Heating at school

December 25, 2008

My school is well prepared for the winter. At least that’s what I thought. As I believe I have mentioned, there is an electricity shortage in Kyrgyzstan. This means that the schools who heat themselves with electricity are going to be shut down for two months, from the end of December until the beginning of March. This is much longer than the usual two week long vacation from the very end of December and ending in mid January. It was predicted that my school would be shut down for a month, from the end of December until the first of February.

My school heats with coal. Yay, crisis averted! Wrong. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan. It seems that even the suggested solution to my school’s heating problem will not solve my school’s heating problem. You see, the heating system has three parts. Part one is the giant furnace where coal is burned. Part two is the water that is heated up by the coal. Part three is the pump that moves the hot water from the furnace room and makes it circulate throughout the school. Unfortunately, part three requires electricity.

Now I’d like to tell you all about my past week at school. There was no heating. None. Luckily the weather has been unseasonably warm, getting up into the high 50s in the afternoon each day, and only getting down to around thirty four or so at night. This means that the school is not actually freezing. There is still some residual heat left over from the previous afternoon to keep it slightly warmer than the thirty four degrees it is outside when I walk to school in the mornings. I have to admit, walking into school I can actually tell the very slight difference in temperature, and while not balmy, does feel nice (then I start to teach and get cold).

Why was my school without heat? Well, on Monday, it was because the electricity was not turned on until eight thirty in the morning, and by then it’s too late to start the furnace because by the time it’s warmed up school is pretty much over. Tuesday and Wednesday lacked heat because there was no water in the heating system. I find this hard to believe. The water has never been turned off in my village next to Bishkek (I know many people in other villages who have had their water turned off for weeks or even a month at a time). So how could there be no water at my school? I have no idea. Well, that’s not true, I have ideas, but I’ve decided not to speculate publicly.

When there is no heat, classes are shortened to thirty minutes each. This is awful and yet fantastic. It’s awful because the students will not learn anything that day. I feel that thirty minutes is not enough time to thoroughly explain anything to a class. So the students pretty much learn nothing. That’s the negative aspect. The positive is that I get to go home early. And since the power always goes out from 1pm until about 6pm, I thoroughly enjoy getting home in time to enjoy an hour or two of electricity. I could do crazy things like turn on my laptop without thinking about how much battery I am using. My electric room heater can be turned on so I’m not forced to wear a ski jacket in my room (this only happened when it was down between twenty and thirty-five for about a week). Or, of course, I can nap or hand wash dirty clothes, neither of which require electricity.

Will we ever get constant electricity? Not anytime soon. Kyrgyzstan just recently fired the minister of energy because he was, and probably still is, incompetent. But that overlooks the real problem of this country. And that is corruption. Unless the rampant corruption is stopped, there will never be a highly functional government in place. This energy crisis may not have been totally avoidable, but it never should have gotten to such crisis levels. It’s predicted that electricity will soon be limited to four hours a day, and that if it’s not used to heat homes, it’ll still run out by the end of February at best. While I choose to not believe that this country will be without electricity by the end of February, it is a scary thought. And for those of you saying, “buy a generator,” I wish. There’s no way I can afford a four hundred dollar generator plus fuel on a living allowance of less than two hundred per month.

On the bright side I am an American, and can choose to go home at any time should I find life here unbearable (I can quit and get a free plane ticket home at any point). While I do not feel even the slightest desire to go home (sorry Mom and Dad), it’s comforting to know that I have a way to get out regardless of the situation here (hurray US gov emergency evacuation plans). It stinks for the locals though, they have to live through whatever mess their government makes. Hopefully it won’t get too bad.

My Break: part II

November 11, 2008

 

So I only talked about one of my nights out, but that’s not all I did.  I also went guesting.  Guesting, as it sounds, is simply going to visit other people as a guest.  I call it guesting because in Russian we call it “гocти” (gocti), but you put the verb “to go” in front of it (well, that’s what I say, and if it’s grammatically incorrect, it won’t be the first time I’ve screwed up the Russian language and sure as hell won’t be the last).

 

I love going guesting.  The first time I went, we (my friend and I) visited my friend’s pre-service training Russian teacher.  Her teacher is both a really nice woman and completely in love with my friend.  I think that if my friend were up for adoption, her teacher would absolutely take her in.  Anyway, guesting in Kyrgyzstan is a really big deal.  In this culture age and then gender are the characteristic that really define how important and respected a person is in the community.  John (hypothetical Kyrgyz man) may be a complete lush, but if he’s an old lush, so people will treat him with respect even when he’s blitzed out of his mind.  This is because while it’s shameful for anyone to be that drunk, it’s worse to disrespect your elders who, because they’re older than you, automatically know more than you do about everything.  In the most traditional villages, I think that what an old man says is law.  And when there are lots of people in a room, where you sit, when you’re served and what you’re served is all age dependent (if a man and a woman are of the same age, the man is always first…if there are two men of equal age, I don’t know, maybe a battle to the death occurs).

 

Even higher than old folks are guests.  The guest always sits in the most comfortable place, eats the best food, and is doted on in any way possible.  This is only the case when the guest is only there for one meal, if the guest is going to be there for a while he or she is only treated as a guest for the first meal.  And if he or she’s a regular visitor, then the guest treatment no longer occurs.  What can I say, the regular guest becomes kind of like family in this sense.  But I digress.

 

Guesting is also awesome because of the quality and quantity of food served.  People go out of their way to buy and make your favorite foods, regardless of cost, in huge quantities just because you’re going to be there for a meal.  When we went guesting at Rahat’s (teacher) house, she had cashews (400s/kilo), pistachios (450s/kilo), raisins (90s/kilo), tons of cookies, assorted candies, and delicious plov.  You may think those prices are cheap, but consider the fact that I make about 6000s per month because I’m supposed to live at the level of most Kyrgyz people, and you realize that buying those expensive nuts and raisins is a big purchase.  Basically, I say in her house for about four hours, three of which I spent constantly eating or nibbling and talking.  Talking was the easy part.

 

The second time I went guesting was to my former host mother’s house (where I lived during pre-service training).  I had spoken with my host brother, Said, and said I was coming.  But when he told her, she didn’t believe him.  What can I say, I kinda understand why she felt that way, he is a bit of a hooligan.  But regardless, when I arrived she had fresh homemade bread (soooo delicious), butter, homemade raspberry, strawberry and apple preserves, and was making pilmeni.  Pilmeni are tortellini, stuffed with ground beef mixed with onion and garlic (sometimes).  This was one of my favorite meals during my time with her, and she said that next time I drop by she’ll make me plov (a delicious dish that combines oil, finely diced carrots, rice, and lamb).  I can’t wait to go back.

 

As you may have imagined, each time I went guesting I returned home so full that no dinner was required; and in the case of my former host mother, breakfast was also skipped to prepare for the great feast that lay ahead of me.  It’s kinda funny, I talked to my current host grandmother about the past week I had off, and she said she thought I was starving myself all week.  Then I explained to her that no, I was eating in Bishkek with friends a lot and going guesting.  Apparently someone saw me and thought I had lost weight (during just that week), I disagree with that assessment (although I have lost weight since coming to this country, though I don’t know how much).  I ate more that week than I can recall eating since leaving my former host family, although it’s not like I eat much less now (just less meat because my host granny loves duck and gross looking fish while I do not). 

My Break

November 11, 2008

Wow, my break was awesome.  I definitely needed the time off from the students.  When I was in school, I always thought about how happy I was to get a break from getting up early, studying and all the other stuff that goes along with being a student.  However, I never gave a moment’s thought to how badly the teachers also needed a break from me.  Working with kids is a giant pain in the butt.  Besides having to make lesson plans every day, and not just lessons plans, but plans that include how to keep the students both interested and learning, you have to keep them all in line too.  Now it’s not that every one of them needs constant supervision, it’s just that the ones who do are so difficult to deal with that they slowly wear you down.

 

Without students to tire me out, I thoroughly enjoyed every hour of every day of my vacation.  It started off with a triple birthday/Halloween/wedding anniversary party in Bishkek.  All the other volunteers living in Chui Oblast (an oblast is basically a state) a few volunteers from other oblasts and I rented out an apartment in Bishkek for the night of Saturday November first.  It was a beautiful apartment.  It had a pretty nice kitchen that included a stove and oven, a shower with hot water (which I have, but pretty much nobody else did), a toilet (as opposed to our outhouses), a large bedroom, an even bigger living room and a porch with large glass windows (openable).  This apartment was also nicely located near some clubs, fine stores which sell tasty beverages and good quality restaurants (decent American and other international foods…that means non-Kyrgyz cuisine).

 

The night started off at a Turkish restaurant whose name I have forgotten.  For the hungry yet cheap traveler, I don’t think you can beat the deliciousness and prices.  To the tune of about $150som (at current conversion rates, that’s about $4usd) you can purchase a delicious kebab made of chicken, beef or a combination.  This kebab comes with a small Turkish salad, pita bread and some other small side dish.  However, if you don’t want a kebab, this is not the restaurant for you; they serve kebabs and kebabs, period.

 

After delicious kebabs came the time to dress up and drink back at the apartment.  I dressed up as a man who we will call Jim.  Jim is a tall, skinny Russian gentleman who works at our headquarters in Bishkek.  Besides being a great guy (which, in case you didn’t know, I have in spades…bridge anyone?), Jim is the worst chain smoker I have ever met in my life.  During our training, he would regularly speak to all volunteers in a big group and each time would put his hand gently over his throat and say, “excuse me, guys, I can’t talk very loudly because I have this thing with my throat.”  So, to imitate him, all I had to do was grab someone’s empty pack of cigarettes and borrow an un-smoked one to hold, and say the exact phrase above before I spoke to anyone at the party.

 

There were more creative costumes than my Jim.  One guy wore a sign made from cardboard like paper that said “Batmaн,” and he had a little Zorro like mask made out of the same material.   Note: In the Cyrillic alphabet “B” is a “V,” so Batman became Vatmaн.  Also, when written in all caps, the word in Cyrillic looks identical to English except for the Russian “n” which is written “н.”  This means nothing to you unless you speak Russian and know that vatman is what the cardboard like paper that he made his costume is called in Russian.  Quite a clever costume, he said that nobody got it, even the Russians at his work (until he told them it was written in Russian not English, at which point they laughed uproariously).  We also enjoyed it, but he had to tell all of us what vatman was in order for us to enjoy his costume.  Another guy didn’t dress up, so the girls put a whole ton of makeup on him.  He turned into the creepiest looking clown I have ever seen, and he was so good at the “IT” smile (the movie IT).

 

After the Halloween party was the club.  It’s called Golden Bull, and it’s free to get in if you’re a foreigner.  Why, you might ask?  Well, because there are enough contractors, UN folks, US embassy employees and people from the American armed services (we have an airbase at the Manas airport) who make tons of money (by Kyrgyz standards) that they forgot that we volunteers make next to nothing.  So we pregame on cheap vodka (how does $50som for a half liter sound?) and mixers, then go to the club to dance dance dance.  It’s a really good time, except that we don’t go until midnight and return home exhausted at about four in the morning only to sleep on an uncomfortable floor for the next five or so hours.  So basically, a night out in Bishkek volunteer style (15ish people to an apartment, bring your own sleeping bag and pillow), means a really fun night, but no sleep whatsoever.

Grades

October 31, 2008

 

So Saturday is the last day of the first quarter.  In case you didn’t know, the school week is six days long, and most people who don’t work in schools also work six days a week.  The six day work week is a holdover from Soviet times when everybody worked six days per week because, as I’ve been told, “there was so much work to do.”  I’m not sure whether there was actually that much work for them to do, but I guess that’s really not important.

 

Anyway, Saturday is the last day of the marking period, so that means it’s time to decide final grades.  Maybe I should begin by talking about the test I created for the students of my classes.   I teach fifth, seventh, two eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades.  So that means I have seven different groups of students.  This sounds like a ton of work, but you’re thinking like an American.  Each of these classes only meet twice a week, except for the fifth and seventh grade classes which I have three times a week each.  Each class has around twelve to twenty students in it, and except for the fifth and eleventh grade classes I have been teaching the exact same thing to each class.  Basically, all the students know English equally badly, but the fifth graders are too young to settle down and pay attention when I tried teaching them like the other classes, and the eleventh grade class I teach with a different teacher (I team teach every class with my counterpart, a local English teacher).

 

My exam is not difficult.  Of course I would say that, I made it.  But really, honestly, it’s not.  The only things that have been taught to the students over the past four weeks are the verb “to be” (am, are, is), articles (a, an), negation with “to be” (am not, are not, is not), and conjunctions/contractions (I’m, I’m not, aren’t, isn’t, it’s, he’s, you’re, etc…).  This is not a lot to learn, and even though the students were told (in good Russian) what to do on the test, I still didn’t take off points when they didn’t use a contraction when that was the whole point of the section.  Every section in the test had an explanation of what to do in Russian, an example of how to do the problems in that section, and then the questions themselves.  All questions were in the same format and used the same vocab we had been practicing every class on the blackboard and for homework. 

 

The students cheated on, and bombed the, test.  Two rules were made clear to all students at the beginning of the test, one, no talking, two, look only at your own test.  I then proceeded to stand in front of the class and watch for cheating.  Maybe they’re idiots, but turning around to look at the person behind you is kinda obvious.  And the excuse, “I was just looking, I didn’t write any of it down,” it’s pretty worthless.  Yea, I know you didn’t write anything down, I took your test before you had time to.  My other favorite was, “but I didn’t know I couldn’t use my book,” when I caught him reading through his text book for answers.  My response was, “then you’re stupid.”  Yes, I did tell him that, and it was fair. 

 

Even with cheating, or maybe because I caught or scared most of them, grades were poor.  A quick note on grades: they are done one through five, with a five corresponding to an A and a one to an F.  When I graded the tests, many were blank, others were filled with a, an, are or is put at random in blank spaces where answers were supposed to go, a few students actually did do very well.  There were a total of ninety-five points available on the test, one point per blank (ex: __ Africa ­­­­­­_is_ _a_ continent. Question value, 3 pts).  My grading guidelines were as follows: 95-75 = 5, 74-60 = 4, 60-40 = 3, 39-20 = 2, 19-0 = 1.  So even with a 42% (40/95), a passing grade, at least half the students in every single class failed my exam.  Many of the kids had scores in the low thirties and twenties, while there were a few very clever students (probably about 20%) who managed to get scores of 15/95 and below.  I wanted to fail all of them, they earned it.

 

Unfortunately, the Kyrgyz Educational System does not allow failure.  No, students are not punished for never taking notes in class and not paying attention, they’re just not allowed to fail.  I was told by my counterpart that we are not allowed to give out more than two grades of two per quarter, and are not allowed to fail a single student for the academic year.  From what I’ve heard, universities here are not better, except for the American University of Central Asia.  So when marking down grades, it didn’t matter how the students did on the one and only test of the marking period, we could only fail two of them when more than half of each class deserved to fail. 

 

Had I been given the grade book, I would have failed them.  Although, the way it works here is that after failing most of my students, the principal and vice principals would probably come and told me I couldn’t do that.  I’d stand firm.  These kids really earned their grades.  Eventually they’d give up and let me give the grades I knew the students deserved, only to go and change the grades themselves when I wasn’t around.  Regardless of whether the grades I gave were accurate reflections of the students’ work, those students may not fail.  They may be completely unable to think and devoid of all knowledge when they graduate, but by god they will graduate, and graduate on time. 

 

Am I upset about this?  Yes.  While I was warned about this while in training, actually seeing it and being unable to do much of anything about it, is so much worse than hearing about it.  I took a stand on one student in particular because during the test she had told other people answers.  Then I took her test away.  She continued to tell people answers even though I’d already taken away her test.  I then invite her to leave the class.  She declines my generous offer.  In the end, I give her an offer she can’t refuse: I throw her book bag into the hallway.  This is a big deal.  While people here shower about once or twice a week in winter and re-wear the same clothes for a week at a time, the ground is definitely too dirty to put your bag on or to sit on.  In a nut shell, it was as if I’d thrown all her school stuff in the school dumpster.  She sure left class quickly after that.

 

Well, I guess the good news is that because it’s the end of the quarter, I get a week off next week.  And after seeing first hand how grades are given out, I need the break.

Wet Wipes, cleaning aid extraordinaire

October 7, 2008

September 24, 2008

 

My morning and lunch were pretty normal today.  I got up at 6:40am to get ready for school.  In the US this meant that I would shower and (very occasionally) shave as fast as possible, eat a bowl of cereal and run out the door.  Here it’s pretty much impossible to take a shower in the morning unless you wish to get up an hour ahead of time to turn on the water heater and then go back to bed.  Oh, and you have to put a space heater in the bathroom because otherwise it’ll be a fresh fifty or so degrees (that’s ten above what it was this morning).  So getting up here means throwing on warm clothes very quickly and then going into the kitchen (which is already warm because my host grandmother is fasting for Ramadan and gets up very early to make herself breakfast).

 

Most of my morning is spent making my breakfast.  For the past few days this has consisted of fried potatoes (peeled, chopped and cooked last night), a potato pirogue, bread slathered with peanut butter and homemade jam (hoooo baby!!!), and, of course, tea.  It’ warming everything up and then cleaning up afterwards that takes the most time.  Yes, I do miss my usual Cheerios with milk, but cereal here is expensive (by their standards) and I have a single bag of powdered milk which I have yet to mix with filtered water and try. 

 

School is nothing much yet.  For the first two weeks I am only allowed to observe, which for the previous two days meant I was pretty much bored to tears.  Today, however, she decided that I needed to meet the students, so I spent all my classes surrounded by 5th, 7th, 9th, and 10th graders (though the tenth grade boys were less than interested…puberty).  Basically, I go grilled about my family, where I am from, what I like about Kyrgyzstan, name some differences between the two countries etc… I assure you, it was refreshing and fun after sitting in the back of the classroom, although when I observed I did come to the conclusion that these kids, even the most advanced, know little more than the basic greetings.  My counterpart, a local English teacher who just moved to this school recently, and I have a lot of work to do, and I’m not sure how interested the students will be despite our efforts.

 

Lunch was delicious.  I made myself soup from premade (homemade) broth with potatoes and onions, fried up some more potatoes and ate a pirogue with peanut butter! So my day was normal up to this point, in fact, everything seemed normal until about four in the afternoon when I started to smell smoke. Nope, not a fire, just the soup broth being made by my host grandma which I was supposed to have taken off the burner about, oh, two and a half hours previously (I am laughing as I write that… two and a half hours).  Yea, so, I open the door to the kitchen, and it’s nothing but smoke.  I see the pot, it’s smoking like a chimney, but nothing is on fire.  Step one: turn off burner, Step two: take smoking pot out of the kitchen, Step three: open every openable window and door, Step Four: commence pot cleaning.

 

Pot cleaning sucked.  There was a nice couple millimeter thick layer of black goo on the bottom of the pot, and since there was a duck leg in the pot when everything went to hell, it was really sticky.  Note:  I do not like duck at all because of its large fat layer just below the skin… this same layer made this pot just awful to clean.  In an entry that I did not post about cleaning practices in country, I noted that my new host grams does not use soap to clean her dishes; I did not have cleaning soap.  My weapons: water (the universal solvent)a spatula (sturdy), sharp knife (pointy tip… was useless), steel wool (nowhere near as good as the stuff stateside), brillo pad (not sure if this is the right name, it’s like steel wool but plastic… I think), wet wipes (God’s gift to humanity).  I fill the still hot, but no longer smoking pot, with water and begin to scrape away with the spatula.  Semi success, I get off some thick layers of goo.  The brillo cleans the sides, the steel wool kinda finishes off the bottom, the sharp knife sits uselessly by my side and the wet wipes are just waiting to get to work.  So, wet wipes are fantastic at cleaning off thick grease layers, especially when there is no soap with which to wash and no hot water.  The lid of the pot had a nice layer of duck fat on it, and with just one wet wipe it was clean, maybe cleaner than that lid had been in years (speculation).  I also found that they were good for scrubbing the last little bits of grease out of the inside of the pot and for cleaning my hands (which made me look like a mechanic).

 

After all my cleaning this afternoon, I’m kinda glad I burnt the broth.  My host grams had told me that I’d get to eat the duck leg that was going to have been boiling or sitting in that pot for a long time.  I had told her in no uncertain terms that I would not because I don’t really like duck.  This statement seemed to shock her a bit as the only animals besides her two dogs are ducks for eating during winter.  Perhaps she really loves duck meant.  Oh, and besides the avoidance of duck for dinner, I had something to do all afternoon!  Being new in the town and not having to lesson plan means that I have an abundance of free time, and while I have been reading like crazy, it’s nice to shake things up a bit.

 

p.s. it seems I have almost gone vegetarian because of my distaste for duck, any reader thoughts on how I can get that needed protein?

How Famous Am I?

September 10, 2008

Here in Kyrgyzstan, I’m kind of a rock star.  In my first week in country, I got interviewed by a local newspaper.  Then on Independence Day I go interviewed by Kyrgyzstan’s only TV station.  What can I say, maybe my stunning good looks have just made me the perfect interviewee.  Or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that I am an American in their country (a rarity outside of military and diplomatic personnel).  Either way, it’s pretty cool.

 

My newspaper interview was about the Peace Corps and what they do in Kyrgyzstan.  I got asked typical questions such as, “did I pick Kyrgyzstan to serve in?” and “am I worried about all the crime in the country?”  These questions are so easy to answer it’s like treading water, especially the one about crime.  Crime is everywhere, if you go down the wrong street or are not somewhere you’ve been before in America you may get robbed.  As for whether I picked Kyrgyzstan, I say that the Peace Corps does not allow its potential volunteers to pick where they go.  I just kinda shrug off all the questions, and I have to admit, it’s fun.

 

My TV interview was done on Kyrgyz Independence day, August 31st.  The previous day I had arrived to visit for the weekend the school I would be working in starting around September 21st, and the administration asked me to take part in the Independence Day celebration that would be taking place the following morning at 10am.  Now, in typical Kyrgyz fashion (so I hear, this is the first time I experienced it), the ceremony did not begin until 12:30pm, which was frustrating since I had planned to go into Bishkek to meet up with some other volunteers.  Anyway,  watched as some of the kids of the school sang traditional songs, did traditional dances, played traditional instruments and then gave a brief speech in Russian after the local government officials had said their piece.  The ceremony itself was not taped.

 

After the ceremony was plov, bread, tea and vodka time!  Hurray!  I politely refused the vodka (and was surprisingly not pushed on it) and ate only sparingly of the food because I didn’t know how it had been prepared.  This little repast ended after pretty much everybody in the room (who could be pushed into doing it) had given a toast.  Now it was TV time!

 

My interview was short.  They wanted me to say my name, who I worked for and then talk about what I saw during the Independence Day celebrations.  So I said my name, who I worked for and commenced to talk about how I saw the same levels of patriotism, love of country and pride here on Kyrgyz Independence Day as I saw back home in America.  I have to admit, the celebrations weren’t exactly the same.  I know that for every Independence Day I can remember (while living at home) I’ve woken up to LOUD Souza marches (you’ve probably heard them, and they are very patriot sounding), and had the day pretty much commence as normal with a barbeque and beer somewhere in there.  So I’m not sure how much patriotism and love of country can be found in my typical 4th of July celebrations, but I guess it may have been at about the same level as their typical music/dance followed by vodka shots and plov.  So happy Independence Day Kyrgyzstan, you’ve had a great 17 years so far.

Quadruple Post!

August 28, 2008

August 7, 2008

 

Bathing

 

I bathe pretty much everyday.  Some may be thinking, “so what… I do too,” however, it’s not quite that simple.  We don’t have running hot water, we only have a single water spicket for the house, and (luckily) unlike some other families in the village, we have not had our water turned off for days at a time (at least not while I’ve been here).  Three of the other volunteers in the same village have had the joy of walking out to one of the communal wells to pump water and then lug buckets of it back to their respective houses.  This would not be fun in the blazing heat of the Kyrgyz summer.

 

There are two ways to bathe (that I have seen) here.  One is the sun shower, or in Russian, душ (pronounced douche).  Yup, it’s pronounced just like the infamous cleaning tool for women.  The sun shower is fantastic.  Imagine a 2’ x 2’ shower stall, now make the walls of said stall out of leather, the floor out of wooden slats covered with a plastic mat (sagging a bit) and have this stall maybe six inches above ground level, with a small six inch deep square hole underneath it.  On top of this glorious box is a large black barrel out of the bottom of which comes a very short hose and a spickt (the hose and spicket go directly through the roof of the shower and into the stall itself).  The water that we pump into the barrel above is done through simple water pressure, and the water itself is heated by the sun during the day. 

 

The sun shower may sound dirty to some, but let me tell you, this thing is fantastic.  When you’ve gone an entire day in the 95 degree heat without any A/C in any buildings, taking crowded bus rides to other cities, drinking hot tea and eating hot food, you’ll love it.  And thinking about them from an efficiency standpoint, there’s no beating them.  There’s no drainage system required (or in place in my town), all waste water goes into the ground below the shower (this may or may not be environmentally friendly).  And the water is heated by the sun, which is very important due to the rising cost of fuels such as gasoline, coal and propane.  I know for a fact that coal, the cheapest of the three, is beyond the reach (economically speaking) of most village folks, and therefore, the majority of the country.

 

If you’re looking for a morning shower equivalent, I give you the баня (pronounced baña, from here on out, “bana”).  The bana is not a shower.  It’s really more of a sauna.  The room is rectangular, about 8’ wide by 6’ deep.  On the left side of the room is a two foot wide by three feet tall by six feet deep box shaped thing.  I’m really not sure what to call it.  In this box are two large, maybe two feet in diameter and one foot deep woks.  Well, they’re not actually woks, they’re just shaped like the part of the wok in which you cook.  One of the woks is filled with water and the other has a bunch of large rocks in it.  Now to heat the room, a fire is lit in the rest of that box thing on the left side of the bana.  This both heats up the room like a sauna, but also heats the water and rocks (onto which water can be thrown to create a steam room).  In my particular bana, there is also a picnic table on which to sit, and as in all banas, there are basins of cold water.  The hot water and the cold water is then mixed in a basin to get the desired temperature.

 

During the winter, the bana is the only way to get really clean.  I’ve heard of volunteers who bought small boiling plates on which to heat water (for semi-daily sponge baths) and others who have just not bathed in between banas (which I hear are once weekly).  In my household, we burn trash to heat up the bana (there is no garbage collection, so this is very efficient), and right now the family is in the process of collecting and storing wood etc… for use in the winter.  We also have a huge pile of cow dung in the backyard.  I assume that will be used to heat something this winter, I just don’t know what.

 

So that’s bathing.  I use the sun shower almost every day, and love it.  I’ve taken a few banas when the trash pile has built up, and they’re pretty awesome, especially when you decide to throw some water on the rocks and just melt in the steam for a while.  Oh, and don’t drop the soap.  While you won’t get greeted prison style when bent over, you will get a bar of soap that both cleanses and scrubs your skin.

 


August 7, 2008

 

Happy Anniversary

 

Hurray!  Today is my one month anniversary in country. 

 

I can now hold a basic conversation in Russian with my family.  I can talk about ages, jobs, hobbies, favorite sports, names, ages, where they live, water language they speak and tons of other stuff around the house.  I’m not so great at having philosophical debates, although I suppose if I knocked someone in the teeth they’re understand my highly nuanced position on the topic at hand.  Sign language is still necessary for some things, but I can pretty much always say what I want/need/am thinking without issue (despite grammatical flaws).

 

An example: My host mother’s sister came over to our house.  She was pretty upset because someone who had come to visit her from Turkey (my host mom is Turkish) had lost her luggage or it was stolen.  My host mother and she were talking about how to get the luggage back.  It was clear neither of them were frequent fliers, and since my host father (who works in Russia and so travels a lot) was out, I was definitely the most knowledgeable person I the room.  Well, there was no way I was going to be able to explain to them what to do in Russian, so out came the props.  I went to my room, grabbed a suitcase I brought from home, a plane ticket, and then made the tags they put on bags when they’re checked and the tag they give each flier as a receipt.  I proceeded to mime giving your bag to the airport, and then picking it up after wards.  I then showed them how there is security here in Kyrgyzstan that requires you to show your receipt and verify that you are not stealing luggage before taking it from the luggage pickup area.  And when they asked whether the luggage was “in the computer” I told them yes, that the airport should be able to associate every piece of luggage with the passenger who checked it. 

 

So I got my point across using pantomiming and the words “airport, give bags to airport, you have number,  bag has number, you show number to him in airport, he looks at numbers.”  I don’t know airport specific Russian, and I don’t plan on learning any until the next time I get on an airplane (which won’t be for at least the next five months, that’s company policy). 

 

So today was my one month anniversary, but it was really just another day.  I had language classes all morning, technical training on how to teach in the afternoon and then I took a nap and studied after that.  Oh, and I watched my host brother feed the dogs (who want to rip out my throat, because that’s just how they’re bred) and observed as my host mom milked our cow.  I think I like cows.  They’re relaxed.  I’m pretty relaxed.  Maybe cows and I can be friends. 

 

Note: Let me know if anyone knows whether English or Russian is harder to learn (I’ve heard it go both ways from locals here, so I’d like to know if anyone is certain).

 


August 25, 2008

 

My Host Family (in brief)

 

I live with a host family here in country.  The father is Tartar, the mother is Turkish and they have sons aged 16 and 17.  It may seem strange to tell their ethnicities since both are definitely white and live in Kyrgyzstan, but here in country, ethnicity is a big deal.  My host mother does not call herself Kyrgyz, those are the asian peoples who have lived in this general region for a long time.  Although just because the person is Asian in appearance doesn’t mean he or she is Kyrgyz.  The individual might also be Dungan (Muslim Chinese), Uzbek, Korean or any of many other Asian peoples living in this country.  So my host mother is Turkish, but has lived in Kyrgyzstan her whole life (I think).  My host father is Tartar and holds a Russian passport.  He is not Russian, he is Tartar. My host brothers are obviously a mix of Turkish and Tartar, but I’m pretty sure that they technically take on the fathers ethnicity despite the fact that they both look much more Turkish than Tartar.

 

While I’ve been living with this family, my host father has only been in the house for about three weeks.  Since the collapse of the USSR, wages have declined, jobs have left the country along with the many highly educated professionals who used to live here, the price of food stuffs has increased dramatically, buildings are decaying and life is good.  My host father is well educated.  He is a veterinarian.  Unfortunately the work that he can find here is little, and the pay is bad (considering his skills).  Although he’s not the only person who is poorly paid, I’ve heard that doctors are usually bribed by patients (despite the free socialized medicine system) because they actually can’t live off their government salaries.  This also goes for teachers.  So the teachers are leaving , the doctors are taking flight, and my host father only comes back because his family is here (otherwise I believe that he would have left Kyrgyzstan for good a while back). 

 

From what I knew  of him during his short time here, my host father is strict, he is an upright citizen, he is beloved by all our neighbors (Note: as best I can tell, neighbor means anyone living in the same village) and he is feared/respected by his sons.  Every morning I get up around 7:15am, and he’s usually already been up and working since around 6 or 6:30.  Around 7:30 or 8am it’s always time to yell at the lazy children to get up.  Whenever I saw my host father, he was either working around the house or entertaining guests (they seemed to line up).  Except for the whole get up early bit, which would have killed me at ages 16 and 17, he’s an all around good guy.

 

My host mother is a plump five foot tall woman with the loudest voice ever.  She is always laughing and joking around with me.  While I refuse to share some of the jokes we tell each other because they are usually inappropriate, but we also talk about how to manage her teenage sons.  I find that having just been one, I know how to manipulate them indirectly by telling my mama what not to do.  An example.  Sunday morning she was yelling at them to get up at 9am to eat breakfast, take the cow out to pasture etc… Someone showed up at the gate door, banging loudly and ringing the bell, asking for one of them.  My host mama starts to get up, and I tell her not to.  It’s so easy, we’ve just let our visitor wake the kids up and force them to move about.  Which leads me to a quick side note about knocking on doors here; people never seem to quit.  I’ve never been somewhere that after 5 minutes of knocking loudly and yelling at the front door, they haven’t given up.  In fact, I don’t think I have yet heard anybody give up, they just get louder and louder.  Anyway, my host mom and I talk a lot, joke a lot, laugh a lot.  And laughter is important when life is so tough.

 

Gender roles determine that women in this society do all the house work.  They cook and clean up afterwards, they wash, hang and iron the clothes, they clean the house, they make the winter jams and pickles and sometimes they also work.  Oh, and if you happen to be the women who has most recently married into the man’s family, you are expected to do all that stuff for everyone you live with (the newlyweds usually move into the husbands’ parents’ house).

 

My host brothers are pretty similar.  They both don’t really listen to their mom when their dad isn’t around, but at the end of the day they do what they’re told.  I talk to my younger brother more than the older one, probably because the older one goes out at night to (this is supposition) chase girls, maybe drink a little, and otherwise do typical teenage things.  So my other host brother and I will usually watch a little TV together.  Today I shared a whole bunch of music with my younger host brother.  Bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Incubus, Dave Matthews were of no interest to him, while other artists such as Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and other pop stars were to his liking.  While I could not satisfy his needs for pop music except for the newer Justin Timberlake, I did give him his first taste of alternative music, even though he didn’t like it.  Oh well, people here only like the pop music cause it has good beat.

 

My brothers take care of all the heavy labor around the house.  When their father was around, he would also do that kind of work, but with him gone, there’s nobody else to do it.  So I’ve seen my brothers hauling and chopping wood for the winter, mucking out the cow stable, wrestling the cows into the stable (I’ve helped, those big guys are strong), and harvesting the garden (mostly potatoes).  Watching and occasionally helping them with the heavy labor has made it exceptionally clear to me why farm boys are so strong.  Forcing uncooperative animals to do your bidding all day long is not easy.

 


August 26, 2008

 

My Spare Time

 

My spare time is mostly spent studying Russian and talking to my host family, although I do find time to go have a beer with friends and use the internet about once a week.  There are other things I could be doing like reading books, doing crossword puzzles, trying to actually finish a Sudoku or playing video games.  However, I have found that just studying Russian and speaking it has helped me improve my speaking ability dramatically in a short period of time (I’m sure having a great language teacher for four hours a day can’t hurt).  I usually spend about an hour to an hour and a half per day studying vocab, although I don’t study the way people traditionally study.  My studying does not consist of my cloistering myself.  It usually means that I sit in the TV room with one of my host brothers while he watches MTV (I also watch about half the time).  This is definitely the most relaxing way to study, a little Russian and a little rap, Kyrgyzstan’s youth’s favorite American export.

 

Wednesdays are beer and internet days!  After having meetings all day in a nearby large town, I go to the nearest internet café to send my pre-written emails and post my latest blog entries.  This means that if I forget my handy usb, nothing will get posted online and no emails will get much of a response.  I just don’t have time to answer everyone’s emails in an indepth fashion without spending altogether too much time.  After my short time online, it’s time to go get a beer.  This is the time when I bond with trainees (I am still a trainee) who do not live in my village.  Without beer time, I probably wouldn’t know many of them very well, and even with weekly beer outings, people still tend to group together (although everyone is still friendly and open to everyone else… we have to be, we’re all probably going to be together for the next two years). 

 

My only day off is Sunday.  Sometimes I go to other villages to visit friends, other times I just hangout and watch a bootleg DVD we’ve just bought from the local bazaar for six bucks (six bucks is cheap in America, but considering we currently get about $60 per month, it’s a serious purchase).  Last week I watched Walle, and it was awesome (good call Firas).  If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you check it out.  While I have no idea how it would look on the big screen, it seemed pretty good on my 18” laptop screen and my weak sauce speakers.

 


August 27, 2008

 

My Outhouse

 

Trying out different peoples’ outhouses is a fun activity.  At my house, the toilet gets a rank of poor.  My toilet is a sauna when it’s warm and sunny.  It’s a normal looking outhouse; door, three sides and a roof, rectangular, has a wooden floor with a hole in it.  However, there is a major design flaw, namely, the walls are very thin sheet metal.  On warm days, the thing is so hot that when you close the door the flies flee the heat.  This is quite unusual as the flies seem to truly enjoy the strong ammonia scent and warmth of fresh feces.  One volunteer commented (not about my particular toilet) that he had seen a movie in which some actor seduced and had sex with a woman in the outhouse; that scene must’ve been ridiculous.  After spending just five minutes in my outhouse I leave the place smelling like outhouse, and there is nothing sexy about that oh so fresh scent (unless you enjoy the mild scent of stale poop and urine on your clothes).

 

Oh, I almost forgot to talk about the seat.  We have a removable seat.  Imagine a handmade wooden square with four legs attached (not all the exact same length) with a toilet seat on top.  Now imagine that this toilet seat had been wrapped in some sort of burlap or twine from what was most likely once a bag used to carry produce.  Now at the back of this seat, not on the seat itself but on the wooden square just below it, imagine dried poop.  What can I say, it seems that I am not the only person who had some trouble adjusting to the food in this country.  Do I use this seat?  Hell yes!  I either use the seat or squat.  Squatting is quite tiring, and I constantly worry about whether I will miss the whole or fall in.  Neither thought is too comforting, so I stick to my dirty toilet seat.  Yea, and the human waste comes up to about a foot and a half below the wooden floor boards.  Hurray my outhouse!

 

Some of my friends have much nicer outhouses.  My friend Shawn’s outhouse is maybe on the same level as mine, it’s a tossup really.  She has no seat at all, but the walls of her outhouse are wood (cooler), however those wooden boards have nice centimeter wide gaps between them but the poop level is much lower.  Overall, I think mine may be a bit better than hers because there is privacy and a seat, and while you may worry a bit about splash back when using my outhouse, I’ve never had that problem.

 

Jonathan’s outhouse is amazing.  Not only does he have a comfy seat made of some styrofoam type material, but there is a map of the world pasted to the ceiling, a window on the door (one way), a latch (yes, his locks), and you can’t see the poop below!  This is truly a wonderful pooping experience.  And I’ve also heard from my friend Lee, whose house I have not been to, that his NEW outhouse still smells like fresh wood and that the hole under it is so deep (8ft-ish) that there are no worries of splash back and no flies!  I really want to see this outhouse.

 

Then, at the very top of the bathroom/outhouse pyramid are the typical western and the nice porcelain not so western ones.  You all know exactly what a western bathroom looks like.  The porcelain not so western ones are still squatters, but after using the outhouses of private citizens, they’re like little shrines.  These porcelain things can best be described as bedays set in the floor with places to put your feet on either side.  The beday like thing and the foot holds are all one piece of porcelain.  At the one end of the beday you will see a hole with some water in it (it looks exactly like the exit hole in a western toilet… and the water level would be the same as in a western toilet after you have flushed and before it has started to refill again).  I honestly don’t think I can describe how amazing seeing and using one of these things is after spending so much time without.  And ladies, don’t forget TP because it’s almost never provided.  Oh, and germ-a-phobes, bring your own evaporating hand sanitizer because most places don’t have soap or towels either.

 

Saving the worst for last means that now we talk about school outhouses!  These just straight up suck.  You may have thought that the restrooms in your public high schools or fraternity houses were nasty, but they really weren’t that bad.  School outhouses are small cinder block buildings with 5 or so holes lined up in a row.  There are no separators, they are never cleaned, they have window and door openings but no windows or doors (this will be brutal in the winter), despite the free passage of air they smell bad as soon as you enter, and every hole has it’s own special scent.  I’ve only ever used these bathrooms while school has not been in session, by myself, and never during inclement weather.  Perhaps when I teach I’ll learn extreme bladder control.

 

So those are the pooping places of Kyrgyzstan.  Luckily for me I’m not squeamish when using outhouses, so I have had no trouble using the various outhouses I have encountered.

In the streets of Kyrgyzstan

August 6, 2008

Today I was asked, “What is it you like the most about Kyrgyzstan?”  My response, “I like walking on the street and having the dust sting my eyes.”  My classmates laughed, my language teacher didn’t know what sting meant, and after explaining, she too laughed at my sarcasm.

 

Kyrgyzstan is not, in fact, a dusty hole in the wall country.  Yes, there is a large amount of dust.  Many of the streets are not paved; so any wind, a passing car, or even a mule cart can kick up enough particulate matter to make you blink a bit.  However, there is more than just dust to be wary of on the roadway. 

 

Cows, sheep, goats, chickens (with their rooster guardians) and people all share the roads here.  Every evening around 5pm there seems to be a great cow, goat and sheep exodus on the roadway.  These animals are not always accompanied by their owners, but still seem to find their way home.  We have a cow for milk at my home, I think her name is April.  Yes, most families name their animals (at least the ones that live for a while and aren’t going to be eaten).  Our beloved milk cow, April, comes home on by herself pretty much every day from the field.  Not only does she walk home on her own, but instead of walking through the outdoor kitchen, she walks through a narrow passage between the outdoor kitchen’s outer wall and the fence.  My guess is that she knows she wouldn’t fit through the doorway into the kitchen (built for humans and smaller) and has devised this alternative route.  It’s pretty cool to see all the animals just moseyin on home, and in April’s case, to even walk right back into the barn where she lives.

 

The sheep and goat herds, as well as the chickens are less interesting than the cows.  Yes, they’re on the street more often than the cows, but I guess since they’re smaller, it’s just not quite as interesting to watch.  There are, however, some inanimate things to look for when walking on the street.

 

Poop.  There is lots of poop in the street.  In the US I walked around looking about ten to twenty feet ahead, not here.  There are two kinds of excrement to watch out for: fresh piles of feces and uneven roadway (remember, mostly unpaved roads).  Don’t get me wrong, the roadway is not a giant skid mark, but there are piles of manure, fresh (dangerous) and old (very walk-on-able) that you need to look out for.  At first I tried to avoid all fecal matter, the fresh gooey stuff as well as the older, sundried and pre-stepped/driven upon.  But I’ve learned that those dry ones don’t give you a messy shoe, or even smell, they’re just kind of there. 

 

Please keep in mind that what I’ve written above does not apply to Bishkek, the capitol (and the only city I have visited so far).  Bishkek has some dust (almost none), not herds of cattle or goats, and no poop on the roadways.  They do, however, drive like everyone else in Kyrgyzstan, but that is a story for another day.

A little something about the food

August 1, 2008

Food is different here.  In the US, on any typical day, I will eat Cheerios in milk for breakfast, a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich for lunch.  Dinner is much more varied, and ranges from steak, chicken, pork, and fish to assorted kinds of pastas, tacos or fajitas.  Except for my breakfast and lunch, there is a lot of variety in what I eat.  Dessert is always Ice Cream when it’s available, cookies or maybe some delicious frozen cookie dough.

 

There is no food that is really specific to any meal or time of day.  I’ve had the same foods for breakfast, lunch and dinner, although not in the same day.  Sometimes I get last night’s dinner leftovers for breakfast the next morning.  Some may think, “ewww, that’s gross,” but it’s really not.  My mama always reheats the food in a very appealing way.  Another main staple at every meal is bread.  I’ve heard from other volunteers that bread and meat are almost sacred to the people of Kyrgyzstan (not to be mistaken with the Kyrgyz ethnic group, which is a large portion of the Kyrgyzstani population, but does not encompass all the peoples of the country). 

 

I’ve only had three meals that had no meat in them, and two were because I was feeling sick that day and specifically told my mama that I would not eat any meat, and the other I’m not sure how it happened.  Apparently, families that cannot put meat on the table are considered to be very poor.  The peoples of Kyrgyzstan think that besides being a core staple of any healthy diet, a large dose of hearty meat will help any ailing person recover (that and maybe a couple shots of vodka).  How have I liked the meat that’s been served to me so far?  For the most part, it’s been amazingly good.  The problem is that like most things, when you pretty much the same kind of meat all the time, you start to get tired of it and even develop an aversion to that specific meat.  I’ve already developed a mild version of this to several foods that my mama serves, despite the fact that she is a very good cook.

 

The bread here is fantastic!  There are many kinds, and they’re all good.  There’re the thicker, French bread loaves (think of a typical 2 inch diameter French bread, and now make it an oval that is about 6 inches wide and maybe 4 tall) that are I don’t know how long, but they’re probably pretty big based on the size of the slices that are abundant on the dinner table.  Then there is flat bread, called nan (no, it’s not the same as the nan that you find in India).  This is a round bread that is about an inch thick and quite fluffy.  Basically, nan is awesome.

 

At every meal I have eaten there have also been sliced tomatoes and cucumbers.  At first, these were heavily salted, which when combined with the other foods I was eating was just too salty for me to enjoy.  So I asked my mama to not put any salt on the “vitamin” she was setting on the table for me to eat, and ever since there have been two plates on the table; salted and unsalted tomatoes and cucumbers.

 

Tea, tea, tea and more tea.  This is Kyrgyzstan, and tea is a fact of life.  I have never had a meal in which tea was not present.  The weather here is probably in the nineties, and tea is always served hot.  The peoples of Kyrgyzstan “know” that cold things make you sick, so they don’t drink cold beverages, have ice cubes or take cold or even cool showers.  My mama likes to make fun of me and how I like cold tea.  Everyone else likes to drink their tea when it’s so hot that they have to slurp their tea through their teeth (I think) so that it gets aerated and slightly cooled before it hits their tongues.  I for one don’t like having a scorched tongue, even if it is just a mild burn, so I let my tea cool for a good five to ten minutes before taking up the cup for a drink.

Tonight my host mother is talking about killing one of the rabbits in the pen for dinner tonight, so there will probably be more to come regarding food in the near future.

 

Foods I have eaten:  Plov, kielbasa, bread, chicken, chicken soup (ramen noodles), cucumbers, tomatoes, raspberries, apples, lamb, eggs, sausage, and tomatoes wrapped in something covered with mayo and dill and other foods whose names I have forgotten..

My flight through Istanbul

July 9, 2008

I Flew in to Istanbul.

Walked around the airport with my friends, figured out that my baggage was indeed checked all the way through to Bishkek.  Some fellow volunteers had their bags only check through to Istanbul, so they had to get a visa, pickup their baggage and then recheck everything outside passport control.  I thought that one of my bags was packed all the way and the other was going to need to be rechecked.  So I went out to the baggage pick-up and eventually figured out that my stuff was not going to come, so I just had to hope everything would make it to the end of the line.

 

Visa in hand, it was time to go get some kebab’s in Istanbul.  My friend Jonathan found a hotel room rental guy who spoke some English, and figured out where the metro was and what stop we should get off at if we wanted to find some nice cafes in which to eat.  Fantastic.  Jonathan, Brian, Katie and a girl whose name I forget took the metro a couple stops, and ended up in a nice non-tourist neighborhood.  We were definitely the only Americans around, it was nice.  We ended up finding a little kebab shop about a half mile from the train station where we sat down and ate mixed grills.  Luckily the waiter spoke a little English, although really just enough to ask if we wanted mixed grills and take our orders for sodas… although when we asked what kind of soda they had, he was confused.  We ended up resorting to just ordering cokes and fantas, the universal soft drinks.  The meals were huge.  There was tomato, beef, beef, jalapenos, beef, and nan (or whatever they would call it).  It was fantastic, and when we left, it was time for the mid-afternoon call to prayer.  While we really didn’t understand a thing the mullah was saying, it was very cool to hear it in person.  Sure I’ve seen it on TV and in movies, but this was my first time hearing it in person, standing right next to the mosque.

 

After a 30 minute ride on a bus rented out specifically for Peace Corps invitees, we arrived at the old soviet era hotel in which we’d be staying.  Jonathan and I elected to room together for the following few nights.  When we got up to the room on the sixth floor via a very old elevator (the call buttons were single push button, and the floor selection buttons were similar), we found a slightly run-down, thread bare red wall to wall carpeting with a European looking bathroom (tub with hand shower, toilet, beday).  The beds were, however, quite comfortable.  And we slept like babies after our previous two nights of near sleeplessness.

 

When I opened up my hiking backpack, I realized that my two tubes of crest toothpaste had exploded.  Well, they were not the usual screw on cap types, and these snap closed tops had been forced open either by pressure or they had caught on some else I had packed in the same luggage compartment.  This meant that pretty much all my toiletries were covered to some extent by sticky, mint flavored goo.  Washing off the all the toiletries wasn’t too bad, but was the last thing I wanted when trying to hit the hay.


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