and I had accomplished none of my wonderful goals.  Its okay, I said to myself, I just have to go to Almaty for three days for my medical exam, then I will be back and I’ll do all that great stuff then.  Ha, ha, ha.  The twelve-hour train ride back from Almaty induced in me a syndrome similar to jet lag, so I had to take another week and a half to recover.  In that time I did go to Shymkent and Aksu to see friends before they left the country, but nothing at all that counted as work, or looking for an apartment.  Some friends of mine looked for an apartment for me, but I wasn’t terribly helpful.  In my defense, I don’t know the first thing about apartment hunting in Kazakhstan.  It seems to mainly be a word of mouth process, and I’m not exactly in on the village gossip circle.  Oh, that’s another goal for this year; make local friends and worm my way into that circle.  Ward off the loneliness with petty chitchat.  So, after another week and a half of nothing I set of for Pavlodar, a city in the north of Kazakhstan, about a 36 hour train ride from home.  I was going to help another volunteer who works for the Scouts of Kazakhstan, yes, like boyscouts but coed, with a Scouts camp.  Camp was fun. It was nice to be in the outdoors, to be around kids outside the classroom.  Sadly, in the north of Kazakhstan they speak almost only Russian, so I had to communicate through facial expressions and hand gestures.  I learned a few words and phrases and improved my understanding, but still no ability to converse.  New goal for year two: learn Russian.

When I got back I was supposed to go straight to another camp down South, but it was put on hold for a week.  That’s just how it goes here sometimes.  So, I spent a week at home.  I did actually start looking for an apartment, sort of, and a friend of mine who finished her service in August had given me her old bicycle, so I was starting to almost accomplish something with my summer.  After that week I left for Turkestan, which is a city in Kazakhstan, despite its misleading name, and had a wonderful week at an immersion English camp in the wood with two of my closest friends.  Me and Anne, one of the other volunteers, told the kids that we didn’t speak any Kazakh or Russian, so they had to speak to us in only English.  It was kind of fun, especially since we understood what they were saying, but had to pretend we didn’t get it.  I don’t usually condone lying to children, but it did help them learn.  We played games, went hiking and swimming and altogether had a ridiculously good time.  The campers were responsible for meals, and we tried to teach the boys how to cook and wash dishes.  For most of them it was the first time they had to do either or these things, and they put up a might struggle, saying it was all “women’s work.”  I think some of them actually enjoyed it though.  I saw one of the boys the day after we went back to the city and he said that he had gotten home, seen the mess in the kitchen and done the dishes there.  I was so proud.  Sadly, camp had to end a day early because of near tornado force winds that were threatening to rip our tents apart.  Plus, Turkestan is in the steppe, so the winds were whipping around so much dust that it was nearly impossible to see or breath.  Anne and I spent an extra day in Turkestan with Jennie.  It is home to the largest mausoleum in Kazakhstan and is supposedly the second Mecca, so we went to see the sights.  Cool stuff there, but a bit hard to understand when all the interpretive signs are in Kazakh.

Okay, so I’ll wrap up briefly.  I got back to site about three weeks before school started.  I worked half days during that time, and met the two marvelous new English teachers had hired over the summer.  I think they are going to make year two even more enjoyable than year one.  I found a house and moved in three days before classes started.  It was a bit awkward for my host family at first, but I think things have smoothed over.  Unfortunately I’m still not quite alone.  I moved into a house with a 24 year old girl and her 76 year old father.  The old man said he would be moving to Astana within two weeks, so it would be just like having a roommate, not a new family.  Yup, he still isn’t gone, and doesn’t show any signs of leaving, and treats me a bit like a ward.  Clara, come drink tea.  Clara, why did you come home late last night?  Clara, should I talk to your work?  You shouldn’t be there until after 7 o’clock.  Yeah, we’ll see how it goes.  Hopefully he does leave eventually, and until them I’m sort of passive aggressively trying to force my independence on them.  I know I should just say I want to cook for myself, eat when I want, come and go as I please and not be treated like a family member, but I don’t know how well that would go over.  For now, its working like it is.  And the great thing is I at last have internet at home.  Now I have no excuse for not updating both my blog and my photos more frequently.  School is now in its fourth week and I’m totally exhausted already, but it has been terrific to see the kids. I missed them over the summer.  Our school is a bit of a mess because we had a large staff overturn this summer.  We still don’t actually have a regular class schedule so everyday is a surprise.  Its frustrating but, like I said, good to be back.  I’m hoping the next year will be amazing and fulfilling, especially because of the two wonderful new English teacher who are actually excited about their jobs and interested in trying new things.  I’ll try to keep you updated on the progress of the year.  For now, my hands are tired, and I’m sure many people haven’t actually read this far, so I’ll sign off.

New Address…

2 09 2011

Okay, I’ve been working on a real doozy of a blog for weeks now, and I will try to finish it soon.  It’s going to be a novel, of epic proportions, whenever I do finish it.  I’ve been so lazy this summer, and I apologize for that.  But, for now I just need to tell anyone that cares that I have moved.  Still love the family I was with, just needed a bit of peace and independence.  Got the first one, still working on getting the second…but it will happen!  I will cook my own food and come and go as I please, as God is my witness!  And yes, I did recently re-watch Gone With the Wind.  I love the classics, gotta get more of them.

Okay, here it is in English

SKO, Tulkibas Region

T. Ryskulov Village

69 Salimbai Ahmetov Street

Kazakhstan 161300


AND in Kazakh,

ОҚО Түлкібас ауданы
Т. Рысқұлов ауылы
Сәлімбай Ахметов көшесі 69
161300 Қазақстан

Once again, real news coming soon, as long as the start of classes doesn’t kill me from exhaustion.  I’m remembering you all fondly, everyday!


12 06 2011

Well hello.  Yes, I am still alive and kicking and happy to be here, wherever here might be at the moment.  Staying static just isn’t e I guess.  I’m more of a kinesthetic force.

This last week was girls’ camp which I co-organized with a fellow volunteer down south,where young women really need an extra boost,someone telling them ‘you too should have a say in your future.’ Of course, by co-organized I mean she planned all the hard stuff and I did the bare minimum grunt work required to keep things going.  Still I felt like I did not stop moving all week.  And it was glorious.  I need to develop a mind for detaiils fast because this camp needs a repeat next year, and planning would then fall to yours truly.

We planned for a pretty small camp, 20 girls and 6 olunteers but as we all know things rarely go according to plan.  We ended up with 27 girls and 9 volunteers, well 8 volunteers and a tag-a-long. One of my good friend’s little sister was here visiting for a couple of weeks.  Even though we had way more help than planned and more mouths to feed than our grant budgeted,it definitely followed the stupid cliche;the more the merrier.  The girls were great and stoked about the new information.  We did sessions on self-esteem, judgements and stereotypes, leadership, relationships, communication skills, future opportunities, conflict resolution, and at the end of the week had two wonderful local volunteers come in and talk tothem about sexual health.  We were all holding our breath about how that would go over, and even expecting walkouts, but by the end the girls were asking about how they could get involved in working with the volunteer org these girls came from.  It blew our minds.  There is nothing even resembling sex ed in schools here so you can imagine how mind boggling it must have been for them to be told why their bodies do that funny thing every 28 days.  Yep, we’re talking that rudimentary.

Everyday we, the lovely volunteer staff, prepared coffee break and lunch for the girls.  This meant daily bazaar trips, haggling with stingy vendors, chatting with friendly ones, longingly eyeing the buckets of fresh strawberries and cherries and lugging home about 20 puonds of food.  Also buying things on a grant’s dime is fun, but it means tons o receipts and meticulous accounting.  In a bazaar you getsome pretty strange looks when you ask a person to put their name on a random piece of paper, along with their signature and what you just bought.  Just look at your hands dummy! You’re still holding the bag of rice and beans.  Why do you need me to write it down? Still it was fun and adventurous and by the end of the week most of the vendors and taxi drivers in that little city knew us all by face if not name  It’shard to lay low in  group that size, especially when you’re all white girls speaking Kazakh…

So we made sandwiches, mediterranean wraps, pizza, and burritos, and then thegirls either took pity on us or got really sick of our wierdo food and said they’d do tea the next day.  Now I think I’ve mentioned tea time before, but just in case I’ll remind you; this is not your grandmother’s tea party.  It tok these girls less than 5 minutes to set up a huge spread of cookies, cakes, bread, salad, sausage, crazy fermented milk beverages and oh so much moe.  Never doubt a kzakh tea party, they mean business.  We ended on a half ay and all the girls left gushing, much of which went beyond the culture’s obligatory polite complimenting.  It was an exhausting week, but one I’d gladly repeat.

The next day we had hours before our train left and there just happens to be a waterpark in the town we had camp in, fancy that. So we went and played in the wate and got ourselves thoroughly tanned/burned. Best Kazakstan Saturday yet.

So now here I sit in Abu Dabhi.  Well sort of.  I’m just in the airport really, but its still a huge culture shock.  I saw my firs woman in a full on burkha tonight.  Very strange.  Many of the male airport workers are wearing the traditional white trouser-tunic-turban outfit.  It’s beautiful but very surreal.  Well, I can’t exactly say the burkha was beautiful, but there are also woen in saris and other less confining traditional garb.  I have to admit, guiltily, that it makes me a bit nervous to be a solo American traveller in an Arab country.  It’s just that there are a lot of negativ feelings directed towards us right now, and many of them are perfectly justified.  Imet a young Iranian man in Shymkent a few weeks ago and once he found out I was American he asked me why my government was bombing his country.  What can you even say to that? It was one of those moments where the world outside yourself steps in and slaps you real good across the face, just to make sure you don’tforget its out there.

On the more normal side of things, more people speak English here than in KZ so airport navigation is made easy.  Also its an international airport which means no body cares who I am.  I’m just one more face in the hodge-odge of ethnicities running around.  It may seem strange to count this as a positive but it’s literally the first time in months I’ve been out in public fora couple of hours without getting asked by everybody and their neighbor to teach them English.  I know teaching is my job and all, but it sure is nice to take a breather.  I’ve got 4+ hours until my flight to the Philippines leaves, but nothing more of great interest to say.  Well, except that too many peple travel in pairs.  C’mon guys, don’t you know it’s infinitely cooler to be sitting by youself,drinking coffe and trying to stave off sleep so no one will steal you luggage?  Jeeze you’d think having a travel buddy was normal or something.

Wish me luck, and the magical ability to speak in tongues.  Vietnamese isn’t something I’ve got stored upstairs.  Funny stories shall surely follow shortly.


Tomorrow always comes…

11 03 2011

Okay, so I’ve basically set myself up for failure by not updating for so long. There’s almost no way that I can put down all of what has happened in the last three months without forgetting tons of stuff. What can I say, I’m really lazy, and I kept expecting that that would change, or that I would miraculously get internet at my house and then be able to write all the time to everybody. Yeah, neither of those things came true, so here I am, trying to write the history of the last three months of my life and it seems simultaneously like nothing exciting has happened, and that so much has happened I may as well abandon hope now. However I do feel the need to reassure the folks across the water, and lots of land too, that I am indeed still alive and kicking, if only for the time being.


Lets start where I left off, shall we? Christmas, 2010. It passed, no big deal. Spent it with friends in Shymkent, white elephanting random Kazakh eccentricities. I count myself a winner in that I actually scored some peanut butter that someone had sent from home. I’ve been carefully rationing it and still have half a jar left. It’s sort of like my safety blanket, a beautiful cylindrical red, blue and green safety blanket that’s there to keep me in touch with the things I’ve left behind. Who knows what will happen when it’s gone. By the way, if anyone wants to send along any more of that glorious substance I’d be eternally grateful, *cough MOM cough*.

Anyway, what I was looking forward to was the New Year’s celebrations. They got a fair amount of hype and my school had been preparing for weeks. The last week of the term was basically pointless as over half the students were missing from every class to practice plays or dances or songs, and then they finally just started canceling classes. We had two concerts, one for the 7th and 8th form students and one for the 9th and 10th form students. The concert is pretty much the closest thing to a prom these guys have, so out came the taffeta and lace, the sequins and glitter. Luckily the boys’ school uniforms are suits, so they didn’t have to do much, but the girls skipped classes to go to the hair dresser and be made into Asian Fara Faucetts and Goldie Hawns. I had been teaching the younger kids “Jingle Bells” and the older ones “Auld Lang Syne” but most of them chickened out when it came down to it. I sang “Jingle Bells” with one brave 7th former and an English teacher who really only knew the words “jingle bells, jingle bells” and that’s it. “Auld Lang Syne” went slightly better with three girls stepping up, but they still made me sing with them. It felt a bit weird to put myself up there seeing as most everything else was entirely student run, but we made it through with limited mistakes, and only about three key changes. After the concerts there was a disco-tech and tons of picture taking. The students also got sparklers, which they lit in doors, in the school. A little bit different safety standards here than at home, but what the heck, its fun, right? On the 30th, the teachers had their party, which, unlike at home, we all had to pay 2000 tenge for, but it was a lot of fun. Tons of food, lots of drinking, dancing and games. For being such a conservative part of the country many of the games were pretty risqué, ie: men eating an apple that a woman is holding between her chin and collar bone. Basically necking, right? And musical chairs, where only the men run around and women are sitting, waiting for some guy to jump in their lap. That one got pretty violent too. As the odd duckling I got to be the last lady sitting, so got squashed a fair number of times.

Oh but wait, the best has yet to come. Family time. All families are precious during the holidays, and Kazakhstan is no exception to that rule. I’m really just surprised that no one ended up in the hospital, or in jail. My favourite way to start the story is “so there I was, sitting in the back of a soviet era sedan with 8 other people, and still wondering how we’d ended up there.” How did we end up there, you ask? Well, it all happened because of the red apple. That and a lot of vodka. My host mother had to work half a day on the 31st, which meant I got to stay home alone with the little ones. Have I mentioned before how much every member of my family likes yelling? Let me now. They all like yelling, a lot. This is understandable for the three-year-old and maybe even for the five-year-old, but really not for the ten and thirty-five-year-olds. Not in my book anyway. So I was left alone with the three youngest screamers, and eventually just couldn’t take it any more. I can’t exactly explain in Kazakh why screaming at someone doesn’t teach them that screaming is bad, so I gave up trying and just took the two little ones out for a walk, to get away from the noise and enjoy what was actually a pretty nice day. By the time I got home my host mother was back from work (screamer #4, by the way) and we started preparing the mass quantities of food that were needed for the celebration. I’ve talked about the food already, so I won’t get into it again except that to say we spent hours and hours in that kitchen. Then we set the table. Then we waited for Daddy dearest and his friends to show up. And we waited. A couple of his friends stopped by, but when they saw that he wasn’t around they left quickly. My host mother and I finally cracked open the vodka and wine respectively. A few minutes before the clock struck 12 my host father came stumbling through the door with a couple of cronies. He’d clearly opened his own bottle of vodka, or two or three, and was having trouble standing. He wasn’t, however, having any trouble socializing. I went to bed shortly after midnight because I’m just that cool, but he kept my host mother and 10-year-old sister up until 3 or 4 in the morning. She had to stay up, you see, to keep pouring the men their tea. Yay for equality.

Fast forward about twelve hours. My father, still drunk, has managed to gather my oldest sister and my mother’s parents from the next village. Luckily he doesn’t actually have his own car, so he just makes his friends drive him, and us, everywhere, which means his drunk driving is limited. One can only hope that his friends don’t drink half as much as he does. So, the family’s gathered, eating again, still, and all of a sudden a meltdown occurs and everybody is shouting. Through all of this the only words I understand are “kizil alma,” which means red apple. Also, many women are named Alma. Did my host father sleep with someone named Alma, or are they really fighting over apples? I had no idea, I only knew that it was a painfully awkward thing to be in the middle of. Everyone except my father and grandfather was crying. Once again I took the munchkins on a walk to get away from the worst of it. When I came back the fight was in full swing and more relatives had arrived. My father’s brother ended up tackling him up our staircase, which I think was the only violence in the whole incident. Luckily my father, while loud and obnoxious, is not really an aggressive or angry guy. So, eventually Anilla, Ali, Ayo, Samal, Aisulu, the grandparents, myself, and the driver piled in the tiny car and headed for the next village. My mother, Aisulu, was taking us away from the madness and to her parents’ house for a few days and I was seriously contemplating finding a different host family first thing the next morning.

But wait, there’s more. We all settled down to sleep that night, and of course there was a wicked storm with wind and snow and all of it. I couldn’t sleep because all of these images of horror stories were running through my head. Why, oh why did I read all that Joyce Carol Oates? Men killing small children in floods, doctors dissecting live specimens, uh. And then, over the wind, the sound of the gate slamming. Was it the wind? I had opened that gate earlier myself and new that it took a couple of stout kicks before it would budge. In my mind my host father had acquired a large pitchfork and torch and was come to burn down the house and murder us all. No, no, that’s only in stories. It was just the wind. But then someone knocked on the door, and sure enough we heard the slurred shouting of a drunk man. Lucky for the rest of us, the only person he wanted was his son. Once again, yay equality. However, no one was going to let this man run off into the storm, inebriated, with a sleeping three-year-old. In order to placate him Samal said she would go with him, which obviously was a slightly less worse idea. An 18-year-old stands a better chance of survival. The rest of my family, myself included, was still hiding out in the bedroom, but after they left my host mother sat up and looked at me and was like “Clara, I’m sure you want to go too, right?” which I actually did, but the whole situation was still a bit too sketch for me. Whatever, I happen to like Samal, and really didn’t want her dealing with this alone. So, I gathered my things and sprinted into the night after them and managed to catch them before they drove off. I was very relieved to find that once again, a friend was behind the wheel, not my father. Nothing else exciting happened that night but just to add insult to injury we woke up the next morning to find that the water wasn’t working, and continued not to work to for three days. The family also came back after three days. As far as I can tell the fight was never talked about, never really settled, but I asked Samal later and it really did start over red apples. Amazing what several bottles of alcohol and years of misogynistic culture can do to a couple.


Well, there’s what, three days I’ve made up in as many pages. Let’s hope the rest can be told in a somewhat more concise manner, but you can see why that one might be particularly vivid in the memory of someone who grew up in a painfully normal and passive family. On to the next event.


Oh yeah, way before that a cool cultural experience. I went with my family to what is called a “byet ashada,” or a face opening. This is what happens after a girl is bride-napped (stolen by a man who fancies her and forced to marry him). She has been staying in his house with his family for some time, and now gets dressed up in a traditional gown and has her head covered by an opaque white veil. 70-100 of the grooms closest friends and family gather to eat a giant feast, which the bride prepared the day before. During this feast the bride stands in her fancy get up, flanked by female members of the grooms family and says “salyem” (hello) to members of the family by bowing to them while they put money in a jar to help pay for the upcoming wedding party. At the end of all the bowing, her face is uncovered and she is shown officially to her new family. Very interesting to watch, but also a bit tragic once you realize that underneath the veil the bride is almost always sobbing uncontrollably. A bit of the old culture left over, but mainly only in the south of the country. The great thing is that this all happens at someone’s house, so a rug is laid down over the mud of the driveway, and the woman that was so dolled up was standing about fifteen feet away from some cows just hanging out, doin’ their business.


So this term is the longest of the year. All the other quarters are seven, eight, and nine weeks, but the third is eleven weeks. That’s a long time to go without break and due to my inability to say no to people, coupled with the fact that overworking is the easiest way not to get homesick, means that I’ve pulled some pretty long weeks of late. I’m not nearly so sugary to my poor host family as I was at first, and I feel bad about that, but I can’t help it. All I want to do when I get home is cuddle up with a book, or a movie, or write my lesson plans for the next day. I really don’t want to do my sister’s English homework with (and by for I mean for) her, I don’t want to run around and play with the munchkins, and I don’t want to watch my exhausted host mother pour cup after cup of tea for my host father, who is drunk about 65% of the time. I try not to be too antisocial, but I’m not sure I’m doing very well with that. I got used to living by myself at home, at having quite and no demands on my time except those I set myself. I am a selfish creature and it takes me a long time to adjust to new settings. A really long time, apparently. Actually, as of last week I am now able to move out and live on my own, or with people my age, but I really do like my family an awful lot, and it would be terribly lonely to live on my own in a foreign country. Plus then my language skills would improve even slower than they are currently. They might even deteriorate.

On March 8th Kazakhstan, along with all other former Soviet countries and a handful of others, celebrates Women’s Day. Sort of like our Mother’s day, only the women still have to work in the house all day, their husbands just give them flowers for their trouble that one day a year. You tell the guys here that in America sometimes men prepare food for their wives, clean the house, even occasionally do laundry, and they almost die of shock. Anyway, we spent all of last week preparing for the concerts that would celebrate the day. One of my extra-curricular activities has been a music club. Not many people come, usually around five, but those that do come are really in to it, and it is something that makes my week better, so I will always continue it. There are two girls in the 10th form to whom it really means a lot to be able to sing and to be able to choose the songs their own songs rather than be dictated to. They also happen to be the two students with the highest level of English in the school, so I enjoy working with them immensely. We decided to prepare two songs for the concerts, one by Avril Lavigne, a favourite of the girls’, and one by Greenday. What can I say, they like soft, modern emo-punk? Girls after my own high-school heart. The first we found music without lyrics for so they could perform it karaoke style. The second we were not so lucky on. Happily , it’s one of three songs I can stumble my way through on guitar, and I just happen to have acquired on of those over here (thank you Tobin). So, I brought my guitar to school one day. I don’t know why I didn’t do that earlier, only that I’m actually glad I didn’t. it was a sensation. The kids and teachers alike were entranced by it. Music is very important here, and musicians highly respected. They all just wanted to touch the instrument, and then take pictures of themselves holding it. We practiced our song a few times, until my finger-tips began to ache, then in came one of the schools maintenance guys. Guess what? He can play the guitar beautifully. By this time quite a few students had gathered and we basically had our own concert going on. The maintenance aghai played for a little while, then the school president brought out his dombra, the traditional two stringed instrument of Kazakhstan, and rocked out for a while. One of the things I love about this country is the fact that the coolest kids in school, the most modernized and punked out teenagers, still have so much respect for their history and tradition. I can’t imagine my high-school class president rocking out on banjo, or harmonica, or whatever America’s traditional instrument might be. And bringing a guitar to school in the states is just sickeningly passé. Heck, there was a kid who wandered the halls of my school playing the ukulele during breaks almost daily and he barely stood out from the crowd. That night my spirits soared. The kids were so happy, and its so great to watch people who are so willing to share themselves and their talents with those around them. Of course I butchered the song during the concert, and then the guy running the concert lost our recording of the Avril Lavigne song. Let’s just say that it was the middle of the week that counted and forget about the end of it. I got myself mighty riled up about it. The girls were pretty disappointed, and it took, well, is taking, some time for me to forgive certain people at the school.

So, Women’s Day came along, a marvelous two day break from school. These one day weekends really wear on a girl after a few months. Oh yeah, in case you aren’t counting as religiously as I am, the 6th month mark came and went back on February 20th. Needless to say I was ready to laze about solidly for two days. Well, a day and a half. I worked part of Monday, went to the nature reserve to teach a for a few hours, and to be given the ceremonious Women’s Day flowers by my tour guide “students” all but one of whom are older than me. But after that I was enjoying my Tuesday off. Oh, yeah, we worked on Sunday to make up for one of the days off we took. So, I slept in, cleaned my room, read an ever so cheery Ayn Rand novel, took a nap, then decided to go for a walk. The screaming of my younger siblings let to that decision, and ended my nap much earlier than I’d have liked, but it was also just a ridiculously beautiful day. So, I headed out in the direction I ran the day the farm boys rescued me. So long as I live here I will never walk that direction again. Twice is quite enough. Before I really dive into this story any further, I feel I should mention, in case I haven’t already, the nature of guys in this country, and of being a foreign female. Marriage is important, at an early age too, and being from a rich country I am of course perceived as rich. Either that or I’ve just gotten much prettier here in Kazakhstan than I was at home. That’s probably it, I’m just gorgeous now. Anyway, I’ve gotten countless marriage proposals in passing, and four or five somewhat serious ones. Two guys continue to date, but I’m pretty sure its all just fun and games now. One is a relative of my father’s, and the other is a guy who works with him. Nice, reasonable guys, both of them, of which there are quite a few in and around these parts, they’re just quieter than the not-so-nice guys.

So, anyway, guys hit on girls all the time and its just supposed to be okay. Girls don’t really get much say in it. I already mentioned the whole bride-napping thing. My own host sister is afraid to come visit her family in the village now that she is 18 and has a college diploma. It makes her a likely target for being napped. I get to be her escort when she does come around. But I’ve never felt threatened myself. They tend to only seriously target Kazakh women. So, I went on a walk by myself in the bright, warm, afternoon daylight. There were tons of people out and about in the streets, mostly young guys. That should have been enough of a clue to turn around. But they all seemed cheery enough, wishing all the ladies out-and-about a happy holiday. No, that’s a lie. They wished it in a rather menacing, leering way. I made the mistake of saying thank you in Kazakh. Never, if you look like a Russian, speak in Kazakh to people who already think you look a little different. It just solidifies that assumption. So, a couple of the guys started to follow me, asking my name in Russian, even though I’d already spoken Kazakh to them. After I ignored them for a while they stopped and I continued down the road. I kept getting stared at, but remembered from then on to say thank you in Russian, but even so, I look different. I dress different. I walk different. So, the reason I got rescued that one day by farm boys is that this particular road dead ends in the farmland. So, my choices were to either wind my way through the fields again, or double back through the gauntlet. I got even more stares the second time around, and some giggles from some smaller kids. When I passed back through the first group of guys again, they started following me again. I ignored them as long as I could, but eventually a couple got close enough to my bubble to make me angry and I had to tell them to stop. They laughed at me for a bit, but eventually did indeed stop. I walked on, nearing home, and growing increasingly proud of myself for not getting scared, for standing my ground and for not overreacting. Then I heard the sound of galloping hooves. For a brief moment I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if it was one of those guys went back and got a horse to come after me? Then I realized how actually unfunny that would be and picked up my pace a bit. But there was no way was actually what was happening, right? The pounding of hooves got closer and closer, and sure enough slowed down near me. Oh shit. I refused to look up. This was not actually happening. This sort of thing didn’t happen. Guys don’t chase down girls on horse-back just because they look a little different than other people, not in my world anyway. He asked again and again for my name and where I was from, mainly asking in Russian. Unfortunately for him, I’m not easily intimidated by horses. He kept steering his horse in front of me to cut me off, but all you have to do is push back and they move right along. Actually, I’d rather deal with having to push off a horse than having to push off a twenty-something guy. Eventually we came to a place where I could go through a gate that he couldn’t follow on a horse, and I managed to get away without him seeing exactly where I live. Never, ever again will I walk in that direction, or ever talk to strangers on the street again, at least not male strangers. But hey, it’s a story, right? And at least I know I don’t panic too easily. Happy Women’s Day. Maybe I should have talked to him after all. Might have gotten a free horse back ride out of the deal.


So, now I’ve gone on way too long, in way too much detail about the boring parts of life, but that is what stands out in my mind. Once again it seems too easy to focus on the negative parts of the story, but at this point I think of them less as negative and more just as colorful. Without them the last several months would seem a lot less exciting. In order to end on a positive note I’ll briefly mention a good bit of color. I’ve been planning a young women’s camp with a fellow volunteer who lives about an hour away. We’re trying to teach young women what there can be in life outside of getting married at 18, popping out babies and serving tea. Tomorrow I’m going to visit her to do some more planning and seeing as the days have been gorgeous of late we’re planning on teaching some Kazakh ladies how to play Ultimate, get some mud on their knee-high heeled black boots. I anticipate good times will be had by all. Hell, maybe I’ll even tell you all about it in another three or four months.

Oh yeah, something else glorious.  I was at school late yesterday, doing club and work stuff, and all of a sudden one of the girls came and found me and literally dragged me into the physics room.  All the girls that live at the school, which is probably around 60, had gathered to wish me, just me, a happy Women’s Day, give me a card and a rose and thank me for working with them.  If I were a cryer, I would have been sobbing.  It was so sweet, and awesome that they all did it and all got together.   Its going to be so fun to work with them and see where they go in the next year and a half.

PS, it is now tomorrow, we played Ultimate, and it rocked.  Especially the fact that girls in skirts and boots were body checking left and right.  Whatever they lack in skill is more than made up for in enthusiasm.