Tuesday, September 9, 2008


The great, late evenings of summer have stealthily ended and many good events have transpired since my last entry.

A few weeks back, I had the supreme fortune of being asked to be a camp counselor and teacher at "Camp Far Away Places", a summer camp for children from the rival villages of Bayanaul and Maikaiyeen. The campers, numbering around 50 or so, were broken into five different group countries: the intelligent India, the elegant Egypt, the joyous Japan, the awkward Canada and the saucy Spain (adjective added by me). My group campers came together to form the country of Spain, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of getting to know and educate them and other campers. Each day, a different country was selected to be focused upon and learned about. Campers were presented lessons in language, culture, history, art and biography. That's the skinny.

Note that the most detailed and therefore best flag is Spain's flag.

The fat gristle is that so much fun was had and so many laughs were shared and so many children were hit with dodge balls that I could not think of a more condensed period of "work" enjoyment during the rest of my service in Kazakhstan to this point.


I must, just to balance out this lovefest, make it clear that my lesson on Canadian history was weak and boring. The topic I chose to present upon makes it clear enough: "Canada: The Quiet Revolution."

Part of our Spanish skit: Dancing. Yes, that is me on guitar and mustasche in the background.

The camp took place on a small resort with a sizeable dirt area for running and gathering. The kids would gather every morning to be led in morning exercises, and then--sometimes orderly, sometimes not--collect in front of the cafeteria, form a line and shout their team cheer. My team's--Spain's--cheer went as such:

"Spain brings the pain! Spain brings the pain! Spain brings the pain! (clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap) Ole!"

Each night we played a review game to make sure the kids paid attention in addition to a special evening activity. The first night, we played something called "The Big Game." This was an event where myself and two other volunteers wore capes and face paint, and placed flour in socks with which we would then swing and hit them as the kids shuttled between the review game stations. Don't worry, folks, it's safe.

Maybe, I'm no safety inspector #34. But they had fun!

There were disco clubs, and with most disco clubs, as we all know, come hordes of females that want to dance with me. I can't help it really, it's just a curse being so approachably attractive. The Peace Corps interview never really covers the subject of how one would deal with the noticeable disappointment on a 13-year old girl's face when you tell her that yes, you do have a girlfriend already.

Intense Dodgeball! These kids never played it in their lives...until now. Could you imagine?!?

Okay, I don't really feel like relaying all the details of the camp; I suggest that you check out this and this website for a thorough rundown of it all, as told by my fellow volunteers. What I wish to convey is the feeling that I had at the very end of the camp. A few of the volunteers had to catch a bus back to the city of Pavlodar, and in order to do so, had to leave a littler earlier than all the campers. We volunteers climbed onto the bus to bring us to the bus station (Kazakhstan is a bus culture), but within a minute's time, the whole thing was surrounded by the kids. After countless waves and goodbyes, one of the kids came onto the bus. A hug rung out. Then another. Then another. Before I know it, there are children crowding the door to come in and gives us all tearful hugs and broken sentences of gratitude.

"This never forget me ever," said one of my Team Spain students.

The boys, showing greater emotional restraint but still showing something, would place their hands on the windows, waiting for the opposite pane to be struck in a high five, prison visitation sort of way. In an all too Hallmark conclusion, the bus then pulled us away from the group of sobbing kids, us all waving and mouthing thank yous until the last turn ended it.

Now these types of instances are built over a long period of time. It was the work of volunteers from a few years ago, establishing the relationships with local schools and teachers so that they may trust an outsider to want to hold a camp with diverse lessons and teaching methods. It was the work of volunteers each year that had to scramble for the vast majority of the year to find financing for everything from space rental to wiffle balls. Mary Couri and Adam Henricksen, a Kaz-19 and Kaz-18 respectively, were up to the task this year and did an amazing job. They worked hard and it showed. It was so, so good.

The actual ride back home to Pavlodar was not so pleasant, as there were multiple delays, no tickets left and the whole trip, which usually takes roughly three hours, took about eight. The following photo sums up just about any Peace Corps volunteer's experience with taxi drivers. In this photo, Scott (a fellow volunteer that only speaks Kazakh) is trying to talk to the taxi driver. The taxi driver suggests a price of roughly $100. I notice this as a problem, so start talking to him in Russian. I get him down to $70, but that's still crazy. In the end, we got a much better deal with a much better driver, but the game of "Who's Gonna Talk and in what Language?" is always fun.

Met a Phillies fan during the long wait. After explaining to him how cool I though his hat was, we became friends. Then, he whispered to me that he had a headache, which in real-life Russian translates to "I have a massive hangover and need to drink beer posthaste, so could you be nice and give me 100 tenge?"

When I returned to my office in Pavlodar, I took a step out onto the balcony for a pensive moment of looking out the window. We all have those. Anyway, I look down on the ground before our window that is housing our newly planted anti-vodka rip session garden (vodka session: when a couple of people pool their pocket change together, buy a bottle of vodka, a few plastic cups, and sit down in the middle of the day to get very drunk and end up cursing endlessly). I look with greater detail and I find that there are about four used syringes and broken vodka bottles scattered on the ground.

This, as I calmly put it, is balance.


My friends, I want to talk to you about the potato.

The potato is a tuberous vegetable crop that can provide someone with fine daily values of vitamins C, potassium, riboflavin, zinc, phosphorous, iron, folate, magnessium and thiamin. Despite common belief, these nutrients are not concentrated in the potatoe's skin, as at least 50 percent of all dietary goodness can be found in the potato itself. They can also protect you against colon cancer and improve glucose tolerance! Damn, knowledge is awesome.

If you take a look back a few entries, you can find some information on what the Russian call, "dachas." Every few weeks or so, I spend some time at my director's parents' garden home, planting and tending various vegetables and fruits. The most consuming task was planting roughly 400 potatoes, way back in June. Each time we would work there, we would have to clear weeds or cut back the frothing potato bushes that would come up. It was an annoying task, and all for potatoes.

But to force a theme here, much of work in this instance and in countless others is about working toward the harvest, the realization of our efforts.

And there just aren't many situations that are so clear cut as 1) dig a hole 2) plant a potato 3) tend potato 4) eat potato. Over the course of the past two years, I have planted illustrative potatoes in a variety of places, whether it was trying to teach my co-workers how to create a student volunteer group or writing to numerous book donation agencies or editing scholarship applications or teaching a kid how to dribble a basketball properly or introducing the concept of microcredit to old women. I haven't eaten many of these potatoes. I don't know if they're growing. I don't even know if they will be of any use or success. I don't know.

At my office with the HIV/AIDS group, we have written multiple proposals for project financing and experience exchange trips. Recently, we inquired about an international AIDS conference to take place in Amsterdam. My counterpart, the lovely Dina Galyeva, was rejected right off the bat. My director, Elena Bondareva, was put on the waiting list as the heading company searched for further funding to pay for her trip there. They assurred us that the funding would come through, and the excitement from Elena was damaging to my ears (she is an expressive, loud woman). Unfortunately, we recently received word that she would not be going.

That potato died.

Another time was when I started a youth sports club. At our first meeting, over forty kids came to learn how to play basketball. After two meetings, less kids showed up, and the tendency for each game to degenerate into a call for soccer grew. After two months, I had only three reliable kids showing up*.

That potato died.

The Pavlodar Public Library is supposed to receive shipments of books from the International Book Project soon. My director is soon going to begin working as the National Coordinator for the AIDS International Candlelight Memorial project for two years. Youth volunteers come to our weekly meetings with regularity and vigor in order to help with planning and implementation of HIV/AIDS projects.

Those potatoes are still in the ground.

Last Sunday, after digging up those 400 actual potatoes at the garden home, the sight of them spread out on the ground made me so damn happy. Such a smile for such a starch.

So whenever I have the chance to see some sort of result--good or bad--I am genuinely thankful for that moment.

But most humbly, as I approach the end of my service here, I know there are many things in the ground that I will never dig up and eat.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Women's Business Seminar in the Village

Proud Watermelon

We started off the week with watermelon

Work in a Kazakhstan village is omnipresent--gotta milk those cows, pump the water, boil the tea, wash the floors, slice up the meat, gather the cattle--and this is for the women. Getting paid for such activity and others is something not so easily found, and in the northern located oblast of Pavlodar, the village of Sharishiganok has plenty of examples that reflect this disjunction.

Fortunately for this region, there is a positive-minded woman trying to provide opportunity for other women to provide their own business opportunities. Kalamash, the director of the NGO Zhaurkazin, comes off as a jolly, busy woman with too many ideas for any good. One of her good ideas, however, is turning a lot of good this week as she has organized a five-day business seminar for women in the region, focusing on the production of traditional handcrafts, milk, cheese and yogurt. Most of these women come from village with a strong reliance on materials of agricultural cut, hence all the udder and hair products.

"People think that we are all simple, too simple to make our own businesses, but we are not so," Kalamash shared, a little bitterly, after a few regional politicians took advantage of the press coverage at the start of the seminar but swiftly complained about such small things as the briskness of tea pouring. "We can do it ourselves, and if you do not wish to help or only want to criticize, you may leave us be." she states, quite proudly.

And so I attend this seminar, starting with the night before preparations of making placards, hauling water, wool and food here to there and clearing out brush from peoples' yards (that might've been free labor right there...).

Aside from being part of a grassroots economic seminar, the village visit gave me a chance to see some friends out there. I enjoyed dinner, tea, conversation and some little water with my friends, Morat and his wife, while waking up around 5:30 a.m. to head out fishing with Kalamash's son, Jingar. For bait, we used bread dough and for poles, plain sticks. We caught nothing but did try to wake up a drunken man that was celebrating 'the farmers' holiday', as they say, because it had just rained for the first time all summer, and he had fallen asleep by the river in his alcoholic agricultural exuberance. This happens.

Nothing wrong with fishing during the workday if it starts at 5:30 a.m.

DAY 2 in the Village (Day 1 of the Seminar)

Chick! Morat gives the thumbs up for the seminar

The seminar started, as most things do in Kazakhstan, with a table lined with politicians ready to give speeches with peppered phrases such as, 'I wish you great success', 'We support your work', and 'Congratulations, here is a DVD player.'

One of these types directed me and another guy--a kind, usually drunken fellow referred to only as "The Christian Owner"--to hang up a banner for the ruling political Nuro-Tan party. After fifteen minutes, twenty seven pieces of tape and countless instruction, this sign of ubiquitous power met the hanging guidelines of a featherhaired politician.

That's just about all that deserves to be said about that.

Here is a photo of said politician running away the second her speech was over and the journalists stopped taking her picture. Thank you for your genuine support.

The seminar really got into swing once we started working with the wool, cleaning it of any sticks, dirt or dung. Generally, that sort of thing is unwanted in handicrafts and footwear. I cleaned some of that stuff out, and the cameramen made a big to-do in getting the American picking sheep poo out of wool for old women to later make into slippers.

After picking a bag of wool for a while, the ladies started on their lessons. The head wool master (shown in photo) laid it down babushka style. She scrubbed it, patted it, called it names, and created gorgeous pieces of wearable wool and crafts with great ease. The ladies that came from near and far gathered around and took in the knowledge gratefully.

The Christian Owner and Timor

Then came lunch time, and the chance for me to again move water from here to there and serve roughly 60 Kazakhs tea. This is something that every Kazakhstani Peace Corps volunteers knows all too well--that tea is the nectar of the gods here. Once it starts flowing, it shan't stop until the last grunt is released and the final candy is unwrapped. I poured 234 cups of tea that day.
Dining Hall

After tea, we returned to the original hall to enjoy the cherubic musical stylings of some of the local children, singing and dancing their way through a myriad of Kazakh folk and pop tunes. There is no hesistance to throw these kids out there on stage to impress a few outside visitors. It is glorious, putting Nashville and any star searching game show to shame.

There were two notable acts: the first being a girl in a pink dress that had some wicked dance moves (1-2, point!), the second being my friend Morat's son, dressed to kill in his Pee Wee Herman Tequila suit and armed with the golden voice of Kazakhstan. The kid really put on a fine show, at least up until a drunken fella stumbled in, walked on stage in mid-song, and handed the white-shoed singer a 200 tenge bill (roughly $2.50) to thank him for his song. This threw the kid's rhythmn off--the drunk didn't know the words to the song and couldn't pick the kid up once he lost track of them--and he basically stared at the crowd in embarassment. Good kid.

This kid is a prince

To make up for the embarassment of a druken local, the powers that be decided that it would be best to throw me on stage with a guitar, and have me sing something, anything. I played some random punk song on acoustic (sigh), and received a mild applause. This is where things get nice. After my song, I made my way to the back of the room to purchase a candy bar. With a bite of delicious Albeni in mouth, my shoulder's sensors told me to turn around, and I swing around to see a 45-year old woman gleefully standing there with paper in hand.

"Could I get your autograph, Mr. Andrew?" she asks in complete sincerity.

My face turns red, redder than Coca-Cola cans could ever be, and try to stifle my geewiz grin.

"You know that I'm not famous. I just like to play," I say.

She smiles. "Not yet, but that was a nice start."

Washing the wool

Some of the end products

Following the entertainment, we continued our wool handicraft lessons until roughly 5 o'clock. We were given a few hour rest, and required to return to the main village hall to dance. I was asked to attend, then told to attend, then pushed through the entrance of hall by the women. Once there, we do what most poor yet eager dancers do: form a circle and do the AB step. The AB step is crucial in almost all social occassions. It is the staple, the go-to-move, the little black dress of dance. You can't go wrong. A is your left foot, B your right. Move back and forth to the 4/4 beat. It looks like this.

A<---B +hand movements=Dancing. Another drunken fella burst through the circle and used his own moves. He did not go to the AB step. He was happy, and how can you fault that?

DAY 3 in the Village

Following the early morning fishing, I head over to the main building to see all the ladies gleefully gathered around a big pot. The pot is filled with steaming cream, allowing my nose one of those unfortunately far between moments of a smell that I've never experienced before. Remember the first time you walked outside and smelled honeysuckles in the summer air? Or time your Grandma made you pumpkin pie? Yeah, this smell was nothing like that. It's something on its own level, neither good nor bad.

Today, a master from Almaty was teaching the women how to make their own cheese, yogurt and milk to then sell to both local and urban retailers.


Again, I did a lot of heavy lifting (see cream filled pot), thus allowing me some good opportunities to talk to people here and there. One such person was Bolat, a man that had traveld 250 kilometers to attend the seminar. He was the only male participant.

"So...in America," he would begin with me, "do you have a lot of pitbulls?"
"I have two dogs here in Kazakhstan. The first dog is named 'Stone' and the second is named 'Rambo'. They are both strong."
"So...in American," continuing, "you have many crocodiles, yes?"

He liked strong animals.

He caught me sitting on a bench outside, and felt compelled to share this tale. I did not add much to the conversation other than the encouraging yeahs and rights so that his train of thought could barrel on:

"How long do Americans live for? Isn't it something around 78 or so? People from the Caucuses live very long, most until they are 100. I worked in the military a few years ago, and had to watch over prisoners sometimes. We would hit them, the people from the Caucuses, mostly in the head, hitting them here and there."


"They were strong. Many of them live to 100. The Japanese are also healthy. People from the Caucuses drink wine every day, therefore they are strong. Okay, well, I worked in the military, and one time some kind of Swiss commission came to see how we were working. We stopped hitting people then, but once they left we started again. That's how life is, you know? I hope that when you leave here, people still work hard. You're not Swiss, but it is an example of how people work and live sometimes only when someone else watches them."


"What is Chicago like?"


"It's really nice to talk with you. I guess American films aren't always right. You seem different than those films, and that is good."


"Can I film you with my cellular phone?"



Aizhan, wife to Morat, prepares some Barsaki

After lunch, it was time to go home. I have another language camp to take part in this week, and needed to head out early to prepare. Following a final tea with Kalamash, Morat and his family and twenty minutes worth of picturetaking with everyone, I climbed into a van provided by some other ladies that were in attendance. They also had to get back to the city. I wished them all well, and they were almost too kind to me in their gratitude. All I had done was bring them water, pour them tea, sing, dance and talk with them. It had not taken much to forge friendship or understanding on some level with each woman there. They were glowing with pride. Their hands were ready and minds drunk on confidence. They are genuine and perfect in every way, mostly their own. Smile. I received three unexpected hugs.

On the ride back, the two ladies came into the back seat to talk and get to know me further. They asked me where Pennsylvania is situated, what kind of weather is there, how I like Pavlodar and what my plans were for my future. These questions were answered in the same form I usually do, and asked as they normally are. Once that was over, however, they wanted something else. Something more enjoyable.

"Andrew," the older one said, "could you maybe play your guitar while we ride back into the city? It's so nice to hear instead of the wind and bumpy road."

The road was indeed in need of repair, providing plenty of spinal shocks and handlebar holds. Still, I played, my hand bouncing up and down and through the strings more like a fueling jet under strong turbulance than a musician, jabbing around and not quite hitting the notes or tune I planned or wanted. But they sat there, smiling at the attempt, and it was enjoyable. It is enjoyable.

Me, Morat, his son, Kalamash and Rauzahn the Milk Master

Monday, July 28, 2008

Countrified Overgrowth

Food prices are going up, yes?

The bread here has gone from a 2006 price of $0.28 per loaf to $0.45 as of July 28, 2008 (statistics personally gathered by buying bread, eating it, not finishing it all before mold sets in, and then getting angry). This is too much.

No, seriously, people are getting antsy round these parts because of such everyday purchase price pressure. You should hear the locals start with cooking oil. They're already getting their old Soviet ration line boots ready just in case.

But there's a lovely solution to all of this worry with supermarket price gouging: grow your own food.

Many people in this region, mostly the Russians, have a long tradition of using the land for both sustenance and relaxation by maintaining a garden village, or 'Dacha'. They are second homes that may be lived in year round, though are normally occupied during the summer months. Thanks to the beautiful simplicity of the Russian language, a person that lives in a Dacha is called Dachnik.

Dachas have a long history in Russian culture, dating back to Peter the Great.

Our garden cottage

Extra land was given out to loyalists by the Tsar (Tzar? Czar? Theatre?) and in archaic Russian, dacha means 'something that is given.' Over time, fortunately, that whole government give-a-way went to the wayside, and people started up their own Dachas. These garden homes have some of the following fruits and vegetables: potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, snozberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, honeysuckle, grapes, carrots, cucumbers, onions, garlic, dill, radishes, parsley, rubarb and yougettheideaberries.

Snozberries located in bag.

Through the generosity of wanting to teach an ignorant, little American about this rich agricultural history, my organizational boss, Elena Bondareva, has so kindly volunteered me to work at her parents' Dacha every Sunday. Dacha work includes planting of potatoes, picking of sweet berries and vegetables, clearing of overgrowth, movement of heavy things, jimyrigging an irrigation system and moving piles of dirt and dung from point a to point b.

In complete sincerity, it is the best part of my week. I return home every Sunday with a bag of vegetables and fruits that I could not possibly finish on my own, and the rest is sold by the Grandma to street vendors around Pavlodar.

If you work hard, you get dirty. If you get dirty, you eat.

There is no talk of sustainability, project planning, strategic plans, English lessons or laptops. I simply move and remove things that have grown from the ground or trees for a few hours, sit down at the kitchen table and allow an old woman to force me to eat however much food I can take until she is satisfied enough with my tortured gluttony to openly tell me "good job". This usually occurs after a minimum of six boiled eggs, two bowls of soup (in the summer!), two glasses of homemade wine, two cups of tea, half a kielbasa, three potatoes, a tomato and half a loaf of bread. I am fully fortified by 2 o'clock every Sunday afternoon.

And that is the Dacha.


And Sunday the 27th came.

I'm coming towards the Dacha home to start up work for the day, trying to formulate an opportunity where I can insert my gardening word of the day, "Мотыги" (hoe), into a proper sentence. Walking along the path past a pile of garbage, I come up with, "So when am I going to have the happy opportunity to use the hoe?"

I pass a woman burning some grass and weeds outside her fence. When I reach my summer garden home, the rusted gate on the fence scratches obligingly, and I am a little embarrassed to see that everyone (Elena, her husband Papik, and Grandma) are eating lunch already.

"Why are you late?" scolds Grandma.

"I am late becaus--," I'm interrupted.

"I don't need to know. There is food to eat. Sit. Eat. It's for your health," says Grandma, more out of habit and force than stereotypical kindness. I sit. I eat.

The Photogenic Igor (Papik).

I suggest that after lunch, I could weed some of the overgrowth outside our fence in the pathway. Papik shoots it down.

"Why should you clear the pathway? That's not our territory," he states.

"But everyone uses it...weren't all you Communists about community and the collective before?" I ask with a smile.

"Ha! That garbage! Everybody's worries about their own things now, and we're the same," Papik answers,"We clear out our own area, and let the rest to whomever. Leave it."

We take a drag of homemade wine. Something outside, past the limits of our territory, catches Elena's attention.

"What's that smoke over there?" she asks to no one in particular.

Our investigation begins. There is a fire situated about 200 yards away from our Dacha, along one of the main walkways in our region, far enough to not pose any danger to us. Our conclusion is that a large garbage pile was lit on fire for disposal purposes and, like most plans involving fire, the whole damn area around it wants in on the hot, burning action. The fire begins eating up the dry brush surrounding it, spreading to the fencing around another Dacha. Thankfully, no one was at the Dacha. No one would burn.

The same could not be said for the outhouse next to the fence; that shit went up in flames.

The fire burned for nearly an hour.

Dancing reds were overtaking the indifferent gold of the ground and turning it all into black. The sky remained defiantly blue. It had rained, just a little bit, a few days earlier, but people don't grow potatoes in sponges--this grass and land was dry.

I suggested that we get some buckets of water from a pond nearby to cut the spread of the fire. That was shot down by Elena.

"A waste of time," she concluded.

A small coddling of people had gathered at this point, looking on and giving guesses as to how far the whole thing would spread. Their demeanor and dialogue came off like porch-dwelling elderly discussing and debating the potential of a dark cloud forming in the sky.

"Yip, that right there's a problem that'll get worse before it gets better," says one.
"Nah, 'taint gonna be nothing more than a little wind and a blow-by," the other argues.

Then they just waited around for something else to happen or burn.

A big red truck.

We had called the firemen roughly twenty minutes before they came to put out the blaze, the firemen being three guys in a red truck. They had a hose of sorts, and performed their job well, keeping the damage to some overgrowth, a fence, an outhouse, a little singeing of a Dacha nearby and that pile of garbage.

The crowd disperses, all turning towards their Dachas, and I to Elena with a question.

"So when am I going to have the happy opportunity to use the hoe?"

Spread it on.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Children cause bad, bad things. This summer camp is driving me crazy.

Well, that shouldn't be stated in complete conviction; only some of the campers are mind numbingly apathetic. Some kids don't even know what the word "what" is. Where do I go from there? The answer is nowhere because there is no hope for where when there is no what.

I shouldn't make things seem so bleak. Actually, my excitement to teach erupts in everything I do, all over my shirt front and just a little bit on my lap.

If you could teach kids something about American culture and had seven different days to do it, what would you teach? Would you teach about baseball? Of course you would, don't be silly.

So I taught about baseball, but unlike every self-denying sports journalist out there now, I did not include anything on steroids. Topics did include such nuggets like the inception of the American League, the designated hitter, the first black person to play in the major leagues, the Dead Ball Era and the expansion of baseball into our friends to the North, Canada.

Also, just to spite my fellow teacher Adam, I taught the children that only poor people move to Baltimore, the city in which he claims loyalty. It may be wrong, but isn't personal sanity a bit more important than a small factual miscue?

Tomorrow: The Beach!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

When in Doubt, Go with Pirates

Study the Pirate, children.

We asked the campers to create their own pirate flags ala Jolly Rogers. Their personal interests shone through.

Art Day: Portraits


Summer camp season is back again. Me and fellow volunteer, Adam "The Mad" Henricksen are collaborating to provide a top-notch educational and cultural opportunity for kids 9-15 years of age at the Innovative Euroasian University.

Lesson topics are selected completely free of any oversight by anyone other than Adam or myself. It's an open style of education and summer fun, and creating lessons is basically the hardest thing about the camp. Thankfully, you can always talk about pirates.

We still have a few days remaining, but here are just a few of the topics covered thus far:

Pirate Culture
Art History
Biography on Rembrandt
Japanese Kanji writing
Rock & Roll History
English grammar
The environment

Something That Needs to be Shared

Today, while sitting in my lovely carpet-covered apartment, I received a phone call. From a Chechen man. Whom I don't know. I'm not sure how the fellow received my phone number, but he has called her before, gabbing away like we've been the best of friends since grade school. Through smooth questioning, I have deducted that I met the guy last summer (over a year ago) at a cafe, where he had a fairly threatening tone towards some friends, and he challenged me to the manly sport of showing off bodily scars. He showed me a knife puncture on his side and a stare that held endless years of anger in it, so I countered with a threaded scar on my knee that I received when I got my leg caught in a K-mart stockroom conveyor belt at age 16. That little detail usually illicits snickers, so I told him that it was shrapnel from a gunfight. Through this, we bonded, apparently. And now he calls me for little telephone chitchats, like old women do on Sundays.

The Chechen.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Looking Back A Bit

The pictures attached aren't allowing me to move them, so please read and then try and connect what is written to what is pictured. Thanks.

This is like attempting to stuff a shark into a fish barrel. There is just too much thrash to get it all in.

This past week, I returned to my office in Pavlodar and made a comment about the fact that, for an anti-drug and addiction organization, we sure have a lot of drunks sitting behind our window, trading shot glasses back and forth before noon. Plus, it's a wreck back there. With the support of my wonderful colleagues and volunteers, we set forth to clean up our backyard and plant a few flowers and vegetables to try and discourage those folks from sticking around so much. Simple, but it turned out pleasantly.

About three weeks ago, I took advantage of my geographical proximity to some of the world's unthoughtof vacation spots in the Central Asia country of Kyrgyzstan. Ranging from conversations with village corn clerks to metropolitan coffee houses, my trip was well-rounded and energizing.

Here is some of it in photographic beauty.

In one of those expected confusions that come with leaving your own country to try and assist others for seemingly no reason, my corn-holding friend here believed me to be a National Geographic photographer, documenting the great food of Central Asia. I explained to her differently at first, but then realized that it would actually make for a great photogenic moment.

The tubesocked fellow seen here is me, enjoying the 'back seat' all the way down the 'road' while dealing with a pretty tremendous stomach ache. I can't tell you how much torture this photograph conveys...the cause is not certain, but I'm going to point to this
<-----------horse milk (I told her it was too sour). An entry from a trip in Kyrgyzstan, attended by myself and three other fellow Americans.

Day 2: Chopin-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

Following the long beveraged riot and surprising pleasantry of Bishkek, we met up with our travel partners. After a little rest and stifling taxi drivers, we boarded a car driven by Victor, a grasshopper-legged Russian with great service skills. Stopped by a rest stop and talked shop with some corn sellers. The scenery was vastly open, with mountainous bookends and a variety of livestock interrupting the roadways. Again, after a bit of time and a stifling taxi driver (Victor unfortunately), we found our place at "Kamilla's", a place with quaint and brightly painted cottages and a vast rose garden. We hit up an Afghan restaurant--lagman was served--and got drenched and sleepy in an end-all thunderstorm. First one as such in years, to my experience at least. Power out, no football (note: this was written during the Euro Cup 2008 Semi-final. Congratulations, Spain.)

The next day I arise at 8 a.m. with perniciously positive energy. While the others sleep, I make my way to the bazaar, witnessing and observing the fruit stand set-up and breakfast offerings.

An exchange:

Bazaar Woman: "Lagman! Lagman! Lagman!"
Me: "Do you have any food for breakfast?"
BW: "Of course--lagman."

Following that, I made my way to shop for bread. Purchased apricots and cherries along the way instead. Kumis (fermented horse milk) was offered, tried and recklessly purchased (note: I wrote this before receiving the stomach ache of death two days later). It was enjoyed in a slightly masochistic sense. Downed nearly half a liter. After buying some round, sesame covered bread (Lepyoshka), a few of the women around me inquired about my living conditions, where I learned Russian and where I was from. Answers given: a nice cottage down the street, Kazakhstan and with a pointed finger to my over-the-top USA flag in the continental America shirt. After the flattering words ended, the one woman showed me her home as a potential place to stay. It was nice though unfortunately placed in the line of a mud slide.


A contrast of science fictional proportions--or possibly drug induced--beautifully takes place at the beaches of Lake Issakul. The rippling sheet of the lake spreads out until the horizon and is backdropped with absurd mountains. They stretch beyond eye's view from left to right, peaking well above the cloud coverage. The water is chilled and easily acclimated. Old, rusty paddle boasts meander about, while the elderly, families and naked children sunbathe and swim. Sellers hawk beer, monti, samsa and fish--children sometimes selling the beer. I buy one "Siberian Crown" and enjoy it immensely (50 soma=roughly 25 cents). Swimming is awakening to parts of the body like none other, perhaps reflecting the original translation of Holets: water-loving. It is heavenly and intimidating to float, open your eyes and see endless mountains, blue waters and theatrical clouds above you in any directions. This places deserves a special adjective not yet my, nor anyone else's, vocabulary. Also, the sun burned the spit out of me. Hurts to walk.

Cut to a marsrutka ride (small van) to Karakol (150 soma=75 cents!) for two hours. Arrive in Karakol, a seemingly quiet town not located too close to the lake and just close enough to the mountains. After more taxi stiflage, we ride to a place heavily recommended by Lonely Planet, the best and worst publication to have for travel. It is a home, presented by a polite young man with fairly decent English. We engage in Russian, and he shows me around, and communicates to me that we would be the first Americans of the season for them. We end up not assuming such as honor, as we opt for the backpacker style Yak Tours (450 soma with breakfast). It is wooden, rustic, creative and run by an amazing fellow, Sergei. Sergei looks like he was given the job of watching the red button during the Cold War, and held nightly vodka fests and cigarette pulls to ease the tension and pressure. This man's got some ragged eyes. This covers his extremely pleasant funny personality, and his cadence which has got to be the most relaxed Russian I've heard yet. He might just choose his words with more thought and ease than others, I think.

After checking out his rose garden, three marooned Soviet cars in the backyard and sauna, we agree to stay the night. We give our equipment the night off and head out to a cafe.

During a stop-off at a shop in search for ATM, we meet a few people similar to us--foreigners. They're Swiss (three males) and one unfortunate American woman.

[Jann-a bespectacled straight talker. Sebastian-a bohemian, inquisitive and pony-tailed fellow. Nick-a quiet photographer type. Rachel-a plain, awkward, drag of a woman. Point: She showed us digital pictures of her cat while Sebastian showed us pictures of demonstrations in Tehran.]

After general introductions, we head to an indoor cafe. Order a "Tender Salad" and shashleek. Shash was the smallest ever eaten; not the worst but comparable. Shared stories and opinions of different countries--Iran mostly--and learned about the various langauges and dialects found in Switzerland. Rachel added nothing, even during her attempt at a toast. It was so bumbling that straight-talking Jann had enough and shot his vodka before the end of her spiel, if there ever was one. Nicholas (ours) suggested a friendship vodka. I chose to purchase a bottle of "Хлебная Водка" (Bread vodka), only because it compounds the two most treasured products of Russian culture. Made our way back to Sergei's Yak Tours under an empty night sky. Then, without fail, came the sauna's intrigue. Built for three people, we managed eight inside this steamy sweat box. Beer and wine consumed, and humorous exclamations of German origin were shouted with each refreshing splash of cold water. My body was that of a lobster at this point due to the lake sun.

Take a bench sit and a cigarette, some passed around bottles of wine and oddly intriguing travel videos of cows in before unseen positions played to techno music (The Swiss), and it was a splendid evening.

Then, the sky opened up, showing its great design, and a shooting star surprised me, as they tend to do.