Published on March 13, 2005 By The Mada In Life Journals
Hey everyone! Let me first start by apologizing for not answering individual letters and being out of touch for so long. The last 5 weeks have been extremely intense, and I have had essentially no free time. We go 7 days a week, 6-8 hour days, and we do not have any internet access here in my town. The nearest town with internet is 12 km away. The connection is very unreliable, and obviously we cannot call ahead to see if the internet is working, so we rarely travel there. Every day includes a minimum of 4 hours of language training in the mornings, and either 2 additional hours of language after lunch or 4 hours of technical and cross cultural training. I can’t really describe exactly how difficult Russian is to learn, but we have essentially had to start completely from scratch, by learning a totally new alphabet. There are 33 letters, of which 6 look and sound the same as in English – K,T, M, A, E, and O. There are 6 letters that look the same but sound different -- C, B, P, H, Y, and X. The other 21 letters are completely different, and look something like this: Й, Я, Ю, Ж, Ф, Д, Г, З, П and so on. The words are normally very long and have many consonants next to each other. For example, just to say hello, we say “Здравствуйте” which is pronounced “Zdravst-voo-eet-yay”. The grammatical structure is insane, with more endings for words and verbs than I can possibly describe, so I won’t even try, but here’s an example. If I want to say “ I came from Joe’s house”, there are 3 things to keep in mind: the gender of the person whose house I came from, whether it is a person’s home or a public building, and whether I came from the house on foot or by a vehicle. If any of these things change, there are different endings for every word in the sentence. Anyway, we are all making progress, albeit very slowly. There are 11 volunteers here in my town, which is called Turgen, or ТУРГЕН in Russian. We are about an hour and a half Northeast of Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan. There are 42 volunteers in my group, and we are spread out among 5 towns, all within about 15 km of each other. I live with a Russian family (There are 4 main ethnic groups here- Russian, Kazakh, Uigur, and Turkish - they are all very different from each other as far as their traditions, language, food, etc.). My host mother is 45 I think and is very nice. She is an excellent cook, and I have been surprised by how good all the food is here. There have been some strange things, horse meat, sheep’s head (which I haven’t had yet, but I will soon), horse and camel milk (which is the most horrible thing I have ever had to drink in my life) I have a 17 year old sister, and she is very cool. She speaks a little English, but not enough to have a real conversation. She can act as a translator if she must, but we try not to speak any English so I can concentrate on learning Russian. She is my connection to the young people here, and I have been out with her and her friends on a few occasions. I also have a host father and a 24 year old sister who I have not yet met. The father has been working near Moscow for about 4-5 months I think and will be coming home at the end of the month, and the sister is married and lives in Almaty. I live about 15-20 minutes away from the school where we have training, and we walk pretty much everywhere we go in town. There is a small café near the school where we spend a lot of time, and have become friendly with the family that owns it. In fact, as we have spent more time there, the prices of food and beer have become increasingly cheaper. That sort of thing is very normal here. Although everything is extremely cheap by American standards (50 cents for a beer, a kilogram of apples for a dollar, a huge shish kabob lunch with beer and tip for about $1.50), the prices are much higher for Americans than they are for locals, and nearly all prices can (and should) be negotiated. We can go to the market (which we call a bazaar, or БАЗАР in Russian) and the price for a kilo of cherries may 150 tenge, but if you pay any more than 100 tenge, you got ripped off, and people will laugh at you. It’s actually kind of a game, and it’s a way for people to have conversations here. Prices for things also depend of which language you negotiate in. The national language here is Kazakh, but we are all learning mostly Russian (We do take lessons in Kazakh for 2 hours a week). If you negotiate in Kazakh instead of Russian, the price is even cheaper, as much as half price, because the people are impressed that you are trying to speak in their local language. When we travel to other towns, there are scheduled buses and go between cities, but they are unreliable and very, very crowded (like 15 people crammed into the back of a minivan) so we normally take “taxis.” A taxi here is actually any person who owns a car and is willing to drive you to another town for a fee. It’s essentially hitchhiking. You stand on the side of the road and hold out your hand, and eventually someone will stop and offer you a ride. And of course, the price must be negotiated. The price for Americans is usually outrageous at first, so you have to talk them down, or wait for another car to come by that will accept less. It’s really more of the principle of the matter, because negotiating a ride to the town of Issyk, or ЭСИК in Russian, (which is about 15 km away) from 100 tenge down to about 50 tenge is a difference of about 35 cents. Again, if you don’t negotiate, people will laugh at your stupidity for being taken advantage of.
Now a little bit about the other volunteers. I have settled into a small group of about 6 friends. One lives here in town with me, and the others are spread out among 3 of the other 4 towns. We spend most of what little free time we have in the café here in Turgen, or in on of the many cafés in Issyk, which is much larger than Turgen (Issyk is about 35,000 people, Turgen is maybe half that). One thing about this group of volunteers is that it is for the most part very cliquish. We all essentially get along but we all have our own groups of friends and rarely stray from that group for long. I can’t explain why, but I think there are a lot of people who are uptight and think for the most part they are either better or smarter than the rest of us. It doesn’t really matter though, because we will be getting our permanent site locations in about 2 weeks, and we will all be in small villages spread out across the country and will probably not have another volunteer less than an hour away from us. There are 4 married couples in the group, a few older people (the oldest I think is 68) but it is for the most part mid to late twenty somethings with business or political science degrees. There are more guys than girls, about 60% to 40%. In my little group there are 4 guys – myself, William (who is from near St. Louis, actually), Jay, and Bob, and 2 girls, Sara and Yasameen. Every once in a while, a guy named Shan (not Shane, or Shawn, because we have one of each in our group, too-- Shan, Shane, and Shawn – It can be very confusing) and a girl named Jen hang around with us as well. I will try to attach some pictures to the next letter I send so you can put faces with all these names, but I can’t make any promises because I don’t know if these computers can handle uploading them. William was the first person I met here (we met in the D.C. airport and shared a cab to the hotel) and he’s the closest friend I’ve made. He is 24, very Irish and has a Masters degree in International Politics from Queens University in Belfast, Ireland. He was living near Scott Air Force Base in Belleville before leaving for Kazakhstan. Jay is 24 and I think has a business degree and he’s from Iowa, and Bob is 24 and an architect from North Carolina. Sara is 23 and from New Mexico, and she spent time in Spain around same time I did (though I think she was in Barcelona), and Yasameen is 22 and was born in Iran (though she moved to the states when she was 1) and speaks fluent Persian.
Our family here is pretty much self-sustaining. We have a lot of chickens & roosters (I didn’t really need to bring an alarm clock – they wake me up every morning), and a huge garden with spices, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and 2 huge cherry trees. We also have a huge (probably 300-400 pounds) sow with a bunch of piglets. The piglets have recently been weaned and we will sell most of them in a few months. I found out today that we will be slaughtering the sow later this week at some point, and you can guess who “gets” to kill it….so I will have more details about that in my next letter. The father is coming home on the 31st and we will need to have meat for a celebration.
We have been practice teaching for the last week, and in 2 weeks we will have our “Practicum,” or our final teaching test before we leave for site. We leave for site I think around the 18th of August, about 1 ½ weeks before the start of the new school year. As of now I don’t know anything about where in the country I will go, but we find out on the 31st of July. I will write again around then to let everyone know the story, and give updates on anything else I may have forgotten to include in this letter.

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