Monday, August 13, 2007

08.12.07
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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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

05.24.07
Greetings from the village! I’m in Tory-Aigur this week for Jason’s birthday and his host father’s 20 year high school reunion. The reunion is being held here at Jason’s house with people coming and going all day and night. Yesterday marked the start of the festivities.

When Jason and I returned from an end-of-the-school-year recital, the women were busy making borsok (traditional bread, small pieces of deep fried dough). They make enough to cover every table in the house for about 4 days. The tables must always be filled with borsok, jam, sugar, butter and salads during any festivities. It’s a way of showing you’ve prepared for the guests and they are welcome anytime.

We waited all afternoon while the men sharpened knives, filled the cellar with fresh produce and other products, and chopped wood. When they were finished with all the smaller tasks, everyone headed out to the back yard to watch them slaughter a cow. It is much different and more intense than a sheep or goat. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details, but it’s a little more difficult to watch. Since it was the first cow I saw slaughtered, I couldn’t stay for the whole process. Luckily, Jason videotaped the entire thing. [If anyone is interested in seeing it, I can send a copy to you.] After the cow was cut up and stored away, the women prepared kurgak (meat and liver sautéed with a brown gravy). It was fresh and delicious.

I thought after we ate, everyone would go home and rest until the morning, since we ate at about 9:30. But everyone split up and continued working. A few people were in the small house making chak-chak (dough similar to pie crust, which is cooked in long noodle like strands, and covered with honey); some men were cutting the meat into smaller pieces and tying it into bundles; and two women were cooking and cleaning the stomach. That’s when I went to sleep.

On a separate note, plans for the summer camp are moving along. With the local teachers, I wrote a grant. It is posted on the PCPP website:

http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.donors.volproj


If you know someone who would like to donate, please direct them to the website. The grant took a month to make it through the Peace Corps bureaucracy and onto the website. Translation: we are on a time crunch and need to have it funded by June 10.

05.28.07
The rest of last week was exhausting. The party lasted about 20 hours of every day, with people drinking vodka the whole time. By Sunday I was ready to leave the village and get back to my quite apartment.

05.29.07
Some things about life in Kyrgyzstan.

TRANSPORTATION. The public transportation system in Kyrgyzstan is quite fantastic. You can get to any place in the country without having your own vehicle. It takes a long time and the roads are rough, but its cheap. To go from Karakol to Jason’s village costs 120 som (less than $3.50) in a marshrutka. A marshrutka is a mini-bus – larger than a van and smaller than an actual bus. It generally seats 15 people, with room in the aisle for people to stand. We just go to the bus station or stand out on the road at any time of the day and eventually a marshrutka comes and picks us up. Taxis are another option. They’re more expensive and different from American taxis. If you are traveling a long distance, the price you pay is for 1 seat. That means at least 3 other passengers will be in the car with you. Some of the passengers bring 1-3 kids with them, which they don’t pay for. The kids sit on other passengers’ laps.

POSTAL SYSTEM. Kyrgyzstan has post offices and mail is delivered daily. The staff at the post office is about as unfriendly as they come. I don’t know why they’re so mean, but no amount of smiling, small talk and candy will change it. Kyrgyz people rarely, if ever, get personal mail. Many of them have never received a letter at home and don’t even know their zip codes. Mainly businesses receive mail.

PRODUCE. In the summer time, Karakol has a great selection of produce. Currently in the bazaar we can find lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, radishes, green onions, bell peppers, apples, cherries, bananas, oranges and lemons. This is in addition to the staple potatoes, carrots, cabbages, turnips, and onions.

GROCERIES. Karakol is starting to see more product choices. The selection of juice, candy, cookies and milk products is getting larger. We can buy dried and bagged soy, dried mushrooms, canned sardines, and frozen chicken. These products are offered at 3 small stores in town; and the stores are more highly priced than the bazaar.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Watch Out Mouthy Punks

The seminar is finished and was a success.  Two days before the seminar, I went to the university to confirm that we could still use the room.  They had cancelled us because the 'commission' came, but I have no idea what that means.  From the snatches of reality that I understand, it meant that everything I had planned for two months had to be redone in two days.  Luckily, I was able to find a new location and work out a new café for lunch in that short amount of time.  I had planned for 50 students to attend the seminar, and I was hoping at least 25 would show up.  We had a great turn-out with 43 students.

 

Last Friday was my first cooking class at the hotel.  I think it went well, though I can't tell if the trainees enjoyed it.  I'll find out if they let me teach again. 

 

The weather here is starting to warm up.  I took the plastic off of the windows and now I have a clear view of the outside world.  Being able to see the sky through my windows is a definite mood enhancer.  The apartment was starting to feel like a cage.  Soon there will be more fresh vegetables in the bazaar and we can have a more balanced diet than we've had lately. 

 

Wednesday, the 21st, is Nooruz.  I don't have any definite plans for the day, but I've heard there will be a concert in front of the university.  There has also been talk of an outing to the zoo.  Now we just need to keep our fingers crossed for good weather.

 

About two months ago, the U.S. Embassy opened an American Corner.  It's a decked out resource center that they pay for.  That's where I've been hosting my English club, although we had trouble with the staff.  One woman was always yelling at me in Russian so not only was she disrespecting me in front of my students, but I couldn't understand a word of it.  There was also a punk 'technician' who talked to us (volunteers) like we are stupid because we have accents.  First I tried to be diplomatic about it and talked to the director about having club there with support from the staff.  She was very receptive to the idea and said that the staff would give us whatever help we need.  That's not what actually happened.  After one particularly horrible day of dealing with them, I called the embassy and ratted out two of the staff members.  It worked.  My students and I have enjoyed club much more since the workers stopped acting like we were bedraggled mice that the cat dragged in.  I didn't want to pull the 'American card,' but it is our embassy that funds their resource center and pays their salaries.  I wasn't being unreasonable to want to host my English lesson there.  I think they all understand that now.



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Saturday, February 10, 2007

I Conquered Two Fears in One Day

Last weekend, I went to the mountains with Jason's host family. The uncle and his wife have a sweet set-up, with a house at the base of the mountains. The house is small, but only 2 people live there so its not cramped. The plot of land has a huge barn and animal pen with approximately 20-30 newborn kids and lambs. One of them was born an hour before we arrived. The mother's placenta was still lying on the ground, which was a little unsightly. But it's a natural occurrence in life.

I walked with the uncles to the end of the farm and they showed Jason and me their broken water pump. Jason is helping them write a grant to get a new pump (but the organization we were writing for may turn out to be too problematic). From the end of the farm I rode a horse (first time in my life!) back to the house. It was fantastic and I wasn't too scared once I got on. The horse was walking at the same pace as the guys. I guess I didn't have too much to be scared about.

At the house the women were preparing lunch, and they taught me to make some basic homemade noodles. Gulnara, Jason's host-mom, has been teaching me to cook different dishes. Ainash never really taught me any recipes because she was too busy. I feel like I'm moving in on his family a little bit. Especially since I don't have a host family anymore.

After lunch, we hiked up what I say is a mountain and Jason says was a large hill. Either way, it was tall for this heights-fearing girl. When I reached the top I felt like I had conquered the world…but then I had to climb back down. It wasn't a pretty site.

We headed back to the house and crashed for a little while. I was lying on the ground with the kids, when one of the toddlers through a cow's knee cap bone into the air. The knee cap landed between my eyes and it was painful. I have a history of being hit in the face by strange objects. This one did less damage than the other times, but I was dangerously close to tears. With 6 adults and 4 kids in the room, I had to hold them in. Luckily, I don't have any marks – just a quickly waning bruise. As a consolation, Eliza (the culprit) gave me a kiss to make my booboo feel better. That trick will always work for me.

Now for an update on my work in Karakol. I have several different projects keeping me busy these days – so busy I often feel like my head is spinning out of control.

  • I wrote a grant with Ecotrek for 4 new bicycles and equipment for Ecotrek, which was half-funded. It's a start.
  • I have English club 2 days a week for 2 hours each with high school and university students. Last week we talked about racism, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement. They thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and thanked me after club for teaching them so much. They were surprised that the US has these types of problems since it's a common belief that the US is perfect. Next week, our discussions will be about Martin Luther King, Jr., the history of Jazz and biographies of some artists, and Valentine's Day. I gave them a list of topics to choose from and this is what they've chosen. I am incredibly proud of them.
  • March 1st will be the Career Planning Seminar I've been working on. It will be a one day seminar for 10th & 11th form students to help them decide what to do after high school. It will also address issues such as gender roles in the work place and human trafficking. I hope it goes well.
  • At the new hotel in town, I am giving cooking lessons to the kitchen staff. Our first lesson was supposed to be in the coming week, but the head chef went on holiday. We're rescheduling in order for her to attend. They have requested breakfast foods first. The line-up of recipes will include biscuits & gravy, eggs Benedict, Irish soda bread, coffee cake, and whatever else I can think of.
  • With local English teachers and a youth volunteer organization, I am helping to plan a fairly large summer camp. It is called The Leadership & Development Camp 2007 and will be for 40 high school age students on a whole slew of sensitive topics (we'll have fun activities and delicious foods too). We spent the past few days writing a grant for the camp. Today I found out the organization I was writing the proposal for, might not let us know until late July/early August. My camp is in late June. We're still going to submit the grant, with a note that we would need the money in early June. If anyone knows of another organization that may be interested in funding the camp, please pass the information my way.
  • Take Our Daughters to Work Day will be coming to Karakol!!! I am going to match up successful women in Karakol with high school age girls. The girls will have a list of questions prepared to ask the women, and we will have related activities before and after the day.
  • The website is still waiting for information from Ecotrek. It's been 3 months that I've been asking for the information. Enough said. I'm also working on an Access database to keep track of their records and accounting.
  • Forestry project. I am working with some locals to write a grant for a tree nursery. After 5 years, the trees will be ready for planting throughout the mountains. In the meantime, Environmental Clubs will be established at local schools with gardens and eventually their own trees. It's a huge project and I'm a little nervous about it. Hopefully, I will have a successor that will oversee this project once I leave.

There are other, smaller projects that I work on as well but I can't list forever. I've become the person everyone comes to with a problem. It's good that people depend on me, but its also A LOT of responsibility. I feel too grown up and I want to revert back to my more irresponsible days.



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Monday, January 22, 2007

Christmas at the Orphanages

Christmas'06 may have been the most meaningful one I've had. A group of us volunteers, from around Lake Issyk-Kul, visited 2 orphanages and spent Christmas together. The first orphanage we went to has 90 children and each child is sponsored by 2-3 European organizations/individuals each. At that orphanage, we sang Christmas carols and handed out goody bags with cookies, candies and coloring pages. I was so nervous because we sang Christmas carols in front of all of them. They enjoyed it and even joined in during Deck the Halls (but it sounded much different from what the volunteers were singing. When we finished, they announced that they had a performance prepared for us. One boy sang Jingle Bells in Russian and one verse in English. We were very impressed that he had learned English for us. One girl sang a Russian song while doing a little dance, followed by another boy singing a Kyrgyz song. The grand finale was a 3 year old girl (the youngest one at the children's home) singing a Kyrgyz song.

On the second day, Christmas Eve, we traveled an hour to a smaller orphanage. It is a small home that was started 3 years ago by two Russian couples. With their own money. It houses 23 kids and they all call the couples Mom & Dad. There was a tangible feeling of family and love there. And the 'parents' of all those kids have such big hearts. I can't describe how wonderful and generous they were. We sang our carols for them and in return they handed out American candy for us. I gave mine back to the kids and they gobbled it right up. Some of the volunteers made homemade chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and sugar cookies which we had with tea. Afterwards we made Christmas tree ornaments and snowflakes with the kids. The best part of the whole two days was handing out presents to the kids. With small donations from us volunteers and a big one from my little brother, we bought cars, coloring & puzzle books, candy, stuffed animals, markers, colored pencils, a pool set, dartboard, a bead loom set and more for all of the kids. I was able to hand out gifts with Brenda and Lydia, which made me extremely happy. The kids were ecstatic, grateful and a little confused. I think we gave them the best Christmas they've ever had. It was an all-around fantastic holiday.





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