Saturday, August 21, 2004

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Just four laps… There reaches a point in service where you actually start to have days in which nothing new or interesting happens. Days start becoming virtually indistinguishable. You start to think in terms of “well the good internet café and the soft serve place in Karakol are closed so it must Sunday,” or “no electricity today that must mean that it’s Thursday (or did we change days to Tuesday).” Day of the month? Yeah, the only reason I ever have a clue about that is that I have a calendar that I occasionally consult. Oh yeah, and occasionally I get called into Bishkek for something or school is canceled for a holiday, and then somebody bothers to tell me the day of the month. When you join the Peace Corps you think of all of the exciting new experiences that you are going to have, and you certainly have them. For the first three months of training everyday something new, fun, or bewildering happens to you, and then they kick you out from under the protective umbrella of Peace Corps on your own when again everything is new and different. After a while you start to be able to anticipate some of what will happen. You get into a rhythm, and while new things certainly continue to happen, they are not daily. Your village no longer sees you as a novel, your family grows tired of you, and you are ready for some of that space that you once had. Days that you really do not recall at all. It is still interesting and fun, and there is a comfort in the fact that you have the mundane. I never thought that I would be so happy to have “normal” days. For those of you who have ever tried running a mile on a quarter mile track, it is sort of like. The first lap is interesting, because it is, well, the first lap. The energy that carried you from the start starts to wane as you reach the first part of the second lap. By the middle part of the second lap, you are really running, because there is nothing else to do. It is still fun and interesting at points, but it is also sort of what you are doing. I enjoy Kyrgyzstan, and for as much as I complain at points, I like being in the Peace Corps. I have sort of reached that point at which I am doing what I am doing because it is what I am doing. It is fun, but on another level, it is the life I know at this point. There is a comfort in that. As weird as it sounds, this is starting to become home to me, and that provides comfort, which should not be over looked in value. I am back in my village, and it is good to be home after two months away! Brian

Saturday, August 14, 2004

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Okay, so this is a relatively long post, but I have had a lot of free time to write, so enjoy. For those you new to my weblog, this is not normally anywhere near this long. Nothing in this entry is time sensitive, so take your time, enjoy bits and pieces, and come back again later for other parts. This posting isn’t going anywhere. At the age of 25 it seems that I have done my fair share of traveling. I don't want to be so crass as to claim to have seen the world, or that I even have a good understanding of what the world has to offer, but I do have a sense. Having visited 20+ countries over the last ten years, I may not be totally justified in what I am about to say, but I have feel that there is some basis for it. In the last five years in particular, I have been blessed with the opportunity to see some truly awe inspiring sites. I have been struck by the majesty of the Taj Mahal, left in wonder by St. Peter's Basilica, and enchanted by the palaces in Thailand. I have gotten to see many of the major religious holy sites around the world, and seen a lot the "things everybody should." I am not immune to awe, but I feel that I have seen enough to not be impressed by something just because I am supposed to be impressed by it. Well, I was terribly impressed by something this week. In fact, while walking through the streets of Samarquand Uzbekistan I was struck the shear impressive nature of the architecture in the ancient structures. It seems simplistic to say, but to describe them is simply to say that they are really big and really blue/aqua. The magnitude of their stature cannot really be described in words. Some are hundreds of feet tall and covered by intricately done tile-work. Beyond that, you are simply going to have to wait for the pictures. Having made this pilgrimage of sorts, I have added another place to my relatively short list of places people really should visit in a life time. At the risk of sounding incredibly arrogant for a 25 year-old who has only seen part of the world, I present to you in no particular order my essential top five list of places and things outside of America that one really must see in a lifetime (I recognize that there is a lot not on this list, but its only a top 5): 1. Saint Peter's Basilica-The Vatican City One of the truly most beautiful religious sites in the world. It has over 10 different types of marble (or so it seems), and is one of the few religious sites that is as good as advertised. Besides, you also get to visit the world's smallest country while you're at it. 2. The Taj Mahal- Agra, India I typically am not all that impressed by over hyped sites (ie the Mona Lisa, interesting but overrated). That said, they Taj actually exceeds expectations. It is truly awe-inspiring with the true beauty being in the details of the work that can only be appreciated in a visit. 3. Wat Pho- Bangkok , Thailand Okay, remember all of those pictures you saw in your children's books of Arabian princes, and you thought it was fiction, well they're not. They exist in a not so Arabian place, but the architecture here captures that essence. It is the stuff of fantasies. Besides that, Wat Pho also contains a Thai massage parlor (not prostitution) worth every bit of the 1 dollar for an hour of massage, and a gigantic reclining Buddha. 4. Samargaund, Uzbekistan The city is full of impressive Islamic structures. When I say impressive, what I am really meaning is giganticly huge massively tall very big structures that are really really old and that also sorts of really cool carving and tile-work on them. They are simply things that cannot be contained or understood in pictures, and thus are more than worth a visit. 5. Mount Sinai- Sinai Peninsula, Egypt To stand on a point that is central to three religions having climbed it for three hours starting at 2 in the morning and watching the sun rise will make even the most dedicated atheist start to contemplate the existence of higher being. It is simply that powerful of an experience. The pictures show the beauty, but they do not tell the tale of the emotion. There is the added benefit of Saint Catherine's at the base of the mountain which holds what is reportedly either the original burning bush or a direct descendent thereof. It shimmers in the light. It sparkles. It is beautiful in so many ways. You almost want take a picture of to bask in its glow. So what is it? A diamond? Gold? Champagne? No, it was dinner, and it would have made those people who make food beautiful pictures proud. The problem was, I don’t want to eat something that shinny. It just sort of seems unnatural. This was particularly the case when I realized that what was making that food so shinny was the oil that covered the whole thing. Now I know that we Southerners are used to attempting food assisted suicide with the amount of grease and salt. Hell, I am personally a proponent of theory that if you don’t know what else to do with something, you can always deep fry it. Throw some salt on it after pulverizing it in grease, and you know that you are going to get something tasty. The problem here is that they do grease and fat as a sauce. I know that a good cream sauce in the America is based on some butter and such, and that those who like gravy swear by grease as a base. Did you notice that last word “base.” For people here throw a little water into a bowl of grease, add a sprig or two of dill, some potatoes, a few pieces of fat heavy meat, and you have yourself a soup. If you leave out the potatoes and meat, and you have a fine sauce. So the other night I was watching performances at the camp where I am teaching for the summer. I wasn’t really following the plots of the skits, because well there where in either Russian or Kyrgyz. As I watched on this given evening (we have them every night) I was able to follow along some with the action. It then occurred to me: these kids get it. The skits that night were all about human rights (about which I had spoken that morning). More then simply being about human rights, they were about human rights problems that the kids themselves see in Kyrgyzstan. They were challenging long established traditions such as heavy drink, spousal abuse, and bride stealing. They got it. They seemed to no only understand that the problems are real problems that need to be dealt with, but there is a sense that they realize that they are the ones that will have to deal with them. The future of every country rests in its children. Kyrgyzstan is certainly no different. If this place is going to see the kind of freedom and development that many dream for this country, these kids are the ones who are going to make it happen. It is the same thing in our own country, but the difference is that these kids are active because they understand the problems and see a dream for the future. The same cannot always be said in out nation. Success is the flow of the river. Here there is not that sense. If the future is to be bright they have to change momentum, and it is wonderful to see that there are people who may actually be able to do that. I can't understand... People here call it a cultural thing. They call it a national tradition, and say that those outside just don't understand. Well, on that last part about understanding, I agree. I do not understand the "tradition" of bride kidnapping that takes place in this country. It is an issue that slapped me in the face the other day. While visiting different groups at the camp on democracy and human rights where I am working this summer, a man approached one of the groups looking for one of its members. He told the group leader that he was the girl's neighbor and that he just wanted to see her. In a room away from where the man was, the girl stuck her head out of the door to see who it was. She confirmed that she had never seen the man before in her life. This led me to ask the group's leader in private who she thought the man was. She said that she wasn't certain, but she was pretty certain that he was there to steal her. I happy to say that the group, in particular the men in the group, seemed prepared to defend her from the attempt. The man positioned himself with his car between the building where the students were working (did I mention that this kid is at oldest 16 or 17) and the building where we live and eat. Needless to say, the tension of the situation pretty intense, as nobody really wanted to see this man succeed at his mission. As with any situation with an aggressor, there was a lot of uncertainty about how this man would react in the open. Would he be smooth and not really confrontational as he had been to that point, or would he become a lot more aggressive. It also put me in a very bad situation. As the senior male in the situation, it very well could have fallen to me to keep him from reaching her. That is, however, against Peace Corps policy as it involves the volunteer in a dangerous situation, and it can potentially lead to retaliation against the volunteer. As of this writing, the situation has a happy ending as the student found a back way to the living quarters, and the man finally left once she got inside. Unfortunately, if this young man is not in a hurry to get married (thus grabbing somebody else) it is unlikely that the student will finish her final year of school without being stolen. For some, a one time failure is enough to move on to others, but in all likelihood, he will simply wait for a more opportune time later. So now this girl gets to live everyday knowing that this man is out there waiting to grab her. Maybe she will be able to resist and get away, but there is just as much chance that she will never finish school. People here tell me that I just don't understand, and they are absolutely right. I don't understand how that stuff is allowed to happen in a country that has signed multiple human rights documents banning forced marriage. Still, in my village eighty percent of the women were stolen, with half of those "stealings" not being a consensual event. I believe in being culturally sensitive, but there are just some things that my educated mind cannot accept. You want to know what summer camp is all about? People ask me why I keep going back to summer camps. "When are you going to grow up and get a real job?" they ask. I mean I am 25 years old, and as my body likes to remind me everyday, I am not getting any younger. Most peopole work summer camps for a couple of summers in college, and then they turn their focus towards future careers. They "grow-up" as people say. Me, this is my 7th summer of camp, and if the camp gods smile on me, I will make it to at least 9 if not my goal of 10 ten straight summers working in camps. So you want to know why I keep coming back? Why when I have other projects to work on while in Peace Corps I take the time away from my other projects to work at camps? Its because summer camp infects you if you let it. If you will let the children into your heart, then you will be a summer camp junky for life. I have long tried to find a way to put the summer camp experience in a nutshell. I have literally spent hours trying to put the entire experience into one succinct story. This doesn't do it justice, but it's a start : So what is summer camp? Summer camp it was happened the other day. We told the kids that they were going to get to go swimming, so they all go their swimming stuff and went to the pool. As they were standing around the pool waiting to get in, the music started. From a door in one side of the building emerged Neptune the god of water followed by local tribes people. They started by chanting, and then they read a declaration for the respect of the water. The natives then went crazy attacking two innocent camp staff members there with their kids throwing them into the water. That's summer camp for you: a bunch of camp councilors with their bodies painted, sticks stuck in their hair while they dance around a swimming pool. It is those councilors throwing each other into the pool and then grabbing kids who want to get into the pool and tossing them in setting-off what amounts to a controlled mayhem. It is a controlled environment that constantly has the feel of being out of control. That's summer camp folks: making an idiot of yourself and doing things in general that you friends would think are crazy just to make certain a group of kids are having a good time. Think acting is hard... I have tried some experimental theatre in my day. I've done improv (whoa oooommm), written a script through improv then performing that script, and done a run where every day was a different hour long script to name a few. I had not, however, performed a play that was not actually written at all, had it been written it wouldn't have matter as it would have been done so in a language I don't understand, and that was composed almost entirely about 1 hour before performance. Improv is one thing, but having to improv a script with a person speaking to you in a language you don't understand is a whole different ball game. Oh yeah and throw in the fact that most of the performers only speak a language (Russian) that was at most a second language for the vast majority of the audience (and unknown by some). So at 7:45/8 we started rehearsing from a rough outline (again in Russian) with all in the cast (with the exception of me) speaking Russian. Stage directions et all were given in Russian, and when somebody felt it necessary, translated to me in broken English. Given my role of an American trying to communicate with a group of animals that only spoke Russian (or what I call real life), I was left with a few minor instructions and one run to try it. With that, the only thing to do was to be prepared to basically completely wing the 20 or so minutes that I would be on stage without actually understanding what anybody else was doing (try making that an exercise for your actors). The show itself went fine to the best I can tell. Since nobody every really told me what the show was about, I can never be totally certain. There was that moment while I was waiting backstage for my entrance, when I realized that I had no clue what the people on stage were talking about, so there was no way for to know exactly how close they were to my entrance. It was one of those, "oh well that's my que (sp?)" moments. After finishing my bit of interaction with the other characters, I was left on stage with a minor out of the way hiding in a corner character acting to do. Of course, that led to the moment when everybody else left the stage while one person did an aside of sorts. Not knowing what was happening, I stayed in my corner. Nobody complained, so I can only assume that it worked, but I really have no idea. I suppose it is needless to say, but it was simultaneously one of the most frustrating and most interesting acting experience things I have had. It was interesting to put together so much so quickly, and it was absolutely maddening not have a clue what was happening in a play I was performing. I should add at this point that we performed this play a second time a week later for new group of kids with some roles change, things added, and some things dropped. The night before our second performance I was told that wanted to change my entire scene. They had a new idea about how they wanted it to go, which was fine with me. At the end of rehearsal the director turned to me and said that we will either do it the new way or the old way. As the performance started, they still had never bothered to tell me which way we were doing it, which meant that I was left flying by the seat of my pants in a performance done entirely in a language I don’t understand. An actor makes it work, so it worked. This is for my debate friends out there, but the rest of you can enjoy it as well. So I thought acting in a play done totally in a foreign language was difficult, but I had no clue until I tried debating in a foreign language (okay so I’m not certain that the language was what made it difficult). I was told on Thursday morning that that night two of us would debating whether or not computers in theatre were good. I was debating for the affirmative. Not a bad topic. It gave me some things to think about, and I had a nice outline developed of three primary arguments each with two or three subpoints. I was feeling good about the debate when it rolled around. Then as I stood there preparing to start, our director (and best friend of my opponent) announced what we were debating. The (new) topic was that I was going to argue that progress is always good and that my opponent E was going to argue that while progress is sometimes good it is not always good. My immediate response was to yell “tight!” I didn’t, because it wouldn’t have meant anything to anybody in the room. You APDA debaters out there can argue me with about whether or not it is actually tight, but the only way it is not is to get into a boring semantic argument about what the word “progress” actually means. Our director then told some story about E and I had gotten into an argument about a random U of Kansas production in 97 or 98 that used virtual reality technology to create the sets (I do use this production as an example of technology in theatre but I wondered whether there was a different Brian around for the conversation he was talking about.) So in front of my eyes the debate changed from whether or not computer technology was a good thing in theatre to a debate about whether or not progress was always good based upon one random public university production in the late ‘90s. If this had been the kind of debate where you don’t know the topic until it starts that would have been fine. I could have been ready for that, but to take away all my prep was a low blow. Especially since all of my arguments had to be written up in advance for my translator. Having been with our director when they created the new topic E was ready for the debate. The one advantage I figured I had was that as little as I knew about the production, he knew nothing. Okay, this is were American styles differ from those in CIS countries. I figured dude has decided to debate on a topic that he doesn’t know a damn thing about, then my first approach is to make him look like a dumb ass (and I decided to be nice. I didn’t even talk about who he slept with last night. I kept it on topic.) I pointed-out that my opponent fundamentally did not understand the technology or the situation in which it was used by pointing-out that everything he said about both the technology and the production were inaccurate. Then I actually explained how things the technology works and how that relates to how computers are used in theatres responding to directly to his arguments. Yeah, big mistake. Apparently showing that you can’t believe a single thing your opponent says and then providing factually accurate information of your own in a logical format to make your arguments is not how you debate here. I heard some of this during the debate as the director critique some of what I did in front of the kids. I got more of it later telling me that I was talking about things the kids couldn’t relate to. He told me that now the kids are going to copy me and talk about things that their audience doesn’t know anything about. Okay first, if you give me topic that the kids don’t know anything about then well, the whole debate will be about things they don’t know that much about. Choose a shit topic, get a shit debate. Second, in the real world debates take place between people who know more about their topics than the audience. The point is to explain why you are correct by helping audience understand the information that leads to your position, and convincing them that that information is more convincing than what the other side presents. He didn’t like it when I told him all of this, or that there must be a fundamental difference between the way we debate. In America we believe in trying to convince people that we know what we are talking about and that the other person is full of shit. We believe in logical arguments based in fact. He doesn’t think people have different styles. He thinks what I did was just bad debate, and that I should change to more of contradictory inaccuracies that don’t follow a logical pattern. Or perhaps to be fair, a style of debate in which you scare people about what is going to happen regardless of whether or not what you are saying the thing (in this case technology) does is factually accurate. If you want to see what I am talking about, watch W debate this fall except that he will at least use facts (likely wrong but facts nonetheless), use arguments that might be a vailed attempts at logic, and be willing to go after Kerry allowing the debate to be at least interesting. (Oh by the way despite the director supporting E, I won the debate in the eyes of the children, and regardless of what director said that got a good view of what debate is about). Okay, I’ve complained enough, I hope this was at least interesting. As always, I welcome responses. Okay, I will conclude this absurdly long entry with some final thoughts for you. Having spent a good part of my summer working with kids in camps around this country I am gaining a renewed respect for things. First, I remembered why I loved camp and kids. A former coworker of mine at a summer camp pointed-out that at the end of every school year he was ready to be finished with kids. After a summer at camp he left refreshed and ready for another school year. I am feeling the same way. Second, I have bit brighter hope for the future of this country. I have worked with 165 totally impressive kids. If these kids and others like them have a say in the way this country is going in the decades to come, then Kyrgyzstan has a real chance. I just hope that they do no loose their sense of optimism and vitality as they make the transition from children to adults as so often happens.