Saturday, November 27, 2004

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I bagged me a turkey... So once again, that ever so wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving is upon us. This will mark my second consecutive (and 3rd in 6 years) overseas. It may also be my last one for a while (I don't know exactly when I will return to America next year). Last year all of Peace Corps gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving. This year, those of us in the field are being left to our own devises. That means that when several of us decided to throw our own Thanksgiving dinner, we had to find a way to get ourselves a turkey. We are actually have two celebrations one locally and one in the oblast capital of Karakol for all us in the oblast. I am not certain how those organizing the Karakol celebration or procuring a turkey, but I do know how we managed to get one for us in my little area. Jamie, the other volunteer near me, and I decided that we really needed to do something for Thanksgiving on the proper holiday itself. Turkey, or course, was at the top of our menu. Uncertain of exactly where or how one goes about securing themselves a turkey, we started asking our students. Of course we got the obvious answer of, "you go to the animal bazar." Now, I have never personally purchased a live animal. I also have perhaps only ever in my life purchased one dead turkey, so my experience in either of those two areas much less the two combined as purchasing a live turkey is slim to be kind. We took a student with us for assistance. To the untrained, most turkey's look pretty much the same with the only noticeable difference being weight and color, but to the trained eye, there are a myriad of minuscule details that differentiate a good turkey from a bad. I have no clue what those minuscule details are. Fortunately, the student had a trained and picked one out after I picked-up each turkey (remarkably easy). Just as we were purchasing the turkey (and just when we thought that we had escaped a slightly bizarre situation without it going bad) a man decided that he wanted the turkey that we selected. The salesman told him to go away, but instead, he took our turkey (okay technically not ours as we had just agreed upon a price and were getting our money out, but the man who owned it agreed that it was to be ours and not the other man's). Needless to say a confrontation ensued in which somehow had the turkey by both wings as did the other gentleman. He proceeded to call me quite the range of dirty names (I just smiled back at him and told him that it was our turkey). The salesman started yelling at him that we were there first and that he had agreed to sell it to us. The man continued to hold onto the turkey insisting that it was his while simultaneously calling me dirty names (I kept alternating between a smile and returning his threatening glares (try switching back and forth sometime, it's fun)) until a Russian lady stepped in and told the man that he was making an ass of himself and to let the foreigners buy their turkey. I hate fighting with people, but it is also a bit rude for somebody to take something that they want without regard for whether or not somebody else was in the actual process of buying the thing. Okay, so once we had our turkey, we only had to walk the kilometer back to town with a live turkey, which I was still holding using the approved local method of by its wings. I really had no interest in walking all that way with a turkey in that position. It just sort of seemed inhumane to make it feel that uncomfortable less than a week before we whack its head off, so we got a large bag, which could not have been that much better for it. Of course, the turkey had no real interest in being dumped into a bag even though I kept trying to convince it that it would be far more comfortable that way. Somehow, I managed to get its head in the back, flip it onto its back, and then slide it into the back. At that point, I slung the bag over my shoulder and carried our prize back to town feeling very proud of myself. We had successfully purchased a live turkey, been treated almost entirely like locals from the attempt by the man to take it without regard for the fact that we were already purchasing it to our successful winning of the confrontation, and were then walking to town carrying a live animal in a bag in a random developing country. Ah, the Peace Corps life. Now all we have to do is figure out how to cook it in a country where the only ovens are really small. Stay tuned... One of the true frustrations... One of the true frustrations of being so far away from family and friends is that there is no way for me to get you to totally understand a day like the one that I just had. This space is often filled with complaints, sarcasm, and oddities. I normally leave-out the simple joys that go along with doing this work in this place with these people. Sure, I include in my e-mails some line about how I'm really enjoying things, but often you have to take those words on their without any specific evidence of what it is that I am enjoying. Today, I want to offer you a number of experiences all of which happened in one day that let me know that I have no intentions of living here anytime soon. 1. I wrote a while ago that when a student succeeds that a teacher celebrates it as a job well done by the students, but when a student fails, the teacher treats it is as their own failure. I wrote that on a day in which I had watched several of my students under perform in an English competition. We entered that day with expectations high and left deflated. We had another English competition this past week. It was part of the regional academic competition. While two of my students failed to qualify in an earlier competition for the regional, but I had the maximum of 2 competing in the 10th grade regional competition. The competition took place on the day before Thanksgiving, but I was not made aware of official results until Thanksgiving itself. That was when we celebrated a 1st and 4th place finish in the region with the top finisher in each region advancing to the Oblast (state) competition in a couple of weeks. The student who finished fourth, Aidela, was the one student not to under perform in the previous competition, so to loss to somebody who had no made it to the second round as she had in that earlier competition might have been a tough pill to swallow, but in previous years she had never even made it to the regional in English, so to take fourth in a very competitive age group put a smile on her face that spoke volumes about how she was feeling. As gratifying as that was, it was the look on the winner's, Nargiza, face that made all of the work over the past year worthwhile. She had been at tears after not progressing to the second round in the previous competition, and now there is a sense of proud back about her. Last year she had qualified for the regional competition, but had been soundly beaten. This year, she moves on to face some of the best English students in the country. I could not be happier for her. It didn't hurt that I got a chorus of congratulations that morning in the teacher's room from my fellow teachers. For a village our size to send several students on to the Oblast level is quite an accomplishment. There is a sense of pride at the school, and I am so happy to be included in that. Nargiza performed when she was called to, but I like to think that maybe I helped a little bit. It is just an awesome feeling to be a part of a time of pride for the village, and to have my colleagues recognize that I played an ever so small part in it. 2. Don't ask me why I decided to do it, but for some reason, Thanksgiving also served as the official kick-off for my new personal project entitled Bridge the Gap. It is my attempt to finally make a connection with my teachers. I have said virtually nothing to them other than basic pleasantries since I arrived here a year ago. As a result, I have come to learn that many are generally interested in my, but they are afraid to talk to me. I know I was dense, but it took me a while to recognize that and the fact that to improve my Kyrgyz I need to practice speaking. I somehow managed to overlook the best people that I had to practice with: my colleagues. I made a mistake. One that I regret, but I don't really have time to regret while I'm here. With the departure of the group a year a head of me, it places my group on point as the ones now counting down our days. So, for whatever reason, Thanksgiving my day to start changing all of that. The first teacher I saw that morning I greeted with the Kyrgyz holiday greeting and then explained to her that today was a holiday in America. With that one conversation, the doors were blown open. I had no clue exactly how interested the other teachers were in speaking with me. I started talking about Thanksgiving in the teacher's room and what we traditionally do. As luck would have it, I had my pictures from home with me to share with my students. Well those got pulled out of my bag, and what was left of the doors holding back interactions between me and the teachers was blown away. I was late to every class (completely acceptable here) as more and more teachers grabbed them to look at them. English teachers started helping me practice my Kyrgyz right then and there. The only problems I had communicating that day was when one of the English teachers tried speaking to me in very bad English, and when I started speaking to one of the other English teachers in Kyrgyz, because she thought I was speaking in English and did not initially recognize the words. Time will tell how well things go from here, but I sense this as a major turning point in my interactions at school, and I am very much looking forward to that. Hopefully, it will make the next year even better than the first. 3. So I mentioned in my earlier section of this week's posting that I went and bought a turkey for eating on Thanksgiving. Well, now here's the rest of the story. This was my third Thanksgiving spent overseas. Each has certainly had its unique memories. My first was on a train Thailand with Jane eating banana chip and Prengals with Jane. My second was will of Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan in Bishkek after cooking 3 or 4 loafs of cornbread. This year was doing everything teamed with Jamie. When I arrived at the place of the event, the only things that had been done was the turkey had been killed and plucked. That's it. The first thing that had to happen according to what we had gotten from The Joy of Cooking was that the bird had to be singed. Our initial attempts with a candle worked, but were ended when the family who we were cooking for offered to get their friend's gas torch. The torch was similar to the Coleman Peak 1 series of camp stoves and lanterns for those you who spent time backpacking in the 80's through mid 90's. For those of you unfamiliar with this design, it is basically whatever your given device (stove, lantern, or torch) sitting on top of a gas tank. You pump air into the gas tank and that forces the fuel into the burning mechanism. It works for stoves and it works for torches as well. I stood back at the father of the family proceeded to blowtorch our turkey (no need to worry, I got pictures). I suppose it accomplished whatever it was supposed to, but having never killed, cooked, or cleaned a turkey before I have no sense of what it was trying to accomplish. Having torched the turkey, it was time for cleaning the turkey. Again the father took the lead, as he actually kills stuff on a regular basis. I was left helping him. It proved to be the start of a very interested biology lesson. With compliments to Mrs. Boldon at MHS, I proved myself a worthy high school graduate able to identify virtually every organ as it came-out (include the gizzard.) Once gutted it was up to the other male around (me) to slice and dice it. I'll spare you the gory details (if you want them ask me sometime), but over the course of the next hour and half of cutting up the bird and continuing my incredibly interesting biology lesson and study of how a turkey is assembled you would have been surprised at how remarkably affective I was (and how surprised I was that there really is light and dark meat). Over the next 3 or 4 hours, dinner came together remarkably well given the fact that neither of Jamie nor I had ever prepared a Thanksgiving dinner before. The turkey for me was the highlight of the meal, but the potatoes, stuffing, bread, corn, and apple pie all gave the meal a sense of realism that I have never had when celebrating Thanksgiving overseas before. I'm not certain that our locals enjoyed it nearly as much as we did, but then again, that would have been very difficult to do. I know the mother was fascinated with watching me making an apple pie. She kept commenting to Jamie about how surprised she was to see me so involved in the cooking process (my thought: if you want to eat well then you had better learn to cook well. Then you have control). I know that they all that I was joking, but as I sat there stuffing my face, it took a bit of control to keep the tears in my eyes. It was one of those moments you know that you'll never forget. There I was in one of the last places I thought I would be eating a full Thanksgiving meal. It was sort of absurd, but there was a sense of nostalgia mixed with happiness and surrealism that made it made it sort of metaphorical for life. As it has been noted wonder of wonders all of this happened on Thanksgiving. I'm not certain why it happened that way, but I firm believer in the appropriateness of things. Things work for a way whether or not we totally understand the reasons. If nothing else, it was a day to be truly thankful. I hope all of you had similar Thanksgivings.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

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I'm full... For those of you in touch with your Islamic brethren around the globe, Sunday the 14th of this month was the celebration of the end of Ramadan (Orzo depending on where you live). For those of you who have never had the experience of breaking the fast, it is an experience. It can fairly easily be described as a cranked-up version of Halloween. On this day, every person in the community goes and visits seven houses. "Only seven houses? Shit, when I was a kid we used to hit like 50 houses on Halloween." Okay, fair enough, but on Ait (as it is called) you not only visit the houses, but you must sit and eat for at least an hour. If you leave without eating, you have brought shame upon their house, so you sit and eat a full Kyrgyz meal which is something akin to a Thanksgiving dinner assembled for an army of 50 but to be eaten by 2. The real competition of the day is whether you can actually get all seven houses in before you pass out in the street wallowing in your own filth. It would be worse if the food were bad, but the food is so good, that something deep inside of you (sure as hell not hunger) pushes you on to the next house. Not only is the raise against your stomach but it is also a raise against time and your bladder. First, with each house you must drink something like 10 cups of tea, and there are no public bathrooms in the country, but it is hard to get to use those of you hosts because they want you in the house (the bathrooms are outside). Secondly, it is virtually impossible visit that many houses with the time you are required to stay. I must admit that I did not succeed in my quest. My friend Jamie and I only made it to 5 houses before it got too late. Fortunately, there is a second day for those of us unable to complete the seven in one day, but I had other competition plans for that day... ... competition, did somebody say competition? In the spirit of Ait, several of my fellow volunteers and I decided to engage in our own competition. We decided to see who could eat the most manti (think a doughball half the size of your fist steamed and stuffed with potatoes). The competition went off with only one major hitch, we ate the local bizarre out of manti. The four of us consumed a combined total of 93 of them before we were told that there were no more (we were promised that they had 200). It thus left the competition a bit in the lurch as two of the group at finished at 20 each, but me at 27 and another volunteer at 26 wanted more manti. Oh well, that's what we get for attempting to improve upon a beautiful holiday. Huh? I want to take a moment in this space to comment on something, and as it is my space and I am always commenting on stuff in it, that seems appropriate. I have never viewed myself as particularly in touch with pop culture. Even when I was living in America, I spent most of my time blissfully unaware of what was cool and what was not. I have sort of managed to float through life thus without any real need to know who sings what, was in what movie, or is dating who. That said, I normally had some vague clue about all of that. That can no longer be said to be the case. Several months ago, I became vaguely aware of some problem with the upper portion of Janet Jackson becoming exposed during the Super Bowl, but not until months later and only after Newsweek made some obtuse reference to it in an article. Somebody mentioned to me the other day that Brittany Spears got married and kissed Madonna (which I only got from a Maxim(thanks J and Col)). I guess I really felt totally out of just yesterday while ridding in a taxi with a fellow volunteer and one of her students. They began discussing lyrics of various groups, and they started talking about some group called Maroon 5. Without realizing what I was doing, I asked who the hell Maroon 5. To the local's surprise I had absolutely no clue that these young men are apparently the new big thing in America. Who knew? I certainly did not. I write all of this not so much caring that I didn't know that Janet Jackson exposed herself or that there was some new group, but finally be struck by the reality of how much life is changing back home without me there to see it. It is the kind of thing that you can intellectually convince yourself of, but at the same time until you see the evidence of it, it really never hits home. I love my village and my people, but we live a remarkably sheltered life here. I make my weekly visits to the internet cafй, and I try to briefly skim the headlines of cnn.com, but there is a limit to the amount of information that you can get from skimming an internet newssite once a week. I am a good bit more in touch with sports I can assure you. For whatever reason, tracking the comings and goings of the football season has served as my escape, so I dare say my familiar with the statistics of the season (particularly NFL) to this point rival most, but that has as much to do with the need to become focused on something other than normal life for some periods of time. Oh well, enjoy yourselves. If there is anything absurdly ridiculous that I am missing let me know, or feel free to leave me in my state of blissful unawareness.

Monday, November 15, 2004

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Brian got runover by a … Those of you have known me for a longtime know that I pride myself in creativity. Particularly when that creativity comes in the realm of physical injury. There is a simply joy in leaving people dumbfounded in how you could possibly have gotten yourself injured in that manner (ie: you got severely injured playing golf!?!?) I recently added yet another bit of creativity to my list of stupid ways of getting myself injured. This past week, the new group of volunteers came to visit the villages in which they would be living for the next two years. Not wanting any of them to not get to see a familiar face, we went in search of one them. It was on this journey that we were walking innocently enough down the road at about 7 at night. It was a clear night, and the stars were bright. As we were walking I suddenly felt a very large and very solid object slam into the back of leg. This was followed almost immediately by another object ramming my back. I managed to spin out of the way just in time to see a horse pulled wagon roll past me. That’s right, Brian got runover by a horse cart (hum along if you know the tune.) I will grant that it seems difficult to comprehend how we didn’t hear it coming from behind, but we were on mud, so there were no hoof noises. More surprising to me was how the driving of the horse cart missed seeing the three white people walking down the road talking kind of loudly. We generally are not hard to miss. As bad as Kyrgyz are at driving, I was totally shocked by the level of ineptitude displayed by the driving of this vehicle. Equally disturbing was the complete lack of concern for his poor driving that the driver displayed. Granted, I was not badly injured, but I did suffer some bruises and general soreness from it. Ahh, you know what they say, “whatever doesn’t kill you only makes for a good story,” and I’m accumulating quite a number of stories. There is a word for it within the English language, and that word is surreal. That is really the only way to say it. This week marks the departure of many in the group of volunteers who arrived a year before me. We had a gathering that was sort of a farewell to them. The same night happened to be a night when those who will be moving in and filling their spots were around. Thus we had the new and the old all together. Tears were flowing as friends for two years said good-bye to each other. New friendships were being created by those of us who we be remaining with those who will be the new members of our family. It was just bizarre, because part of you really wanted to sit an d mourn the loss of old friends, while another part of you wanted to focus on the future and talk to the new people. There was also the added element of not wanting to steal anybody’s thunder. Those who are leaving needed their time together to say goodbye to people that they have known for 2 years, and while they have gotten to be good friends with some of us who have been around for the last year, there is a special bond that takes place between members of the same group. The final thing that really just blew the top of off the evening was the knowledge that two of my favorite people in my group have decided to quit Peace Corps and go home. They are two people who I have spent hours staying talking to over the past year, and while I do not live close to them now, I have had the chance over the past year to keep-up with them. Whenever we have been able to get together, it has been a really wonderful experience. Their departure leaves a void in our group that will be hard to fill. Goodbyes are never easy, but they are exasperated by the fact that here you can’t afford to say goodbye to too many close friends here, because you don’t have that many to begin with. Naomi and Lisl you will be missed. With the loss of Naomi and Lisl in addition to the recent departures of Rosa who left for personal reasons and Chay who left rather than be removed by Peace Corps the K- 11 group of volunteers here in Kyrgyzstan drop to 52 as a group. That means that since we arrived in September of 2003 we have lost 10 of the 62 that game with us. We are holding (by seemingly dropping fast with these four being in the last month) at 83.8% retention rate.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

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Just when I thought that I had seen it all... One of the more fascinating things about being a Peace Corps volunteer is the seemingly never ending surprises. This past week, I decided to celebrate Halloween with my students. One of the projects was for the students to draw a monster and then to describe the monster in English. This is actually normally a great project, because it is a chance for the students to learn new vocabulary and have fun at the same time. In my final class of the day, all seemed to be going well. The monsters were perfectly scary, their sentences were coming along, and there was plenty of new vocabulary being learned. With about ten minutes left to go in class one of the students started pointing down and saying, "dog." Now normally when students do those it is there way of asking if that is the word for what they are pointing at. Knowing this, I started to trying to correct them while simultaneously figuring out what they were talking about. The more I tried to correct them, the more insistent they got about using the word dog. Finally, two of the students starting pulling the floorboards up, pointing underneath the floor, and saying, "dog." It was then that I heard what they had been hearing: the muffled whimper of a puppy trapped under the floor of the school. While I am a dog lover, I decided, that the dog was far enough away from our room that we could not get it, that the dog would survive until the end of class, and that we really needed to regain our focus on class, so I ordered the students to reassemble our floor. I am certain that the dog got in from the outside, got turned around, and eventually found its way out. That said, those are the kinds of things that as much training as you may have had or as many things as you may have seen that never quite get old. On the election... I admit, to little surprise of those who know me, that I am a bit disappointed with the results of this year's election. I guess for me, it is now time to figure-out how we can ensure that the freedoms and other things that we hold dear are protected. For better or worse, the establishment for the next 2 to 4 years has been, well, established. You can either elect to go outside of the current establishment, or find a way to work from within it. I would rather try and work at the very least on the edge of establishment with the hope of changing some of its direction than be totally on the outside screaming at it. That means using established means of change likes the courts, international organizations, and our governmental organizations as a means of swaying the future of our country. To those similarly disappointed, my suggestion would be to not be afraid to work with the new administration, because if we elect to not work with them, then our voices are lost completely, and a government without many voices is certainly not a democratic government. Brian