Monday, January 3, 2011


After looking at a map, I noticed that India is very close to Kazakhstan. I also remember last winter my goatee freezing to my face. The third thought in my head was that India is warm. As you can guess the connection, it didn’t take me long to decide to take a vacation to India with Gambrill. Not to mention that a round trip ticket from Almaty to Delhi costs about $500, so the best time to try and visit the subcontinent is right now when we’re young and close.

The trip almost died before it had begun. The visa process is needlessly extensive. I had to take three separate trips to the Indian embassy before they even accepted my paperwork, not to mention the five days I had to wait for the bloody thing. In all, I had to provide my passport, a copy of my passport, two passport photos, a letter of invitation from my cousin who lives in India, a copy of my bank statement, a letter of employment and 11, 900 tenge. Gambrill had even more paperwork, including a permission letter from her father and a copy of his passport. A harrowing experience, and we only received our visas the day before we left.

Henri IV of France once said “Paris is worth a mass.” For me Goa was worth the headaches, Tylenol and subsequent extra time spent over the toilet one day. It was just after the rainy season, so the beaches were less crowded. We settled on Agonda beach in South Goa and only had to share the beach with the cows and a few other random travelers. Nothing compares to eating curry and drinking beer with the sand filtering through your toes and palm trees waving in the background like a Rastafarian at a reggae concert. I’d love to be poignant and elegant, but we truly just lay on the beach, and life was good. The world is truly a better place when you don’t have to wear shoes.

After a quick detour to Pune to see my cousin (boring family details, no need to tell you all) we entered the detour from the sphincter of Hades. Due to the fact that our visas took so long, we didn’t buy train tickets ahead of time. Bad mistake. By some act of God, or the Devil simply screwing with our heads, we got tickets from Goa to Mumbai. This is not normal. There are over one billion people in India and they all seem to be after those precious tickets that you covet. So, we had to take a detour from Mumbai to Ahmedabad and finally to our destination in Pushkar. We were ripped off by rickshaw drivers, shuffled between three separate travel sheds (office would be too kind of a word) and finally made it onto a bus that got us to Pushkar.

Again, it’s always a question if an experience like that is worth it. For me, Pushkar’s camel festival was a sight to be held. This small little village booms as locals come to buy and sell camels, compete in random competitions and be gawked at by tourists (yours truly). The best competition by far was the Mr. Moustache competition. In the state of Rajasthan, a prominent soup-strainer is a sign of virility, and if that’s true, we were staring at some men who probably have to beat women back with a lathi stick. The most amazing one was the man who had two strands that he could pull out a full 2 feet away from his face. It basically was a fair, with amusement park rides, food vendors, stalls selling anything and everything (including camel dung paper) and, of course, camels. But, after plenty of shopping, singing, dancing, and tackle Red Rover (or at least that’s what the game appeared to me), we were ready for Jaipur and Ranthambore.

Rajasthan is the land of kings, so it makes sense that there are a ton of palaces in Jaipur. Most of them are structurally breathtaking with influences from the Mughals and Hindu temples, the Amber Fort, the City Palace and the Palace of the Winds and Water are massively detailed structures built on mountains, in the city, and in one case, in the middle of the lake. Even walking around the many shops and stalls in the Pink City, where every building is a vibrant pink shade, it shows a brilliance that wipes away any memories of Soviet winters in Siberia. We even tried to catch a glimpse of the king of the jungle. Not far away from Jaipur is Ranthambore National Park, where you can take a safari to possibly see one of 45 tigers wandering the reserve. The closest we got to a tiger was a paw print, but the nature and other wildlife (monkeys, gazelles, antelopes) was still worth it.

Finally, we finished with Agra and one of the wonders of the world. The Taj Mahal is truly worth the visit. Brilliantly white, even on a cloudy day, no picture can prepare you for the magnificence of its edifice. The craftsmanship put into this building is simply breathtaking. To think, the only thing this Mumtaz had to do was give the king a baby. For a building of that wealth, I’d try and push out a baby. Luckily, Agra is also littered with other buildings to see, such as the Red Fort, Chini-e-Kauza and the Baby Taj. But a day trip is really all that’s needed for this. Still, nothing wrong with ending the trip in a place of shown glories.

I thought I’d end on a few thoughts and tips. India is big. I know it’s an earth-shattering proposal, but it’s true. I know most people from Kazakhstan plan Delhi,-Mumbai-Goa trips, but it’s must better to make your trip geographically smaller for flexibility’s sake. You will always lose at bargaining, unless you can somehow change your skin tone and accent. People in India tend to be more helpful than in Kazakhstan, but it can be difficult sorting out the ones being benevolent and the ones who are looking for a few bills from your wallet. Food is cheap and good, but make sure that you bring plenty of stomach medicine. I am grateful for the anti-diarrheal medicine my parents sent me from the states. In some cities, it’s possible to just hire autorickshaw drivers for the day, which I think is worth it (Jaipur 500 rupees, Agra 350 rupees). And if you think that people speak fluent English in India, you’re sorely mistaken. Basically think about the standard level of English for an 11th grader in Kazakhstan, and that’s the best fluency you’ll hear. Learn from our mistakes, eat a lot of curry and enjoy the time you spend in India. It’ll be some of your best memories.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New Year, New Problems

Diaries and blogs alike are both therapy, or considered to be therapy. So, now comes the time to lie down on the proverbial couch and launch on a diatribe that I have unleashed on plenty of other volunteers. In brief, it has been an uncomfortable first month.

September 1st is the first bell. It’s not really a day of school as much as a ceremony. There’s singing, dancing, speeches, speeches and more useless speeches. The day after is where the rubber meets the road. I had the pleasure of a new teacher, Nazgul, who just so happens to be Sara, my counterpart’s, sister. She’s also as green as a teacher can be straight out of college. That also means that she’s 20, which in my opinion is a bit too young and immature to be teaching students. Anyway, there’s also a new zavuch (vice-principal). To sum this up and not go into new detail, Sara left without so much as saying a word to me, leaving me very sullen and feeling betrayed and abandoned. Add to that the fact that of the new zavuch is so inept that we still don’t have a schedule (as of this writing on Oct. 8th there is still no schedule). So I have no schedule, a teacher who cannot control classrooms or make a coherent lesson plan, and I simply feel that I’ve lost my mind. In short, I’ve been fairly unhappy.

It’s also a pain because students don’t remember anything from last year and seem to be very unruly. Now, unruly students aren’t the end of the world, but the set-up of Kazakhstani schools makes discipline very difficult. There is no detention, no suspension; bad grades don’t matter because students are always passed to the next grade. The reason for this is that discipline and the grades are the teachers’ domain. So, any disciplinary actions taken outside of yelling at the students are looked at badly by the department of education. Did I mention that they have a very quick finger to fire teachers? A school up in Kokshetau fired 60% of their teachers over the summer because they didn’t think they were doing a good job. So, even if the students are the problem, you can’t really do anything about it, besides failing them for the day, but only for the day.

I did move into a new place. I now live with Yuri Ivanovich. It’s kind of nice, even though he treats me like I’ve never lived in Kazakhstan; he’s a very nice man. He’s a geologist with a gold company and has a 15-day-on, 15-day-off schedule. So, half the month I have the apartment to myself. This doesn’t mean I’m completely alone. Yuri’s father and mother, Vanya and Valya, stop by every once in a while, as do Nikita, Maxim and Lena, his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. So, it’s halfway between living on my own and with a family, which is more pleasant than I thought it would be. They’re quick to make sure I have plenty of potatoes and that I know how everything works in the apartment. Nikita usually runs around asking for nyam-nyams (dried pears from Yuri’s cottage). There will probably be more tales to come. As for now, that’s enough complaining for you all. Since the beginning of school, there hasn’t been much interesting outside the frustration at school, so I’ll take leave for now and keep searching for the light at the end of the tunnel.

One year In Kazakhstan

It’s official. I’ve officially lived and worked for one year in Kazakhstan. You may be thinking, “One year? Well, by Jove, you just left yesterday.” I know my lovely, effervescent personality is deeply ingrained in your mind, but it is true that I have been gone for that long. The last few articles have just been running narratives of the summer without much analysis of what has happened (or at least according to my exacting standards). So, as long as gorgeous, scantily-clad Russian pop singers don’t distract me too much, I’ll put metaphysical pen to paper and provide random thoughts about my first year in Kazakhstan.

1 – Grills: One of the first observations involves the choice of dental accessories here. Actually, it’s not really accessories since people have them inserted in their mouths. People here have mouths filled with gold. Due to a lack of dental hygiene, people here lose teeth much more frequently in the West. It should be said that a higher proportion of women have gold teeth due to a confluence of less fluoride, less calcium in the diet and childbirth, which causes more tooth loss than normal. It’s actually kind of endearing to see mouthfuls of Fort Knox. Still, when people smile, you’re blinded.

2 – Spontaneity: It’s hard to describe but people here are spontaneous and not at the same time. Administrations are very willing to volunteer us for everything from translation to singing in front of a crowd of strangers on 5 minutes notice. The flipside of this spontaneity is that they are afraid of new things. New methods are welcomed but rarely followed through. We do teacher trainings over here over which everybody is enthusiastic but rarely put the new methods into practice.

3 – Hospitality: Kazakhs will proudly tell you that they are some of the most hospitable people on the planet. To an extent this is true. To strangers, they are more than willing to extend ample food and lodging assistance. When they invite people over to their houses, there is an ample feast with ample amounts of vodka. Even if they don’t know you, they are more than willing to have you over for tea and supper. On the reverse side, they’re less willing to help you with other various projects. They’re hospitable in simple things, but long-term friendship by Western standards are not as prevalent. This may be ethnocentrism on my part, but trust, even after a year, is fleeting. I just feel that they are selfless in superficial events but selfish in events that require more work than a pot of soup. I don’t want you getting the impression that I’m bad-mouthing these people. Their hospitality extends far beyond what I have experienced in other countries, and it’s something they should be commended for.

4 – Food: What can be said about the food. Some people like the cuisine here. I am not one of those people. The national dish is beshbarmak, something that I believe I’ve ranted on in the past. To recap, beshbarmak is boiled meat with potatoes and noodles with a few onions. Haute cuisine, this is not. I do believe that Kazakh culture is not tasty because there is not street food culture and that people do not consider eating as pleasurable, or not to the extent of in the West. I’d say gluttony is still considered a cardinal sin here but people eat a lot and drink a lot here. They just eat a lot of potatoes and the like. The best foods, Manty (Uzbek dim sum), Plof (Uzbek pilaf), Lagman (Uighur noodle stir fry) and Vareniki (Russian ravioli) all come from other cultures. I blame the nomadic proclivity in the steppe to boil everything, which is surprising since most other nomadic cultures grill food. A burger sounds really good now.

6 – Fruits and Vegetables: I felt it was important to add a little subset to the food entry. My mother will probably be proud for what I say next, along with my 6-year old self wanting to punch me in the balls: I was actually jealous of another volunteer because he had broccoli. That is a sentence I never thought I’d say or write in my life. Like I said, this is a meat and potato culture so there’s not much demand for fruits and vegetables. Other than that, seasons do matter here, which has been hard to get used to. There are wild price swings whether it’s the right season or not, even affecting whether the item is in stock or not. Thank god it’s persimmon season because after that winter pretty much means a dearth of fruits and veg.

5 – Music: Music and dance is a big thing here in Kazakhstan. Every major presentation has a music component and most of the time a dance component. This music part comes in one of two forms. Form one involves a glorified version of karaoke. This could be a girl or a boy or a combination of them singing a song, either in Kazakh or in Russian. The form usually takes the form of a bad pop song with a horrible disco beat. The crowd obligingly claps along with the beat. Honestly, I believe people here slavishly listen to this kind of music just so that they can clap along without any kind of thought process on whether the music actually has any artistic merit. For you to believe that I think this music style is crap would be an understatement. I believe there is a special level of hell reserved for whoever produces these god-awful songs. Form two involves the performance of traditional Kazakh music, which can be endearing in its own right. Usually, this involves a dombra, or a dombra with accordion or other instruments. To the uninitiated, the dombra is a two-stringed guitar-like instrument with a movable bridge. In the hands of a good dombra player, and in small quantities, it can actually be quite pleasant and relaxing. Unfortunately, longer exposure makes your mind wander away from your body. This is no fault of the musicians, it’s simply that there are only two strings and most songs sound the same. I feel qualified as an amateur jazz musician, who appreciates saxophone and trombone artists who can only play one note at a time, to say that most of the songs take the exact same formation without much variation. I wonder if I could convince some musicians to take up jazz dombra over here.

6 – Astana: I feel that a special section needs to be included on the national capital of Kazakhstan. It was only in 1998 that Astana was named the capital of Kazakhstan. Some viewed this as a dictatorial move by the president, Nazarbayev. There were some legitimate reasons to change it, but this entry isn’t about that. The building in Astana is unlike any other city in the world. Any architectural idea, no matter how crazy, has been tried in Astana. There are giant Chinese pagodas, a UFO, upside-down ice cream cones, a pyramid, a magician’s hat, a yellow tower, a dog bowl, and a larger replica of the White House with a blue dome. It’s sheer lunacy. Most of the buildings wouldn’t get past staging because they’d clash completely with the surrounding area, but they get built in Astana. Unfortunately words can only get so far, so I hope to eventually have some pictures up.

7 – Communism: It’s kind of odd talking with people in Kazakhstan about Communism. The thing to remember about Kazakhstan is that they were the last republic of the USSR to declare independence. They did not want to be independent and contained a large amount of sycophantic yes-men. So, people here have a massive amount of nostalgia for Communism, “when everyone had a job and there was no drinking.” Now, this is not true, or simply seeing the past through rosy, nostalgic eyes, but this is mostly through historical consequences. After independence, Kazakhstan went through a terrible recession. Pensions couldn’t be paid, factories closed down because of inefficiency, and shelves lay bare. Through this prism, it’s understandable that there is positive nostalgia for this time period, but it is difficult to hold my tongue when the virtues of Communism (plenty of jobs, no alcoholism, etc.) are extolled. But it is a way of life, and you simply hold your tongue.

I guess these are all the thoughts that come to mind right now. I kind of wish that I could explain a little more, but seeing as my words are inadequate and that my thoughts leave me faster than I would like, this will have to do. I hope more blogs with plenty of coherent thought come forward over the coming year. All pretentiousness aside, it should be an interesting year to come.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The final stop on the whirlwind tour of the Kazakhstan ended in a small town in Kostanai Oblast called Auliekol, the site of one of my language training group’s members. I had visited Kostanai earlier in the year and, outside of one of my region’s members insulting Kostanai Oblast, it went well. Chris was the volunteer at my site who was forced to move to Kostanai when he chose to extend for one year. The other members of the oblast, Bree, Jonny, Janelle and Trenton, are all good friends of mine. To sum it up, this oblast has a special place in my heart, mostly for the people.

So after finally arriving in Auliekol, Chris and I headed over to Janelle’s apartment, since that was to be our residence over the week. It was a nice little place with an awesome pull-out couch. It was like a trundle bed that extended out then pulled up to level with the rest of the couch. Chris also brought his Wii for our entertainment purpose (don’t ask how or why he has a Wii in Kazakhstan). We set up a rotating cooking schedule and, true to the course of Janelle’s anal-retentive side, started planning the activities for the week. I really can’t knock Janelle’s organizing since that was what made the first half of the camp such a success.

So, Monday we got to her school, met the students and divided the students into four teams for the duration of the week. Divide and conquer is always a good philosophy. Throughout the week we had various themes, like holidays and the like, to give us a little framework to deal with. By Tuesday, all the volunteers were at Auliekol, making the apartment a little cramped but cozy. Honestly, if it was anybody else in the apartment, we would have been at each other’s throats, but we’re all chill and mellow people. The course of the camp was pretty much us playing games until noon-ish then volunteers playing as we do. Jonny did have his baseball gear with him, so we got to teach a new batch of students baseball and confuse them as much as possible with the rules. Honestly, if you don’t know the rules, baseball is a game that is very hard to understand. Outside of Janelle’s students being particularly good at English, nothing spectacular happened at the camp. The kids were good, and that’s the best that can be hoped for.

There were a few interesting events. We spent a couple days by a lakeside and a riverside. The lakeside was in walking distance from Janelle’s apartment and was probably one of the cleanest lakes I’ve ever seen in this country. There was clear water, a nice sandy beach and good company. The riverside was a little different. We had to drive out to the river in a couple of cars with a few locals. Supposedly this was the best and cleanest body of water in the Auliekol area, which in my opinion was a lie. I mean it was pretty good for Kazakhstan but the shore was littered with bottles and cow defecation. I mean, we enjoyed ourselves with Janelle’s counterpart, since this was her idea, but the lake was closer and much nicer.

The last event was outlandish, even by our new expectations. After living in Kazakhstan, us volunteers are used to local people doing some inexplicable things. So often, people will suggest something and totally flake out the day of or they’ll ask us to do something on very short notice. That’s par for the course. So, Janelle’s landlady came by the apartment. Janelle had just happened to pop out to get a few vegetables for supper. Anyway, Janelle’s landlady comes in and starts poking around the apartment. We tell her that Janelle will be back in a few and that we’re just a few friends helping out with her camp. However, her impression was that we were living there with her indefinitely. She just starts yelling at Janelle when she got back, saying that there are 150 Americans living there and that we’re going to steal her clothes and other stuff. I mean, we obviously can’t be trusted considering we came here to teach children. We are a devious bunch. Janelle’s counterpart had to call her and have a 2 hour conversation to explain to her the situation.

So, this ends the summer series. I wrote this a little too far after the fact, but somehow my procrastinating nature followed me here. Next time, I’ll have a lengthy diatribe on random thoughts after a year in Kazakhstan. Until then…

Language Camps

Well, the summer isn’t just reserved for the kids. Us volunteers do have a chance to do something for ourselves in the form of improving our Russian. Even after almost a year of studying Russian, my speaking abilities are still deplorable. So, the only way to improve is study.

The first Russian camp was in Petropavlovsk in the far North of the country. It’s one of the most Russian places in the whole country. It’s where my best friend in country, an Indian guy named Sidd who has the same acerbic sarcasm that I possess. Lodging was also free because we stayed at the dorms. The downside was that we had to be in the dorms at 10 pm. No late night partying, well, not in the normal way. So my dorm room was Aaron, the 30 year old married dude from Texas, Brendan, the whitest Irish-American I’ve met who dispenses decent advice, and Jamie, the New Englander who lives in the middle of nowhere, which is saying something in this country.

So the form of the camp was very simple. We were divided up into groups of 3 or 4 and had 4 hour lessons in the morning everyday. After that, we were free for whatever. Because Sidd was in my class, most conversation ended being far too inappropriate, in both languages. I did learn a few good words though, like horny in Russian. Don’t know how that’s going to help in my conversations, but I’m glad I know it. Aaron was also with us along with Hannah, the stereotypical Midwestern girl from Minnesota. I actually enjoyed being in a structured class setting because it really focused me on improving one of the skills I truly wish to cultivate. I have a personal goal to speak 4 languages by the time I’m 25, which I’m on course to meet. I just need to improve my Russian and my Spanish, and I’m there. We covered all kinds of grammar components and vocabulary that I didn’t understand, and I’m extremely grateful for that.

Our afternoons were varied, but usually involved napping or walking around Petropavlovsk. I say napping because we ended up playing Risk until 4 in the morning a couple of times. That may sound lame, but we were all big strategy game buffs and did not give an inch in warfare. These were epic encounters not seen since Napoleon walked the Earth. Unfortunately, I was about as useful as the genius who came up with the Maginot line. In short, I lost. My ego was downsized a bit. We also played Carcassonne, which is another strategy game involving tiles, and I highly recommend it to one and all.

A couple times we did prepare epic group meals and drink some vodka and beers. We had Italian food and Plov (Uzbek pilau) and just sat and talked. It was honestly the closest to just hanging out with a bunch of buds that I’ve come to. There wasn’t anything spectacular that happened, just relaxation.

The second camp right after that was another language camp in Shuchinsk near where I live. The unfortunate part of this camp was that most of us were sick through most of it. The dynamics were different, but good. Sidd came down to this with his girlfriend, a local girl named Sveta. She was our teacher, and the rest of our group was Audrey, the other local Wisconsinite, her indefatigable and tenacious (in a good way) boyfriend Patrick and Jessie, the independent-minded girl of our oblast. These classes were a little more serious than the other camp, but that’s all right I think.

Because the other guys at the camp were crazy and lazy at the same time, which seems like an odd combination, but it works. Unfortunately, most of us were laid out with some kind of summer cold, so it was a little more low-key than we thought. Still, we managed a couple beers every night and some Scrabble and Risk action. No matter our personalities, we’re all nerds at heart. We also had a rotating chef duty and had some awesome food. Well, except for me. I had a nice stir fry all planned out, only to have the propane tank to run out 2 minutes after I started. I guess ramen noodles aren’t too far off.

The highlight of this all was the trip out to Borovoe. Borovoe is the resort town of North Kazakhstan and has the nickname of “Switzerland of Kazakhstan.” Obviously whoever came up with that nickname has never been to Switzerland or even seen mountains. It’s only Switzerland in the sense that the rest of the area around it is flatter than a plank. Sidd, Sveta and I actually hiked up one of the hills and had reached the summit after maybe 30 minutes. I think Audrey was right in calling it the Wisconsin Dells of Kazakhstan. Despite the misnomer, it was nice. Just as I imagine like other parts of the former Soviet Union, people in Kazakhstan take horrible care of their environment. Littering is endemic here with bottles and bags strewn everywhere and lakes almost as green as the bushes that surround them. However, Borovoe is such a resort with enough people coming that the lake and surroundings are clean and as pristine as nature can be here. So, Audrey, Patrick, Jessie, Hotrad, another one of the older volunteers) and I headed to the beach and just lay there or swam. No responsibility and relaxation. Just what the doctor ordered. I think it’s best to end on that note, lying out on the beach with cool clear waters reflecting the green hilltop.


Since it was 30 hours to Zyryanovsk, by the laws of Sir Isaac Newton that’s how long it took to get to my next site at Lake Karagai. Well, actually 36 hours because the road was under construction. To all those who have experienced road construction in Wisconsin, take your worst experience and multiply it by 10. Between Astana and Karagai, it was a teeth-jarring brain-addling experience. I’m pretty sure my senior thesis popped out of my head somewhere around Balkhashena. But I made it.

This was a different camp because it wasn’t run by volunteers but by an organization that had had volunteers in the past. It was sponsored by Shell and was outdoors, meaning being with the kids 24 hours a day. Well, I did get a tent to myself for part of the time. The staff consisted of Natalya, the stuttering matriarch of the organization, her husband Vasilly, the stuttering son Misha (I only point out the stuttering because with my level of Russian, it could be hard to follow their conversations sometimes), his wife, the absent Olessya who showed up for only 2 days, and twin wonders Andrei and Vova. I ended up being here about 11 or 12 days.

I need to preface that some of this was a few things that transpired beforehand. My regional manager contacted me about a month or so before the summer and proffered this camp to me. I had nothing planned for this time period, so I said I’d be able to help out with the camp with the hope that I could scrounge up some auxiliary support from other volunteers. Very shortly after this, the older volunteers in my oblast started telling me I shouldn’t do this camp because it was poorly executed the last year and that the organization didn’t allocate their resources smartly. I was stuck though, or at least to keep my integrity at least in myself I was stuck. To be fair, one of the contentions was that they had not fed the kids enough, which was not the case this year, so they had improved upon experiences from the past.

So, I arrived at the camp and they had set up a bunch of tents and a yurt along with a cooking area. I will eventually post photos on Facebook (I can’t on the blog because it’s technically blocked in Kazakhstan and too much work to e-mail my sister, who posts these, all the photos). This was not roughing it in the Boy Scout sense. They had brought two huge propane tanks and an actual stove. Guess hot dogs on a stick don’t fly. We had a couple of tents to eat meals under, but one was broken by the gale-force winds the first night before the kids came. I mean, the wind was like a banshee on speed.

So the first week was the little kids 10-13, who were awesome. Every activity I did, whether it was first aid or American football or improvised percussion instruments, they loved. There was kid in particular, Kolya, who spoke four languages, and I swore spoke better English than most of the people in the United States. Another one who stuck out in my mind was Madina, a small little Kazakh girl who was willing to try out everything, including swimming. I’m proud to say by the end of the week she was able to do the front crawl. There was a small problem in that I was the only volunteer who showed up for this and had the brunt of the tasks to do activities. I mean, there were supposed to be other people helping, like Olessya, who only showed up for 2 days because she was doing registration in Karaganda instead of helping out, but we’re kind of regarded as Supermen who can do everything. So I played with the kids, taught the kids, sang with the kids worked myself into a state of exhaustion. During this period I was sharing a tent with Andrei and Vova, who slept like it was a full-contact sport. In short, I was tired. Those two also spent more time flirting with the teenage girls than actually doing anything to help a brother out.

The midpoint was when the crew from Shell came to see how their grant was working out. I liked to think of this as the dog-show moment, where everybody put on their best faces. So, the traditional action is to make a song and dance and tour everything about the camp. I was particularly perturbed because I had done some improvised percussion stuff with the kids, which Natalya had taken to mean that these kids were savants and Mozarts even though most of them had no musical ability whatsoever. As sullen as I may have been, I had to put on a smile (okay, tried not to frown) and prepare them for an impromptu concert. The people from Shell were actually pretty cool. They actually brought a bunch of activities for the kids to do, like a version of Jeopardy and brainstorm sessions on health and other things. In essence, what the organizers of this camp should have done. But, I got to socialize with the Westernized directors of Shell who came out, and the older kids replaced the younger ones.

The older kids SUCKED! I know that teenagers don’t want to stick out because they’re “cool,” but why would you come out to a camp in the middle of nowhere if you wanted to just sit and text your friends all day. Some things are universal, and the constantly flashing thumbs across a dial-pad are now becoming ubiquitous among youth across the world, or at least in my humble opinion. So, with the generator broken (yes, they brought a generator to charge cell phones), most of the girls (and there was only one boy) were sulking the whole time. Come on, they had a cute American for eye candy. Haha. One girl actually came with one-inch nails, which seem ineffectual in normal life but completely useless in a camp. It was worse because the whether was extremely windy and cold. We wore sweaters the whole time because the wind cut with the precision of a sushi chef. In general, the mood was low with blips upward with the different activities prepared by moi. The whole thing ended on a sour note when two girls left early, plus the boy because he had spent a night in the girls’ tent. To make a long story short, there were lots of people passing by for day trips. Well, some of the girls heard voices and got scared so they asked this guy, Ablai Khan, to keep an eye on them. Lord knows if this was true or not, but the moral of the story is that they should have awoken one of the adults, preferably the one with a black belt. Teenagers not thinking is what it amounted to, at least in my opinion. So this came out in the morning, and Kazakhstan being more conservative in mindset, no matter how girls dress, he was sent home. I’d hate to see how the family reaction was to that.

That’s not to say that the whole time with the older kids was bad. We played some games, did scavenger hunts, picked wild thyme and practiced their English skills. I also taught them a bunch of card games, which they enjoyed enough that I left a deck of cards with them. I think it was definitely a learning experience. I learned new ways to entertain and educate kids through a difficult situation, and I think it was probably very fruitful. Now if you don’t mind, I’m, gonna take a nap and wake up in about 30 years.


I’ve already told some of the stories of the start of summer, or at least some feelings. To actually bring some life and happiness to this blog that has been sorely missing, I think a few anecdotes from some camps are in order. Well, in the next one I will do some griping, but you have been forewarned.

So, the first camp away from summer during the summer was a camp at Tom’s site in Zyryanovsk. Zyryanovsk was actually a closed city during Communism, and maybe a few years after independence (I can’t quite remember, might be making that up). Anyway, it’s mainly a one company town dominated by a zinc mining company. The area is very hilly, bordering on the mountainous, but what is amazing are the mountains of rock from the mines. In full view of Tom’s apartment was a mountain of mining rubble. The most interesting thing, at least for me, was the statue of Lenin in the town square. The reason for this intrigue is that it wasn’t torn down or placed elsewhere in the village. In Makinsk, we still have a Lenin statue but it was shunted over to the old folks home where the elderly people lovingly attend to it as their communal safety blanket. Zyryanovsk’s was still proudly in plain view. It’s the small things that turn our heads now.

Getting there was one of the biggest pains that I have ever endured in my life. I couldn’t take the train there because it crossed into Russia, and without a Russian visa I couldn’t even cross through Russian territory. So, instead I had to take a bus the whole way, or three buses to be exact. This was a lovely 30 hour jaunt through the Kazakhstani countryside, including stops in such illustrious cities as Cemeypalatinsk, where they set off nuclear bombs just to see how the local population would react to the radiation. To this day, we still don’t have volunteers there for fear of radiation. But, after arriving in Ust-Kamenogorsk, I got onto a small bus called a marshrutka and headed through some gorgeous country. It was nice to just see verdant, lush valleys and mountains. The greenery was almost an emerald quality and it almost glistened. This may just be to the relative brown quality of the steppe after the grass dries.

So, staying at Tom’s were myself, Tom (of course), Sam, Jonathan and Gisela. Tom’s a nice and cocky (in a good way) SoCal guy with an easy-going attitude, who is balanced by the sassiness of the Long Island qualities of Sam. Honestly, those two act more like a brother and sister more than I have with my siblings. Jonathan is a nice guy prone to funny quips, while Gisela is a motor-mouthed girl from Pennsylvania who is almost endearing because of the rapidity of sentences spilling from her mouth. In short, a good crew of people to spend a week with.

To sum up our activities, we woke up, drank coffee, and then lugged two huge bags of equipment, including baseball equipment, soccer balls, and footballs, to his school a few blocks away. There we would play random sports with about 20-30 kids from 7-10 grade. After a lunch in the school cafeteria, we would play a little bit with smaller kids who hung around. Finally, the rest of the day was what we wanted to do, which usually involved games and beers or a combination of both. I consider this a small sliver of heaven.

There were a few funny things from the kids. First, there was this group of girls that had a demented sense of what they needed to wear to play sports. In general, the fashion sense is to dress like ladies of the night in the West. I mean, honestly, they’re about a pair of stilettos away from looking like hookers. In that vein, there was a group of 3 girls who showed up everyday in miniskirts, tank tops and heels. They even took a few diggers. You’d think after the first day, they would have thought “Maybe a little stability from tennis shoes would prevent excess damage to my knees.” Nope. The other was one particular boy who acted like he had been given an extra dose of testosterone at birth. You could almost see the thought process in his brain, “ Hit the ball, hit the ball. Can’t stand still, must do push-ups, push-ups, now pull-ups. Gah, must run. AAAAh.” He would disappear for 30 minutes then reappear to throw a football, then disappear again. There must have been a Bermuda triangle around there.

All in all, the kids were fun to work with. All the volunteers we had there bonded in cooking and cleaning. One of the last nights we all got to play circle of death and finished off with a game of drunken or semi-drunken Twister. By far the worst rule was that if you said somebody’s name, you have to put your head on the table. Eventually, someone else will say my name so I can take my head off the table. J