Tuesday, May 17, 2011
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
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.