Wednesday, June 30, 2004

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The dream the goal For whatever reason, the idea of crossing into China via the Tourgart pass has worked it’s way through the minds of most volunteers who have come to Kyrgyzstan. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s for the same reason that we choose to climb a mountain, because it’s there, maybe it’s because entering China via land is just not something most Americans do, maybe we think that there is something to be gained from the challenge and the experience of the unknown, or maybe it’s because we are just plain crazy. For one or more of these reasons, my family and I decided to make an attempt at the crossing. The Tourgart pass itself is located in one of the most remote parts of Kyrgyzstan reachable by “road”. It is a region in which most Kyrgyz are smart enough not to live. The start point for reaching the Tourgart pass is Naryn city, located 6-8 hours to get from Bishkek (or my village depending on where you are starting), where you spend the night. We selected a nice a guest house with running water, which was important as the night before our trip to Naryn my stomach decided to longer hold liquid. The second day starts at 5:30 with a five and a half hour drive over an unpaved road to the Chinese border. About 40 miles from the border you come across your first check-point where your papers as well as those of your driver and your guide are checked. Thus starts the rest of your day as you drive through no-man’s-land stopping every 30 minutes or so to have your papers checked as if somehow you and your 4-wheel drive vehicle have managed to avoid the previous check-points by driving through the 10-feet electrified barbed-wire fences that line the road. After passing any number of too old trucks carrying too much scrap metal for anybody’s good, you reach customs… on the Kyrgyz side that is. Another 15 or 20 minutes of paper work later, and you are finally out of Kyrgyzstan, thus not officially in any country whatsoever, and it’s now 11:55 (oh did I forget to mention, the gate to China to closes at 12, and there is a group of 20 Polish citizens breathing down your neck). Another 5 miles of bone-jarring road lies ahead as you speed to what you think to be the finish line. Arriving at the border slightly after noon but somehow before they have decided to close the border (the Kyrgyz don’t ever do anything on time), you have to unload all of your luggage, walk across the border, and meet your new Chinese guide leaving your Kyrgyz guide and driver behind. 5 miles later, you have your first check-point with Chinese officials (why the don’t check your papers when your are walking across the official international border is beyond me.) It was at this point that two Europeans learned rule 1 of Brian’s Travel Rules for Idiots (stay tuned for more rules in future postings). For whatever reason, this couple was lead to believe and then actually did believe that they could arrive at the Chinese border without a visa and be able to purchase one there. Okay folks here is rule number 1: unless a country is really really friendly with your country (and China is not really really friendly with anybody especially countries with a bunch of white people as citizens), you’d damn well better have a visa before you even think about trying to cross that border. If you have any doubt in your mind, consult rule 1a: if the country seems really apprehensive about allowing its own citizens to leave, chances are, you’re going to need their approval in advance to get in (aka if it hard to get out of country, it hard to get into country.) Okay, so assuming you actually have a visa, you then have about 50 more miles before you are stopped for a physical. Okay, it’s really a questionnaire about your current health (on which I lied as, well, my body was purging itself of irritants that day) and check of your temperature (which I passed without cheating). That is followed by Chinese customs where they check your passport twice in the building (and once more on your way out the door), x-ray your bags, and ask to see any books you may have in your bag (one normally makes them content) even though they can’t read any of what is written in the book placing their trust again in your hands that you will tell them what the book is actually about (the Chinese actually are very trusting come to think of it. Too bad I abused that trust to allow myself access to their country). Finally, after about a half mile down the road, you pass through your final check-point. It is now around 4:30 more than 5.5 hours since you started the border crossing process at the first check-point in Kyrgyzstan.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

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Greetings all So I am writing this in anticipation of my family's arrival to Kyrgyzstan, so forgive for being a bit odd in this posting (okay, I'm always, but you understand.) What kind of American are you? So I was walking down the street the other day when I was approached by a Kyrgyz man, which is not all that surprising given the fact that well, this is Kyrgyzstan, and I am a 6 foot white dude. Anyway, this gentleman approaches me asking me the standard questions (who are you, what are you doing here, where do you live, are you married, do you want a kyrgyz wife, ect...). After I answered all of his questions, he asked me my nationality. I told him that I was an American, and he seemed perplexed, so he asked again. Again, I told him that I am an American, and he said, "no what kind of an American, French, Canadian, what?" A little tired and sort in a hurry, I got confused and again told him that I was an American. Both firmly confused at this point we shook hands, said goodbye, and went our seperate ways. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered, "what kind of an American am I?" Then I decided that that was much too philosophical thinking to be done when I was tired and listening to country music. After walking a ways, I realized that he was seeking my families original country, which, being a mut as I am, would have been far too difficult to explain to him anyway. Anyway, my challenge to you is to think about what kind of an American you are. Money, give me money... This afternoon, I was walking through the streets of Bishkek on the way to the Peace Corps office when I was approached by old man asking for money. A not all too uncommon occurence in this country, I told the man that I really didn't have any money to give. He looked at my pocket and said, "you have money." He then decided that it would be best to prove to me that I had money, so he started reaching for my pocket. Not wanting a confrentation, I started to back away the man, but he pursued. I started moving faster, and he increased his speed to match mine. Finally, I just started running. I'm certain that it was an odd site to see a 25 year-old American running down the street being pursued by an elderly Russian man who was screaming profanities in Russian. Okay, so I had hoped that today would mark my first posting with pictures, but that hasn't really worked, so you will all have to wait for a while for that. I'm sorry. I am about to be out of site for 2ish months, and I am uncertain how much time I will have to doing postings henceforth, but I hope to post some sporadic ones from around the country. Take Care. Brian

Saturday, June 05, 2004

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You know as I sat down to write this week’s posting a lot of things came rushing to my head about potential topics. Of course much of what came to my head were phrases such as “damn what was that great idea that I had to write about,” or “come on I know that I had two knock your socks-off ideas.” Unfortunately, I’m growing senile in my old age. I’ve gotta say, though, it has been a rough week for me. I mean I had to hike all the way up to beautiful waterfall on a perfectly gorgeous day. When I wasn’t doing that, I had to lay-out on the beach just soaking-up the rays as wind kept a perfectly sunny day from getting too hot. Oh yeah, and then there was the time when I forced to eat breakfast three times. Yes, I have been working, and that working has pulled me inside to my computer on more days than seems fair. There are hundreds of pages of human rights documents to analyze, pages of an epic to read, and lessons on human rights and democracy to prepare. Only a portion of that work can be done outside in the sun. I did get exposed this week to a couple of interesting problems. The first problem is one of the farmers of the region in which I am living. My area of Kyrgyzstan produces a number of fruits and vegetables. Chief among these are potatoes, apples, and apricots. A good number of the farmers in my village rely almost solely on their potatoes for their yearly income. For a variety of reasons, the supply of potatoes this past year far exceeded the demand for them. The current going rate for potatoes is 30 tien (100 tien to the som and about 43 som to the dollar so about 4300 tien to the dollar) ie about .7 cents per kilogram (2.2 pounds per kilo). The normal price is about 20 times higher than that. Obviously, they have way too many potatoes than they can sell, and they do not want to sell them at such a low price. What is everybody in my village doing about this crisis? Almost all of them are replanting the potatoes (you plant individual potatoes instead of seeds for potato plants) that they refused to sell at such a low price. The end result will likely be that we will again have an excess of potatoes come this fall when it is time to harvest them again. Other crops grow in our area, but people seem resistant to try and do something that others are not doing. There is a cycle going on here that outside observers think will continue until people are will to step out from the pack and try new things. My family is trying just that, and we will see how well they do this fall with a diversified crop portfolio. An interesting side note on all of this is that I had the opportunity this week to speak with an American who runs an importing business in Russia. Russia, it would seem, would be a logical place for local farmers to export their potatoes, and there is a demand for a lot of potatoes there. So how do they take care of that demand? They import them from the USA and Canada. It seems that importers can make more money by importing potatoes from there than they can by importing them from nearby countries. I guess it helps American farmers, but I am seeing a lot of families near me that are going to suffer greatly because of this. I can’t decide whether or not to take this as a compliment… For whatever reason, Kyrgyz schools give their students exams after the official end of school, and even then they only give them to 7th,9th, and 11th grades. Normally, a school either gives the exams to the students in the form of a panel with all of the teachers from that department assisting, or each individual teacher tests his or her own students. As I teach all of the 11th grade classes English and 2 of the 3 9th grade classes, I was told that I would be giving those exams to the students who decided to take the English exam (they get a choice on some subjects). I was than quickly informed that of course all of the all of the other English teachers would be there as well. Thinking that this was they way my school did things, I inquired about when the other English exams would be given, and I was told, a little too quickly, that I was not needed to help give those exams. I thought this was particularly odd, so a little investigation led me to the realization that the reason for all of this is that the school is scared to death of my grades. It seems that my school is a little unhappy with the fact that I am willing to fail students who have, well, failed to do well enough to pass my class (see some of my earlier postings). They are very much afraid that I will fail students on these exams, so afraid that they are limiting the classes that I get to test and making certain that there are enough other teachers around when I do give exams to make certain that the students are given the proper grade. There are three pieces of this puzzle that make it all a little more interesting. The first the school knows, but the second two they are completely unaware of. Since the students can choose whether or not to take certain subjects, I know who is taking my exam, and I know that they are some of the best students that I have had. The second thing is that I find these exams to be a meaningless waste of time for all involved. I understand the need to give exams, but the fact that it has no impact on their grades whatsoever makes them a bit pointless. Since a lot of the exam is supposed to be speaking, the exams are also incredibly subjective. Beyond all of that, these are all my best students, and I know how good they are at English. I don’t need an exam to tell me that. Needing to give an exam that serves no purpose other than to be exam that the students have taken, I decided to simply give my students an exam composed of questions that they have already answered on previous exams, and to give them back their previous exams to study. They have all already aced all of these exams, so it shouldn’t be a problem, and I don’t want it to be. These kids have enough pressure on them, they have nothing to prove to me, so there is no reason for them to made any more nervous. So the school is scared to death that I will fail all of these students, but unless they do something fairly surprising, they should all ace the exam with relative ease. I know, I’m a horrible person. Okay, have fun out their folks and take care. Brian