Site Placement and Snowstorms

I’ve had an interesting week. I woke up last Friday and couldn’t understand why light seemed to shine through my window at six in the morning. However, I quickly saw that the little light outside was reflecting off a soft layer of snow blanketing the ground, and that it was still floating down in the silent pre-dawn air. The quiet was partly because it was early in the morning, and partly because the town had lost power. No matter where you are in the world, or when it happens, the first snowfall of the year is magical. There’s something profound about the changing of the seasons, especially when it’s
accompanied by something so gentle and beautiful. I was excited to finally have a reason to put on one of my many pairs of wool socks, and lace up my winter boots. Walking to school to teach my last class felt like a dream as I made my way through the crystallized bazaar and looked out at the white
mountains.

My final class was the perfect storm. I was teaching an extra, unscheduled class in order to complete my five-class until plan, which was not in the normal classroom or at the normal time for my students. Because the teacher who’s class time I was taking over justifiably looked at this hour as unscheduled vacation time, I was the only teacher in the room. Most importantly however, there was five inches of snowball-making material on the ground. I’ll just say that there was a lot of energy in the classroom, and fifteen minutes into class I had to stop and carefully explain to the fifth graders, complex theories of communal responsibility and the idea of a clean slate. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I used my years of Lebanese guilt, and turned it on a group of unsuspecting ten year-old’s. The end of the class was smooth sailing.

It was the last class of pre-service training for our teaching/language group, so that evening we all bundled up and hiked to a cafe we like for beers and shashleek (meat kabobs). It was a simultaneously relaxing and intensely stressful few drinks, because we were all nervous for the announcement of
our permanent site placement the next day. Because of this though, the cozy candle-lit cafe was the perfect way to spend the night before hearing our fates. On a side note, having host families and living all across town has made for fascinating walks in the dark as we make our way home from these cheep and cheerful bars. Needless to say, the gaping holes in the sidewalk discourages outrageous drunkenness and encourages natural selection. Very Darwinian.

There’s a saying in Peace Corps, which goes something like this: “ There are two types of Peace Corps experiences, posh corps and (something else that rhymes with diss) corps.” Now I’m sure there are some people that really take this saying to heart, and I might be one of them in time. Right now however, I see this as merely saying that in Peace Corps there is a huge gradient in terms of material comfort and isolation between the different volunteer work sites.

On paper however, my site looks pretty far on one end of that gradient. I’m going to a small town/village called Sergeyevka in the North Kazakhstan oblast (state/province). North Kazakhstan is a two-day train ride straight north from Almaty (where I currently reside), nestled right under Russia. It is a pioneer site, which means I’ll be the first volunteer to ever work there, and it is about 180 kilometers from the nearest big city, and therefore 180 kilometers from the nearest volunteer. I was told that there’s a good chance that I will be unable to move out on my own, because most of the apartment complexes have fallen into disrepair since the soviet times. I was also told that the typical Kazakhstani problem of losing running water probably will not be a problem for me. That is, because there is supposedly no running water in the Sergeyevka.

Needless to say, I felt a mixture of excitement and abject horror when I finally opened my site information envelope and read the limited information about my site. Pioneer sites are have pretty limited information for obvious reasons. However, I was struck by a flash of joy when I read one tiny line: “ The best place for skiing!” I briefly imagined myself coming back to the United States after two years of intense training, teaching, and basically saving the world, to ski competitively, maybe even go to the Olympic trials. I was quickly brought back down to Earth when I asked my regional manager about this tiny comment. She looked at me excited and said, “ Oh yes! I saw on your resume that you’re quite a skier, and…there’s a lot of snow up there!” Ok, I thought, not good, but there still might be hope,
so I asked if there were many ski trails in Sergeyevka. She replied that she didn’t know, but there aren’t many houses and there is a lot of snow. I’m not going to get my hopes up about that one.

It’s difficult not to obsess over where I’m going and what I’ll be doing. But staring outside at the frosty black night, and feeling an entire Kazakhstan (brand name, best chocolate ever) bar of chocolate in my stomach, I’m struck by a passing sense of contentment that probably brought on by the endorphins from the chocolate, my general sleepiness, and the meditative tick of my watch. I know that I’m not quite right in the head, because I’m growing a mustache, listening to too much Bob Dylan, and eating copious amounts of chocolate whenever I can. However, I guess there’s definitely weirder shit that I could be getting into, and I’m going to take it as a compliment that Peace Corps thinks I can handle having a crazy remote pioneer site, maybe actually the most remote in Kazakhstan, in the far north,
with the wolves, vodka, and saunas. Or I guess it could also mean that they’re tired of me and figure what better place to send me. Either way, I’m going north soon.

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3 Responses to Site Placement and Snowstorms

  1. Mary McCrossan says:

    Wow Collin!
    I have many mixed emotions after reading your latest post. I smiled knowingly and nodded approvingly at your success in controlling rambunctious 5th graders. I felt the bittersweet tone of your evening out with your colleagues after your final day of your initial assignment. By the end of the post I felt proud for you but also concerned about the challenges you will face. I admire your positive attitude and courage as you face the unknown. I know you will have the experience of a lifetime! Finally, I empathize with your family and friends who are not going to be as upbeat as you are about the remote location of your assignment. I hope and pray that you will have internet access! I will pray for your continued success, safety, health, and happiness! Good luck and God bless you. You are about to embark on an incredible adventure!
    Love,
    Mary

  2. Patty says:

    Collin-

    I have been so impressed with your writing! I hope to gain your permission to use some of your essays for my classes to read! Perhaps we can start a class project between what will be your class and my own! You are in my prayers; I know that God is watching over you!

    Auntie Patty

  3. Randy Cousins says:

    Collin,
    Have you left yet? Have you arrived at your new site? Let us know how it is and how you’re adjusting.
    Will be thinking of you as we gather here for Thanksgiving here in a couple of weeks.
    Be well and as Grandpa would say, be careful.
    Randy

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