I've just returned from a week long Habitat for Humanity build. We worked in a village 2 hours west of Karakol. Normally this organization builds complete houses for needy families. The Kyrgyzstan branch has expanded to include half-built houses. The family we worked with had begun their house 12 years ago and didn't have the money to continue. That's saying quite a bit about how poverty-stricken they are, considering it is a mud house.
During the week, five of us volunteers worked nailing rafters, building tamped earth walls, laying a mud ceiling, and 'dry walling' the walls with mud. It was extremely labor intensive work. The Kyrgyz people aren't too keen on planning and we were continuously changing the methods of building according to what the homeowner felt like doing. They also don't think about easy accessibility throughout the house. I tried to help a little, but since I am a woman my ideas were ignored.
To build the walls, we set up a wooden form, filled it with slightly moist dirt and hay, and pounded it down with weighty metal rods. When the dirt slab is finished, we deconstructed the form and set it up again. The form is falling apart, and a pain to work with. The boys were inside nailing the rafters to the ceiling. In Kyrgyzstan, you nail the rafters from the bottom up. It was an awkward position for them and it took a long time. They also bent a lot of nails. How frustrating. Once the rafters were completed we filled buckets of mud and Jason pulled them up to the roof with a rope. He did that job for 6 hours without asking someone else to switch. In case you’ve never pulled buckets of mud up one story, let me tell you: THEY’RE HEAVY!!! The mud was then smeared into the rafters creating the ceiling. A lot fell through to the floor below, and it wasn’t very thick of a ceiling. No wonder these houses don’t hold heat. On the final day, I had the pleasure of throwing mud at the walls inside. Another guys then smoothed it out. I think they will put stucco later as a final layer before painting. I don’t know how difficult it is to build a house with wood and dry wall, but building a mud house is tough work.
We almost finished the walls for one room and the other room we worked on is nearly livable. My muscles are sore and I have blisters on my feet and splinters in my hands. But the week was great. I've been here in Kyrgyzstan for 2 years, and this was the most tangible help I've given.
In July, Jason and I traveled to Almaty and Prague. I took the GRE (for Graduate school admissions) in Almaty before our flight to the Czech Republic. Due to scheduling, we spent 5 days in Almaty. The city is leaps & bounds more advanced than Bishkek and we had a great time shopping in an actual grocery store, taking a walking tour, and eating delicious foods. We later found out from some Peace Corps Volunteers that the rest of the country is living in poverty very much like Kyrgyzstan. They said the gap between rich and poor is sickening. It completely changed my view of that city.
Next we met Jason's family and friends in Prague. That's right – I met the future in-laws. I really hit it off with them and we had an awesome time.
The city was fantastic. It's much smaller than I thought it would be and very walkable. The prices weren't too expensive and everyone speaks English. They also like Americans there, which is an increasingly rare thing. The architecture is beautiful. The Czechs really have a sense of humor and it comes out in the history of the city. My favorite part of the city was the astronomical clock tower in old town square. It was built in the 15th century and doesn't work properly. It has been rigged to ring every hour and the 12 apostles make an appearance. It wasn't a spectacular show, though I found it charming.
Summer camp was a hit. The pre-camp panic paid dividends when everything ran smoothly. I of course thought it was going disastrously because things weren't absolutely perfect. The participants corrected me and told me everything ran smoothly with activities, logistics, food, etc. The glitches were all behind the scenes. Students had a great time and learned a lot. For example, many of them didn't know the importance of regularly washing their hands with soap. None of them had ever seen the food pyramid. A few sessions split the students up to discuss different gender issues in Kyrgyzstan, and then brought them back together to discuss as a group. We also played sports, did some crafty activities and even made tie-dyed t-shirts. Thank you to everyone who donated to our camp! The kids loved it.
Between these big events, there have been visitors, including two of Jason's close friends. Other volunteers' friends and family have been visiting and I've met a lot of them. Summertime is a very social time amongst volunteers in Kyrgyzstan.
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