Miss Post-Teen Momushylu

Did you forget I had a blog? So did I, apparently. Here are the highlights of what I’ve done in the many months you’ve been denied my warm virtual embrace:

1. Rescued a dog from drowning in a trash pit
2. Visited India
3. Rescued a puppy from a 5 a.m. storm
4. Finally saw kokpar
5. Unleashed an UNO craze at my school
6. Immediately regretted unleashing an UNO craze at my school
7. Discovered that Z-sai has an ice cream parlor*
8. Discovered that the Z-sai supermarket has started selling canned whipped cream
9. Enacted an obvious but genius plan involving #7 and #8
10. Won a Kazakh pageant

*Okay, it’s not so much an ice cream parlor as a patio next to a soft serve machine where, for twice the usual price, they’ll put your ice cream in a glass bowl and let you sit there and eat it. But still–awesome?

Of all the items on this list, #10 seems the most deserving of explanation. Actually, now that I’m looking at the list, there are probably several items that deserve explanation, but I’m going to let you use your imagination on the rest of them. (Especially #9–if you’re thinking naked whipped cream fight, your imagination is way better than my life).

If you’ve know anything about holidays in Kazakhstan, you’re probably aware that they always involve lots of food, plenty of vodka, and some kind of talent show/concert/”spectacle.” This past weekend was Men’s Day (May 7th) and Victory Day (May 9th), so my school organized a pageant for the female teachers that involved songs, salads, and slightly awkward comedy sketches. What any of this had to do with men or victory in Europe, I’m not sure, but the other teachers in the English department volunteered me as a participant, never realizing that they would be forcing me to relive a dark, sash-draped period of my own past…

Does winning the pageant count if you can't figure out how to correctly wear the sash?

Yes, I was your 1998 Pre-Teen East Tennessee Senior Division titleholder. Though Pre-Teen (which is not the best term to Google, by the way) was technically a “scholarship and recognition program,” it did involve hotel ballrooms, hairspray, and a group performance where all the participants danced to a medley of America-themed songs, from “Coming to America” to “God Bless the USA.” (I still experience a disorienting sense of dread and nausea when I hear Lee Greenwood–but then again, who doesn’t?)

Though it’s been years since I donned a shiny dress and strode across a stage, I felt fairly confident I could work some Pre-Teen magic (again, a term to avoid Googling) at this thing. When I was a kid, though, all I had to do was unnerve the judges with my incongruously masculine voice and they’d give me a trophy. But this pageant consisted of much weirder steps:

Round 1: Squeeze into a traditional Kazakh costume made for a seventh-grader. Endear yourself to the judges by wishing them wealth, happiness, and good health (and, if things are looking iffy, by slipping them a couple of hundred tenge under the table).

Round 2: Demonstrate talent. In my case, this involved singing a Kazakh song (“Aliya”) I’d hastily learned a couple of days before. “Aliya,” which you can find the words and video for here, is about a 17-year-old Kazakh girl who signed up as a sniper in World War II, only to be killed in battle. Downer? Maybe, but it sounds nice, as long as you don’t know what I’m saying.

Round 3: Make a salad. A “salad” in Kazakhstan is not like a salad in America. For one thing, it usually involves copious amounts of mayonnaise, and very little in the way of green roughage. For my salad-y masterpiece, I chopped up some fruit, slathered it with yogurt, and cut a little sun out of an orange peel to put on top. That’s right, bitchezzz–Martha Stewart ain’t got shit on me.

Round 4: Perform a skit. There was much debate about what we’d do for the comedy portion of the pageant, so, in true K-stan fashion, we a) waited until the day of the competition to figure it out and b) plagiarized it. I’m not going to tell you what our skit was about, because I think it’ll be more enjoyable if you make up your own plot. I will tell you that at least one of us was drunk (and that despite my performance, it wasn’t me).

You’ll be glad to know that despite competing against a girl who danced the

the creepin’ crud

As promised: a goat. Specifically, the goat that lives at the soccer field next to my apartment. I know I also promised a post on Istanbul and Kostenay, but it’s too cold to revisit memories of the summer without feeling profoundly masochistic. Suffice it to say you should visit both of these places if you get a chance, especially Turkey. You could opt for Greece, but it is way more expensive, as I discovered firsthand a few years ago when a friend and I got stranded on Lesvos for several days and almost ran out of money, though we spent our time doing nothing but eating döner and (unsuccessfully) begging rides back to Turkey off people in the harbor. So if you want to see and eat pretty much everything you can in Greece (well, except the Acropolis, I guess, but who needs that?) go to Turkey.

Today was my first normal day back at school after a hectic but enjoyable couple of weeks. At the beginning of November, I went to Almaty to help train the new volunteers and their counterparts: a mildly surreal experience, as seeing a group of people about to head off to their sites brought back all sorts of flashbacks. It also highlighted how bizarre my speech patterns have become–one volunteer had to talk to me for several minutes before she realized I was an American and not, in fact, a local teacher. I’m not sure if I should consider that a victory, because I’ve integrated successfully, or a fail, because I can no longer speak my own language well enough to be immediately identified as a native speaker. Let’s call it a “failtory,” because that’s a word I may actually think is real after another year of living here.

After the requisite stops at Pizza Hut and 4A, I left Almaty and met up with some of the Aktobe volunteers in Shymkent. They were coming down to Z-sai for a teacher training, largely because their sites are already cold and drizzly and mine remains sunny and clear (save for the ever-present haze of the trash fires). We also took Lisa, 7sai’s new volunteer, and Jon, from Shauildir, down south in the usual cramped mini-van. The ride was not as terrible as some I’ve endured, but we still felt compelled to drink pretty immediately upon getting out, which led to one of the most brilliant inventions of all time: the “Christy” drinking game.

Unless you attended ChristyFest or are in some way related to me, you may not know that “Christy” was a CBS television series about a schoolteacher who leaves her cushy city life to teach barefoot schoolchildren in the mountains of Appalachia in 1912. (The inspiration for my joining the Peace Corps? Perhaps; though I expected there to be a lot more cornbread.) Because the series was filmed about an hour from my house and I could pull off the whole “covered-in-dirt” look, I was in the series for its entire two-season run. Mostly I just ran around thinking I was actually living in 1912, but my big break came when LeVar Burton (a.k.a. Geordi from Star Trek or, to non-geeks, the “Reading Rainbow” guy), playing a doctor, saved me from death by bees (a.k.a. Cocoa Krispies, shot backwards out of a vacuum). Everybody in “the Cove” had been ready to kick him out, but once he saved my life they decided he was an okay dude, and, as we all know, there was never any racism in the South again. Yay!

If your town has both a Christian bookstore and a liquor store—preferably next door to each other—you too can play the “Christy” drinking game by following these instructions:
1. Drink every time they mention “God.” (Or “the Almighty,” or “the Lord,” or “That guy we’re all really into—no, like, really into.”)
2. Drink every time there’s racism. (Basically every time the sole cast member of color is on the screen).
3. Drink every time there’s creepin’. (There’s a whole lotta creepin’.)
4. Drink every time someone says “bees.” (This only applies to the infamous bee episode, but why would you be watching any other episode?)
5. Drink every time Lulu Spencer makes an appearance. (Look for the pigtails, and I’ll be there).

Follow these rules, and you will a) be very wasted and b) enjoy “Christy” far more than you might otherwise.

Despite the fact that this was how we started off our week of teacher training, the project actually went extremely well. Kazakhstani society has more or less resolved the conflict between drinking and working by combining the two practices, as when we had an all-day festival at school the other day that culminated in vodka shots—in the cafeteria. At 3 p.m. Somewhere between my fifth and sixth shots, I gave a Kazakh speech I thought was pretty awesome, but which may in fact not have been Kazakh at all but a language of my own devising. Failtory!

Another personal high from the past few weeks: learning to play “Happy Birthday” on the dombra, which I got to perform publicly—and slowly—at my sitemate’s birthday party. As devotees of this blog may recall, my ultimate goal is to bring the dombra and Ace of Base—two of the most popular trends in Kazakhstani music—together, so I’ve started taking weekly lessons. My teacher is an old Kazakh lady who yells, “Liar! Liar!” every time I play a wrong note, as well as smacking me on the arm to demonstrate the force with which I should be striking the strings. I think we’re in a semi-abusive relationship, but if it means I leave Kazakhstan able to play “All That She Wants” on the dombra, I’ll enable it.

achin’ pains and two-day trains

The subject line above refers to the name of the hit song I plan to write when I reinvent myself as a country music star. You might not think cowboy boots and heteronormativity are my look, but I rocked ’em back in ’93. With a little hairspray and tractor-inspired angst, I could totally pull it off.

So after Camp #2, I went to a village near Taraz for a couple of days to help out with Baseball Camp, which was devoted entirely to the instruction and practice of–yep, you guessed it–Capoeira. (Okay, fine, it was baseball, but it might as well have been Capoeira, for all my expertise). During said camp, I got to sleep in a yurt and ride in a donkey cart, which knocks two things off the “Must-Do in Kazakhstan” list right there. Remaining items include: drink fermented camel’s milk, see and/or play kokpar, and learn to play a cover of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” on the dombra. If I can do all those things at once, all the better.

For my annual leave in August, I went to Istanbul, which, at my current posting rate, I’ll probably end up writing about sometime in February. I arrived back in Kazakhstan at 3 a.m., and at the precise moment that I descended into a overpriced cab with two large Russian men, Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” began to play: a clear sign that I was back where I belonged. But I wasn’t headed back to site—I had signed up to do a charity hike in the Almaty mountains, then take a 52-hour trip to the far north to assist with one last summer camp, so I wouldn’t return to Z-sai’s sweet, sweaty embrace for another two whole weeks.

The Hike 4 a Kaz crew.

Hike 4 A Kaz, organized by two Kaz-20s, was a charity hike designed to promote awareness of transparent fundraising in Kazakhstan. It was also the thigh-burner of the century. It involved a one to two hour steep uphill climb, then a four to five hour descent (assume my numbers were at the higher end of that scale). While the weather was perfect and our awesome Kaz-20 guides provided lunch and snacks, there was a point, as I scrabbled over tree limbs on my hands and knees (“Duckett-family style,” as I called it, meaning a willingness to persist and adapt despite the obstacles, but which could have been misinterpreted) when I thought I might have to set up camp on the side of the mountain and live out the rest of my days as an embarrassingly graceless wood nymph. However, I made it to the top, and was rewarded by being transported to a valley straight out of Jurassic Park. Seriously, had a herd (gaggle? I’m undecided) of brachiosauri wheeled into view from behind the cliffs, I would not have been fazed.

At some point, however, the huge green leaves and vibrant flowers beneath our feet gave way to loose rock, and my wood nymph fears were reborn. A little later, we unexpectedly entered surburban America, with incongruous, luxury log cabins and tennis courts suddenly appearing as we sweated our way down the final stretch. By the time the van rescued us, we (the less experienced hikers, that is) resembled slightly sunburned zombies, except more fetid. My friends and I celebrated our survival with a Rocky Horror Picture Show drinking game, because if there’s one way I like to top off a wholesome, healthy day of outdoor activity, it’s with abundant vodka shots and musical transvestitism.

The day after the hike, we all boarded the train from Almaty to Aktobe, which, at 40 hours, is the longest route in K-stan. There are two choices for accommodation on the trains here—coupé, which means you’re in a small compartment with four beds, a lockable door, and, sometimes, air conditioning, and platzcart, which means none of these things. Platzcart is a big, open car with bunks, and though the windows there do open, you will need superhuman powers of persuasion to convince anyone to open them, even at the height of summer. Along with drinking cold beverages, eating fruit at night, and sitting on concrete, opening windows is seen as a surefire way to invite disaster and death, even if it’s approximately 110 degrees in your wagon.

Because my longest previous train ride was only twelve hours and I tend to feel overheated in the middle of a snowstorm, I was somewhat apprehensive about the journey. But, as it turns out, platzcart is not that bad. The Aktobe trip is not something I’d like to do every couple of months, like some of my friends have to, but having the experience once was interesting. I had a bottom bunk in a nice section of bunks—“nice” meaning it was not near the toilet nor filled with floor-peeing children, which is, unfortunately, where a few of the other volunteers ended up. I befriended my bunkmates—a babushka and her teenage grandson, and a guy who does something that involves selling oil to China—and they talked to me about Turkey and shared their fresh melon and tea. The babuska actually watched an entire episode of Mad Men on my computer with me—though she didn’t understand a word, she did pick up the phrase “okay,” which I think counts as my educational accomplishment for the trip. 40 hours is a long haul, no doubt, but once we discovered the restaurant car, it all went pretty quickly. Besides being air-conditioned and nearly empty, the restaurant car had a power outlet and an endless supply of Maxi Chai, the sugary, watered-down green tea drink to which I now have a bizarre addiction. With the way my muscles were aching after the hike, two days of barely moving was probably the best way to recover. And it was worth it to get to Aktobe, where I had the first genuinely good Chinese food I’ve eaten all year and got to see a mosque that looked like this:

Yeah. Right? So worth 40 hours. It’s like Disneyland on shrooms–which would actually probably be terrifying. If there’s anyone I don’t want to encounter while on psychedelic drugs, it’s that dude Goofy. We’ve got a pretty bad history. You know how it is.

Soundtrack: Arcade Fire-Born on a Train

Next post: my last summer camp, my ode to Istanbul, and a picture of a goat. Get ready. Don’t leave your computer screen. (But do. It’ll probably take a couple of weeks).

Camp #2: Hafananananana

My second camp was at my friend Jon’s site in Shauildir. I thought Zhetysai was basically the Wild West, but Shauildir gives Z-sai a run for its tenge. There’s no running water, a lot of dust, and I was nearly impregnated by a donkey as I walked down the street. (No joke—it was terrifying, and the second closest I’ve ever come to an unanticipated donkey three-way). Despite the lack of traditional entertainment, we made our own fun, as PC volunteers are often forced to do. Every night after camp, we bought a huge watermelon, chowed it down on the balcony while watching the exciting happenings on the road below (we almost saw a fight one time—that was pretty much the highlight), then threw the rinds at the three manholes on the ground, which had point values of 1, 2, or 3, depending on distance. I think everyone else eventually managed double digits, while I scored a total of two points during the week. I’m pretty my dark history with manholes threw off my game—that, and the fact that I have as little depth perception as Jon’s adorable blind kitten, Selena. While we were there, he rescued her from the neighborhood tough (a psychopathic toddler with a “cruelty to animals” streak) and took her in. At the time, she was basically a furry bobblehead: she couldn’t see the food we placed directly in front of her, and, nine times out of ten, she fell over the instant you set her on the ground. But she improved greatly in the week we were there, and now she’s a normal feline. It seems clear that her recovery is due her connectiong with her namesake, the Latina singer Selena, whose strength and resilience J-Lo portrayed in the beloved film from my childhood wherein we discovered that Selena’s father was actually Admiral William Adama. (Does that mean her murder was actually part of some Cylon plot? Because I’m not willing to dismiss that possibility…)

Jon’s camp was pretty excellent, as well as intense. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., we kept the kids busy with English lessons, sports, arts and crafts, and games. We were split up into four teams, each named for one of the World Cup finalists: Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Uruguay. I was Uruguay, and while we may have gotten knocked out of the cup first, we totally dominated the Camp Shaildur competition. (Okay, actually, Germany did. We may have ended up in a third-place tie with Spain, but that’s beside the point. URUGUAY RULES). The kids were great, and I don’t just say that because sometimes they bought us ice cream (though I won’t say that didn’t help). Each of us taught and planned with a local teacher, and at the end of the week, the kids’ parents came to see them get their certificates, present their team banners, and put on a talent show. It was at said talent show that two girls from my team did a dance to a song called “Hafanana,” one of the most absurdly catchy songs ever to invade my brain. It’s a popular tune at “toi”s—the giant wedding and birthday parties where everyone dances in a circle and fills themselves with food and vodka—because Afric Simone was apparently one of the few acts allowed to tour behind the Iron Curtain back in the Soviet day. He’s from Mozambique, but he’s made a serious impression on Kazakhstan—and on me and my fellow volunteers, mostly because I couldn’t stop singing “Hafanana” for a full 72 hours after I first heard it. At least it spared me and everyone around me from the addictive, brain-killing melodies of Gaga, if only for a few days.

Besides being fun, the camp made a definite impact on the kids’ understanding of English—I forget the exact numbers, but both the fifth and sixth grades improved by some ridiculously high percentages when we gave them the same test at the end of the week we’d given at the beginning. Were I to do a complete overhaul of the Kazakhstani/international school system, it would involve a lot less rote memorization and many more water ballon wars. I think I’d be recognized as a world hero, at least by everyone in the 4 to 23-year-old age range.

Hafanana-Afric Simone

summah campz

So school has started, meaning it’s time for a recap of my first summer in Central Asia (a.k.a. “The Summer of Sweet, Sticky Watermelon Love”). I’m going to do several posts in a row, after which I will probably go back to my regular rigorous update schedule of “whenever I feel like it and don’t get distracted by the limitless possibilities of real Internet access.” If you find yourself suffering from withdrawal after this burst of blogging, I recommend mixing yourself a White Russian and sitting down to watch a few episodes of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (making sure you scream, out loud, every time he says the secret word of the day—I’ll know if you don’t, you guys), which will have roughly the same psychological effect as reading several posts on this blog. I promise. It’s science.

Some quick background before I take you on this magical warm-weather journey around Kazakhstan: in the summer, education volunteers get three months off school to run and assist with summer camps, see the country, and speak English in complex sentences (well, mildly complex sentences—it’s been awhile since we were in the States) with other PCVs. I did four pretty sweet camps this summer:

Camp #1: Gettin’ Sweaty in Zhety
The first camp of my summer season was my own: Camp Zhetysai, the grandest camp in all the land. For less than 1,000 tenge (about ten bucks), Tes and I put together a camp for the kids at my school, who varied in level from fifth to ninth grade. Originally we’d planned a rotating schedule, with three groups of kids cycling through three different activities, but as Kazakhstan embodies that whole saying about plans and Micemen (damn you, Micemen, and your flimsy, wicked schemes!), that concept quickly fell apart and we ended up with two teams (“Team Friendship” and “Clever Boys and Girls”) who did all the activities together. It actually worked out well, though, and we got to teach the kids everything we’d planned: a few American dances, Ultimate Frisbee, Capture the Flag, and the lyrics to some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. When you’ve got a room full of kids who can sing the choruses of “Billie Jean,” “ABC,” and “Heal the World” on cue, you know you’re doing your job as an educator.

Some of the creations from our book-making activity.

Because no one in Zhetysai wants to be out past 1 p.m. in the summer—for which I can in no way blame them—we held the camp in the morning. Next year, I think we’ll design a longer camp with more formal goals, but this year the aim was basically to give the kids something to do once school was over. There’s not a lot of entertainment or activity here in the summer—unless you go to Shymkent, you’re pretty much stuck repainting the house, hanging out by the trash pit, or sleeping. It was great, and a little heartbreaking, to see how excited my students got over projects where they actually got to be creative—like the “design a holiday” collage, where we gave them a huge stack of magazines, glue sticks, and scissors, and told them to go crazy. Critical thinking is not part of the curriculum here, and oftentimes if you give a kid an assignment without strict guidelines and “right” answers, they’re confused and temporarily paralyzed with uncertainty. But once they realized I was serious about letting them destroy as many Peoples as they pleased, they came up with amazing stuff. One of my brightest students, Azar, dubbed her ideal holiday “Reading Month”: a month in the summer dedicated to books that pretty exactly resembled the reading contests for kids public libraries in the U.S. always put on. I’m writing a grant to build a resource center for my school, and I hope by next summer we can actually realize Azar’s far-fetched dreams of a whole month dedicated to literature. Then I can start on the ideal holiday I designed when our Kazakh teacher did the same exercise with us in training: CannibalFest 2012. It may have come about purely because I was so amazed to have found the word “cannibal” in my Kazakh dictionary, but now I’m pretty dedicated to the idea of a day where we eat candy skulls, play “bobbing for dismembered body parts,” and have tennis tournaments while recognizing the important contributions cannibals have made to the world. Hannibal Lecter, your Arbor Day has finally come.

Does “vuvuzela” sound dirty to anybody but me?

Because Blogger appears to have been blocked for all time, I’m restarting my blog here. This move, combined with the fact that I now have Internet in my home (or in one corner of my home, really, since it’s a slightly sketchy set-up that involved a man and a teenage boy balancing outside my bedroom window at 10 p.m. to pull the cable from my landlady’s apartment to my own) means that you out there in Internet land will once again be able to experience true tales from southern Kazakhstan—and oh, the tales I have to tell. Tales of manholes and burritos (which, incidentally, is the name of the gay taqueria I’m starting once I’m back in the States), and Gaga and Bieber, and horse meat and vodka. Oh, so much horse meat and vodka.

I won’t try to catch up on everything that’s happened since I disappeared from the blogosphere in late March , but I will tell you that I now have my own apartment, with running water, Russian MTV, and the ability to make delicious homemade burritos and blast Talking Heads whenever I desire. Summer has arrived in Zhetysai, and while there are no giant bats (which is kind of a letdown—I had my crossbow ready and everything), people were not kidding about the heat. From the hours of noon to four, the town more or less shuts down, since going outside feels like slicking yourself down with gasoline and running across a bed of coals. Most people go to sleep and gets up again in the evening, when the temperature is perfect for, you know, living life. The real problem with the heat is that there’s no shade, since Zhetysai is completely flat and trees are not particularly abundant. I can’t actually go outside in the afternoon without taking a parasol, which has started to freak me out.  I mean, I carry a parasol, I live in a town surrounded by cotton fields, my students call me “Miss Kate”: I’m basically living in the antebellum South, which, of all the epochs and locations in history, is pretty much the last I’d ever want to visit.

I’m currently munching on döner kebab in City Café, a 24-hour Turkish restaurant/disco in the center of Shymkent. Tes (my sitemate) and I are here for a crazy weekend in the big city before heading to our friend Jon’s village to help him with his summer camp. So far said big weekend has mostly consisted of swimming, going to Madlen’s as often as possible, and ogling the condiments in Ramstore (salsa! Heinz ketchup! Honey mustard!), but compared to life in Zhetysai, it’s pretty thrilling. We also went to see Twilight: Eclipse—purely because I wanted to sit in the dark and eat popcorn, which I guess I could have done without a movie playing, but that may have been a little awkward for Tes. So now I’ve somehow seen two of the three Twilight films (the first due to a friend of mine breaking out the rum and telling me we were going to watch the fifth Harry Potter, then putting in Twilight when I was too drunk to leave—damn you, Jeff), and the only way I can retain any shred of dignity is to avoid ever accidentally seeing the second film, which I understand involves more of that guy who looks like a foot fighting with that guy who looks like he should have better things to do over that girl who kind of looks like she hates both of them and also her life and also everything that’s ever existed ever. As thrillingly nuanced as that sounds, I’ll do my best to steer clear.

My dignity may be a moot point, however, because yesterday I fell into a manhole filled with steaming feces. After that, seeing Twilight: Eclipse felt slightly less sullying than it may have otherwise. Tes and I were leaving for Shymkent, bags in hand, and we had not gotten three steps outside my stairwell when the ground gave out beneath my right leg and I found myself thigh-deep in a sun-warmed human waste hole. The manhole cover had fallen on top of my knee and I was still in shock, so I cursed hysterically in the colorful epithets of my Catholic childhood while a group of small Kazakh boys looked on. Note that I was exposing them to an authentic English experience even while submerged in bubbling bile: that is dedication, Peace Corps. Believe it. Tes got the cover off me and, as I was right outside my apartment, I ran inside, hopped on one foot to the shower, and scrubbed like I have never scrubbed before. I was scratched up, but the physical scars in no way compare to the mental: all day I’ve been seeing manholes where none should be, dancing on floors and ceilings, taunting me with their shaky metal covers and terrible, filthy secrets. I swear that several manholes have changed locations today while I wasn’t looking, suddenly appearing just inches before my feet, and the Shymkent streets feel like a manhole minefield. I’m also not sure what I should do to prevent such an accident from recurring in the future: never leave my apartment? Design a community project devoted to alerting the public to the danger of manholes? Quit teaching and turn into some kind of manhole-fighting superhero? The Holeplugger, perhaps? Manhooligan? Whatever my title ends up being, my origin story will be legendary; my costume, on the other hand, will be disgusting.

FOR EARLIER TALES OF THE ‘STAN (before Nazarbayev blocked access to Blogger): Katharine Does Kazakhstan (The Early Times)