I got to Turkestan on the morning of Sunday the 7th. My counterpart (CP), the teacher that is in charge of me for the next two years, and I met in Almaty at the Counterpart Conference that Peace Corps holds. We went to training sessions together to get to know each other and then got on the train to Turkestan together. My CP’s name is Gulshat and she is 29 years old. She has been teaching English at the gifted (Daryn) school for 8 years, since it opened.
Getting on the train was a really interesting experience. There were about 8 PCVs on the same train and each of us had an average of 4 REALLY heavy bags. The CPs also had their own bags and couldn’t help much, so some of us gave them to a porter right in front of the train station. Being Americans, we were all pretty leery of giving our bags to anyone; some PCVs kept their luggage, but some of us were strongly recommended by our CPs to put the bags on the cart. As soon as we gave our luggage to the porters they disappeared and we couldn’t find them! We wandered all over the train station, still with the heavy baggage of other PCVs, trying to find our train platform and our luggage. People were getting pretty frustrated at this point. We were relying on the CPs to help us find the way, but they were as lost as we were. We got across one set of tracks to our platform then spotted our bags with the porters on the other side of the tracks.
I think PCVs have the tendency to hope and act like our CPs know everything in this country and can carry out any action without flaws. We wanted them to snap their fingers and find our way because of course they knew what they were doing--they’re from Kazakhstan (but not Almaty…) It is funny, though, some of the things my CP asks me. She took me with her to buy an electric heater and kept saying, “Advise me…do you think it’s warm enough? Can I buy a heater with a stove on top so I can heat my room and tea at the same time?” I have no idea! Being an American doesn’t mean I know everything about electronic appliances! She also asked me one day if her dress was too short to speak with the director--whom I had met for about 2 minutes. I think some of these things are reciprocal questions, but they still leave me laughing.
My new host family is really nice and really wants to learn English. The father owns a van that people can rent to drive to a nearby city (I think) and my mom is a nurse. There are two daughters, one in 9th and one in 10th grade, that go to the Daryn school and there is another daughter in the 7th grade that goes to another school. I teach them basic words in English every night, but we have a long way to go!
Actually, the students in my school have a long way to go in general. They seem to be wicked smart at math and science and most of their school hours are spent in those classes. These types of schools all take tests at the end of the year and compete to be the best school in Kazakhstan. Supposedly, last year they were the TOP school in the country! There are, as we have in the States, consequences to being so test-oriented. Their gymnasium is filled with desks for taking tests and gym classes are non-existent. The students were amazed at the fact that we study art, music, leadership, and other subjects that don’t involve math or science. Their English scores are also high, and I looked through some written work they were doing. Their grammar is impressive, but they couldn’t speak any of the sentences I read for a million dollars. Their speaking level is about the same as mine in Kazakh (though I don’t think they would admit it!). They love telling me how much I don’t know in Kazakh. I really enjoy the students and have spent 2-3 hours everyday for the past few days just speaking with them. It is exhausting!
Turkestan isn’t the thriving metropolis that I pictured (even though I promised I wouldn’t picture anything). It is a pretty desolate place plopped in the dusty steppe. There is the large mausoleum, but it takes about 20 minutes to look at. The streets and the air are dirty. I feel quite at home here and think I can find some really good projects at this site! I have about 19 hours of teaching per week and we are hoping to open a yoga club, sports clubs, and maybe a drama club and debate club. We have also discussed some teacher trainings and gatherings for more English teachers to have an opportunity to speak English regularly. I will keep you all posted.