The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Leaving Kazakhstan

On November 17th many hearts were broken. The leadership of the
United States Peace Corps, after much deliberation, decided to
indefinitely suspend all Peace Corps programs in the Republic of
Kazakhstan, leaving many locals worrying over lost jobs, students
mourning lost mentors and friends, and volunteers crying over lost

The decision was not reached easily. Over the past few months, Peace
Corps Kazakhstan has experienced many hardships. A special assessment
team was sent to evaluate the situation a couple of weeks ago. They
began interviewing volunteers and speaking with staff to assess the
effectiveness of our programs and the security of volunteers. The
program was ultimately suspended due to what the Peace Corps is
officially calling "operational considerations." Volunteers, people
in my community, and PC staff expressed sorrow at the news and
acknowledged the positive influence Peace Corps has had on Kazakhstan
and the life-changing impact Kazakhstan has had on volunteers.

I cried for about three days when the Country Director called to tell
me we were all leaving. They should have put me next to the Aral Sea
to help expand its shrinking coastline. I cried alongside my
counterpart teacher, Gulshat, many of my students, local friends, and
volunteers. With them I lamented the time we thought we had left to
carry out projects, improve English, celebrate holidays, and continue
to learn about each other.

I was crying for all of these things, but my heart was aching for the
loss of my students. I saw their eager faces and thought of how much
they crave knowledge, they crave the world. In my opinion, Peace
Corps volunteers in Kazakhstan were about so much more than teaching
English. My passion for these kids had very little to do with
teaching English. I love them. I love them for the way they greeted
me every day with chipper handshakes, for the way they called me Miss
Jennie, for the way they appreciate every ounce of love I showed them.
Could Peace Corps have changed the educational system in Kazakhstan?
No. In fact, that was never the goal. I wanted to show these kids
that they had to be the future. They had to be brave enough to
imagine the world they wanted to live in and go for it. The unit we
were covering right before we left was about ambition. The kids know
that Miss Jennie believes they should dream big and believe in
themselves. And they know Miss Jennie believes in them. Another
volunteer said that her biggest accomplishment was that her children
know they are fiercely loved. What more are we here for?

Yet the ferocity of this love makes leaving all the more painful. So
painful in fact, that I have found myself wandering around aimlessly
for the past week or so, not sure how to recover from the sadness of
leaving my community, my life, my passion. Being here is difficult,
reading the letters my students wrote to me and looking at our last
photos makes me cry, and not knowing what to do in the immediate
future is terrifying. But, I read through my previous blogs and found
wisdom in my own words:
Term tests be damned, tonight is about breathing in the nature that
continues to surprise me. Tonight is about recording experiences that
will be turned into memories, doing my best to describe what I am
feeling and thinking now so that I will look back with decidedly happy
nostalgia. I know that someday I will miss these moments, but this is
also a reminder that if you are loving life, there will always be
nostalgia. The pang of sadness is a small price to pay for living in
the moments that are worthy of nostalgia.
I have changed a lot and learned more than I taught. If you read any
news about Kazakhstan, keep an open mind and remember that nothing in
life is black and white. Just like every country, it has its share of
problems, but there are truly amazing people and traditions that I
will miss dearly and look forward to seeing again soon. I would love
to discuss all of this in more depth if any of you are interested.

Thank you for all of your support and wish me luck on the next adventure.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Fall 2011

Hello All!
It has been far too long since I posted a blog and I hope that I haven't subsequently lost my audience!  I have been working through some things, barely staying above water, and couldn't wrap my head around writing a blog, but I finally have some time to update you all! 


Beginning the school year was much harder than I anticipated.  The high of a great summer wore off and my schedule was once again confined to early mornings and late nights as I fought to finish all of the lesson planning, material making, and grading that goes into teaching.  We began the school with new, better books which will ultimately make both the teachers' lives and the students' lives much easier.  However, year planning and getting accustomed to teaching with the new books took a lot of time and energy. 


The newness of Miss Jennie wore off for some of the students and no longer worked to motivate them.  My expectations are even higher than they were last year and some students are just not willing to work hard enough.  I spent most of September worrying, wondering if my expectations were too high or if the students just didn't want it bad enough.  I haven't been doing this long enough to be able to gauge how hard to push the students, but I refused to back down.  I wanted the students to see what high expectations look like and how to work for them.  I wanted them to see that I wasn't giving up on them and that I was pushing them because I believed in them so much.  Some students got the message and responded, some have all but given up and I am trying to find a place where I am okay letting the uninterested students go.  I have a stubborn natural instinct to push people to aspire to greatness, to follow the right path, to overachieve.  My mom has always reminded me that their aspirations don't have to be the same as mine and I have to allow space for them to decide.  I can't say I buy it, but I am trying to practice it.  I can't force the kids to study, to do their best.  It comes from within.


In other news, I have moved out of my host family and into a two bedroom apartment with my counterpart teacher, Gulshat.  This apartment was the type of disaster parents hope their children never have to live in, but I am now proud of my first rented apartment!  When we agreed to move in, nobody had lived here for 10 years.  So why did you agree to move in, one might ask…The landlord/lady in this country has all of the power.  There is a huge shortage of apartments for reasons I cannot fathom.  Apparently a ton of people want to live in apartments, but there just aren't enough and it hasn't occurred to anyone that building new apartments might be a profitable business venture.  That along with a huge road construction project put demand at an ultimate high and supply extremely low.  We looked at several apartments that were absolutely repulsive and had finally waited so long that we took the next apartment no matter how repulsive.  The whole place was covered in layers of dust that we are still scrubbing out, none of the sinks were even attached, there was no hot water, and there is still no heat.  Luckily my down-to-earth, wise parents taught me to save and be money-wise so I had enough of my Peace Corps allowance to buy a hot water heater, new carpets and curtains, essential repairs in the kitchen and bathroom, a brand new toilet, and four months rent. 


So we are settled in to our new place and it is such a relief.  I had almost forgotten what free will was like and now thoroughly enjoy eating what I want when I want and feeling comfortable in my own place 100% of the time.  It was just what I needed to make it through this fall.  And man has it flown by!  We are already finished with the first term at school with most of our students showing identifiable results.  We have some new plans for our next term and if those don't work out, I have created a little benchmark system for myself to keep me trucking!  The first benchmark was term break.  Check.  The next was my volunteer friends coming to visit me.  Check.  The next is Thanksgiving and we are only a couple weeks away!


I still enjoy my work here and am beginning to realize how much I will miss the kids when I leave, but I am also really thinking about home and am excited to start again next August.  Life just has so many adventures possible, it amazes me!  I am really looking forward to seeing all of you again.  I have truly learned the value of friendship and its ability to transcend space and time.  I hope all of you are well!


If you're curious, I think my new address is (though this has yet to be tested):

Jennie Vader

Microregion 1, Building 44A, Apartment 7

Turkestan, South Kazakhstan Oblast

Republic of Kazakhstan 161200

Saturday, September 3, 2011

English Camping Trip 2011

"When I was went to the camp before 2 months, I said to Miss Jennie: "Miss Jennie, I will learn English.  I will learn by heart words, I will always speak with Gulbina in English.  But, I can't. But when I went to the camp, I understand that I am best!  Thanks to Miss Jennie for the camp.  It was very interesting days in my life."              – Akbota, an 11th grade student

"I learned many new words.  I developed my English.  I spoke English very well. I liked this camp.  Thanks to camp we learned many things and we developed our English."          –Erbol, an 11th grade student

These are some quotes from the reflections my students wrote about our camp.  Okay, so I fixed some grammar mistakes, but their words touch my heart and give me goosebumps.  I love them so much!

I have written in previous blogs about our plans for an English Immersion Camping Trip and, despite all odds, we actually pulled it off and it was a great success!  I worked with my counterpart teacher, Gulshat, to organize the trip, write a grant, buy all of the materials, take 17 students into nature, teach them English, and bring them back with only a few minor bruises and sores.  This project is one of the top on my list of most stressful experiences in Kazakhstan, but it was worth it and we are already brainstorming ideas for the English Immersion Camping Trip 2012.

The 17 students were selected as the top of their class in English and even though we had a lot of last minute changes, we took a really good group of students.  Peace Corps and the US Embassy ultimately made this trip possible by donating over $1500 in the form of grants.  Their money allowed us to buy 10 tents, all of the food, and rent a bus and its driver for six days.  We went so far from the city that we had no cell phone signal, so for safety reasons our bus driver stayed with us in case an emergency evacuation was needed.  With the purchase of tents and other reusable materials, we should incur far fewer costs next year and allow the community to sustain this project without US funds!  I hope to organize some fundraising events with the students in order to raise money for next year's food and transportation so that the money doesn't have to come from the students' pocket.

Two of my closest Peace Corps volunteer friends came to help me with the camp and for that I am immensely grateful.  Without their energy, patience, and perspective I could have never survived this week.  In total we had four English teachers.  Every day the two volunteers and Gulshat would teach two hour lessons to their groups.  The higher level group named themselves "The Friendly Leaders", the middle group was "The Freedom Eagles", and the lower group was "The Majestics".  The groups and their leaders held lessons together, cooked together, and cleaned up the meals together.  I ran around like crazy trying to organize things and make sure all of the supplies were ready when the teachers and students needed them.  To my extreme surprise, one of my students said, "Miss Jennie never gets tired.  She is always happy!"  The volunteers know that isn't true; I was more tired than I have ever been.

Aside from lessons and meals (which took A LOT of time!) we played tons of games with the kids.  I told the kids before camp that I had made a list of 100 games (which is true) and by Day 3 they assured me: "Miss Jennie, we will not have time to play 100 games."  Better safe than sorry.  The games we played were standard among any youth gathering, leadership conference, etc and were nothing new for us volunteers, but the students were blown away by them and begged to keep playing over and over.  We also organized two night-time games of Capture the Flag (the kids renamed this WAR) which the students thought was the coolest thing they had ever played. 
My two biggest fears going into the camp were 1) not having enough food and 2) the students being bored out of their minds.  We had more than enough food and the students said it was very tasty and the students were far from bored.  Even after the lessons, students ran up to me saying, "Miss Jennie!  Miss Anne's lesson was so interesting today!  I learned so much!"  One student wrote in the reflection: "If I came to camp next year, I want 2 lessons every day."

I can't even express how this warms my heart.  I can tell you that I should not choose teaching as a career because I cannot be angry with these kids.  They are just too funny- in a totally sincere way that is completely organic.  The things they say are just so frank because of their limited English skills, but their messages always hit the mark and I can't help but beam at them.  They know that I have no real power over them- it can get dangerous!  Today was the first day of school- Knowledge Day in Kazakhstan- and it is SO good to be back.  We made new posters for our room and I have a lot of new ideas and projects to start!  The one year mark is a really hard time for most volunteers.  There is threat of falling into what I call the "everything is better in America" rut as we think about how long we have been gone and start another arduous, but hopefully successful, school year.  I am counting on these guys to pull me through and I am sure they will make me smile every single day.

I will try to get some pictures onto this blog, but if it doesn't work, I will upload some to my Facebook page.

Thanks for all of your continued support,

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Trip to China!

            After my adventures going to the girls camp (Camp GLOW) in another part of Kazakhstan, I went to China.  Here in Turkestan I helped with an English club at the university and I met a great girl who quickly became my best friend here.  Unfortunately (for me, not for her!) she graduated and moved back to her home in China.  She is Uighur, an ethnicity stemming from Turkish tribes, much like present day Kazakhs and Uzbeks.  The Kazakh and Uzbek territory were under control of the USSR, so when it crumbled in 1991 they became the countries we know today as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  The Uighur territory was not under the control of the USSR but of the People's Republic of China, so today their land is in western China, known as the Uighur Autonomous Region.  They are an ethnic minority in China and I learned quickly what that really meant.  Someday I hope to go back to China so forgive me if anything in this blog is vague.  Really, I learned a lot about the Uighurs, Islam, and the balance between modern globalization and traditional religion.  I got more out of the trip than I expected and made (hopefully) life-long friendships. 

            I was in China for two weeks and stayed with my friend and her family.  We only visited two cities in the Uighur Autonomous Region or Xinjiang Province- Urumchi and Karamay.  Urumchi is the capital of the province and Karamay is where my friend lives.  Someday I hope I can return to see what they call the "Chinese part" (any other province except the Xinjiang Province), but I am more than satisfied with my choice to see how people are living instead of getting just a tourist experience.  I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friend and her boyfriend and family.  I had the chance to ask a million questions and everyone patiently and thoroughly answered all of them.  My friend speaks English well and the Uighur language is very similar to Kazakh so I could understand at least part of what they were saying to me and my friend translated a lot.

            Before I came to Kazakhstan I had briefly read about the Uighur people.  I knew they are a Muslim minority in China, but have since learned that they are minorities not only for their religion, but their ethnicity.  I am learning that like many people in this region, it is almost impossible to separate people's ethnic identity from their religious identity.  In Kazakhstan, the line between Islam and long-practiced cultural traditions is blurred.  Religious practices such as clothing restrictions, praying, and ceremonies are muted because of the strict secular laws in the USSR.  In contrast, there were many, many covered women in Urumchi and Karamay and many people stopped in restaurants and even on public transportation to pray five times a day.

            One thing that surprised me about Islam among the Uighurs was how differently it is interpreted.  Some "covered" women wore skinny jeans and a t-shirt, but there hair was wrapped in a handkerchief.  Some women had full black burkas on with only a slit of their eyes showing.  I asked what the Koran (which is now on my reading list) said about the regulations of being covered.  This community uses a combination of the Koran and readings from later prophets as guidance to the practices of Islam.  My friend said that women should be covered to their wrists, to their toes, and that their head should be covered to the edge of their face (allowing the face to be open, but the ears and neck should be covered).  Women should be covered to show their modesty and presumably to protect them from the depravity of men.  My Muslim friend, however, is not covered.  She dresses modestly, but would fit in on any street in America without question.  I asked why she isn't covered and what that meant for her practice of Islam.  She said she is a bad Muslim, but is sure that some day she will find her way closer to God.

            My friend excuses herself from three important practices of Islam.  First, she only prays when it is convenient for her (I am relating only what she told me, these aren't my opinions).  Muslims should pray five times a day.  Her mother, father, sister, and boyfriend pray five times a day.  We were eating at a café one day during the one o'clock prayer time and her 56 year old father hiked his feet up into an outdoor sink to wash them, took a prayer mat provided by the restaurant, and went to their special praying room.  He returned five minutes later to the meal.  My friend prayed twice during the two weeks I was with her.  Secondly, my friend is not covered.  She says that she isn't covered now because it would have created difficulty in Kazakhstan and it certainly creates difficulty in China.  She admitted, though, that this was more of an excuse.  Thirdly, she goes on dates with her boyfriend without a chaperone (and they occasionally kiss!).  Technically, if they go on a date to a restaurant or walk through a park, someone should be there to ensure that there is no funny business.  When her sister was dating her boyfriend (now husband) his little nephew came every time they met until they were married. 

            My friend seemed relatively unconcerned about her unholy ways.  She explained to me that one had to accept Islam for him or herself.  Sure, her mother, father, and even boyfriend gently pushed her to say her prayers and cover her body, but she insisted (and they all agreed 100%) that nobody could force her to be a better Muslim.  If they forced her, it would still only be superficial; she would be no closer to God.  She would have to find her own way closer to Allah and when she did, she would faithfully pray five times a day and cover herself.  She truly wants to be covered and be a good Muslim, but says that she can't fake her way through it.  It will come when it comes.  She was honestly shocked when I told her that in some places in the world, men and women don't have the luxury of taking their time on their path towards God.  I told her that in some countries women are beaten, killed, and raped if their skin is showing or if they leave the house without a male chaperone.  These women have no rights to choose their religion or their expression of it.  Their governments choose for them what they will wear, where they can go, and who they associate with.  She insisted that this was not Islam, that no true Muslim could support this.  She is an intelligent, educated woman and had no idea what Islamic fundamentalism means for people, particularly women, in parts of the world.  I explained to her that this fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is what scares many people in the West; when people hear Islam, they associate it with terrorists, human rights violations, and violence.  She was so hurt by the fact that some westerners might be afraid of the people in her family just because they were Muslims, because they were covered and read prayers five times a day. 

            My friend realized how lucky she is to be able to participate in her community and make her own decisions.  Her family (and many people I met in the Muslim community in China) supported education and travelling.  Her family wants her to study in Turkey and learn about the world, even if that means leaving a potential marriage suitor and living by herself thousands of miles away.  They struggle between their traditions and progressing as the world advances faster and faster.  And yet, they choose to progress, to learn, to grow; her parents have put everything on the line for their three children and desperately want to see a future where their children and grandchildren can live peacefully and easily in a land controlled by their own people, where their history is safely preserved, their lifestyles accepted and respected. 

            My friend's mother stood at the top of the stairs when I came to their apartment for the first time, her eyes wide and almost teary from excitement.  Her arms were literally outstretched as she waited for us and then gave me such a warm hug.  They welcomed me into their family and encouraged me to learn about them, their religion, and their lives in China.  They were extremely open to talking with me and taught me so much.  I hope to spread their message. Please take a few minutes to learn about their story, I owe it to them and you can help me from across the world!


**Again, any opinions expressed or implied in this blog are strictly my own and absolutely aren't a reflection of Peace Corps opinions or policies in any way.**


Jennie Vader

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pictures and Videos

“You are not on a tourist vacation, you are here to see what it’s like to be in the Peace Corps”

I’ve always looked to Jennie as a guide, knowing how level headed, intelligent, and successful she is. My sister is headstrong, determined, and committed. When she says she’s going to do something she does it as well as she can, and then works harder. I’ve always known this about Jennie. In elementary school she worked to get all 4’s, even though it meant nothing in the long run. In middle school she pushed herself in both academics and athletics. High school just gave her another opportunity to prove herself, setting the bar extremely high for others and myself. She knew where she wanted to go to college and what she wanted to major in. Four years later she was walking across that stage straight into Kazakhstan, ready to prove herself in another country. Knowing she would be gone for 26 months took a very long time to sink in, but when we said bye to her at the airport, we hugged with tears in our eyes and she said to me, “will you visit me?” I said, “I’ll be there Jenbo!” At that point, I already knew when I’d be visiting, but had no clue what I was getting myself into. Of course, I researched Kazakhstan, heard her stories, read her blogs, but nothing prepared me for this adventure.

I started accumulating items from Jennie’s many lists early in April and then packed all of it first, and then adding the few clothing items she told me to bring: 2 pairs of shorts, one skirt, and 3 shirts. Mind you, I was there 17 days, so of course I added more!  When we were about twenty minutes from the airport it hit me; I was about to fly across the world to see my sister that I hadn’t seen in 9 months! I got really nervous. Soon I was through security and waiting for my flight to Germany. From Germany I went to Astana, Kazakhstan and then to Almaty. I arrived at 2 am and after getting through angry Russian speaking custom people with nodding, laughing, and confusion, I got to see my sister! And that’s when I realized how much I missed her!

Almaty is about the size of Denver, and is the capital of Kazakhstan. We stayed there a day just wandering around due to confusion of dates and times (Jennie’s fault). We of course, were speaking English, but then when it was time to get transportation, I got to see a whole new Jennie. She broke into another language and it blew me away. I had no clue what was being said, so I just smiled like I understood. She acted like it was nothing, but she didn’t realize how amazing it was that she could get us around a foreign country. For her, it was just another day, for me, it was surreal. While in Kazakhstan there were a few things that fall under culture shock, the first I experienced was the transportation. We woke up the first morning and were off to the train station. In America, we would get a taxi, right? Well, Kazakhstan too, but there, any car and every car is a taxi! She simply stuck her hand out, a guy pulled over, she said something in Russian and then she told me to get in. In the States, this would be classified as kidnapping, but since I don’t speak the language, Jennie monopolized my money, and I was 6,170 miles from home, I got in! When you actually think about it, this system is incredibly intelligent. Gas is saved, roads are less busy, and the driver makes money. After a day of packed buses, taxi rides, and warm fresh bread we were ready to go to Turkestan, Jennie’s city. There were two complications of the trip, a huge heavy bad and a knee that had surgery only two weeks ago. Everything in Kazakhstan is fast!

The bus’s doors will shut on you, people do yell at you, and taxis want to leave NOW! So, the speed of the country, the impatience of Jennie, and the complications made for some interesting experiences. I ran over a ladies toes with my bag, Jennie and I had to try and keep ice cold on the train, and I had to awkwardly walk past numerous people that I didn’t understand. The train was rickety and had a bathroom that couldn’t be found in the United States. This is the first time Jennie told me: “you are not on a tourist vacation, you are here to see what’s it like to be in the Peace Corps.” Well, again, I had no money, no language capabilities, and no other choice, so I hopped on. The train ride was 17 hours and from hour 3-14 were freezing because the window was open. Everyone was hunkered down hibernating in the icy air, while I was icing my knee. I was scared to shut the window because I really wasn’t looking to get yelled at in Russian while Jennie was asleep above me. The trip went a lot faster than I expected and soon we were there and I was anxious to see where Jennie had been spending all her time. I first met her host family and saw her house. The technology and innovation in Kazakhstan really surprised me. They all have three cell phones, drive cars like Toyotas and Lexus, and have huge flat screen televisions. Yet, their bathrooms are called squat toilets (I’ll let you use your imagination), they buy their meat at a bizarre where it all is hanging up in the heat, and some houses don’t have running water. This contrast in innovation was another culture shock. While in Turkestan our days were packed full of visits, picnics, cooking, and eating like it was Thanksgiving every hour. I have never eaten so much in four days. Every time we went somewhere we had tea, bread, cookies, cake, candy, pizza, crepes, and then the meal. Jennie had to constantly tell me to suck it up and eat. She got mad at me multiple times for not being hungry, which of course lead to the usual sister squabble. While there I got to eat many national dishes such as plov which is close to chicken fried rice, except mine had horse meat instead of chicken. I also ate manta, which I got to help make! There is no such thing as microwaves or easy dinners. Everything is from scratch. So Jennie’s host mom started rolling out dough to made the noodles. She used a rolling pin that was 4 feet long and rolls this dough to take up the entire table. Then she cut it and we filled 4 x 4 squares of noodle with meat, potatoes, onions, and carrots. Then we folded it all fancy and put it in a steamer. After much more preparation we went out to an elevated deck that is used for eating and sleeping in the summer. They put out a rug, small table and pillows. We sat on the ground and dug into this feast of about 50 mantas. They kept filling up my plate and saying eat eat!!! And just like Jennie ordered me to do, I sucked it up and ate and ate and ate. If you have read Jennie’s blogs she has mentioned the famous Magical Forest. To me this sounded completely bizarre because we live in a forest in Gunnison, and Jennie usually doesn’t label things with the word magical. But, she took me there and it was truly magical. Turkestan is hot, dusty, and flat and then BAM! There is a chunk of forest in the middle of the city. It is like a sky scraper in Denver, everything is at the same level and then the skyscraper pops up, except the forest is better because it is natural and beautiful! We had a little American picnic there with Jennie’s host sisters, one of her students, and one of her English Club members. We bought cheese, meat, and fruit, plopped down on the grass and ate! These things don’t really fit into the culture; the preparation took 5 minutes and we sat on the grass. The people there never sit on the ground, they squat. I sit down everywhere, in a building when there isn’t a chair, in the park, in the forest, I don’t think twice about it. But the only way we could get them to sit down was give them plastic bags to sit on! The next day, I got to experience a Kazakh picnic! This was so much fun! All thirteen of us loaded into a Hyundai nine passenger van along with a grill, axe, food, case of water, case of soda, rug, wood, and two volleyballs. We all hauled a load down to a creek and set up this picnic. The rug was rolled out, the grill was set up, cups, plates, and tea was brought out. We all played volleyball and I had a blast learning a game they play that’s called Kartoscha, or potato. There were three young boys and one girl that are Jennie’s host family’s cousins, her three host sisters, the aunt, mom, dad, and grandpa. We then sat down to eat Shashleek, which is like our kabobs except the order of ingredients is hunk of meat, hunk of fat, hunk of meat, hunk of fat. And once again, “you are not on a tourist vacation, you are here to see what’s it like to be in the Peace Corps.” The meat was very good, but the fat was a little harder to choke down. We played more and then packed up and Jen and I were off to the banya, something I was really not excited for. The banya is a public shower that most people go to once a week to shower. We have nothing like it in the states to compare it to, so put quite simply; you take your clothes off, go suds up, rinse off in the one shower spicket, and then you can go into the sauna area. You don’t know the people you are in there with, and for them, it’s more of a chore than our leisurely showers in the states. So when we went to the banya, we went with Jennie’s counterpart teacher and her friend. Yes, it was awkward but no, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. These are only a few things we did in Turkestan, but these were my favorite because I got to see exactly what Jennie was doing as a peace corps volunteer, not a tourist! I also got to see Jennie’s classroom and school which made me realize how amazing and dedicated she is. Her walls are covered with charts and posters, and she has created games too interest the kids. She is working extremely hard to get those kids to speak English as well as possible.

Our next destination was a small village where some other Peace Corps Volunteers were putting on a camp for 18-22 year old Kazakh women that were going to be English teachers. During the summers, Peace Corps Volunteers put on camps and invite other volunteers to come and help. So Jennie brought me along, to see what life in the Peace Corps is all about, of course. This experience was so amazing! I met seven Volunteers that were incredible. They planned a whole week’s worth of subjects, games, and meals for the camp. They worked to encourage the young women to take leadership roles, increase their own and other’s self-esteem, educate them about personality types, and took time to have fun with them! I got to see my sister in action, teaching Kazakh people about leadership, and I was able to take a step back and take in the moment. We were in a different country and she was teaching these young women about something she is passionate about. I just can’t believe how far she has taken herself, from Gunnison Elementary School to Kazakhstan. She amazes me. My role in the camp was photographer and cooking assistant. We made dishes for their lunches from different countries, so pizza, burritos, Mediterranean wraps, and sandwiches. It was very fun to see them dive into these new dishes and it was equally as fun to help prepare them with the other Volunteers. We had a great time packed in a two bedroom apartment with water restrictions and a gas stove. The Volunteers have such an amazing impact on the people there, everyone wants to talk to them, have them help them with English, and especially take pictures with them. I have never taken so many pictures with people I don’t know, I felt like a celebrity. It was really impactful to be see how much Jennie and other volunteers are appreciated, adored, and looked up to.

After the camp we headed back to Almaty so I could fly out. We did some touristy stuff the last day such as seeing the arena that part of the Almaty-Astana Winter Olympics were held at. This was so cool; we got to hike about 400 steep, tiny, stone steps to overlook the skating rink and Almaty. It was so beautiful and it reminded me of when Jen was home and we would hike and run together. Of course, we competitively worked to pass people, just like the good ole days.  The trip went so fast and I felt completely at home there, which made it hard to leave, but I had to go. So once Jennie wrote a couple key phrases down for me in Russian such as, “I don’t understand, I only speak English” and “I need my ticket” I had to disappear through the security gates and simply wait until I get to see Jen again.

I had an absolutely amazing trip; I got to see a whole new country, culture, mindset, and life. But more importantly I got to see my sister’s life in a new country. I wish I could describe how much she amazed me. The above picture shows a point in the trip that we had just gotten in a marshutca, which is the equivalent of our shuttles. There weren’t two seats next to each other, so I sat in the back and Jen sat in a seat facing me right behind the driver. She was between two Kazakh men, in her skirt and heels, speaking Kazakh. For some reason at that point I sat back, and realized how proud of her I was. In 9 months she went from speaking a tiny bit of Russian thanks to Rosetta Stone, to living in another country. She isn’t questioned there; she fits in perfectly. It was weird to see her become a part of another culture. I am just so happy for her and more importantly I’m completely blown away by her life. She knows what she wants and goes after it. I hope she knows how amazing that is, and how much I look up to her.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Traveling In Kazakhstan

I have been in Kazakhstan for almost 11 months now and the lines between novelty and daily occurrences are blurred.  You start to forget that at one point you were shocked by the stray dogs, piles of trash, ten cups of tea a day, and 20 hour train rides.  When Kaitie was here she pointed out many things that are now normal to me.  I find myself forgetting how America really is and the differences between the States and Kazakhstan which have been pushed to the back of my mind. 

I live my life here just as I would at home and I have been really looking forward to the summer which is  very exciting for Peace Corps Volunteers in Kazakhstan!  It is going by very fast and I am enjoying it SO much.  Mostly volunteers organize summer camps and we all travel around the country volunteering at those summer camps when we aren't organizing our own.  I am organizing an English Immersion Camping Trip in August for twenty of my best students.  We will have small lessons to teach and reinforce the fundamentals of English and then we will just play a lot of games, do dramas, sing songs, and speak ONLY in English. 

For June and July, I have volunteered in two other camps.  The first camp was in June and it was a week long seminar for thirty girls teaching them the typical youth and women's development skills like leadership, self-esteem, healthy relationships, career planning, etc.  My sister also came with me to that camp and she may tell you more in her blog entry. 

This past week I have been at another girl's camp called G.L.O.W.  It stands for Girls Leading Our World.  This camp touched on the same youth and women's development theme, but was in a summer camp-style facility removed from the nearest city, Zhezkazgan.  45 girls came to the camp and 9 of us volunteers facilitated discussions and presented sessions for them.  We also held a fashion show, talent show, disco, and a ton of games to build confidence, social skills, English skills, and team building.  These camps have been a great way to see more of Kazakhstan, get new and fresh ideas from other volunteers, and address the issue of youth and women's development that is so needed all over the world. (Check out my Facebook for pictures.)

Traveling to Zhezkazgan for this most recent camp was when Kazakhstan slapped me in the face and reminded me of its quirks and constant surprises.  I decided to take a marshrutka instead of a train because I am not a huge fan of the trains.  A marshrutka is like one of those big vans that people used to drive around in the nineties- not the family mini-vans, but the bigger vans that were top heavy and scary to drive in the wind.  In Kazakhstan, these vans are gutted out and fashioned with new seats all around the perimeter and in the middle so as to cram as many people as possible into them.  This particular van had "seats" for 18 people and one guy sat on a bucket in the aisle.  The trip took 19 hours.

The fun began when we were waiting to leave.  The men assigned us seats and wrote our names down as we showed up at the appointed time and place.  We waited outside the marshrutka because it was too hot inside (95 degree weather, no air conditioning).  They knew I was American and I had been speaking with the owners and drivers for a while.  I asked for a good seat on the van and they promised me one up front.  As we were talking, though, a woman came and put her stuff in my seat.  When we eventually loaded up, she sat where I was supposed to so I asked the men where I should sit.  They tried to guilt the woman into moving because she didn't follow the system and because she stole the American's seat. She refused to move, so I took another seat.  The men made me promise that I would tell neither my mother and father or Barack Obama that these Kazakhs had given me anything less than the best seat in the van!  I promised that the next time I saw good ole Barack I wouldn't say anything about this shameful deed.  I sat in a reasonably comfortable seat that turned out to be someone else's.  We sat and sat when I realized that there was some problem developing and everyone was arguing over something.  There were two open seats on the back bench seat which were apparently the worst seats in the van.  The older people were shaming two young boys into sitting there, but they held their guns.  Respecting your elders (ie. Following their every whim) is really important here, but apparently not sitting in the back was even more important.  They yelled, "Just because we are young doesn't make us animals.  We are people too!" I was proud that they stood up for themselves, but had no idea why these two seats were so horrible.

Eventually I realized that we were literally not leaving until someone sat in the two back seats.  We were at a dead stand still, trapped in this packed van that was probably 100 degrees by now, sweat dripping off everyone's faces, and people getting real angry.  I finally asked what the problem was, though I was sure it was the two vacant seats.  I said I would sit back there if we could just freakin' leave and even though the shamed drivers weren't happy about it, I made the move.  And found out why NO ONE would sit there.  They had shoved several boxes under the seats in the back through the back door and the boxes cut off 2 of the 4 inches of legroom in the seat I ended up in.  I was in the farthest back corner with 2 inches of legroom, but the seat was so short that my thighs from my back to my knees were too long to squeeze onto the seat.  I had to wedge my right leg between the wall of the van and the seat in front of me and couldn't move it, I had to cock my head to the side so it wouldn't hit the roof, though it kept hitting the light above me and knocking of the plastic covering revealing a very sharp metal piece that gouged my skin.  I had to constantly sit leaning forward with my elbows on the seat in front of me so that my legs could fit in the tiny space.  To my left was a drunk man who could barely hold himself up and swayed wildly on all of the corners.  The ride was at that point scheduled to take about 13 hours.

Finally we resolved all of the seating arrangements and were off.  We drove for approximately 30 seconds and then stopped for gas.  Great.  Got gas and drove for approximately 7 minutes and the van broke down. Everyone out.  I never figured out what the heck was wrong with the stupid van, but nobody seemed too concerned and it was "fixed" in 5 minutes.  On the road again for 30 minutes.  Cigarette break.  On the road again for 30 minutes.  Van breaks down again.  This continued for the first 5 hours of the trip, never traveling for more than 45 minutes at a time. At one point we stopped by the side of the road and a little car driving the other way also stopped.  It seemed like the men, including the driver, somehow knew the people in the other car, though I don't see how they could have arranged this little meeting in the middle of the steppe.  We all got out of the van and our men walked over to the car that had opened its trunk and set up drinks.  They gave out shots of vodka and opened up beers, chatting away like it was a Friday afternoon happy hour in their favorite bar!  In the middle of nowhere.  I lingered around watching what our driver was drinking and thankfully saw him drink no alcohol.  After this bizarre encounter, we were back in the van for at least a few minutes of driving.

We finally got to the next big city, Kyzylorda, after 5 hours of traveling.  We ate at a café for about an hour and then left again and traveled for another 2 hours.  By now it is about 9 o'clock and we are driving through the heart of the Kazakh steppe.  I am pretty sure Kazakhstan has the world's record for the most vast, uninhabited, wide open spaces in the world.  The steppe, like a desert, goes on forever with no break in the landscape.  It is both beautiful and daunting; the thought of getting lost on the steppe alone terrifies me.  Since the first breakdown stop, we had stopped several times because something was wrong with the van.  Each time they would lift the hood, fiddle around with things, we would wait, and after about 10 minutes continue driving.  This time we stopped and waited for a long time.  The two young boys said that it would drive and we could go no further.  I was 80% sure they were kidding until people started getting their luggage out of the van.

Yes, we were stranded in the middle of the steppe in the dark several hours away from any civilization.  What started out just being a really uncomfortable ride turned out to be a hysterically bizarre fiasco.  Most people were calm and the plan was just to wait for another van or bus to come along and pick us up which they assured me happened frequently.   One woman and her four year old daughter did not take the news easily, though.  The woman lit into the driver screaming about his incompetency, the ridiculous situation, and assuring us all that we would in fact die out here.  She screamed, "We're all going to die.  We're going to die! I have a child with me, what will I do?  We're going to die."

The young people (and everyone else on the van) recognized the unlikelihood of dying and I stood with them laughing at the woman's absurd reaction and the whole situation.  Being the American made me feel more safe because they were all concerned about me and I knew they surely wouldn't leave me alone to die on the steppe…at least I was 90% sure.

Eventually buses and vans did come and I got a seat on a bus right next to the driver.  It was nice and cushy and my legs could be fully extended.  We drove through the night and while I didn't sleep for the remaining 12 hours, our van breaking down was extremely lucky for me!  I stayed up mostly to make sure the driver stayed awake and was standing on the side of the road again as the orange moon sunk past the horizon and the red sun came up.  It was an amazing site in the middle of sometimes hectic, disorganized, ever-surprising Kazakhstan. 

Here's to moments that won't be forgotten and trips that make Peace Corps Kazakhstan the experience I signed up for.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Photo Slideshow

I found these photos on the NY Times website...all about eating horse meat in Kazakhstan. It is a really popular meat here, really common.  The site if you want to check it out:


Saturday, May 14, 2011


I can write about so many experiences from the past couple of weeks, experiences that I will certainly look back on with nostalgia as I now look back on my high school years, college years, and even my first months in Kazakhstan.   Nostalgia is so bittersweet- filling you with warmth and happiness that you yearn for and hope you find again someday.  Fortunately, it seems to me that we do keep finding new, amazing experiences, places, and people.  Consequently, we look at photographs, smell an old aroma, or hear an old song only to be confused - does this warmth, the fullness in my chest, the tears in my eyes mean happiness or sadness?


On May 1st I went to the mountains with my favorite ninth grade class for a picnic.  Kazakh picnics are a bit different than American picnics.  On previous picnics I have usually taken a sandwich, some apples, and water.  That's about it.  Kazakhs go big or go home.  They brought their huge kazan (basically a big, heavy wok), 10 kilos of potatoes, half a sheep, 20 loaves of bread, ice cream, tea, wood, an ax, and the standard jug of cooking oil.  Besides the ridiculously large amount of food consumed and the not so traceless disposal of certain items, the rest of the picnic was pretty standard.  The reason it is noteworthy, though, is because of the water fight: Miss Jennie vs. too many students.  The boys all stripped to their underwear to swim and play in the nearby stream.  When their turn was done, the girls were supposed to go play in the water, so the boys dressed and left the stream.  The girls stood at the edge of the water, sticking their toes in and screaming.  I tried to convince them to come swimming- I mean the boys stripped down, why shouldn't we? That didn't fly, so I waded in to my knees and one other girl came with me.  For some reason, a boy showed up and pushed the girl into the stream.  She freaked because she couldn't immediately touch the ground and started flailing around like a dog thrown in water for the first time.  Honestly it was hilarious, but I couldn't just stand there watching her, so I had to wade further into the water to help her stand up.  I ended up wet to my armpits in all of my clothes.  To her credit, she gained her composure and walked right back into the water, she was soaked too.  We took this opportunity to splash the girls squealing on the edge of the water and this well-known mating noise was all it took to get the boys running back to the water.  They saw us splashing around and jumped back in the water.  We targeted the people standing on the edge for a while, but the students figured out that ganging up on Miss Jennie was way more fun.  Indeed it was more fun and I had the time of my life!   People were splashing each other, dunking each other, tackling each other, and dumping water on the observers.  It was classic and wonderful and indescribably happy. As my brother Jason would say, I was livin' the dream.  We all dried in the sun before boarding the bus and I couldn't stop smiling the whole way home; hair frizzed out, skin pink from the sun, clothes crisp from air drying, the smell of nature filling the bus.


The day was so great, I thought about writing a blog about it, but then I had another great day.  I came home this Wednesday to find my family weeding our garden and finally planting tomatoes and cucumbers.  I changed my clothes and dug in; it felt so great to get my hands dirty and bond with the family.  As my real family knows, I don't exactly have a green thumb- I have been called "the black thumb" in fact, but pulling weeds is something I can do, so I was having a great time.  It was such a great evening; the whole family was outside.  No TV, no cell phones, just gardening.  Wait- it gets better!  In November, I learned that many Kazakhs sleep outside on raised, wooden platforms during the summer because it is so hot and I have been looking forward to this since then.  I also learned we cook and eat food outside all summer, so being outside all the time makes me really excited.  About two weeks ago the platform was constructed.  I soon discovered that this fabulous gardening Wednesday was also the debut of outdoor eating!  They made the tea in a traditional "samouryn" with a little fire and we set up a Turkish-style table (low table with no accompanying chairs) on the sleeping platform.  We all ate, drank tea, and watched the sun set, staying out there in the bliss until darkness came.  I breathed in the moment, soaking up the summer air.


I thought about writing a blog about that day, but today I finally decided what to write my blog about.  I have been going on evening walks with my host sisters pretty regularly for a couple of months.  We always walk to the nearby university because along the path there are many trees and it almost makes you feel like you are in a beautiful garden.  In fact there is a garden on the right side; the left side looks pretty desolate- the only thing growing from the dry, brown steppe are dry, brown houses.  As you walk along this path, the beautiful garden on the right, you wonder- why are there fences and locked gates keeping me from actually walking through the garden? Well, today I was walking with all three of my host sisters and one of their friends (my student) when we saw a man on the inside of one of the locked gates.  I asked him if we could go in and surprisingly he let us.  With such fencing and gates, it seemed like something either really important or dangerous was in the mysterious garden, but it was very easy to just ask and receive permission. And man do I wish I would have known that earlier.  We timidly walked along the path you can see from the sidewalk because the girls were sure there are hoards of rabid dogs lurking among the trees.  The longer we walked without seeing Kujo, the more confident we grew and we realized that we had stumbled upon the gold mine of pure, clean, magnificent nature somehow hidden in Turkestan's otherwise bleak landscape.  The mysterious garden turned out to be the most luscious, wonderful smelling, surprisingly refreshing forests that I have ever had the pleasure of strolling through. Really, you can be in this place and forget you are in the middle of our dusty city.  It is like walking into a Narnia that smells like a little boutique at Christmas time- beautiful green plants and trees of all types radiating a cinnamony, natural-pine, crisp-air smell.  I don't know how this forest exists or how these four girls have lived all their lives five minutes from it and not known of its existence.  I do know that I have found a haven that will now be my destination for picnics, reading, walking, jogging, and camping (if they let me).  I am in love.


So this is what finally made me sit down and write a blog.  Term tests be damned, tonight is about breathing in the nature that continues to surprise me.  Tonight is about recording experiences that will be turned into memories, doing my best to describe what I am feeling and thinking now so that I will look back with decidedly happy nostalgia.  I know that someday I will miss these moments, but this is also a reminder that if you are loving life, there will always be nostalgia.  The pang of sadness is a small price to pay for living in the moments that are worthy of nostalgia.


Happy spring and as I tell my sister: We only get one life, so live it up!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Article for the Gunnison Country Times

I wrote this article a couple of weeks ago and it was published in my hometown newspaper.  I will work on a new blog post soon!  I am definitely missing home right now- I love Colorado in the summer and it is too freaking hot here!  Things are going well, though, and my sister comes in 16 days!!!!!


During my senior year at Gunnison High School, attending Colorado College and maybe studying abroad were the biggest dreams I had for my future.  Living abroad and joining the Peace Corps seemed no more or less likely than becoming a doctor or a lawyer.  However, I remember the exact moment the Peace Corps entered my life and led me to Central Asia.  I was watching "Lord of War" with my new college friends in the first months of school and I got tired of watching people destroy each other.  I decided that evening that I would join the Peace Corps, so I looked up the application online and diligently wrote down exactly what I needed to do to join.  Thanks to the privilege bestowed upon me at birth, the opportunities given to me at Colorado College, and the support of my family, I am now a volunteer teaching English in Kazakhstan.


The president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, invited Peace Corps into Kazakhstan in 1991, the year the country gained its independence from the former Soviet Union.  Kazakhstan is one of five countries in the region generally known as Central Asia.  There are now two Peace Corps programs in Kazakhstan: education and youth development.  Kazakhstan's leadership has specifically identified the need to develop English as an important international language and has invited hundreds of volunteers to teach English over the past twenty years.


Peace Corps accepted me as a volunteer in May 2010 and I left for Kazakhstan in August.  I flew out of Washington D.C. with about seventy other Americans.  Once in Kazakhstan we trained in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan.  We were organized into training groups and sent to villages on the outskirts of the city to live with host families, learn Kazakh or Russian, and teach for three months. 


Peace Corps had been an idea in the back of my mind for four years and I spent most of my senior year at Colorado College thinking about this opportunity every night before I went to sleep.  By the time I landed in Peace Corps I was done with thinking about the pros and cons of my adventure and was ready to just jump in and get to work!  I barely felt the first wave of culture shock because I was so happy to be in the moment.  Peace Corps kept us busy with language training, cultural training, and working in local classrooms.  I learned in November Peace Corps placed me in Turkestan.  I double checked to make sure Turkestan was indeed in Kazakhstan and then set to brooding on this new development. 


I remember reading a pamphlet from Peace Corps when I was preparing to leave.  It said one frustration among volunteers is that their lives are still too easy.  The pamphlet said that being a volunteer isn't about living on the floor in torrential rains with spiders crawling all over you.  It isn't about being hungry and walking around without shoes.  We simply go where there is an identified need and the people want us.  We help them with technical expertise that they don't have access to and we probably learn more than we teach. 


Despite the warning, my brain had somehow conjured the image that I would be working in a little village with one road.  Everyone would know me, wave, and invite me in for tea.  I would work closely with underprivileged students for two solid years and inspire them to travel, dream, and pursue English with enthusiasm.  Then I learned that Turkestan was a city of at least 30,000 people, I would be working in a school of gifted children, and the counterpart teacher that I would be team teaching with was almost fluent in English. 


My image was destroyed and my brooding led me to question exactly what I was doing here.  Surely gifted children with a practically fluent teacher didn't really need my help.  I have very little teaching experience and barely know the grammar of my native language.  I began to create a new image of my role as a Peace Corps volunteer.  How would I integrate into the community?  How can I possibly make a difference there?  I needed a new vision quick.  In my panic, I made the same mistake for the second time in three months- I tried to predict the future. 


Once I got to Turkestan and began speaking with the students I realized exactly why I am here.  They struggle so much that it surprises me that they have been learning this language for five years.  Many things about these students surprise me.  The surprises keep me smiling every day.  They keep me up at night thinking about new projects, competitions, and games that will enrich the students' learning and pique their interest.


They keep me here when all I can think of is the smell of hot coffee on a Sunday morning with my family.  They kept me here on Thanksgiving when I thought all day about what my family was doing, where they were, what they were eating.  I broke into tears in my Kazakh lesson because I was so frustrated with the language.  I was defeated, walking back to the classroom when a group of 9th graders ran up to me with thank you cards for Thanksgiving! My heart nearly exploded.  On another rotten day, I was exhausted and frustrated, riding the public van home.  My student happened to be on the same van and told me he was going to get a new English phrasebook.  He said someday he wanted to be an astronomer. 


Whenever I have felt defeated, unwanted, and unsuccessful, my students have pulled through; giving me presents on Christmas, cards on Valentines, and telling me insights into their lives that remind me why I am here.  I am here for the students.  They want to know the world, but more importantly, they want the world to know about them.  They are proud of their Kazakhstan and dream that someday people will know where their country is on the map, what food they eat, and why they are important.  It turns out these students' dreams are far beyond what I dreamt at their age and I hope my students can play a part in shaping their world.