July 2, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kazakstan: Blogs - Kazakstan: Personal Web Site: Merrill wrties about her Peace Corps service in Kazakstan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Kazakstan : Peace Corps Kazakhstan : The Peace Corps in Kazakstan: July 2, 2005: Headlines: COS - Kazakstan: Blogs - Kazakstan: Personal Web Site: Merrill wrties about her Peace Corps service in Kazakstan

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Merrill wrties about her Peace Corps service in Kazakstan

Merrill wrties about her Peace Corps service in Kazakstan

About half of the volunteers live in towns and cities and the other half need headlamps for nightly trips to the outhouse. The most I really have to “rough it” is that sometimes there is no hot water, I use a really old soviet-style washing machine, and you can’t drink the water. Part of me feels like it’s too easy – I’ll have to visit some volunteer in a nearby village and try roughing it for a weekend.

Merrill wrties about her Peace Corps service in Kazakstan

Saturday, July 02, 2005
The details
Well, I haven’t updated in awhile and it’s primarily due to a pretty quiet daily routine. I’ve been confronted with the reality of the language barrier. I am not going to be useful until I can speak and understand Russian at a more proficient level…I’m hoping for September. For the last week I have felt pretty discouraged by the situation – but I have reevaluated my expectations and goals and toned it all down a bit. With a lot of good advice and rational thoughts from several good friends I’m feeling a lot better. My organization is also preparing for a conference, taking place in August, so I’m hoping that afterwards my director might be more open to some of the things I have been hoping to discuss.

Since I have little to report on in regard to my work and life, now is a great chance to write about all of the details that several people have asked me to comment on. So here we go.

Life in Kazakhstan depends very much on where you live. Life in a city is different from life in a town or village and life in northern Kazakhstan is different from life in the south. I can only comment on my life...in a relatively small town in southeastern Kazakhstan.

Taldykorgan has a population of about 120,000 people. The majority of the population are Kazakh (I believe around 70%), the remainder are Russian, Korean, Ugor, Tarter, Chechen, and I’m sure some more. For the most part villages, cities, and towns in southern Kazakhstan are more influenced by Kazakh culture whereas the north has a lot of Russian influence. Taldy has a wonderful bazaar and every street has many magazines (food/ misc. stores). There are no supermarkets in town; you shop daily by getting what you need from the bazaar and the magazines.

My life is not that different from life back home. I packed a headlamp thinking I would be using an outhouse for two years – and I have yet to use one. Towns and cities have apartments (Karteras) which are equipped with toilets, electricity, and showers. About half of the volunteers live in towns and cities and the other half need headlamps for nightly trips to the outhouse. The most I really have to “rough it” is that sometimes there is no hot water, I use a really old soviet-style washing machine, and you can’t drink the water. Part of me feels like it’s too easy – I’ll have to visit some volunteer in a nearby village and try roughing it for a weekend J From what I have heard most people living in villages have to pump water from a well, there are obviously no showers, electricity is erratic if they have it at all, and it’s all about the outhouse. So you can see these are very different lifestyles in a very close proximity. Along with the apartments in town there are also houses – and I think most of the houses are without running water and maybe flushing toilets (not certain of this). I actually asked my director if it would be possible to rent a house instead of an apartment when I move out in a few months. It might just be a fleeting feeling – but I think I want to try and experience something totally different than what is possible in the states. Now I move out in October or November – so the superior heating systems of apartments might cause me to quickly abandon this little dream. Speaking of the houses, I love them. Some are clean, quaint, and cottage-like; while others are not so cute and practically falling down. But every house I have seen has a beautiful garden where people grow there own fruits and vegetables – it’s amazing. I take pictures of the houses on my walk to work – I probably look like a crazy inastranka (foreigner). My tutor, Nadia, lives with her family and their house is the perfect example of living self-sufficiently. They grow almost every fruit and vegetable you could want and have a cow for milk, turkeys, chickens, and a goat. They may have little in terms of money but they are almost completely self-sufficient. I think it’s amazing and I love spending time with her family – they feel like my second family already.

Jobs. There really isn’t much industry in Taldy. It became the Regional Oblast Center a few years ago – which means there are a lot of government jobs in the local akimat. Since becoming the ROC a lot of money has been invested into the town’s infrastructure – from what I have heard the town has come a long way in the last 5 years. Aside from that it seems like working/owning magazines, selling in the bazaar, and driving are among the most visible professions. I say driving and not taxi because there really aren’t taxi’s here. You just put your hand out – a car stops – you ask how much (po chom) – and you get in. They call them gypsy cabs but I don’t really like that. It seems almost anyone will pick you up because I never wait more than a minute before someone stops. There are also many schools in town so along with the professions listed there are a lot of teachers and professors. There are around 10 institutes and colleges in town – so for the kids who don’t go to study in Almaty they stay here. I don’t really know much more about jobs in town – it doesn’t seem like there are too many employment options – but when I learn more I’ll update. One more thing - I can say that even though there are a multitude of magazines and random shops they all seem to sell the same thing – the entrepreneurial spirit of the people could use a refresher course. No one seems to mind that all of the kafes are the same and all of the magazines are the same so I doubt anything will change in the near future.

People. I’m guessing this is a remnant of soviet times – but there is no smiling at strangers on the street. The smiling “ya’ll come back now” brand of customer service found in the states is not found here – it’s the minimalist’s brand of capitalism – I don’t think they care if you come back. But, people are more than hospitable once you are in their home and a friend. On the street or in the store I’ve just come to get used to the stoic expressions around every turn. Of course this isn’t everyone – occasionally I’ll meet a friendly stranger who wants to know where I’m from – and their smile usually gets me through an entire day feeling good. When it comes to friends and family - the culture is incredibly open. The people here embrace ghosting, which is showing up at someone’s home (often unannounced) and drinking chai, eating, and talking for hours. Really, any time you go into someone’s home it turns into a chai and cookie ghosting experience. If you are eating dinner and someone comes over unannounced a plate is instantly put on the table – I have frequently witnessed this – it’s usually another volunteer in my case.

Food. Well, maybe this is culturally insensitive but I am not a big fan of the food. The food varies here – there is Kazakh food which is basically meat (horse, goat, whatever) and then there is traditional Russian fare. Kazakhstan is a mix of both cultures so at every Kafe you can find both borsht (Russian) and beshparmok (Kazakh). If I were to generalize I would say there’s a lot of (fried) dough, (fried) potatoes, meat, and cucumber and tomato salad. I really had enough of the food after the first 10 weeks of training so I pretty much insisted on cooking for myself when I got to Taldy. My Babushka is now used to my tofu, curry, and peanut butter and pretty much leaves me alone in the kitchen. I have one exception – borscht – I absolutely love borscht – and she makes that for me.

Religion. Although there is a church and a mosque in Taldy I have yet to meet anyone who is religious. Kazakhs were nomadic people so religion never played an important role in their life – I’m guessing this explains the religious ambivalence. I am waiting to find someone who attends Russian Orthadox mass and someone who will take me to the mosque – but it seems like it may take awhile. Regardless, I can here the call to prayer from my bedroom – it is a very peaceful sound and I love waking up and falling asleep to the sound. Since Kazakhstan was a land inhabited by nomadic people there are no major historic sites or monuments. The one exception is Turkistan, a religious city in the southwestern corner of Kazakhstan. This is a holy city and one of the few places with amazing architecture.

I’m hesitant to say anything negative on the site – so all I will say is that there is corruption in this country. It is ingrained and seems accepted because it is all they have known – I don’t know if it will change any time soon. It is far reaching, from high levels of society that I know very little about to every day life such as me trying to swim in the local pool and trying to wade through the bureaucracy of attaining my health card that could be “taken care of” if I gave them 850 Tenge. It’s frustrating because when people see me – they see white, American, money. Needless to say I did not pay the 850 T – I’m showing them the other side of America…poor and stubborn.

Well, this turned into a really long entry. I will be out of the technology loop for two weeks while I work at a local summer camp. It is supposed to be in an absolutely beautiful area and my friend Erika (she is a volunteer from Taraz) will be working with me so I am sure it will be a great time. As usual I miss all of you and I hope all is well – I’ll update when I get back!

I’m a few days late because I haven’t blogged but it was my brother Joel’s birthday a few days ago and he is now 13!!!! Happy Birthday Joel – I love you!!!!

When this story was posted in June 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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