The beginning of my adventure has been thought provoking, relaxing, and pleasant. I’m writing this from my spacious room in a village called Esik outside of Almaty (the former capital). The view from my room is of the rolling foothills that lead to a majestic and severe mountain range. My host family has been wonderful to me. They feed me constantly and are patient with my limited Russian. My host mother is a superwoman, not unlike my own mom. She cooks three fantastic meals a day, cleans and organizes the house, works at a micro-loan company, and is a patient and kind mother. She gets a lot of help from the Babushka (grandmother) who calls me her seventh son. We’ve become good friends, and one of my favorite times of day now is when we sit and talk while drinking chai (tea) after dinner. I also have two host sisters, Madina who’s ten, and Tameris who’s two and a half. Madina is sweet and kind enough to help me out with my homework, and who is definitely now my bro. Tameris is a crazed, cute, unpredictable, and strong-willed toddler who now has claimed me as her own. I’m not sure how I feel about being owned by a two year old, but I’m not brave enough to argue with her. I think she was bit jealous of the attention that her mom gives me, so I tried to make up for that with numerous offerings of chocolates, cookies, more attention, and carrying her up to bed when she passes out head in tiny little arms at the dinner table. Babushka constantly tells me to eat and has long conversations with me in Russian that I barely understand a word of. It’s really fun to just hang out and talk to her while watching Turkish soap operas. She has these skylish salmon colored coke bottle glasses that she rocks when she watches her late night soaps. When the host dad is home he constantly yells at her to turn down the tv, and after she does, she sneakily turns it up when she thinks no one is looking. Priceless.
I’ve been walking through the bazaar (market) every day on my way to Russian class. When I walk through in the morning, the sky is pink with the morning sunrise, and the sellers are all quietly putting up their stalls. There’s a pleasant sleepiness and anticipation in the air. When it’s at full capacity, the bazaar is a hot, loud, and smelly mesh of people, food, things, bees, and dogs. A glacial river runs through the middle of it, and when you stand on the bridge crossing the river, you’re treated to a picture perfect view of snow capped mountains. I mentioned the dogs in the bazaar, but those are just the tame strays that are looking for human handouts. When I wake up before sunrise to run on less congested roads, it’s the dogs who own the streets. I’ve lived and traveled in many countries with stray dogs, but never before have I seen anything like the mangy predators in Esik. My first week here I faced a pack of at least sixteen dogs while trying to run next to the river. My usual technique of threatening to throw my stone and carrying on my way was rendered useless, as these dogs had absolutely no fear of me. I was reduced to throwing stones while backpeddling before hightailing it back to human-controlled territory.
Running is really the only time that I wear casual clothes outside the house, and this constantly wearing formal clothes has been difficult to get used to. I don’t mind swaggering through the bazaar in dress pants, dress shoes, and a shirt and tie in the morning, but I’m over the romanticism of it sweating through the same outfit at the end of the day. However, the culture of professionalism in appearance here, is definitely part of what makes it interesting to be a volunteer in Kazakhstan. Coming from the ivory tower of an elite liberal arts education in Saint Paul Minnesota, the importance of constantly dressing to impress is just another aspect of culture shock.
Before I left the US, it felt as though the entire world was collapsing: floods in Pakistan, countless problems in Haiti, worsening of both of our mindless wars as the United States was “ending” its combat mission in Iraq, and further humiliation and mutilation of Palestinians by the state of Israel. So what am I doing going to Kazakhstan to teach English? Well frankly, it is really hard to find ways to use my skills and energies in any of the regions listed above, but if anyone has any ideas, please let me know. But I digress, I’m enjoying being in an entirely new part of the world, learning a different language, and hopefully making a difference in a few people’s lives. Not that I have shaken the feeling that this might be just another period of self-indulgence disguised as volunteer work, but I hope to be able to do something when I’m here. It’s hard to know what is and will be possible, as I’ve yet to receive or see my permanent site where I’ll be working for two years. Anyways, the short story is that life is good, extremely busy, and full of food and thoughts about the meaning of life. Love and Peace,