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 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