Published on May 12, 2005 By The Mada In Life Journals
Hey everyone,
Barring any big unforeseen events, this will be the last group letter I send before coming home in July. A lot has happened since my last letter in March, so I’ll pick up where I left off. We went to Shymkent on March 22nd for the Kazakh New Year’s holiday. I took a night bus by myself to Almaty, then traveled with all the volunteers from Ust Kamenogorsk from Almaty to Shymkent. Back to back nights on busses is not fun. Anyway, we arrived to find green grass and warm sunny weather, and let me tell you it’s quite a sight after nearly 5 months of living in what feels like the arctic. The volunteers who live in Shymkent had apartments waiting for us, so we all went back to relax. We spent the day just hanging around and meeting up with other volunteers from around the country. That night, we had a big party in one of the apartments. A German expatriate who now owns a brewery in Shymkent was kind enough to give us free of charge (!) 2 kegs of good German beer, so it was a blast, needless to say. All the volunteers were crammed into this tiny apartment, and I can’t believe we didn’t have the police called on us. The next day was the actual holiday, so we did all kinds of cultural stuff. We went to the city center to watch concerts and dances, rode amusement park rides, and walked around the city. In the afternoon, we went to see the Kazakh national pastime: Kok-par. In this game, 2 teams on horseback try to carry the carcass of a dead sheep or goat and toss it into a big mound of dirt. It’s sort of like polo, but with a headless sheep instead of a ball. It was interesting, but I’ll say I have a newfound respect for baseball as America’s national pastime….That night, we had another party and then hit a nightclub, where one volunteer got into a fight with a local. The next day we traveled to a town called Turkestan. It is the religious center of Kazakhstan, so we thought we should see it. There was a very large and beautiful mausoleum dating back to the 12th century there, and it was interesting because no one in the town spoke Russian. Everyone there speaks only Kazakh, so it was difficult to do anything, even order in a restaurant since most of us volunteers haven’t learned any Kazakh. The next day we went back to Almaty. At this point, we still had about 8 days of vacation, so I decided to travel again up to Ust Kamenogorsk, and then I went on to Ridder to visit with my friend Sara who lives there. We took the train the Ust, although this time we had 2 very nice ladies in our cabin with us, so we actually had a good night sleep and a good time chatting with them. I spent a full week in Ridder doing a lot of nothing, just hanging out with Sara and relaxing. It was a blast, and it was really difficult for me to go back to my village afterwards. In fact, I had a pretty serious bout of depression for the first week, during which I hardly ate or slept at all. It was during this period that my good friend William decided to terminate his service and leave Kazakhstan. He was having some personal problems here and ultimately decided he was better off going back to the states, so he left the first week of April. Once he was gone, it left me more than 4 hours away from the nearest volunteer. For the first 8 months I lived in Kabanbai, it was a relatively quiet place, nothing too exciting happening, and I felt relatively safe there. Then, all of a sudden, my town became something of a war-zone. During the months of March and April, 6 violent incidents took place. There were 3 murders, a rape, and 2 very serious physical assaults. One murder and the rape were committed by some of our students, and the other incidents were groups of young men who could have been students or just out of school. A 25-year old woman was beaten within an inch of her life on the street right in front of my house. If I’d been awake, I probably would have seen it happen. The town was actually placed on lockdown by the local militia, and no one was allowed outside after 9:00 at night. It was insane. All this in a town of about 7000. The worst part was that no one in the town seemed to be too upset by it. Teachers just chatted about these incidents as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. It was during this time that I first began thinking about leaving my site. I began speaking with my boss in Almaty, and based on the violence, the isolation of my site, and the general lack of motivation of my students, we decided that it would be best for me to look for a new site. Over the course of the next few weeks, we began looking for places for me to go, and ultimately I decided to move to a town called Tekeli. It is considerably larger than Kabanbai, with about 25,000 people or so. It is situated right in the middle of the mountains and the town is just beautiful. There is a waterfall and green trees and mountains everywhere. Right behind my apartment is a park, where I can run every morning before work. The town even has its own brewery. I no longer work in a school. I am now working for a university called the U of Central Asia. It hasn’t officially opened yet, I think they are planning to open sometime next year. Instead I’m giving lessons to the staff and teachers. Many of them already speak a bit of English, so I’m just working to improve their level since most of the lessons here are going to be taught in English. I will also be giving lessons one day a week in the brewery with a local teacher who lives in Taldykorgan, which is the city nearest to me. I now live only 45 minutes outside of Taldy, instead of 5 hours like before. I moved here last Saturday. It was actually pretty difficult to leave Kabanbai, however. I had a fantastic family there and a great counterpart also. There were some really good students who had a lot of potential, and I became very good friends with the 15 year old granddaughter of my host mother. She told me she felt like I was her big brother and we used to hang out and talk. It was sad to leave, and I already miss them a little bit, since here I don’t know anyone at the moment. I promised the people in Kabanbai that I would go back to visit often, which I plan to do. It’s pretty interesting, Tekeli is completely different in almost every way from my old site. Here I live in my own apartment, where I have a shower, a flush toilet, and running water. I live alone and cook for myself, as opposed to having everything done for me. I bought a cellular phone (it’s cheaper to call to other volunteers using a cell than using a land line) and I have a home phone with reasonably reliable service so I can get online whenever I need to. In some ways I feel like I’m making my service too easy by having all these conveniences, but the job I’m doing here will likely be more difficult and I still have to speak Russian everyday in the town, so I’m trying to convince myself that everything evens out. In about 3 weeks, I will be going back to Kabanbai for a couple days. It’s the end of the school year, and the students asked me to come back for graduation. After that, I will travel up to Ridder to work with Sara in a summer camp. We will spend 3 weeks there working with the kids, and then I will come back to Tekeli. I’ll prepare for about a week, and then it’s off to Almaty to catch my flight back to the USA. I am amazed when I think about how fast time is flying by for me, and they say the 2nd year goes by faster than the first. Who knows. This week I’m going into Taldykorgan because 2 of the volunteers living there are finishing their service and going back to America, and they are being replaced by 2 volunteers just starting their service. Its kind of a going away and welcome party all rolled into one. We’re going to hang out and drink lots of beer (instead of vodka for a change) and then on Saturday we’re going to play paintball at a place that just opened in the city. Should be a blast. Anyway, I guess that’s all that’s going on at the moment. If I’ve left anything out or if you have any questions about details on anything I’ve said, please let me know. Otherwise, I will see you all in July. I can’t wait. Go Cardinals (and tell the people in Boston they are not allowed to bitch about sports championships again for another 95 years, damn Patriots & Red Sox). Hope everything is going great for everyone. Cheers.

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