…And All That Jazz!

Last night my site mate, Owen, and I went to a Jazz concert that was sponsored by the US Government; the tour was titled, Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad. The tour went through Krygystan, Bangladesh, India, and of course, our lovely city of Pavlodar. We were fortunate enough to grab some dinner the night before and meet the quartet in person. They were very friendly, and very American. The myriad of idioms, jokes and, yes, even the occasional fist bump, made me feel completely at ease with the strangers that had come to Kazakhstan to share a bit of their passion with the people here. They did not expect many people the next day; in fact, there hope was for a modest crowd. I knew better though, because anything “American” is sure to be a hit. As I suspected, kids from my American Corner, and hundreds from around the city, came to fill the entire theatre to get a little taste of American Jazz. The embassy woman was kind enough to save us seats in the front row.

When I had met them the night before, the leading name, Paul Beaudry, was a very quiet, reserved man. LaKrista and I instantly liked him; he had a soft demeanor, but he laughed often and always had intelligent conversation at the ready. The others were equally interesting and very pleasant company. So when I headed down to the theatre yesterday, I was curious to see how their personalities would change when playing. My own question was answered the moment the men took the stage. While three of them appeared far more subdued, Paul seemed to light up and show an energy none of us had seen at dinner. You could tell all of them were in their element. They handled their instruments like they might handle infants, with a soft reverence. It seemed as though they had always been meant to play.

I always enjoy going to concerts and observing how each musician handles their art. Some get lost in their own world and forget there is an audience listening. Others engage the crowd and try to involve the theatre. The quartet seemed to do both. The audience absolutely loved the show; during particular solos, a loud and encouraging, “BRAVO!” would erupt from behind me. They applauded at any opportunity, and they cheered when Paul announced the quartet would play an encore. It was nice to see how appreciative the crowd seemed to be over the selections of Jazz that the quartet played; they chose songs from all around the world, including Nicaragua, America and even a song they learned in Kazakhstan.

One of the musicians said something at dinner that stayed with me as I listened to the beautiful harmony on stage. He simply stated, “We’re achieving peace through the use of Jazz.” When I later heard the song he composed, titled, “World Peace,” I believed him.

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You can visit his website at http://www.PaulBeaudry.com for more information. There’s also his blog, at http://beaudrybassjazz.wordpress.com/


My Take on Safety in Peace Corps

Safety is the single, most important concern for any Peace Corps Volunteer. Before you arrive to your site, you’re tormented with anxiety, what-if’s, and fear. It’s not so overwhelming that it sends you home, but it’s there, quietly ebbing away at your insecurities about living in a foreign country. Sadly, more than a few volunteers have experienced some type of violence or assault; both men and women alike. I’ve heard a lot of the recent drama concerning safety in Peace Corps and I hope that this post will ease the minds of those hoping to apply. It’s important to remember the media and the nature of the business; audiences must be kept shocked and surprised. Any case that highlights the negative side of this organization is grasped at and kept in tight focus. I’m here, as someone who lives on the other side of the camera, to highlight the positive. There’s always that hard truth of, the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s your job to look at all of these sides and make as informed a decision as possible.

I’m a volunteer who has seen or experienced all three, but I will still defend the Peace Corps staff in Kazakhstan. They’re amazing. When it comes to safety, we are their top priority. It still surprises me when our country director contacts me out of the blue, “Just to see how everything is going.” I’m one volunteer, out of more than a hundred in country, and he just called to know what I was up to, asked if I felt safe. Then there’s our medical office. As far as the medical staff go, I trust each of them with my life. Our Peace Corps Medical Officer (PCMO) could tell me to jump off of a bridge blind-folded, and I’d likely do it. He once told us that if he saw his own daughter leave to a far-off country, he’d hope for someone to greet her, someone to make her feel safe. And that’s a gift he wanted to give to us, to our families, even though he’s never met them, never shook their hands and said hello. One story comes to mind of his, just to show that he means it, it’s one of the most famous because it’s one of the most tragic. As any reader who is familiar with Kazakhstan knows, our winters are harsh. Many people say, “I’ve experienced as low as -20C, and whatever. Anything below that is just going to be cold.” Well, let me say to you, NO. You’re very, very wrong. -20C and -30C are extremely different. That, and our winters can get as cold as -52. I didn’t put a C or F that time because after -40, the temperature measurements merge and there is no difference. It’s cold. It chills your bones, sometimes shatters your glasses, and a 5-minute walk to the grocery store can result in instant frost bite. On. Your. Nose. So when our PCMO received a call late, one winter’s night, he had a dilemma. A volunteer, up North, got into a car accident. The roads were bad, vision was poor, and the volunteer was crushed. There were people in the car who instantly died, but she was still there, hanging on by a thread. Without flights or trains available, our PCMO made the decision to drive the 8-hours to get to the volunteer. It would have been better, and safer, for him to wait until morning to leave, but he wouldn’t have that. It was dangerous, they experienced a myriad of problems, but he got to her. She’s still alive, thankfully, but with severe brain damage.

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When I arrived at site, the calmness of the city immediately grabbed me. It’s so different when compared to the rest of Kazakhstan. You could learn the city in less than a month, but still get lost in the nooks and crannies. It’s a wonderful city to live in and I’ve never once doubted my safety. It doesn’t mean I’ve become complacent, not by a long shot. I still avoid dark areas, and if I have to walk at night, I stick to well lit streets. If it’s too late, I’ll grab a taxi and not feel guilty about it. I suppose it’s also the reason why I choose not to be friends with too many males. The people at my work, they’re wonderful people, who have shown time and time again that they want me safe and will go out of their way to ensure this. But personally, as far as other men go, it’s not like an LA scene where you can go out, meet someone and then instantly become friends. Maybe I’ll miss out on some great people, maybe I’m being paranoid, but the issues that have arisen for other volunteers has taught me that I’m going to put myself first. Meanwhile, I still have work friends to go out with and socialize and I still meet many, many people through my club at the American Corner, in addition to other events.

So there is my take on safety at my site. I have every confidence that the Peace Corps staff watching over me has my best interest at heart and I know this will always be. So much so, that I’m considering a third-year. Yes, you read right. There are other factors at play with this decision, but if all ends well with the government in this country, then I will stay. In terms of my happiness, the joy I have with my coworkers and clubs, well, I hope that my decision to extend will speak for itself.


To Hell and Back

Today was the worst day I’ve ever experienced in Kazakhstan. Well, it’s been the past three days, actually.

But before I get into it, let me rewind a bit. I just spent two weeks with my family, visiting the countries of France, Spain and Italy. I had delicious coffee every day (usually more often than once); I ate food that wasn’t served with dill or mayonnaise; I drank delicious wine and beer. I didn’t have to do my business in a hole; I used actual bathroom facilities. The taxi drivers did not paralyze me with fear of dying; in fact, the traffic was quite tame and orderly.

My ears, well trained to pinpoint English speakers, went into a state of panic. I found myself trying to listen to all the English speakers passing, but that proved to be useless since Americans seemed to swarm every corner of Europe. Instead, I found my ears searching for Russian speakers; finding comfort in the all-too-familiar phrases. There were moments when I couldn’t quite remember where I’d been all year; the only distant reminders being the realization that I was using words, or formulating thoughts, in Russian.

I’ll spare you the details about all that we saw in Europe – while beautiful, it was much of the usual sites any tourist gravitates to when in the area; the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, Tapas Bars, the Vatican, Statue of David … truly amazing. I could write for ages about what I loved but two weeks is a lot to digest.

Fast forward to September 14, 2011.

The night before, my sisters and I decided to say goodbye to Rome by going out and enjoying some of the surrounding places. At most, I slept maybe 3 hours. Two weeks of waking up to the sounds of my mother and sisters, and before I knew it, I was sitting at the airport, waiting to say my goodbyes. My flight was three hours later, so I spent the time reading a grammar book and studying vocabulary flashcards.

I boarded my flight at left Rome at 12:55. Four hours later, I spent a two-hour layover in Kiev, and proceeded on my four-hour journey to Almaty.

I arrived in country at 02:15.

It’s so hard to sleep on planes; I’d dose in and out, but it was difficult to stay asleep with flight attendants literally shaking me awake to serve me food, refreshments and coffee. As luck would have it, I spent the majority of the second flight picking debates and discussions with an intelligent young man traveling through Almaty to his home country of Kyrgystan. He didn’t know much of Almaty and lacked a working cell phone, so together we waited for his friend to pick him up. The guy never showed, so we ended up sharing a taxi.

By 04:00, I stared down at my bags, strewn about the Peace Corps Lounge. I managed to get an hour of sleep before my doctor called my cell phone, reminding me that he was waiting for me. I lurched off the couch and stumbled to the medical office, where I endured some unpleasant womanly procedures. I also got a very painful flu shot. Blah. I slept another hour before heading out to lunch with a couple other volunteers. Then starts the hell that was completely self-inflicted.

14:15 – The taxi was late. I should have known better. He also drove like a snail, despite my numerous pleas for him to hurry up. On the way to the airport, we discovered a large chunk of highway under construction. The detour was grueling. Then I ran to the wrong check in. I went through International instead of domestic. By the time I was able to screech to a halt in the correct line, I was hit with the realization that the boarding period had closed. Without me. WITHOUT ME.

The next 40 minutes consisted of a lot of begging, pleading, and explaining. A couple of attendants called the airplane to ask if I could be let on but they were told no. I was sent to another woman, who told me the ticket would not be reimbursed or transferred. I was then sent back to the main desk with the nicer ladies. Same deal. Then I was sent out of the airport and across the street, where the customer service was located. I was given a telephone, where a customer service man calmly explained that I would not get any credit for the ticket I had purchased. Then he asked me questions about my finance that were none of his business. He gave the impression that I would need to bribe him to get any help. I refused, and his tone became stiffer and he informed me, yet again, that he would not help me.

17:05 – I was faced with the dilemma of going to the train station and trying my luck with a 30-hour train ride, or staying the night, at the airport, for a flight that leaves at 06:25. I would need to pay double what I originally paid for the first ticket. I paid the dumb plane ticket. I couldn’t stand the thought of arguing with taxi drivers (because you NEED to, out of principle), going to the train station, finding out there were no trains or seats, going back to the airport after, once again, haggling with the taxi driver… I just wanted it all to stop.

The best part of my story? While the attendant was leading me to where the customer service building was, she insisted I use the escalator. I said no, because I’d never used those push carts on an escalator before. She continued to assure me it was perfectly fine and like a completely dimwitted idiot, I relented. I, then, got to watch as my precious carry-on bag tumbled down the entire length of the escalators. I burst into tears halfway down. She didn’t seem to care much, she kept saying my computer was fine. It isn’t. There are many, many hairline cracks throughout the screen and the cover is slightly bent on the right side. This is not covered in my warranty. I’m still furious with myself for going against my better judgement, but my thoughts within the last 60 ish hours have been more rapid-fire than fluid. I still haven’t slept because the seats are extremely uncomfortable and the floor is all marble, not carpet. What’s more, I fear what sleep will do to my brain. I’m finally functioning at a decent rate and napping will only sabotage this.

So, now for the good news— home is getting closer and closer. I checked in an hour ago and I’m starting to formulate plans on fixing my laptop screen. That part is the most annoying out of all of this, but as I comfort myself with the thought of the Pusan Palace, the stress has eased considerably and I’m finally thinking clearly again.

So there you have it. Three plane rides in three days, and the death of my beautiful computer screen. It was hard to be optimistic through any of it but then I heard my coworker on the phone with her cheery “Welcome back to Kazakhstan!” and then a loud voice in the background yelling, “Come back already!”

Ah. Who am I kidding? I still love this place.


A Video-Slideshow, For My Anniversary

Rather than talk forever about how my one-year anniversary has changed my life, how much I’ve learned, how much I’ve come to love Kazakhstan, I’ve decided to sift through my thousands of photos and show you instead. I hope you enjoy it. And I’m not sure how my videos ever choose the beginning photo. I had a cool one of LAX, but oh well.


Never Say No to Ramadan and Horse Meat

Aside from the distance, the length of time serving, and the fact that I’d be alone, one of the biggest concerns my family raised about going to Kazakhstan was the fact that it was a predominately Muslim country. Now, twelve months later, I have come to see that despite the differences, the religion factor of this peaceful, Islamic country of Kazakhstan is actually one of the best parts about living here.

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As many already know, this month is Ramadan, a special time for the Islamic culture that requires the healthiest and most devout to fast for as long as the sun is shining. Tonight, I was invited to a family event that involved prayer, large quantities of food and, of course, chai. Lots and lots of chai. The family belonged to my good friend and coworker, Madina.

I’ll start my story off with how I freaked out about my clothing. Apparel was one of my biggest concerns when I was getting ready. The night was humid and hot and not at all appropriate for jeans. I also realized that wearing jeans to a religious, Islamic event, probably wouldn’t go over too well with the elders of the group. So I chose a long, flowy skirt, with matching top. I anxiously waited to see how others would dress, and ultimately sighed in relief when I saw that Madina was wearing the exact style.

Shortly after I arrived, I happily obliged to cover my hair with a scarf that Madina had lent me. With that last touch, I felt much more comfortable. I’m not usually one to instantly panic about wardrobe,  but I started the night off truly terrified. Madina is one of my closest friends here, and obtaining the approval of her family meant a lot.

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As soon as I sat down, trays of food began to flow from the kitchen and Madina went into work mode as she attended to 20 or so relatives. Every so often she would check to see how I was doing and ask why I wasn’t eating more. She even managed to sit down for a few minutes to munch on some grapes.

The food spreads were true works of art: fried dumplings, green and white raisins, dried apricots, an array of nuts, vibrant marmalades, fresh fruit and the highly coveted baursaki rolls. These are balls of dough that are deep fried, soft and incredibly delicious. Madina and her mother had made them the same day, so they were still fresh and not yet too greasy. I immediately understood how Madina and her family had slaved for two days in preparation for this event; each presentation was glowing with the utmost care. She even went so far as to scrub three levels of stairs in the outside stairwell that led to the apartment. And any reader who has SEEN these stairwells will immediately appreciate what a difficult feat this must have been.

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I sipped on my favorite chai and munched on baursaki as I listened to the Kazakh speakers at nearby tables. After another round of prayer, I wandered around the flat and got to know those family members brave enough to test their English with me; some were surprisingly fluent and it made the night even more pleasant. By the time the second course started, I sat down more happy and confident with my present company. We enjoyed the oh-so-famous, Bishbarmak, a dish that will make any native puff up with pride. This meal consists of extremely thin noodles that are shaped like big squares, covered with horse meat and onions. Many volunteers do not like it, others are ambivalent about it, but I love it. Add the fact that Madina’s mother is a phenomenal cook and you have amazing served with a side of awesome.

After the third round of prayer, I walked back to the children’s room and chatted more with a girl I later realized was Chris’ counterpart. Chris just did his close of service and has left Kazakhstan, but I was still amazed at how small Pavlodar is that this counterpart is also my friend’s cousin.

After the third course of sweets and chai, people started to show more curiosity in me. Madina had taken a long enough breather to answer some questions; who I was, how she had met me, how long we had worked together, etc etc. As it turned out, the woman I had seen staring and smiling at me every so often was Madina’s great-Aunt. Upon learning that I was American, she immediately expressed her disbelief. Surely this girl, so properly dressed and well-mannered, is not American. She even sits appropriately, making sure that her skirt covers her entirely and she has her hair covered as a sign of respect. Something is … not right. “Well,” Madina offered, “she’s also Mexican?”

“Ah” the woman nodded, “I knew she was special, that must be why.”

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The experience ended with my favorite moment. As people were getting ready to leave, Madina’s grandfather came up to me in that sly, mischievous way that children generally take when they’re up to no good. He asked me a single question, in a tone that sounded more like a secret: “Kalines ka-leye?” (or, “How are you?” in Kazakh). I looked at him with an equally mischievous face and responded, “Zhaksa” (or, “Great”). The surprise that took over his face made me laugh right then; he entered into a flurry of Russian, telling those around him how great a girl I was because I knew what he had said in Kazakh and even responded back. Mind you, I can probably count the number of Kazakh words I know on one hand, but people here have always given me credit for these.

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This was a really great evening. At first, I was unsure about attending alone and having to sit through what could have been a really boring evening. But as long as the chai is running, everything works out fine. Like most experiences in this country, you just have to close your eyes and jump in, feet first. You’ll almost always be glad you did it.


A Year With Peace Corps, and it’s Still Good to Hear…

A great man left our Peace Corps Almaty office. He was always positive, always had on a smile, and above all else, he always knew exactly what to say. Another country will benefit from his service as he continues down his own path, but I’m posting his letter that he sent out today, mostly because it spoke to me, and it reminded me, yet again, about why I decided to join Peace Corps. He will be missed.

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Kazakhstan Volunteers-

Today is my last day at Peace Corps Kazakhstan.  I’d like to take this final opportunity to thank you for your service to Peace Corps and to Kazakhstan.  It has been a great pleasure to work with you and I wish you the best for the rest of your service and your post Peace Corps endeavors.

My final piece of advice is something that I have learned from my own service and from talking to COSing PCVs who left Kazakhstan with very favorable views of their service.  Peace Corps is, more than anything else you will do, what you make of it.  Difficult sites, host families, directors, and counterparts abound in Peace Corps around the world. The question for the Volunteer is “what will you do given all those challenges to make a difference?”  Peace Corps is here to do the most we can given the situation we confront.  I encourage you all to approach your service with that in mind.  Staff is here to support you as best they can, but at the end of the day, and at the end of your service, what you do, how you approach your work, whether you have a solutions-orientated attitude or use deficit based approach, is up to you.  Likewise, your “success” as a Volunteer.

For most of you, you will only be Peace Corps Volunteers once, seize the opportunity.  You’ll have the rest of your life to hang out with Americans, to watch American TV and movies, and to drink (better) beer.  You only have two years to Gosti, drink chai, get to know people from the very unique cultures of Kazakhstan, help the young people of Kazakhstan, and to seize all the unique opportunities that are yours alone as PCVs.

My greatest wish for all of you is that you squeeze all you can out of your time here, in doing so; you’re likely to get and give more than you expect.


Summer Madness

I’m finally catching back my breathe from what felt like, a lifetime of camp. I’m also happy that WordPress is no longer being blocked in Kazakhstan. The reasons behind the initial block are not exactly clear, and I dare to say that they may never be. There’s been a lot going on with the government and the other volunteers in country; all of it is complicated, much of it saddening, but all I can really do is focus on my own work and keep moving forward.

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Before I left for Peace Corps, I remember thinking how strange it would be to turn a year older while overseas.

**Now, here I’ll rewind just a bit to explain to you how different birthday customs are in Kazakhstan: the most obvious being that birthdays are all on you. If you want people to celebrate, you rent a room at a cafe, order dinner, buy drinks and orchestrate your band of merriment.**

I didn’t want any big fuss about my birthday; instead, I had a quiet celebration the night before. The other volunteers and I went to one of our favorite restaurants, they sang happy birthday to me and I drank some champagne while watching a movie. It was all I really wanted. So when I shipped off to camp the next day, I reminded myself not to be surprised when no one from my work remembered. I spent the night hiding in a tent, listening to the lightening/thunder/rain storm. I munched on raw, instant noodles and looked forward to sleeping in early so that I could avoid the mosquitoes. And if you’re scrunching your nose at the thought of eating raw, instant noodles, it’s pretty good; don’t knock it ’til you try it.

I won’t dwell too much on the army of mosquitoes that made my life a living hell; I mean, all I can say is that scars are still healing and I hope they’ll be completely gone before the month is through.  Camp itself was fun and packed with a variety of lessons. The kids learned about the food pyramid and healthy eating; yoga; drug and alcohol awareness; general and oral hygiene. I had a great time spending my days with all the campers; they were wonderful and a true joy to be around and I don’t say that because I have to, either. They were helpful, smart, sometimes bratty but always funny. The food was definitely nothing to brag about for the first and second season because it was mostly meager soup and bread that tasted like tap water. I knew that by the time the third season rolled around, I’d take over and do my best to at least improve the diet of the camp. The time came and I was greeted by two generous Peace Corps volunteers from Aktobe and Shymkent. Kodi and Clara had made the trek to Pavlodar to help with the healthy lifestyles training of the camp. Unfortunately, Kodi had some personal matters to attend to shortly after arriving and he headed home a few days later. Clara, on the other hand, was able to stay and she became our official yoga instructor for the rest of camp.

Alright, so maybe we didn’t make any kids stand on their heads. It was more like the second photo.

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I really made the effort to make the camp’s diet healthier, to coincide with the camp’s theme. So while the kids were still eating bread that tasted like tap water, we were happy to include fruits, more vegetables, yogurts, cheese, meats and the occasional juices. I would regularly sit down with my coworkers and list out the popular  foods the kids loved eating — mostly any and all fruits, as well as yogurts  and juice. Then we would call the office to order these foods and other  essentials. Seeing how much the children loved the food made it  extremely fulfilling to be able to feed them all.

        

The trainings went well, although one of the most surprising moments happened during the oral hygiene portion of training. Clara and I decided to talk about flossing; as a part of this lesson, I gave each child a small piece of dental floss. Some just sat and sucked on the minty fresh string, but the majority were really interested in what we were saying. Clara asked how many of them had never flossed before that day, and an astounding majority raised their hands. We had roughly 40-45 children in the group, and nearly every child raised his or her hand. Mind you, the ages of the group ranged from 9 to 17. I know parents in the States who regularly floss their toddlers teeth, so to see so many raising their hands was very surprising.

After the lesson, we held a relay race, where children had to demonstrate washing their hands and brushing their teeth. We wanted a few other tasks but the logistics didn’t end up working out. Of course, kids will be kids, and some had a great time getting carried away.

       

We also conducted a generous number of team building activities. At camp, that’s one of the most valuable aspects of attending; it’s what forges friendships and makes a team closer. Below are a couple shots of the Human Knot. Every camp needs to do this activity at least once.

       

We also did an exercise called “Toxic River,” which basically required a team effort to make it from one side of the river to the other by only stepping on the white pieces of paper (referred to as the stepping stones).

      

 

Every day carried a theme along with it. There is no way to be politically correct about this, but one of the days was Indian day. They dressed up like Native Americans from the Apache tribe but then again, there were also Mayan and Aztec tribes. It was actually one of the best themes because the kids got the most creative with the activities.

All in all, the camp was extremely successful and it would not have been possible without the generous donations from my family and friends. Again, I extend a heartfelt thanks to all of you.  As a closing to this post, I’ll add a really poorly shot video I took on the night of our final campfire. And what makes the ending awesome is my camera dying about 10 seconds before the end of the song, haha. But I think it gives you a little window into what camp was like and how the Russian language is now such an integral part of my life. The song is about friendship and warm feelings and all that good stuff, and it’s a Scout favorite. I also find its tune quite catchy, but that might only be because I heard it nearly every night.


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