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Sunday, July 31, 2011

“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.

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