Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Show me the way to go home

I’ve had an excellent experience this summer, however it is good to be back in the USA. China was a blast, mainly due to the kingly treatment I received from Haixiao and his family. I have seen things I hadn’t seen before and tried foods I never imagined myself eating. All in all, this summer has been one of the greatest of my life—the summers of my college years have always been that way. I wonder, is it possible for my life to top his one? That’s kind of the same way I felt after last summer’s trip to France and the UK (though the earliest part of the summer qualified as undoubtedly the worst summer in my life).

Still, reguardless of the wonderful times I’ve had, I think it is time to come back to the US. I could have stayed in Kazakhstan a lot longer I think, but I think I am done with China for a bit. Do not get me wrong, I had an extremely excellent time while I was there—but and this is a huge but, travelling in China is among the worst experiences in my entire life. I detest every aspect about it and can find almost no redeeming features—save that they did bump me to an earlier flight to the US avoiding a stop in Tokyo.

I guess I should back up a couple weeks and start at the beginning of my trip to China. I know that I haven’t kept this blog as I should have, but in my defense I haven’t been able to access the internet very much in China or in Kazakhstan. Whenever I could, the darn blogspot.com site never seemed to work. So here I am—extremely far behind, but enough of my excuses. Back to China!

I arrived in Urumqi early in the morning of August 7th or 8th. I can’t remember the date exactly, but I know it was too damn early. I think it was the 7th because I know I had been in the airport since the previous Thursday night, which was apparently the 4th. It was a long time to be stuck in airports waiting for flights. I got a little sleep before the other Yanks departed, but I spend most of my time chilling in a small, over priced cafĂ©, which had the single positive aspect as it had a table near a wall source so I could plug in and charge my computer while playing or browsing the internet.

A quick aside: an odd thing that I have noticed is that overseas, wifi is free in airports, yet in the United States, you have to pay for it before you can use it. A damnable practice if I do say so myself. I was really looking forward to coming back to the land of the free and being able update my blog in real time and use that glorious social medium: facebook, which is banned in the glorious People’s Republic of China. Instead, I’m writing this note up on a word document so that I can upload this when I finally get home because I refuse to bay $7.99 for an hour and a half’s worth of wifi. Land of the free indeed!

Back to the main point of the story: travelling in China is stressful. Now some people are going to write this off just as travelling is stressful or travelling in foreign countries is stressful, however I think that’s not exactly true. I’ve travelled quite extensively for my twenty-two years, and quite a bit of it has been on my own. As for foreign countries—the majority of my travels have been to and from Kazakhstan or through Asia on my own and I can say that I’ve never felt more stressed or more ready to murder the people around me than in a Chinese airport or aboard a Chinese plane.

My stressful period really started once we hit the ground in Urumqi and I had to start filling out the forms to enter China. The agent seemed irritated with me because I forgot to put my middle name down fully—I just used the initial and I had not written in block letters (in my defense, it never said that I had to!). But what really set me off was that I had no idea where to go in this airport to get my connecting flight and I wasn’t sure anyone could speak English. I got into a line with everyone else, intending to ask where to go to connecting flights. Instead I waited for about 40 minutes, feeling more foolish by the minute as it became obvious that I had gotten into a line for vouchers to a hotel—which I did not need because I had a flight in only six hours and had to go through security again, so what was the point of going to a hotel? Not to mention I was under rather strict orders from Haixiao not to leave the airport because recently in Urumqi the East Turkestan Islamic terrorist organization had blown up a police station and Haixiao’s father didn’t feel that it was safe for me to be out on my own.

So in view of this, I decided that I was not going to leave the airport: partially because of the terrorist threat, but to be honest, I wasn’t that concerned that they’d hit a random American. I was more of a target of opportunity being Western, supposedly this group wanted to create an independent muslim Turkic state in Uigherstan, so I figured they were more after the Chinese. Mainly I was concerned about falling asleep and missing my flight or just having something go wrong and cause problems in China, a country of over 1.2 billion people where English was not a primary language.

Eventually I made my way to the front of the line and it seemed like my ordeal was over because the lady at the desk spoke a little English. I began to ask her which way to transfers when she interrupted me and asked for my ticket and passport. Unperturbed I handed them over to hear, only to have her stamp them and hand them back to me with a voucher for a hotel. I tried to tell her I didn’t need that as my flight was in the morning, only several hours away but she brushed me off and started working with the next person. A little annoyed at the impersonal treatment, I decided to shrug it off and find it myself—maybe there was an information kiosk somewhere I could ask.

No such luck—but finally I did find a sign in English which said “departures,” and while I didn’t know if they were domestic or international, it was better than nothing. I began to head up the escalator to find out, when a security guard working for the airport stopped me and I tried to explain what I planned to do. He didn’t seem to speak English and so brought over a girl who worked there. She saw my boarding pass, passport, and my voucher and motioned for me to follow her. She didn’t speak English either, but I really didn’t want to argue with the security guard. She took me out to a bus and my heart started to sink—this was the last thing I wanted. Then the bus driver took my suit case, threw in the storage underneath and slammed it shut. I didn’t seem to have a choice anymore so I got in and shortly afterwards the bus left.

My stress only increased as the bus drove for what seemed an eternity—probably more like 30 or 40 minutes, before finally stopping in a rundown looking neighborhood at a hotel with big glass doors. Everyone got off and handed their passports and vouchers to the ladies working at the front desk and got a roomkey. I was even more alarmed because the sign said that to have a single room was extra, which apparently meant I would have to share with some stranger. Then they took my passport and said they would hold it until the morning and that I would get a wake up call about two hours before my flight (which was at 0800 and it was currently about 0300). By now I was on the verge of panicking due to stress, but decided that I couldn’t fight it and so went up stairs and was glad to find that at least I had a room to myself and to cap it off, it actually had a functioning air conditioning unit (though I had to shut the window first).

Following a bit of advice I had gotten from my dad a long time ago when I was a patrol leader in the boy scouts—“Whenever you feel stressed or start to panic, just take a shower or wash your face, do whatever you can in the field. When you are clean you feel a thousand times better and can think much straighter.” This advice is probably one of the wisest bits that Dad has given me and I make use of it regularly. As usual it did help, at least a little bit. I decided not to sleep for the three or so hours I had left as I didn’t want to sleep through the alarm—I had been up for almost 48 hours now and wasn’t sure what would happen once I set my head down on an actual pillow.

The night itself passed rather slowly and uneventfully—except for an odd call I got at about 0330 asking if I wanted a massage. I made it back to the airport in one piece, though utterly exhausted. However, I was surprised to find that apparently the airport wasn’t open at 0630 in the morning, because there was a huge crowd of people standing in a gaggle at the doors. The people from my last flight who had had to go to the hotel (I learned later that this might be a requirement for foreigners who come to China) and I elbowed our way in—queues be damned. The Kazakhs I was with had no use for them and the Chinese responded with a zeal for ignoring someone’s position in line that was almost fanatical. If it weren’t for the people shoving me from behind, I’m not sure I would have made it into the airport at all.

Inside the crowds got even worse and I was lucky to find my check in area and get through security so quickly that I still had an hour and a half before my flight started boarding (nothing runs on time in Chinese airports, so my flight was about thirty minutes later than my ticket had told me originally). However, here at the Urumqi terminal was probably the most irritating thing which happened to me. It was breakfast time so I decided to stop at a restaurant hand have something to eat. It is really strange in Chinese airports because as you pass by the restaurants, the waiters will start calling out and shouting to try and get your attention. I ignored that and just ended up going to the nearest one to my gate, but the joke was on me. I ordered a bowl of noodles and some tea from the waitress (she had suggested it) and I didn’t look at the menu. Nor did I really understand how much RNB was worth—I exchanged my Kazakh tenge for RNB and so was fuzzy on the conversion. As I left, I got a bill for 360 RNB—now look, I knew it was expensive. There’s no way that a bowl of noodles and some tea couldn’t be at an airport. I also got the sinking feeling that it was a lot more expensive then I knew it should be. However, I had no idea how expensive it was. I figured it was maybe $20 or at worst $25. I had no idea that they charged me the equivalent of $60!

I didn’t find this out until later, after talking to Haixiao. I really can’t believe that I paid for that. Now I am not sure whether or I was just cheated by an unscrupulous waitress or whether that was the actual price. I did find out at another airport that tea could cost 350 RNB, so I suppose it isn’t a stretch of the imagination that the cost was correct, I just ordered stupidly. I was pretty PO’d about that, but nothing I can really do, lesson learned I guess. Don’t eat at Chinese airports unless you see the menu!

So that kind of shows you how frustrating my first experience in a Chinese airport was. The second one (second one by myself I mean, I flew with Haixiao and his father, and we got to skip the line and wait in the VIP area, so not too shabby) was on my return. It wasn’t quite as bad, but it still was rough. Firstly I had to find which terminal to go to, only realizing I was in the wrong one when I couldn’t find any delta flights at all and the signs for information led to nowhere—literally. The signs kept point and then just stopped with nothing there. I eventually found a customer service rep who spoke enough English to tell me Delta was in Terminal II, which I had to take a free shuttle ride to. First I had to find that, make my way onto it ( I was extremely worried I was going to have to fight my way through, but luckily no one seemed to want to get one with me—which made me freak out that I was on the wrong one…) and then wait until they’d let me check in.

I was fortunate that I got there so early, I had to wait about 3 hours until they’d let me check in at 0530, but at about 0500 they noticed me, told me my flight was overbooked and that since I was early, if I wanted to, I could go on an earlier direct flight to Detroit and make my way home about three to four hours earlier. I did so, got through customs without much of a problem and made it to the gate (which consisted of an exit to a shuttle to go to the airplane), and I was home free on an American owned and operated flight. Sounds easy right? Not so stressful?

Well, you’d be wrong because I left out two very important details. One is that part of the reason (a huge part) that Chinese airports are stressful is because of the people. Now look, I’m not trying to bash China—I had a wonderful time there, I really did, but I have to get this off my chest. I’m sure coming to America, Chinese people have plenty of things that piss them off about Americans. The fact of the matter is that in a country of so many people, it is bound to be crowded. I don’t like it, but I can understand and handle it. What really gets me stressed is more of how the people behave and I know I shouldn’t be judging them for it, but I can’t help it.

Chinese people are loud. Like extremely loud. As in, I can’t sleep because the people next to me sound like they’re having a shouting match while talking to the waitress about what they want to drink on the in-flight service. Or I have to push my headphones into my ear because the kids in front of me are playing some game which requires them to shake their hands while shouting the same thing over and over again at an increasing volume. And all of this is compounded by the fact that since I don’t understand Chinese at all, their language sounds like they are always very angry. It’s a very staccato (and I may be a little overly judgmental here), sharp, and plainly an ugly sounding language to my ears. There’s no poetry to it, it just sounds like people shouting extremely short words that end in a hard constantan (spelling might be off here, I mean the opposite of vowels) sound. So, I’m sorry if I offend anyone here, but that’s just how I feel.

I know for a fact that many other countries think that Americans are overly loud and obnoxious and I didn’t really understand what they meant. Now I guess I do, but to me it seems that Americans are comparatively much quieter than the average Chinese. I only really notice noise in America when someone is excited. In China, that’s just how people talk—when they’re ordering food or just saying “Hi”. I can’t really be mad at them for it and I’m not trying to say they are bad for it, but it still is irritating. Being alone in a very strange country where I understand none of the language and people are talking very loudly, it sounds like they are fighting. And one thing about me is that arguments between people really stress me out. Always has, unless I’m taking a side in it, but if I just hear two people having it out, I get nervous.

Someone might also note that American kids are probably just as noisy on flight as Chinese kids—and they may have a point. Even now as I write this on my last flight to Kansas City a baby is crying and giving me a head ache. But that’s a baby. I don’t ever recall having to suffer through kids at an older age (I think late elementary to early middle school) at all in the same way I did on that flight. And I cannot imagine parents letting their kids play such a loud and irritating game without giving them a talking to. But on that last domestic Chinese flight, it seemed like I was the only one irritated by it at all. Everyone else seemed to pay it no heed. I wish I could have.

Now the other thing that stressed me out has to deal with something much, much smaller. I’ve mentioned before that Haixiao’s family has treated me royally ever since I arrived. That’s an extreme understatement and I would love to pay them back anyway I can. Well, I sort of found a way to do it a little bit. Haixiao’s family is quite wealthy by most standards I think, and they want to make sure that if Haixiao decides to go into business in the United States, he has a firm starting amount to do so.

Now normally I would expect the parents to wire some money or transfer it to a bank account. But what would I know? The largest amount of money I’ve ever had to transfer was one or two grand to my parents to pay for something or as a loan—I can’t remember what. Haixiao’s family I think is in a much bigger league, because they gave him gold bars.

That’s right, honest to god, gold bullion. I have in my possession a 200g gold bullion bar which I am bringing to Haixiao because we aren’t sure how much he can bring himself (he took one with him already). The gold bar is heavy, but not very large. It’s about the size of my thumb. However, it is worth approximately $59.7 per gram. For those of you good at math, you will realize then, that I am carry around $11,940 or so in gold. So I hope you can see why I might be stressing out—and you can’t really blame that on China, but I was always afraid that when I declared it (I filled out the paperwork to, but I never found where I was supposed to do that in China, so I kind of just left and waited till I got to the US to declare it), I would discover I was in violation of some Chinese law and after waiting to find someone to explain in English, just how much trouble I was in, I would suffer the consequences of my actions.

Fortunately, as I said, the Chinese never had signs about declaration of goods and since I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, I kept going on. I guess I just assumed that eventually before I left the country I’d have to hit customs or something like I did at Kazakhstan and fill out the exit paperwork, but nothing happened. Instead, I got to America and then finally declared it. Now there my headache was rewarded as one Customs official looked at me like I was crazy when I told them I wasn’t sure how much it was worth and I was bringing it in without documentation as a favor to a friend (“Does that seem like a good idea to you?”).

Now I trusted Haixiao and so by extension I trusted his parents. However, his tone seemed to suggest to me that I was in a world of hurt. This feeling of dread was only increased when I was separated from the line with all the others and told to go into the further processing area. The other Customs officials seemed genuinely perplexed at my situation. They were less irritated with me and more amused with my “Ipod Gold.” They charged me $655…but later realized that bullion doesn’t require duties so they gave me my money back—Huzzah!

And thus ended the most stressful travelling experience of my life. China—it was fun, but I am not going back unless Haixiao comes with me to show me how to get through your damnable airports.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kazakhstan Wedding—

Have you ever been to American wedding? Where is the Vodka, where is marinated herring?”

Well, I’ve been to a Kazakh one, and they do indeed have Vodka—and if not marinated Herring, they’ve got some sort of pickled fish. Kazakh weddings are something I’ve always wanted to see, as they are an extremely unique part of Kazakh culture. In fact, the tradition in Kazakhstan is for a new couple to have two weddings—one for the groom’s family and one for the bride’s family. The Groom’s wedding is the larger and more official of the two, but the bride’s one is nothing to laugh at—150+ people in attendance. We went to the bride’s wedding, which I think was good, because I’m not sure that we are ready for 300 plus guests and all the other ceremonies which are part of the groom’s wedding.

We arrived at the reception at about 6:30 in the evening, which was late, since we were told by Assima that it started at 6:00 PM. However, the Kazakh tradition is for all the guests to arrive several hours late. True to form, the groom’s family didn’t arrive until 8:30 and we couldn’t start until they came. When it finally started, we had to wait while the families were introduced by the master of ceremonies.

Our dinner started with a course of appetizers—and we were starving by this time. The meal started with several salads and sausage—known as Kazi, which is made from horse. Along with the Kazi, we also had horse tongue (bleh—tasted like a horse smells and I literally mean that), and pickled fish. Vodka and wine was also complimentary with the meal. As our dinner progressed, different friends and family members began to make toasts, which were punctuated by dances or small events, which was kind of hard for us to follow because the noise was so loud that our hosts couldn’t tell us what was happening. With the toasts, we took a couple of shots of Vodka along with the other members at our table who said that they were members of the police.

The main course came after an hour or so I think, and it was Beshbarmak, the traditional food of Kazakhstan—and as per traditional Kazakh style, it was made with horse. I’ve often said I was so hungry that I could eat a horse and this time it was true. It was also delicious; I prefer horse to dog any day. Mark felt that the Beshbarmak meat reminded him of pot roast and I’d say that to a certain extent I would have to agree with him. The meal was excellent and we all enjoyed it.

I really enjoyed the dinner and our wedding reception. I think that my favorite part of the night however, was when the older Kazakh women sang different traditional Kazakh folk songs for the happy couple. I really enjoyed one of them, which had been sung by one of the oldest ladies on the groom’s side. Later on, I asked Assima about that song and she told me she couldn’t find it because it probably hadn’t been recorded before. However, she did offer to introduce me to the old lady, which was an extremely enjoyable experience for me. She was extremely sweet and she sang the song again for me and I was able to record it.

The nights festivities were very pleasant and we all enjoyed ourselves immensely. Kazakh weddings are extremely fun events and you’ll all be glad to know that we’ve been invited to another one tomorrow. Jon will be sitting this one out because last time he invited Maria to it and she showed up but there wasn’t room for her at the event, so it caused kind of a rocky patch between them, so this time he’s sitting this one out and spending some quality time with his devotchka.
Lost in the Woods

I never really got around to explaining how our forest camps went and now we’ve finished up with our camps I feel I’ve let you, my faithful readers (Hi mom!) down. It’s been extremely hard because we’ve just been having so much fun. I think may have told you already what happened at the camp. But just in case I have not—we arrive at the camp at about 1000 and have breakfast, which is usually a porridge type meal, which I found fairly tasty. Usually it was made from grits like material—I could taste the corn and the texture was the same, but it was more soup. Other times it was more of a rice porridge, but I thought they were both good. A little sweet, but not overly so.

After breakfast, we usually took naps, or perhaps watch some TV—Mark brought a whole ton of TV show DVDs with us. After an hour or so, we’d do a game of mafia. Then we’d talk with the students a bit and break for lunch around 1300. Lunch was usually something with Gretchka, Jon, Mark and Eric hate the stuff, but it’s not terrible, just needs a lot of sauce. Lunch would also have a nice soup, which if it was Borsht, was probably the best Borsht I’ve had here. (Interesting side note: according to Rose, in Russian it’s just pronounced “Borsh” no T). After lunch, more of the same kind of English language games and activities such as charades, body English, “who am I?’(think that game they played in Inglorious Basterds in the bar).

We’d often break between games and just do some talking with the groups. Dinner was at 1900 which was also something with Gretchka, but no soup. After dinner on Friday, we might watch a movie or do some dancing. Around midnight or later we’d hit the sack, and the next day we’d begin our fun again at 1000.

Breakfast and up until lunch is about the same as it is on Friday. After lunch, we might do ultimate Frisbee or some other games, or if we were feeling like the weather was nice enough, we’d go down to a small beach on the river and hang out. We’d head back for tea at 1600 (or skip it if we were having a lot of fun) and then we’d head back to doing some activities together. Dinner was the same as Fridays, maybe a little different, sometimes without gretchka. Saturday night was a great night because it was our bonfire night. There’s nothing more manly than building a roaring fire and cooking out on it.

After the bonfire, we had another dance party and the students would party like it was 1999. I tended to avoid it, because students in Kazakhstan listen to some truly awful dance music. It all sounds the same and it is basically just pop music that was popular a few months ago (S&M by Rihanna, We Speak no Americano,) and some other stuff that I can’t identify, but has the same repetitive beats and messages.

Sunday was our decompression day and we’d clean up the place we stayed. We’d probably still do Mafia or another English language activity. We’d leave the place around 1400 and go back home and that was the end of our Forest camp days. They were always a lot of fun and I’m very sorry to say that our summer camp is done and that soon we’ll be heading back to our homes. I love Kazakhstan, I love her people, and I will always love coming back here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

To catch the devil

If you wanna have a good time, jine the cavalry.
If you wanna catch the devil, if you wanna have fun,
If you want to smell hell.
Jine the cavalry.

So it's been another week or so since last I updated. I'll finish up by explaining how a camp in the forest works, since I had promised that, and then I'll catch up with some more recent news.

We have to arrive here at the Institute at 0830 on Fridays to make sure that we are there on time for the bus. Eric and Jonathan don't really like this, because the bus often shows up late-we exect it at 0900, but it sometimes comes as late as 0930 and to get to the institute on time, they have to get up before 0800, which is unusual for them as they prefer to sleep until 0830. To be honest, their sleep schedule worries me sometimes because they might be late to class *which occurred today. (Mark isn't here either, but that's not really his fault as he literally has no clean clothes because the washing machine won't stop going--it locks up until it's done.

Anyway, we get to the camp by about 1000 and have a breakfast, which is kind of a poridge or something. It's very hard to secify what it is. It is yellow and has the the texture of oatmeal and is somewhat sweet. However, instead of oats, it has what are essentially grits in it. Jonathan is not a fan of it, but I like it for a breakfast food. It's warm, fills you, but doesn't seem like you are eating too much. After that, we let the students get settled and we teachers usually take a nap, which feels great because our room is the only room in this entire country (as far as I am aware) that has an air conditioning unit in our wall.

We'll generally then have lunch, which consists of a soup (usually Borsht, a sort of chicken bullion soup with potatos, onions, and no chicken, or a kind of lentil soup. I prefer Borsht, at the forest camp it is amazing. I'm going to really miss borsht when I leave.

Gotta start class, so I'll resume this soon--we're heading for a Kazakh wedding tonight (but not one of ours!)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Return of the Cavalry Whiskers

It’s very difficult to keep this darn thing updated. But I’m going to attempt to rectify that with this post.
On July 11th, we began our fourth class. We’ve got about ten girls this time, including two girls from two years ago. We also have a number of students who were in the third group but are sticking around—a Kazakh girl named Bota (who is “in love” with my eyes :D) and a small Russian girl named Nastya. The fourth class is kind of quiet right now, but hopefully they’ll warm up soon.
We started yesterday with introductions and then a brief discussion about classroom expectations for the students and the teachers. They enjoyed the introductions because it was based on the “M&M game” where we offered them M&Ms and how many they took they had to state one fact per M&M (of course we didn’t tell them that until afterwards). In the afternoon we had a debate on whether or not the government should ban the use of products like alcohol, tobacco or sodas which are harmful to people’s health. The side which said that the government should not be able to ban such products won the debate.
Today, our girls Raushaun and Nazym led a lesson on the difference and usage of past simple and present perfect tenses. After that, Mark put them through a crash course on baseball and we took the outside to try the game out with water bottles as bases and a mop handle for a bat. Mark’s team beat mine by one run. Afterwards we played “Body English” and a game where one side says a word and the next side has to say another word which begins with the last letter of the previous word—so “Apple—Echo—Orchard—Demon…etc.” and this afternoon we watched “the Sandlot” to show them American baseball.
Generally that is the basic formula of our class—every other day we alternate between a lesson which will generally end with a movie to drive the point home or a debate. We started with our last group doing a jeopardy game at the end of the week after a couple of history/music/film/sport lessons which we had taught throughout the week. The students seemed to really like that and so I think we will try to keep that part of the program.
Before I go into detail about the forest camp or a more comprehensive break down of our schedule, I’d like to take a moment to introduce some of our helpers that have really made our job ten thousand times easier, not to mention being extremely wonderful friends. I’ll start with the guy: Victor. Victor was a student I met the first time I visited Kazakhstan three years ago. Now however, he is a graduate and one of Nailia’s assistants. He doesn’t provide us with in class support—instead he is there behind the scenes (he found us our apartment, is arranging our travel plans back to Almaty) and is generally an indispensible go between for us and Nailia. Victor also has the honor of being our only colleague with a Y chromosome and our only Russian (the rest are ethnically Kazakh).
And to paraphrase Abigail Adams, we won’t forget the ladies. We have four girls who are with us daily and two other girls we generally see at the forest camp or to help us outside the school sphere. The first girl I’ll introduce is named Balzhan. Balzhan’s a more heavyset girl, she’s always cheerful and you can always spot her with a grin on her face, unless she’s pretending to be angry with you. She’s pretty funny and has studied in Korea at GNU (Elly’s old school) and will go back this fall semester. She also has the dubious distinction of being the person who dared me to allow the students to “make up” my face and went on the first and second forest trips with us.
The next girl is Marah, who is a close friend of Balzhan (they spent quite a bit of the first campout hanging out together) and also studied in Korea for a year. Despite her name, which is unusual for this country (She says it’s a Nordic name) she is also an ethnic Kazakh. She’s a really nice girl who is very outgoing (though we’re pretending to be angry with her, because last forest camp she had promised to come out and bring some Cognac, but never showed up!) and I’m personally extremely indebted to her, because she helped me arrange my flight to China.
Of the four girls we see every day, I think I’ll start with Laura, because he name is probably the most common and familiar to American readers. That’s roughly the way her name is spelled in Kazakh (or Russian) however the stress is differently and it’s pronounced more like “Lao-rah” (don’t forget to roll the “r”). She’s a really nice girl (but they all are…) and she’s a great help in ultimate Frisbee (though to my consternation she noticed after playing with Mark during out second game: “You’re not very good at this are you?”). According to Nazym’s card reading, she’ll be my wife one day (which she was furious with as she eliminated the other King card which represented her crush), but more on that later.
I suppose that’s a good lead in for our next girl—Nazym. She’s a very pretty girl, which easily pushes into the beautiful territory with the hair style she got last week (I was a big fan). She’s a fan of the Lord of the Rings films, but refuses to watch the Star Wars trilogy because its “too fantastical…” Note I only said trilogy. As far as I’m concerned Episodes I-III aren’t canon (bite me George Lucas). She’s wonderfully nice and can apparently read cards. However, I am somewhat suspect of this, because when she read Laura’s, she said Laura would marry me, but when she read mine, she said I was going to marry her. Also, her cards said we’d marry, so who knows which set of cards is right?
There’s Raushaun, alias Rose. She’s become sort of my friendly (or not so) rival. This’ll sound repetitive, but she’s also a very pretty girl. She’s into yoga among other things and pushes us strongly to have more prepared class plans and activities line up. She’s good at keeping us honest I think. We take some friendly jabs at each other during class and is quite a hoot. Classes would be a lot less fun without being able to metaphorically twist her pigtails. Eric thinks that she is interested in me, though I don’t really buy it, because I think she could probably do a lot better than me and in Kazakhstan girls pay a lot more attention to us in general than they would in the United States, so I get more of a friend vibe; the same as I get from all the girls here.
Lastly, but definitely not least is Aina. All these girls are twenty, but she’s married and has a young son who lives with her mother and father in law. I affectionately refer to her now as “Other Mom” after some very mother-ish comments she’s made about us and me in particular. You wouldn’t believe that she had recently had a child though, because she’s unbelievably tiny and young looking. She’s really a lovely person and I initially rated her as the cutest of the girls, though (no offense to her) I’d probably reevaluate that now; not least because of a greater appreciate of beauty here or the possible oedipal notions which could arise.
Wow, this has put us at almost four pages on Word. I’ll try to wrap this up to keep it from going too long and I’ll put off talking about camp and class schedules until a slightly later date. I think I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to the friends and people we’ve met here. Kazakhstan has a lot of natural resources and one Soviet scientist boasted that Kazakhstan could “export the entire periodic table.” However, I believe that Kazakhstan’s greatest asset is her people and their hospitality.
Everywhere we go, people go unbelievably out of their way to make us feel at home and comfortable. I don’t think you can find more loyal and dependable friends than here in Kazakhstan. There’s Victor as I’ve already mentioned, who has been a wonderful help and also has great taste (loves Star Wars and I lent him my well-worn copy of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers). But there’s also Ayan and Nikita, two younger boys with completely different personalities, but wonderful kids to know. I can never forget the soccer games with the neighborhood kids and how much fun we’ve had with them. However, possibly the coolest guy I’ve met here is a young man named Yernur.
Yernur is a quiet guy, naturally shy I think, but also a little lacking in English skills. He’s an extremely devout Muslim, but also a melancholy soul. I think that’s related however. According to him, during his youth (he’s twenty years old and makes me feel like an old man when he says this) he was “a very bad man.” I wouldn’t believe him, because he’s such a friendly chap, but his formerly broken wrist and back from a jumping and knowledge of knife and fighting skills convinced me otherwise. He invited us to his home and is a wonderful friend to have. I feel a little sad for him, but he’s very happy with his Muslim faith and I’m glad for him.
Besides the girls who help us, we also have made a number of female friends from our classes. One of the nicest and most fun is an outgoing girl named Assem, who is quite a tom-boy, but a solid dancer. She’s a lot of fun to be around and we’re very sad to see her heading back to her home town this week, not to return until October. There’s also Assima—the girl from facebook who is wearing my hat cocked at a sly angle, who is quite lovely, not least for the fact that she started dancing to the Flogging Molly music that I had put on.
It’s almost impossible to name all the wonderful friends we’ve met here in one sitting and this will sound extremely female driven, but that’s just because of our classes we only have one or two guys compared to 10-15 females. Some of the other lovely ladies which have made our trip more enjoyable include Elmira—a very friendly and talkative Kazakh girl. Bota—a wonderful singer who is “in love” with my eyes. We’ve got Ainur, Ainagul, Natasha, Lera, Regina, Medina and several Nastya’s. One of these Nastya’s is a very pretty young Russian girl, in whom I may have found a kindred spirit; she’s also interested in Celtic music—specifically knew who Loreena McKennitt was, feels like the pageantry and majesty of the 19th century is something to be missed, and was interested in my history lecture.
Probably one of the most interesting characters that we’ve met yet, is Mr. Kim (or Gospadin Kim as I like to call him). He’s one of Dr. Lee’s friends, but we like to think of him more of a local Mafia boss, because apparently he calls the shots around here. Mr. Kim is a wonderful older Korean-Kazakh, who doesn’t speak a word of English, but every few weeks just when we need it, will whisk us away to the Banya (Russian style sauna) with Beer and Shaslik. Yes, we have to get completely naked and it’s unbelievably hot inside that damn thing, but it’s a wonderful time and just what we need for our breaks.

Lastly and probably most important, I convinced Eric, that if I grew a beard, he would shave his into Cavalry whiskers, and when my beard was long enough, I'd join him as well. If you can, I highly recommend you check out his new facial hair style.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Update of the 4th of July

I don't really remember the last thing I posted, but I want to talk a little bit more about the kids of our neighborhood. Now I'm not sure if its the case of us adopting a block's worth of Kazakh kids or them adopting us, but we've got our own personal fan club now. Most evenings we play soccer with the little buggers and the 16 year olds kick our butts. Usually it's the four of us plus one 10-13 year old, to make it 5 on 5. We also play to five. We finally beat them on the 4th of July when I stepped aside to let our good friend Yernur play.

(Yernur is a very strong and serious man. He takes his muslim religion very seriously, as he explains it "When I was young, bad, bad man." It is hard to imagine such a kind soul was ever a troubled youth (and I say that ironically, as he is only 20 or 21 now), but his scars and broken bones (wrist and back from a group of thugs who ganged up on him) seem to confirm it. He is kind of a meloncholy soul, or at the very least a very thoughtful young man, and I pity him for the weight he holds on his shoulders. He wants to marry a "big girl" so as to have a very large family. At any rates, he is probably one of my best friends here. Just wanted to introduce him)

Probably the most touching thing that has happened so far, was after the game, one of the little kids, who played on our side came up to me and gave me an old pin--on it is some Russian words and a hammer and sickle with Lenin in the background. It is unbelievably cool and I got choked up. I hurridly swapped him with my dinky little American flag button and ran inside to grab a coin for him. By the time I got back he was gone, but I explained (as best I could) to his friends to give him it. I also tried to give away my corny Uncle Sam hat away, but when I did, a kid traded me his white "ACTIV(Mobile provider)" hat. I love these kids.We also have a trio of stalkers--a trio of 13 year old girls followed us to the Park city supermarket, followed us their, and then followed us home. That was sunday--on Tuesday they waited outside our buildling and watched to see what apartment we were in and then they scouted us via buzzers to find our apartment #. Now we've seen them following us and one of the girls wears an American flag bandana. They got up enough courage to talk to us(which is how we found out they were 13) but that's about it. Eric says they were trying to flirt with us and seduce us or something--because they walked in front of us and one had a short skirt which Eric said he couldn't stop looking at. I didn't have that problem--but I do have a new nickname for Eric now (Chester Fain.) (Eric if you want me to edit it out I will--it's just in good fun lad).

We have a small class this time around, but they're all good kids. Everytime we have to say goodbye is very hard for us. I wish we had them longer--while I'm at it, I wish we had days off, no more greshki (I don't know the spelling, but it's pretty bland Soviet Era food), more air conditioning, and plenty of other stuff. BUt still I'm enjoying myself.

We're having a small bit of a problem--dare we call it a mutiny? Based on a misunderstanding about the pay and working conditions, but hopefully we can solve it without any serious problem. If not...well; I guess part of being a leader is trying to work something out between parties; even if I don't really get taken that seriously as El Presidente.

Miss you guys, but not ready to head back from Kazakhstan. LIstening to Warren Zevon and Old Blind Dogs. Life is good.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Remember the 4th

Happy fourth of July everyone. Sorry that the updates have been so freaking sporadic, but even though I've been able to get internet access here, for some fool reason blogger.com has not been working for the last couple of times I've tried it. I can't even get my main page to load up for me, so I"m not sure what the last post I had was. We're on our third group now--the smallest we've had yet. I'm getting ready to go buy tickets to China now. So I have to head out.

OK, I'm back. It's July 6th, now. We had a good Fourth of July here--we played against the kids of our neighborhood. We've played these kids a couple of times before, but we've lost to them everytime. However, this time, I stepped out to let a 14 year old who was much better than I play and our friend Yernur play and with their help, America was able to pull through and win a game of football on the fourth of July.

I think we've got another game scheduled with the kids tonight, this time to ten points, as opposed to five like we had previously. I'm not sure we'll show up, because I made plans to have tea with an old friend of mine at 6:30 and we usually play at 8:00 and today is Astana day--when Kazakh people celebrate the founding of the new Capital of Astana. Jonathan has made plans with some of our students to meet down by the river tonight for a concert and Eric and Mark are going to work out with Yernur.

In our neighborhood we've got our own a great little following of children. It started a few days ago when the kids noticed that there were some Americans living in their neighborhood. We started chatting with them a little bit and one day on our way back from dinner we got an invitation to play soccer with them and that's how we started our almost daily games with the kids. We kept getting our butts kicked, but finally struck back on the fourth of July. So always remember the fourth!

We've started on our third group; they are our smallest--only about eight or nine students. Last week's crowd opened up after a little bit and we were sad to say goodbye. Our students are always wonderful and I've been having them sign my notebook, which is doubling for my journal now.

Going to play jeopardy now! Back later

Monday, June 27, 2011

On stranger tides

It has been an extremely productive first week. We all loved our first group of students very much. We've just gotten started with our second group. Last weeks group was a mix of younger students from about 15-21, had about 5 guys and 8 girls. Right now we've got about 14 girls and one guy in our class. Most of these girls are about our age I think, and some are quite cute. However, I believe we may have a spy amongst us, as Nailia has put two of her nieces in the class. They aren't saying much at the moment, so I am watching them closely. I think they are younger; I'm sure one of them is only 14.

Last week was a lot of fun. We had quite a few amazing experiences, such as having manti at one of our student's home and being given traditional Kazakh hats, as well as a robe, which I am told is a wrestler's robe.

Class is about to start, so I will have to finish this later.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Arrival in Kazakhstan

We arrived in Kazakhstan at 1:30 AM Local time, June 19th, 2011. As Eric says: "June 18th was lost in the space time continual." I hate losing a day like that...

Travelling went well, but it was quite exaushting. Met a very nice girl from Arizona, who was on her way to her grandfather's funeral in Manchester. She's a dual citizen and her father had been in the British army. Quite an interesting tale.

Our arrival in Kazakhstan was somewhat marred for Eric when discovered the man next to him on the plane was masturbating under the blanket...Needless to say, I think he was quite scarred, as any reasonable person would be. We had to wait at the airport for several hours until we could get our tickets and fly to Semey. I think Eric dislikes flying even more than I do.

We were riding on the bus to get from the main airport building to our plane; I was explaining to Eric how I was pleasantly surprised that we didn't have to carry our luggage to the plane and load it ourselves. I was in the process of explaining to him that the plane I had previous flown on was an old Soviet junker; I looked out the window and saw an old soviet era two propellored plane, gestured to it and said "But hey, it wasn't anything like that."

Murphey's law would of course dictate than I was to be punished for my hubris and gall to insult the Glorious Red Airforce, and no sooner had I said this, than the bus stopped and doors opened, and lo and behold, we had arrived at our mode of transportation. To be honest however, this flight went much better than might otherwise be expected and I was pretty excited to check out a prop plane, as I had never flown in one and I was always attracted to the old WWI and II era planes.

Our arrival in Semey was not to quite as much fanfare as my first trip--no dancing girls and candy being thrown at us. However, I ran into Medina, one of my students from last time, which was a pleasant experience. I've been very fortunate this time around, Max, the kid I traded a flag for two army uniforms. Viktor, an old hand that I have run into every time I visited Semey and I traded him my highlighted and well loved copy of Starship Troopers, was at the Institute as one of the main overseers for our class (read Commissar!)

We have about five main assistants to our program, all 3rd year girls, and quite attractive to boot. Hopefully I can upload some photos soon; you won't believe which one of them is married and has a 1.4 year old son...

Our students are also very good; the first day was a little rough getting started, but they have started opening up. Most of them are quite younger than than us--16 to 20 I think. Some of these girls will be pretty cute when they are older. Jonathan's quite a lucky man--maybe his decision not to cut his hair has paid off, as he is sort of a celebrity here with the ladies since long hair is quite uncommon. However, that just is not something I can ever allow myself to do.

Running out of time here in the internet cafe; we left Jonathan back at the flat to hold down the fort and I fear he will be missing us. I will finish later.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Back to Kazakhstan

It's been a long time for updates, but here I go...

The great news is that I'm going to go back to Kazakhstan tomorrow! I get to go teach another english camp; except this time I'm going with three other guys. This time however, Dr. Lee and Naila have asked me to be the official leader of the group...more respect and more responsibility too...
The nice thing is that this is going to be more like a camp, so I think it'll actually end up being much simpler than it was last time. Not to mention, I'll have more people working with me, so it should be a lot easier to work it out.

I hope this'll go well and we'll do a good a job for the school. I made Nailia a little mad a year or two ago, so I really want to make sure that I do well. She seems to be fine with me now, but I still want to prove myself a hard worker and a good teacher.

I'm still pretty nervous about this whole trip, but I guess it'll be what it will be. Wish us luck, and I'll try to keep this updated!