When you are a landlocked country, having one huge lake in country is a big deal. Throughout July and August, Kyrgyz people flock to the country’s main lake, and the tenth largest lake in the world, Lake Issyk Kul to just chill out on the beach for a few weeks to a month cause it’s too hot to work. Well one side of the lake anyways, the other side is highly radioactive, thanks USSR…
It’s “In” To Cover Yourself In Mud:
There are few select volunteers who have the privilege of living right by the lake all year round; it is also their burden to have to host the rest of the volunteers when we all come flocking to the lake for a weekend cause that’s all we can afford. It was an amazing weekend at Cholpon-Ata, a city by the lake, to escape the extreme heat and 100 degree weather of Chui Oblast and Bishkek.
And They Just Bring You Ears of Corn On The Beach (For Money):
Camp Times! Double Rainbow Times!
This July, I had my first experience teaching at a camp in Tokmok. Tokmok is a larger, radioactive city in the north of Kyrgyzstan, right next to the Kazakh border. The camp was completely organized by Kyrgyz FLEX young adults with help from Peace Corps Volunteers. I was amazed at the organization done by these young Kyrgyz. They were all university level, and most had been to the United States for a year to experience American high school. Their English was impeccable, and so was their dedication to the camp.
The camp was supposed to be an entirely English-speaking camp for Kyrgyz kids ages 13-21 from all over the country. The main theme of the camp was to try to get kids from different oblasts to spend time together and get a better perspective on what it is like to live in different parts of the country and situations. It was a little difficult because there were so many kids from Bishkek attending the camp; they live a completely different lifestyle than those who come from the more southern areas and villages. The Bishkek kids probably spend the same amount on pizza in the city (Bishkek. Bishkek is a little bit like London in Jane Austen novels it is “The City.”) in a month than some of the village families make in a year (slight author’s exaggeration).
The camp had classes in art, theater, music, creative leadership, sharing culture, and health. I taught art and creative leadership classes. It was an interesting first teaching experience. There were some kids who were really into their classes and the projects, and then there were kids who only wanted to put their heads down during class. It was also good practice in trying to engage students who don’t really understand English, so they just sit there and stare back at you. I had some interesting encounters in the art class on tattoo day. We were teaching the campers about tattoo customs around the world, but since some Kyrgyz people are very Muslim, there were a few campers that were not interested in trying out washable marker tattoos. One camper spoke very eloquently, in English, about why he did not like tattoos and thought that they ruined the body. I was very interested in the different points of views of the young Kyrgyz kids since in America it seems to be the opposite. It is also really nice to hear Kyrgyz youth speak up powerfully about anything sometimes, also.
Keeping Track Of Points!: (There were also points for arriving to class on time, trying to break those bad habits early! The Kyrgyz word for “now” is literally translated as any time between “now” and “five hours from now” soooo… “sometime”)
It was an overnight camp, so as a counselor, we were always on. We had the kids from morning showers at 7:00 am to lights out at 10:30 pm. There were organized after class games and activities like dancing, movies (Monsters University – Awesome.), talent shows, dress up days like Pirate Day, Hippie Day, Cross Dress Day, Animal Day, etc., and one night, a trip to Burana Tower, which is a local Kyrgyz landmark that looks like a truncated lighthouse. We didn’t get the chance to go up, though, because of an intense, tornado-like rain storm. Its history is similarly close to that of Rapunzel…
Before The Storm:
Being Inappropriate With Not-So-Ancient-“Ruins”
Overall, aside from the complete carb diet (cause who doesn’t like bread with their rice and potatoes on 100 degree days - it’s a good segway to teaching young Kyrgyz kids what a “food baby” is…), and the drunken men passed out in the dirt on the way to the bazaar, and just going to the bazaar too much in general, it was an incredible camp, filled with incredible kids. I was so impressed by the ability of the former FLEX students to put together and fund such a camp. I am really looking forward to next summer.
Plus, I’m Going To Miss Our Foxxxxy Lunch Lady:
Oh, and I and another volunteer put together the camp newsletter, it was comic book themed, and awesome, and the kids (or at least two) loved it.
This year, for Independence Day, Peace Corps Volunteers assembled at the United States Embassy for a 4th of July party with all the other Americans in Kyrgyzstan, or at least in Bishkek. This included Peace Corps personnel and volunteers, Manas Transit Center personnel, and any other Americans who happened to find themselves in Kyrgyzstan at the time and were willing to fork over 200 som (about $4) for the event (not a lot of money for the average American-living-in-Kyrgyzstan salary, but Peace Corps Volunteers get paid Kyrgyz salaries, not American ones, so that plus the 50 som (about $1)/can of Diet Dr. Pepper prices made it a pricey event, but who is going to say no to Diet Dr. Pepper? Not this kid.
The cost of this event meant that I had to take special advantage of hot dogs, hamburgers (or gamburgers as people in Kyrgyzstan call them), rice crispy treats, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, cheesecake, and Tootsie Rolls with American flag wrapping paper. Anyone who knows me knows that my purse was filled to the brim with extra/left over/shameless stolen Tootsie Rolls* before leaving, and that by the next day, they were all gone.
I have no pictures of the event since cameras were not permitted at the embassy, and we didn’t get to go inside, just outside on the lawn. It was a beautiful lawn, though: real, green, lush grass – it’s the little things you miss. I wish I could say the same for the embassy building itself. It is this huge chrome paneled, outsized-dineresque monstrosity with a ribbon of chrome, barely evident, under-proportioned, art deco paneling near the top. US Embassy, I can help, you have my number… and my passport number… and the power to indefinitely keep me in Central Asia, or wherever else you want…
There were also lawn games (watching military personnel play cornhole is almost more entertaining than playing it – they are serious, like save the country one hole at a time serious) and dancing, but no fireworks since it was during the day, so to all my friends and family back home, I sincerely hope you enjoyed the fireworks, pretzel salad, and Cooler Ranch Doritos. If you are from Pittsburgh, I also sincerely hope that, for once, it didn’t rain.
*(Hint, hint for possible things to put in the many packages that I know people will be sending me…)
I am now a fully sworn in Peace Corps Volunteer! I will no longer patronizingly be referred to as a “trainee.” We had our Swearing-In Ceremony on June 11th; our PST host mothers, counterparts, and permanent site host mothers were all in attendance. It was a good opportunity to introduce them all to each other. We are all required to stay with host families for the first three months of permanent site, and then for those people who have the opportunity, they can move into an apartment or compound house afterwards. Compound houses here are small houses that are separate from the main house. They can come with varying amenities, but usually a few rooms, maybe a kitchen.
The process of getting from our PST village homes, to Hub Site, to American University of Central Asia for Swearing In, to permanent site was…complicated. We and our PST host families were in charge of getting to Hub Site. For our village, we let the Ejeys (older ladies) handle the situation (as is only appropriate in Kyrgyz culture), and this involved paying a random villager, with maybe the oldest Lada (Russian car) ever, 200 som (only about $4 American, but a lot for Kyrgyzstan) to strap all of our luggage (for me, alone, this included two duffle bags, a laundry bag, a bag loaded up with all the new “materials” Peace Corps had given us, including water filter, and my back pack) to the top of the car with rope, and driving it to Hub Site, all while in formal attire. At Hub Site, we were supposed to unload our luggage, and then reload it onto the two tour buses that had been charted to take us to Swearing In at American University of Central Asia, but all of the volunteers had accumulated so much stuff by that point in time, that we couldn’t fit everything onto the buses. Panic ensued. But we managed to eventually get everything more or less safely to Swearing In. The trick came after Swearing In, when people needed to go back to site with their host mothers and counterparts. I lucked out, in that my host family has a car, so we just drove to Kashka Suu, my new village. Man, my host mom can move. Post Swearing In was one of those moments when there is pure chaos: I am attempting to say goodbye to my PST host family in broken Kyrgyz, my LCF, people who I won’t see until September, find my luggage on the tour buses, get out of a dress and heels secretly on the tour bus without any Kyrgyz people seeing and starting a scandal of international proportions, and being dragged to my host mother’s car at speeds previously unbeknownst to Kyrgyzstan. She had very little patience for such emotional displays. All-in-all, I safely made it to my permanent site in one piece and with all my stuff.
My Mountains and Streams:
Kashka Suu is an amazing village. It isn’t very large by village standards, but it could eat Pitominick three times over. It has three magazines (the Russian word for store), but none are very large. We don’t have our own café, post office, bazaar, or police presence, but we do have a beautiful view of the mountains, and there is a river that flows right through. I am taken aback by the scenery every time I see it. It is also different from a lot of villages, at least in my assumption, since it is somewhat of a vacation village. It is where Kyrgyz, Russians, and Germans build their summer cottages, so the houses represent more wealth than the average village. It is interesting, the differences between Kyrgyz houses here and European houses. Most German and Russian cottages are two stories, and they have a lot more windows. There are some really cool cottages, though. It is hard to get pictures because the trend here is to hide houses behind a massive wall and gate, but I have managed to glean a few from walks I have taken with members of my host family of the eclectic, the run down, the classic, and the “Bishkek Rich.”
This is someone’s Summer “Cottage”:
One of my favorite parts of the village is the old Soviet sanatorium here. I think people still go there to rest, but I can never tell which buildings are used here based on their states of disrepair alone. They at least go to walk around. The sanatorium has walking paths, run down theaters and pagodas, benches, and statues. It is a little bit like a crumbling former Soviet paradise:
I really like my situation here. I live in a little compound, which is a small house that is adjacent to a larger house in an overall complex. My compound has a bedroom, kitchen, and dining room. The overall house has apple and apricot trees as well as raspberry bushes. I can’t say I mind walking outside to get fresh raspberries for dessert… My host parents are an older couple. Their children are all grown and live in Bishkek. I don’t know if things will be different in the fall or winter time, but for now, they are hardly home, so it is pretty much just me here. I go over to our neighbor’s (who just happen to be my host mom’s sister) house on a regular basis to speak English with her daughters and watch reruns of Charmed and Supernatural dubbed over in Russian and music videos on television while we chai-eech (drink tea and eat bread). We usually talk about American pop-culture, Michael Jackson (“yes I like him”), Titanic (I don’t know what it is about Central Asia, but boy do they like Titanic, “Leonardo DiCaprio, da?” “Da.”), McDonald’s (“no, I don’t eat there everyday”), and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (the Jennifer Anniston or Angelina Jolie is still a hot debate here).
Found Kyrgyz Architecture!
The past few weeks have been packed with activities such as: Children’s Day, Culture Day, Colleen and Cooler Ranch Doritos Are Reunited Day, and Site Placement Day. The past few weeks have also been packed with 90 degree+ weather, making all of these events a unique, if not ideal, combination of fun and sweat.
For Culture Day, each village of trainees prepared a skit with our host families, a meal that we explained how to make, a “Kyrgyz National Game (or a basic game, existing in many countries, that Kyrgyzstan has claimed for themselves),” and, in Pitominick’s case, a Kyrgyz national dance. Pitominick presented how to make Plov; it’s a rice based dish with carrots and potatoes, sometimes chicken or various other meats (hopefully not sheep), oil, and maybe onions, if they are around.
Our skit was an example of a basic celebration. A sheep was slaughtered…but not a real sheep. Our village worked tirelessly to create a paper mache piñata sheep to fake slaughter before allowing our host brothers and sisters to beat with a stick. Unfortunately, we did not explain the rules of piñata to our host brothers and sisters, sorry Mexico, they are not universal, and after each kid beat the sheep, they would reach inside and take out some of its sheep-y insides (candy). Our host mothers also got a little caught up in our celebrating, and began to actually sit and snack and eat Borsok, and kind of forgot that it was just a skit, and not a real guesting experience, so our skit took a little bit longer than would have been preferable to the crowd.
Our village also put on a traditional Kyrgyz dance while wearing poofy yellow dresses. It went over well. Mainly just a lot of hand dancing. Kyrgyz people love the twirling hand dancing. We had dance practice with my host mom/older sister for like three weeks beforehand to make sure we got everything right. There exists a video of the dance.
Peace Corps BBQ
The weekend after Culture Day, a few, very kind souls who work at the Embassy, put together a BBQ for the Peace Corps Volunteers and Trainees at their house in Bishkek. The following is a listing of things that were there. It is not really important to people in America, since all of it is available to you, in fact, I imagine you sitting there eating Doritos and drinking Dr. Pepper as you read this, but I would enjoy reliving the experience through my own accounts, so I will continue to list everything I and others ate. There were Doritos, Doritos Cool Ranch, other American chips of lesser value to me, home-made rice crispies, chocolate chip cookies, hot dogs, hamburgers, Heinz mustard and ketchup, diet coke, diet Dr. Pepper, Breyer’s ice cream, American candy (Butterfingers!), Pop Tarts, and Girl Scout cookies. Fruit was possibly there. I may have embarrassed myself in front of several government employees in my attempts to be the first to the Doritos Cool Ranch, but if you don’t have priorities, what do you have?
On June 5th, we arrived to Hub Site to find a giant map of Kyrgyzstan drawn on the ground with all of the oblasts borders drawn: it was site placement day! All of the volunteers’ sites were supposed to be a secret until this day, so since filling out our site placement forms and having our interviews, there had been non-stop speculation as to where we would be placed, especially among TEFLs. The way it worked was that a few weeks ago, we filled out information stating which oblasts (Chui, Issyk-Kul, Talas, Naryn) we would most prefer to be in, and under which conditions we would most prefer to live. We were each handed envelopes with our names on them; they contained our site information inside. We all opened them together, and then everyone gathered together in the oblast outlines of where they would be going. There were existing volunteers waiting for us to talk to us about our sites, our jobs, and the oblast.
My site, Kashka Suu village, is described as: “a small village located near the beautiful mountains in the southern corner of Chui Oblast. There is Kashka Suu ski resort area close to Kashka Suu village and this village is famous for the Ala-Archa national park and Kashka Suu resort hospital…It’s one hour drive by marshrutka to Bishkek. Air in Kashka Suu is very fresh, and many Bishkek people have dachas (summer cottages) around the place.” I will be working in a very small school of only about 205 students as an English teacher with a Kyrgyz English teacher as my counterpart.
This coming week we will meet our counterparts, have our Swearing-In ceremony, then take off to permanent site. Some people will have to travel hours to get to their sites, but since mine is right outside Bishkek, I will only be travelling for about an hour. This involves doing any leftover laundry, repacking all my bags, packing up all the new stuff Peace Corps has given us: water filter, medical kit, Where There Is No Doctor, the many handbooks and manuals, etc., getting them on a marshrutka to Hub Site, putting them on a Peace Corps bus to go to swearing in, then getting them through Bishkek, and onto another marshrutka going to permanent site.
I am very excited to meet my counterpart and move to my permanent site. As soon as I get my new address I will update everyone!
The past week (the week of April 28th to May 4th) has been filled with Bishkek day, which was great. We got to see the sights (even if it was at a breakneck pace) like Ala-Too Square and the Kyrgyz version of the White House, eat ice cream, check out some department stores vs. bazaars, take some marshrutkas, eat some Kinder Chocolate, walk through some parks, check out some Kyrgyz artwork, which mainly consists of horses, yurts, and mountains, and some of us, who were braver than others, but not me, tried the fermented wheat stuff that is non-alcoholic, that is sold on street corners, that looks disgusting.
Later in the week, we had a few more training and medical sessions. I think we had our third or fourth session based on what to do if you have diarrhea. The more you know… Our village language group also got to practice our language and bargaining skills in the local Sokuluk bazaar, which was incredibly helpful. There I bought some full-on Soviet Victory Day (May 9th) letters to send back to America, or keep for myself. We submitted our preliminary paperwork for our preferences as far as site and living conditions for the next two years. We will have a few interviews with staff next week, but we won’t find the results out until June 5th, I believe, then we leave for our permanent sites on June 11th.
My Lunch: A giant bowlful of Gretchka and a chicken leg.
Friday wrapped up with beers and chips down the street from Hub-Site. It was awesome since I had been dreaming about sitting out on the front patio of Café 210 all week, and telling everyone I could about it. It almost felt like America, until a rogue sheep decided that it also wanted to be hanging out in the courtyard since the multitude of Peace Corps Volunteers were making the restaurant such a happening place. Unfortunately, this particular establishment did not serve sheep, so it was escorted out twice, especially after peeing in the center of the courtyard. “Go home sheep, you’re drunk…”
On Friday we also found out that an American tanker plane had crashed within our (Chui) oblast several minutes after take-off from the American Transit Center located near the Manas International Airport in Bishkek. This plane did not crash anywhere near any Peace Corps Volunteers, but I am incredibly sorry for the Americans who were on the plane that died, and for the few Kyrgyz people who were injured, but there were no civilian casualties.
After language lesson on Saturday, a few of the village groups convened in Kyzyl Tuu village (luckily for Pitominick, Kyzyl Tuu is the next village over) for hiking in the hills beneath the mountains. It was a gorgeous day and perfect weather. It was also a decent reminder of how out of shape I am, so I am going to have put some more practice in on the hills before I head up into the mountains. When I got home from hiking, it was time to do laundry for the first time in close to three weeks. As I pulled all of my socks and underwear from my Winchester Thurston laundry bag, that we were all gifted at high school graduation, my Ejey’s eyes got huge, and she mentioned that three weeks was an unacceptable amount of time to wait to do laundry, so we are going to do laundry again next Saturday.
My host family is one of few to have a washing machine. It just appeared this week. My host parents went into Bishkek, and when I got home from my language lesson, there it was. However, I learned that just because your family has a washing machine in Kyrgyzstan, it doesn’t mean doing laundry will be a whole lot easier. Washing machines here are not the same as washing machines in the United States, well some are, but forget those. I still had to do the three bucket wash, except the first bucket was a washing machine, or a small box that agitated some soap and water. First clothes went into the washing machine with hot water and soap for a few minutes, then I scrubbed them by hand and put them into the bucket with cooler water, where I scrubbed them some more, then put them into the bucket with cold water, where I scrubbed them one final time before trying to ring as much water from them as possible before hanging them on the line to dry. I think I had three or four loads in total. My Ejey helped me out, especially with the wringing out of the water. She did everything in about a third of time as me. I definitely slept well Saturday night.
On Sunday, my Ejey told me we were going to watch an American movie on my computer, since I had offered before, but we had never gotten the chance. I chose Hercules, since it was Disney, and there was a chance my family might be familiar with at least the name, or Disney (there’s Mickey Mouse stuff all over the place here), but as I sat watching it, Hercules proved more difficult to explain than I previously had thought it would. My Ejey and host brother were not familiar with Greek gods or heroes, and they definitely were not familiar with Motown or Gospel music (sorry Diana, sorry Aretha), so I decided to just not explain the movie, and let it stand on its own. Okay, false, I did describe Hercules as the Greek version of Manas, the Kyrgyz epic poem hero, then I let the movie stand on its own.
My first official week of PST started Monday April 22nd and ended Saturday April 27th. Throughout this week were language lessons and training sessions divided up between my village and our “Hub-Site” at Voenno-Antonovka Orphanage. Our village is very small, only three volunteers live here, but when we travel to the orphanage, all of the volunteers participate.
At the end of the week, my host mother took me guesting: first on Saturday to make (I actually was only really allowed to watch, and roll one piece of dough for about a minute) a ton of Borsok. We made like four hours’ worth of Borsok and other fried bread. Borsok is the national bread of Kyrgyzstan, I am told, and it is little pieces of rectangular dough that are then fried into delicious pillows of national pride. If I was really entrepreneurial, I would open a series of funnel cake stands here and make a killing. Funnel cake combines two food groups that both the Kyrgyz people and I share a love for: bread and sugar. Later that night, on the way home from the first guesting, we went guesting again, and I saw a baby being physically strapped into a cradle to go to sleep, that was when I knew that my guesting for the day was over.
The next morning, we left at nine in the morning to officially guest at the home that we had been making the Borsok at the day before; it is the home of my Baike’s brother. Apparently, his daughter had gotten married two weeks earlier, and the entire family was going to the house in celebration. I got to meet most of the family, mostly my Baike’s sisters, and eat a lot of candy, cookies, and fried bread, and I got to drink a lot of tea. I mainly hung out in the kitchen with the younger girls, or my host cousins, took part in the gossip (even if I didn’t know what they were saying…), watched some Kyrgyz music videos (and one for an Evanescence song that was also a Final Destination trailer, I don’t know where that came from), and translated Kyrgyz words to English.
Then it was time to pray over the sheep before it was killed in celebration. Sorry sheep. Luckily, I didn’t have to watch them kill the sheep, but I was directed towards the window to watch the charring of the sheep head over the fire. Later, I also got to witness, the spreading out of cooked sheep parts and previously mentioned charred head on a table in the kitchen, and a bowl of the intestines and “good stuff” was passed around for everyone to grab a little bit, that included me. We drank sheep soup again, ate sheep meat, and ate Beshbarmek (literally translated “five fingers” for the days when there were no utensils to use). Beshbarmek is sheep meat mixed up in some noodles, and it is considered the national dish of Kyrgyzstan. Sheep is also considered the national meat of Kyrgyzstan. In my opinion, Kyrgyzstan needs a new national dish… And maybe a new national meat…
It was a long day of guesting, and I didn’t get home until around five thirty in the evening. Then we chai-eeched (Kyrgyz meaning for “drink tea”). I was allowed to go rest in my room, for what I thought was going to be the rest of the night, but it just turned out to be for about three hours, until the after-guesting-party came to our house, and more tea, Borsok, and vodka were broken out.