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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.


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