Published on March 13, 2005 By The Mada In Life Journals
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

This letter marks 6 months since I left the states. I’m a quarter of the way through my time here, so I figured it’s time to reflect on what has happened so far and share some interesting events I’ve been a part of here.
A lot has happened since my last update. First and foremost, I have switched to a new host family here at site. The Tartar family I was living with became cold and unfriendly for whatever reason, and after 4 months I decided enough was enough. They apparently had expected me to become fluent in the Russian language after 3 months of living with them, which of course, I am not. As a result of my apparent failings with the language, they stopped talking to me. Completely. All meals were had in silence, and there was not even so much as a good morning or good night during the last month and a half I was there. As an example, when I returned from the trip to Ust Kamenogorsk (which I will talk more about shortly) after 5 days, they didn’t even say hello. No “how was the trip” or “what did you do there,” not even a smile to let me know they were aware of my return. Oh well. I have moved in with a “babushka,” which is Russian for grandmother. She lives alone (her husband died last year) and has 3 daughters (2 live here in town and both have their own families, the other lives in Almaty). Her granddaughter is one of my best 8th grade students. She is such a nice woman, I can’t even begin to describe the difference. I have been living here less than a week, and already I feel more at home than I did after nearly 4 months with the first family. She has taken me to both daughters’ homes, where I have been welcomed as a member of the family (I was helping the women to cook on my second visit). We sit and speak (only in Russian, as she speaks no English) during lunch and dinner and I have already used more of my language than I ever did with the first family. My new host mother encourages me to talk and make mistakes, while I always felt I’d be criticized for any mistakes I made living in the first family. Anyway, enough complaining about the old family. The only situation I have now is that I paid an entire months rent to them before I moved out, and now I’m trying to get my money back and it’s becoming something of a problem. (Here there are no lease agreements, we each signed a “good faith” agreement when I moved in, which stated I could leave at any time and they were obliged to refund any unused portion of my rent.) The woman I was living with owns the biggest store in town, so I’m trying to resolve this problem as diplomatically as possible so I will still be able to shop there when necessary. My new home is smaller and has less “comforts” than the old one (I’ve given up my television, oh well) but it’s a much friendlier environment, so I figure it’s an even trade.
As far as teaching and classes go, I’ve taken on 4 more morning classes than I was previously teaching, and I’ve reduced my afternoon optional courses to twice a week. That means I’m teaching about an average of 18 hours per week. The 4 new classes are all 7th form, which is my favorite class to teach. It’s made up of a lot of my most motivated and talented students, and now I get to see them 3 times a week instead of only once. I cut my afternoon courses because I couldn’t get enough regular attendance (I mentioned that they are “optional” courses) to justify 5 classes per week. I now work only with those students who have been consistently attending during the first semester.
My Russian pretty well sucks. I have been trying without success to get a tutor since I first arrived here, and have only within the last week finally found a steady teacher willing to give me regular classes every week. I’ve been trying to teach myself, but it’s difficult when you don’t understand something to try to explain it to yourself, obviously. Living with the new family is going to help a lot, because since we live here alone I will need to improve so I can hold my end of a conversation with her.
As far as interesting events, there have been a few. During my fall holiday (the 5th – 12th of November) I traveled to Almaty with some other volunteers. We arrived in town on the 8th and stayed until the 12th. Our first day there was interesting. We got into town in the early evening, but had a lot of trouble finding a hotel that wasn’t full. We decided to get some dinner before continuing our search, so we went to a restaurant called the American Bar and Grill. Now, after 3 months of nothing but local food (lots of soup, meat dumplings, rice) you can imagine what it was like to go to a place where they offered real American food. My meal (which cost about $20, a LOT of money here) consisted of a big Long Island iced tea, garlic cheese bread for starters, a ½ lb. bacon cheeseburger with fries, and 3 scoops of Baskin Robbins ice cream and coffee for dessert. I have to say it might have been the best meal ever. One of the guys I was with said later he nearly cried into his taco salad it was so good. Hee hee hee. Actually the quality wasn’t fantastic, but your standards change quickly in an environment like this. I mean, I get to bath 1 (one!) time each week. I don’t like that fact, but there isn’t much I can do about it so I just enjoy it as much as possible when it comes (usually on Saturday nights). Anyway, back to my story. After dinner, we spent about 3 hours walking around the city trying to find a damn hotel. We never did. We met some random old woman on the street who offered to let all 5 of us sleep in her house, but there was a woman with us who didn’t feel comfortable with it so we declined. Shortly after the woman left, we got stopped by the local police. We were obviously foreigners, and obviously out of place at 2 a.m. still carrying our luggage, so I can’t say I blamed them for stopping us. After checking our passports, they offered to take us to a nearby hotel where they thought we could get a room (it turned out to be full as well). They (there were 2 officers) were driving a car about the size of a Geo Metro. It may have been the smallest car ever. Now, I’m a relatively small guy, but in my group were 3 guys who each outweighed me by 30 to 40 pounds, as well as one of their wives. Not wanting to be rude and decline the police officers’ offer of a ride, all 5 of us climbed into the back seat of this go cart sized car. If only I’d had a camera. There were arms and legs sticking out in all directions of the car, it must have been a hilarious sight to see from outside. Anyway, as I said, the hotel was full, so we went to a nearby town and stayed with a volunteer there. When we came back the next day, we found a hotel we’d missed and booked rooms for the rest of our stay.
Over Thanksgiving, I traveled to Ust Kamenogorsk, a beautiful city near the Russian border, to visit a friend there and spend the holiday with Americans. We had chicken (turkey is very hard to find here) but all the rest of the usual fare, including some damn good pumpkin pie for dessert. We went to a club, had some drinks, made fools of ourselves on the dance floor (we Americans can’t dance, and we already stand out enough, so put 2 and 2 together), but it was a lot of fun. I spent 5 days there, then returned home to meet my Peace Corps boss who was visiting my town to see how things were going. My counterpart was sick that day, so after spending 12 hours on an overnight bus from Ust to arrive at 8 am to teach without sleeping, I had to greet my boss and teach a bunch of my counterparts classes on my own. That would have been no problem, except some of the classes I don’t usually teach, so I didn’t have a book or a lesson plan for them, nor did I know which classroom to go to, so I was wandering around like a fool with my boss there to see it. All turned out ok, and she actually ended up teaching with me so the lessons were a success.
One interesting note: the first member of my group quit the PC not too long after training was finished. He had a big argument with our country director and decided to leave. This was a 70 year old man who I think may have been starting to lost it a little bit. I have recently found out that he has come back to Kazakhstan and is living on his own somewhere in Almaty, and no one knows how or why. I understand he is literally wandering the streets here by himself. I will find out more about this in the next few weeks, and will send an update in my next letter.
We are traveling back to Almaty in 2 weeks for a group training session, and it will be the last time my volunteer group is together in the same place until we finish our service in 2006. I am going to spend New Years with my first host family back in Turgen, and then travel to Almaty for the meeting, so I will be gone from around the 27th or 28th of December until probably the 8th or 9th of January. I will have access to email during that time in the Peace Corps office in Almaty. I welcome any questions anyone has about stuff I have said or may have left out in this email. I am going to send out some new pictures soon, and I will email everyone when I do.
Anyway, I guess that’s about all for now, like I said, I hope to hear from everyone soon, to see how things are going back in the good ol USA. I miss you all very much.
Love to all and Season’s Greetings,

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