Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Living on my Own: Finding Paradise in a Childhood Nightmare

When I was younger, I was always haunted by thoughts of failure. I had a vision of myself living in the worst part of town, in a small rental with peeling paint and broken gray tile, rusting exposed pipes and chipped enamel bathroom fixtures, in a building with broken windows, no lights but several drunks in the stairs—overall, a place covered in a mist of poverty and despair. That vision is now an accurate depiction of the apartment I’ve been living in for the past seven months.

As I wrote earlier, nearly all cities and towns of the former Soviet Union have the same feel—endless blocks of identical, usually five-story, concrete and cheaply constructed flats. These housing units were rapidly built in the late fifties and sixties under Nikita Khrushchev to provide every Soviet citizen with a home. Today, they are still called Khrushchyovki. The residential neighborhoods in which these structures are located usually contain plenty of open space between the buildings. The open space has a few trees, but is mostly leftover dirt from the construction. Yet these spaces are highly utilized by the residents to relax, beat carpets, play cards, gossip, and for the kids, to run around and play soccer. Despite resembling some of the worst American inner-city projects, these neighborhoods have much more of an “alive feel” than the one in which I grew up and actually remind me of the street scenes in photographs of old New York.

My apartment is located in such an area and is pretty typical. The entrance and stairwell are extremely sketch, dark, and falling apart. But once you open a door, a comfy and bright apartment is presented to you. Mine is two rooms (apartments are described by number of rooms, not bedrooms) with a kitchen and separated toilet and bath areas. The living room is basically the only room I occupy. Typically, it is long and narrow and it is decorated with brown floral print carpet, brown and black patterned chairs, and a brownish zebra print futon. There is also a circular white patio table that I use as a desk and satellite TV. At the far end there is a door that leads to my balcony (almost every apartment has a balcony) where I hang my clothes to dry. A few stuffed animals and other knick-knacks are thrown about, but my favorite piece of décor is a decorative wooden shaft about a foot tall and with a carved eagle head on top that conceals a knife. I call it “L.J.” My bedroom is a much smaller room with a double bed, a vanity table and mirror, and a closet. I rarely sleep in this room because in both winter and summer it is too hot.

The kitchen is perhaps my favorite place, most likely because it is here that I can finally prepare food that I like, in the quantity that I need, and at the times that I want. Against the wall there is a Soviet era stove, a washing machine (real Peace Corps, right?) with a single cabinet above, and a sink. Most of the room is taken up by a medium size table and wrap-around seating. The room has a comfortable nook feel and due to the juxtaposition of the stove, table, and seating I can cook a whole meal without having to even stand up.

The switch to my own place has been ideal, although I still have a close relationship with my host family. It gives me greater independence and offers me more challenges to overcome. I’ve had to deal with broken appliances, water shutoffs, and a hysterical neighbor pounding on my door at midnight yelling that I was flooding her apartment. And even though I am in a sense living a childhood nightmare, I couldn’t be happier about my surroundings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kyrgyzstan: A Brief Visit to Kazakhstan’s Forgotten Sibiling

At the end of June, my friends Tim, Phil, and I took a weeklong trip to Kazakhstan’s southern neighbor—Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is considered the country most similar to Kazakhstan in the region. The Kyrgyz are genetically and linguistically very similar to the Kazakhs and in fact have often been referred to in Soviet times as “mountain Kazakhs.” But whereas the empty steppes of Kazakhstan hid fantastic riches of oil and minerals, mountainous Kyrgyzstan was blessed with only water. Thus despite close relations, there is great economic disparity between the two countries. We decided to check it out and after a frustrating acquisition of visas, we caught a taxi from Almaty to the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek!
Arriving at the Bishkek bus station was like entering the mirror world of Almaty. Yes, the bus station was the same Soviet monstrosity, and there were the same cab drivers with their ladas waiting outside, and even the same majestic Alatau Mountains towered over the city. But the whole scene was poorer, the mountains were to the north, and the lada-driving hagglers were screeching “Almaty, Almaty, leaving for Almaty” as opposed to the Bishkek-calling drivers to the north.
Thinking we were poor tourists, we decided to walk to downtown Bishkek. A woman selling piroshkis told us we had “to walk a very, very, very long time…about 500 meters” before we got to the main road. After that epic trek, we arrived in downtown Bishkek and witnessed a much poorer version of Kazakhstan. There was very little new construction, the people had the same fashion of small town Kazakhs, and aside from some new Kyrgyz symbols of independence the whole capital had a provincial Soviet feel. Yet being from Balkhash, I like these smaller Central Asian towns and the people were in general friendlier than their neighbors to the north. One thing that startled me, however, was the greater number of tourists and facilities to accommodate them. There were several souvenir shops in town and unlike the single one in Almaty, they were all packed with foreigners. Kazakhstan might be richer, but apparently tourists prefer the mountains and lakes of Kyrgyzstan to modern cities and barren steppes.
We explored central Bishkek for a few hours and then headed up into the hills to celebrate the 4th of July at the American Embassy. The embassy was built more like a base in an occupied country than a friendly “Hello!” to the host country. I am probably not allowed to say anymore about this. Anyway, once we passed some intense security the atmosphere was definitely that of a traditional Midwestern 4th of July BBQ. There was beer, real American burgers and buns brought in from the nearby US military base, festive red, white, and blue hats, and even those chocolate-chip cookie ice-cream sandwiches! There is a surprisingly large American community in Bishkek ranging from the typical NGO staffers to interning business lawyers. We met up with some local PCVs and exchanged stories. Their experience is a lot more “real Peace Corps” and one volunteer explained how in his waterless village, his host grandmother cleans the dishes with spit and her thumb.
That night we caught an overnight marshrutka to Karakol, a provincial town with easy access to mountain treks and Issyk Kul, one of the largest and highest alpine lakes in the world. The town has only 60,000 people, but at the time we were there it had eleven PC volunteers (Balkhash has 80,000 people and two volunteers). The volunteers showed us around town and introduced us to ashlyanfu, a Dungan soup with cold noodles, vinegar, and eggs. Yet the best part of Karakol is the Sunday Animal Bazaar. Herders from all over arrive in Chevy pickup trucks filled with sheep while others bring in cows and horses. The prize animals are sheep, whose worth is less in their meat or wool, but more in their ass (or fat tails). Some of the sheep had so much “rear-end” fat that it almost matched the weight of the rest of their body! Many of the Kyrgyz traders wore the traditional kolpak, a tall, white felt, four-sided hat with black thread detail work on each panel. These hats are a bit ridiculous-looking to an outsider and appear to be more cumbersome than useful. Overall, this place had a true Central Asian feel—obscure nationalities in odd outfits trading in animals in the shadow of great mountain ranges. For one of the first times in my life, I was experiencing a world of which Western media and education had not already given me a pre-conceived notion.
After a few days in Karakol, we hiked 15 kilometers up the Alatau Mountains and into the valley of Altyn Arashan. The walk was fairly easy and rather than the cold and rain of the previous days, it was quite sunny and warm. We arrived in the valley in the afternoon and arranged to stay in a yurt at the Yak Tours guesthouse. A yurt is a traditional Central Asian nomadic dwelling that resembles a squashed teepee and is covered with felt. In the evening, the proprietor of the guesthouse served us and some Polish travelers laghman and shashlik, played some songs on the guitar, and we all had a great time. At one point, Phil took over the guitar and Tim was accosted by two Polish men, was forced to drink vodka, and eventually he promised to meet up with them in Poland. That night we fell asleep exhausted with the sound of a glacial river roaring past our yurt.
With only a few days left in our journey, we decided to head to the most touristy part of Kyrgyzstan—Chopa Ata. The town is situated on the northern shore of Issyk Kul and is the tourist destination for Russians and wealthy Kazakhs. We met up with a local volunteer who showed us around and let us crash at her place. The town had some great facilities and decent cafes, but locals said that these places were designed for the “wealthy Kazakhs” and that the Kyrgyz cannot of course afford such amenities. It was remarkable that the locals I am assisting in Peace Corps are considered well off and privileged in the region. We spent the day at the lake, which is the same Caribbean blue as Balkhash but freezing cold since it is fed by glacial water. Although it is one of the largest lakes in Asia, one can still see a hazy view of the majestic Alatau Mountains on the other side. The following morning we left the town and after a quick transfer in Bishkek, I was back in Almaty that same afternoon. Although only a few hours away, Kyrgyzstan felt like a continent away from the glass towers and new Lexus SUVs of Almaty.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Last Bell

On May 25th, my school celebrated the Last Bell, symbol for the end of the year. For me, the Last Bell marked the conclusion of my role as an official teacher (although I will still have to teach for two months next school year). The end of my second year teaching was a bit more of a struggle than usual. My counterpart was absent for most of our lessons and my students had finally become comfortable enough to disobey me. I had one 8th grader storm out of my lesson when I didn’t review his class-work first. Another 10th grade girl was brazen enough to tell me she couldn’t participate in one of our class activities because she was doing her math homework. Yet aside from the decline in discipline, my counterpart’s absence afforded me much greater freedom over the lesson plans and ensuring continuity between them. Without any guilt, I tossed aside the textbook and taught themes I thought were important and which were fun for me—like maps! I spent more of my time working with the stronger students, a complete reversal from my prior strategy. For several of my advanced 11th graders, I held a separate seminar where I taught about and then we discussed American history. It’s impossible to quantify any results, but I feel that for the past two years I was patient and gave these students my all and that I did manage to have an impact.

This spring also witnessed the second annual American English Competition of Balkhash (AECB), a region-wide English competition that I and my fellow local PCVs started. Fifteen schools and almost 250 students from the 7th to 11th grades participated in the event. The competition had two-rounds—a general written portion focused on grammar and writing followed by an oral-round interview with the finalists. My goals for this year were 1) to make sure it occurred and 2) to lay the groundwork for locals and future PCVs to take over when I leave. On both counts, I succeeded. The AECB is now a known and respected event in the city and the local government and school board is invested in ensuring its survival. In addition, volunteers from other towns helped us conduct the event and they plan on organizing similar events at their sites.

Now that school is over, I am livin’ up my last summer as a Peace Corps volunteer. I just returned from a month long vacation that included Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan (more on that in my next blog). Situated on one of the largest lakes in Asia, Balkhash is an ideal summer location. The broad promenade along the harbor is full of people, outdoor cafes, and shashlik (grilled meat on a skewer) stands. Despite the “crisis,” the town is a lot livelier this summer. There are now two small amusement parks, cotton candy and popcorn stands are everywhere, and we even have a doner kebab place! I also discovered some nearby villages with much better beaches than the harbor and factory-polluted ones that I went to last year.

Aside from these everyday attractions, the town is busy with festivals and other events. Last week the soccer team of Kazakhmys, the company that runs our factory, played against the “Africa” team in our town stadium. I went to the game, but I am still confused on some of the details. The scoreboard just labeled the team “Africa” and the players were black and foreign. However, no one could tell me whether they were from a specific African country or why on earth they would come to Balkhash. Anyway, they lost 3-0. This weekend was the town’s most important celebration—Metallurgist Day. There were skydivers, an evening concert on the promenade, and other festivities. The event also coincided with an international bikers rally in town.

The summer is also a time of work for me and I have several projects that will keep me busy. I am currently organizing an English Leadership Camp that will begin next week and last for two weeks (more on that later). In August, I will conduct a workshop for local English teachers in Balkhash and then take part in another seminar in northern Kazakhstan.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The End of Winter

In Kazakhstan, seasons always begin on the first of the month—summer begins on the 1st of June, winter on the 1st of December, etc. So today is my last day of winter in Kazakhstan and I’ll recall some of the more memorable events of the season:

On January 19th, I celebrated my first Russian Orthodox holiday—Kreshenya. This holiday is the equivalent of Epiphany in Western Churches, which Wikipedia hazily describes as either the coming of the three Magi or the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. In Russian Orthodoxy, it is a holiday during which priests bless the water. In the morning, I went to a classic Russian onion-domed church and took part in the two-hour ritual. An Orthodox service is very different from the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant services I’ve been to. In a large room without pews, churchgoers crowd in and stand. The vast majority of the worshippers were elderly women and all were Russian (interestingly, it doesn’t seem there was an effort, or at least not a successful one, to convert Kazakhs). The entire service is ritual; there is no sermon, personal prayer, or even interaction amongst the worshipers. Priests and a hidden group of women chant while the priests swing incense globes, open and close the gates of the shrine, and carry the bible around the room. While the priests chant, the worshippers repeat certain phrases and cross themselves in sets of three. After this ceremony, the old women pass up glass jars or plastic bottles of water for the priest to bless en masse. Many of these babushkas came late to the ceremony and proceeded to pass up their open water containers to the front, getting most of the congregation wet in the process.

After the church ceremony, the priests lead the worshippers to the frozen lake for the final blessing. I was told that this half-kilometer walk was supposed to be a sacrifice. I laughed this off at first because the distance was so short, but after five minutes of walking at a snail’s pace in the freezing cold in a narrow column of pushy babushkas I discovered the sacrifice. But this procession was interesting. In front, the priests and a singing female trio carry tall crosses and icons and lead chanting, which the worshippers repeat. When we got to the lake, there were probably over a hundred worshippers present. There was a large cross carved into the ice exposing the water and a wooden ladder attached to one end. The main priest blessed the water for half an hour and afterwards, invited his congregation to jump in the water. Few of the actual worshippers did, but dozens of secular men and women jumped and they quickly turned this solemn event into a college party.

A few weeks after this event, I arrived at my classroom ready to teach and was greeted by my students playing with two AK-47s, the automatic gun of choice for rebels around the world. They were practicing disassembling and reassembling them and loading magazines. For safety, the students practicing with the bullets and cartridges were a good two meters away from the students playing with the real guns and empty magazines. Unfortunately, the teacher who was observing left at one point and one of my crazy students took a gun, attached a full magazine, and proceeded to point the now loaded gun at the students. Preferring not to be shot, I abdicated my role as only teacher and just watched the scene.

So why were students playing with AK-47s in my classroom? Interestingly enough, it was for the purpose of peace. On February 5th my school celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is odd that they choose to celebrate this event instead of just forgetting about it the way Americans forget Vietnam. Those who recall the war say that it is important to remember what happened in Afghanistan so that future generations will avoid war (cough, cough). To mark the occasion, my school held a military competition where students from different schools competed in a range of army related activities from marching and assembling an AK-47 to eating and getting dressed quickly. Although Kazakhstan is a country that shuns the idea of war, all of its students—boys and girls—are prepared to join the army in a moment’s notice.

The other notable event of winter was my host dad’s 50th year jubilee. Although this occasion is probably important in all cultures, Kazakhs treat it as an event as monumental as a wedding. In fact during the preparation, my host family would frequently and accidentally refer to as a wedding. So like a wedding, hundreds of guests are invited. I think around 250 attended this one. The event takes place in a banquet all. People are seated at tables piled high with food, which keeps getting replenished. Much vodka, of course, is served. There is an MC, professional dancers and singers, and a video guy. And like all Kazakh events, toasts! Yes, we have toasts in America, but Kazakhs push this tradition to the limit. Every person present (remember, 250) must give a lengthy toast. Groups of four to ten are brought to the front of the room where they each speak for a few minutes about the greatness of the honored person, who must remaining standing the whole time. When it was my time, I pulled out the classic triumvirate—a toast in English, Russian, and Kazakh. Although I know very little of the Kazakh language, Kazakhs go crazy with excitement when you say even the simplest of words. When I finished, everyone cheered and I was mauled by an overly affectionate Kazakh man.

In so many ways, American and Kazakhstani cultures are so similar that it is easy to be disappointed at the lack of culture shock initially. But in celebrations— religious, national, or family—the real differences emerge and they are a hell of a lot of fun!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Returning from the Land of Normalcy

For three-weeks at the end of December, I revisited “reality” and “the normal life,” ie the United States. The previous sixteen months I had spent in Kazakhstan was the longest unbroken period I had been in one country, including the United States. In Kazakhstan I live with a family, have a real job, and converse almost exclusive with locals (in Russian). In essence, I’ve become integrated in a community significantly different from my native one. Thus for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to view my home country with partially foreign eyes. Below I recount some of the differences I observed between the United States and Kazakhstan.

On the third or fourth day I was back in New York, I was riding on the subway staring at a man wearing a hat that read South Africa. I was wondering if he was a tourist and why he was becoming all fidgety when my mom yanked my shirt and told me to stop making that man feel so uncomfortable. Apparently, I had forgotten one of the main survival rules in New York—No Staring! At least in New York, there is a mindset that one should not violate a stranger’s personal space by interacting with him or her. Such rules and mindsets are completely absent in Balkhash. In a similar situation with reversed roles, I was on a train going to Karaganda in which there were also a bunch of Balkhash students from another school. As soon as one of the girls identified who I was to the rest of the group, they all began to trade the information that they had heard about me. They pointed at me, laughed, and spoke about me loudly in Russian. Although they never engaged me, I actually didn’t feel that awkward. I understood that I was still something of a novelty and they were just interested.

And I guess this leads to the general difference in attitude towards privacy. Back in the United States, my space was MY SPACE. I needed my own room to which I could withdraw when I wanted to be on my own. Peace Corps recognizes this sentiment and requires that all volunteers living with a host family have their own room with a lock. So I was a little surprised when I returned back to Balkhash two weeks ago and saw that my room was turned into the computer room/a continuation of the family room. Although it is still my room, my two host sisters regularly come in and work on the computer even when I am sleeping. But what was the biggest shock? I didn’t actually care that much. I could say it was because I understood in Kazakh culture privacy from family members is non-existent and I wanted to be open-minded and accepting. But that type of logic doesn’t work on me. Instead, I guess I had already adjusted to “how things are” in Kazakhstan. I still think having privacy is required in my life, but I am glad that I can now live in a place where privacy doesn’t really translate over.

My favorite difference, however, is over political stances. I know Peace Corps completely frowns upon engaging in political conversation, but locals always confront me so it is fine to respond. From the summer war in Georgia to the recent Russian-Ukrainian gas row, locals receive a completely different set of facts and opinions. The main news stations in Kazakhstan are based in Russia and they broadcast what I initially thought was pure dribble. For example, when reporting on the Georgian war, footage of the Georgian president Saakashvili speaking was phased out by nearly identical footage of Hitler speaking at rallies and then followed by Saakashvili surrounded by religious Jews speaking at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem (I don’t get the last message…controlled by the Jews?). Anyway, this really irritated me and anytime I tried to argue the opposite side people would pull out either total lies or irrelevant facts. I blamed it all on the Russian media and thought that if the locals just 1) watched Western news sources only and 2) recognized that they were much less biased than Russian ones, then everyone would know the truth and be happy. But after visiting the United States I recognized that Americans are just as ignorant of the “true” facts, blame Russians for everything, and watch media that is also heavily and unjustifiably biased. I’m still an ardent American patriot but I no longer spend so much energy trying to convince locals of the unwavering righteousness of American actions. I still argue and still hold very different opinions, but I prefer to spend my political talk time just learning their opinions and questioning their justifications. I continue to believe that people here have a very skewed sense of the global reality (as do Americans), but for the first time I have learned to deal with it and not force my opinions.

And now the most important difference: locals in Kazakhstan do not get hurt. The other day, my new site mate Christina and I were walking on frozen Lake Balkhash when we came across a huge cross (12 feet long) carved into the ice and some kids playing near the exposed water. She wanted to warn them and I advised her that there is nothing to fear; people simply don’t get hurt. As I described earlier, Balkhash looks like post-war Chechnya. Deep holes exist sporadically along walking paths and the public spaces surrounded by apartments are nothing more than dirt moguls (such as on double black diamond ski slopes). In every city in Kazakhstan, each person would have several dozen lawsuits pending against the municipal government if such a legal options were available. Since they aren’t, people content themselves with not tripping over missing stairs in public housing or falling into uncovered manholes. My host grandfather can barely walk across the living room, and yet he frequently climbs down 5 flights of broken stairs and traverses 200 meters of rolling mud hills crisscrossed by knee-level pipes to visit us. This is the greatest mystery in Kazakhstan and whose secrets I am not yet privileged to learn.

Last month I thought I was leaving the crazy country that is Kazakhstan and returning to the land of the normal. Yet while the “reality” and “normal life” I expected to encounter was there, it was no more real or normal than my life in Kazakhstan. Yes, the two places are vastly different. But I think now I have an ability to comfortably interact in two dissimilar communities and not feel lost in either. That is a comfort to remember for my last nine months of service.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

To Communism's Triump Lead Us On

“KKK Hate Schools Found Throughout Atlanta” and “United States Refuses Soviet Aid for American Poor” are some of the headlines that startled me from a crumpled old newspaper we were using to protect the classroom floor from wet paint. These lines were from a 1990 issue of the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper published during the Soviet Union. Although I’m in a country where school history books completely omit the Soviet Union, I am regularly reminded about the legacy of the USSR and Communism in Balkhash. As an American, this living legacy has been one of my most interesting experiences.

Balkhash and my oblast (province) have a special Soviet legacy. Most of the cities including mine were built in the 1930s with forced labor. In fact, my oblast was home to one of the largest gulags—the size of France. Taking a walk through Balkhash, one can see still remnants of Soviet symbols. Our City Hall still has the hammer and sickle emblem on its façade. The tops of apartment complexes have mosaics that say “Glory to Labor” and “Glory to the CCCP.” And of course, most people still live in Khruschevniks, the five story mass produced gray apartments commissioned by Nikita Khruschev. As in many cities that still have large Russian populations, there is a Lenin statue. There is still debate about what to do with these symbols. Recently in Karaganda, the second largest city, a huge outcry prevented authorities from removing their Lenin statue. At the camp I worked at near Petropavlovsk, the administration only painted over an enormous red star this summer.

The Soviet Union also lives on in official holidays. This February, I celebrated Red Army Day at my school. There was an assembly and all male teachers—three including myself—were placed in the front of the room. Since all men are expected to have served in the Red Army, teachers made speeches thanking us for having defended the Motherland. I wonder if they also thought it was ironic that they were including a guy who represented the enemy they were defending against. Anyway, they thanked us and gave us complimentary daggers for our service. Later that night, the host dad of my ex-site mate Andrew said that Red Army Day didn’t celebrate war, but friendship. Many Soviet soldiers did not fight. There mandatory two years of service was a time when they forged close friendships with people from other parts of Union—Ukranians, Georgians, Azeris. Red Army service bound all the different members of the Union together. The following month, we celebrated the complimenting holiday—Women’s Day. The male teachers put on a concert for the female teachers. My role was to sing old Communist songs, including “The International”—the Communist anthem.

The Kazakhstani government exerts much effort in trying to instill Kazakh pride and nationalism amongst the people. They are building statues to Kazakh heroes, renaming streets and cities, and adding Kazakh holidays to an already extensive collection of Soviet ones. Yet there is less effort in removing the old symbols. At first I thought this was because the government didn’t want to alienate the enormous Russian minority. But now I think that many Kazakhstani citizens still regard the Soviet Union fondly. These remaining Soviet symbols were not forgotten; they are still being lived and reminisced upon.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Leaving the Barren Steppe for Eternal Light in Siberia

When I was first nominated for Peace Corps Central Asia, I was told that I would be working as an English teacher during the school year and in the summer, I would organize and run sports camps—GASP!! For those of you who know me, you are aware that I am no sportsman and the idea assisting über-athletic Kazakhstanis in sports is comical. Luckily for me, Peace Corps doesn’t mean everything it says and I was free to choose my own summer work plans.

For most of the year, I live and work in Balkhash, which is in the south-central part of the country and surrounded by barren, uninhabited, flat nothingness. As a result, I jumped at the first opportunity to volunteer in the north of the country, around the city of Petropavlovsk. Petropavlovsk juts pretty deep into Russian Siberia and is populated mostly by Russians. In fact, the region is basically part of Russia—many people run on Moscow time and the train station is actually considered Russian territory. Technically, this part of the country is also considered steppe, but it is vastly different from the steppe in which I live. It is grassy, contains pockets of birch forests, and is one of the country’s two breadbaskets. For any history buffs out there, this was where Khrushchev executed his Virgin Lands program. Petropavlovsk itself has around 200,000 people, has a pretty decent nightlife, and is close by the Ishim River, in which I almost drowned.

I arrived in the north to take part in a summer camp with some other volunteers, but in true local fashion the camp was delayed and I was forced to chill out in the city for a few days. When we finally arrived at the camp, it was a true, Soviet-era, Pioneer Camp (Communist propaganda camp)! There were red stars galore and statues of children in glorious poses in honor of the motherland. Also, the camp was littered with scores of seesaws and other such playground fixtures and there was one field that my friend Tim referred to as a “freak carnival bazaar.” Our role at the camp was to conduct English clubs and help cabins prepare activities and games. However, Kazakhstani camps are a bit different from American camps. The next day’s plans were always organized at 11o’clock the night before, which was deceiving because the sun didn’t set until almost midnight. We thus had to spend each day frantically preparing for that afternoon’s concert and series of games. For those South Park fans out there, I was strongly reminded of the episode in where the kids are sent to what is basically a concentration camp to correct their bigotry. There is one scene where a Nazi guard is yelling at the children to draw crayon pictures of friendship and pulls out a gun to make them work harder. Minus the gun, this is exactly what I witnessed one day when kids had to prepare crayon pictures to decorate some building. However, there were also a lot of fun activities that we participated in such as Pioneer Ball, which is a Soviet version of volleyball, and Joyful Soccer, in which the counselors and volunteers, dressed as clowns and with no requirement to observe any of the rules, got to compete against the campers. I had a fun time and would like to participate again next year.

After two weeks at the camp, I decided last minute to participate in a Russian learning camp for volunteers a bit farther south in Shuchinsk. This area is famous for being the gateway to Borovoe, which is nicknamed “the Switzerland of Kazakhstan.” Although far from being Switzerland, Borovoe does have beautiful mountains, pine forests, and great lakes. When you haven’t seen anything of the sort for the past year, it is pretty stunning. Yet even though it was July, it was cold and rainy and so we couldn’t swim often. I spent about a week there before I returned to Balkhash.

One of the greatest things about this summer was finally experiencing the trains. Nearly all volunteers travel around by train, but since Balkhash isn’t located on a main route, I have always taken a bus. I got my chance when I was in Almaty and took a 31-hour train ride to Petropavlovsk. I had brought plenty of reading material and had fully charged my i-pod to prepare for what I thought would be an incredible boring trip. However, it turned out that I struggled to find time to read! Kazakhs are known for their hospitality and I think this is nowhere better demonstrated than on the trains. In second-class cars, passengers are put into open cubicles with six bunks and a small table at one end. In my cubicle, there were a husband and wife, an old teacher of disabled kids, and two university students. The entire 31 hours was like one long tea party. Everyone put out the food they had brought and all were expected to take without asking. This generosity was so unsettling that I kind of wished I could just eat what I brought, even though their food was so much better. We quickly bonded, mostly through their initiative, and we didn’t fall asleep until late at night. Through the eyes of an American, there is of course a lot to criticize in a former Soviet country. But the sense of camaraderie with strangers and almost unconscious generosity with limited possessions is a cultural attribute that the United States sadly lacks.