Monday, June 28, 2004

The First Post ...


...which is the most cliched way to begin a American website about Kazakhstan (it means hello). But so far, it sometimes feels like a great big Peace Corps cliche. I love it.

We are living and working in Southeastern Kazakhstan, about an hour from the old capital У�УЋУЌУ УВУЛ (Almaty - short for the grandfather of apples), near the Peace Corps pre-service training training site in У�УБТГУЊ (Yesik - meaning door). I'm staying in a village alternately called У�УЎУЂУЅУВ (yes, Soviet, as in the Soviet Union), which was the Russian name, and У�?УЊУВ?УЁУЅ 2 (Koktebe Eki - meaning "green hills two"), which is the Kazakh name. Yesik is a fifteen minute bus ride from Koktebe Eki, and the bus stop is a fifteen minute walk from my house. The nearest internet access is in Yesik, so if it seems like I don't email you often enough, please understand.

From certain places in the village, you can get glimpses above the namesake green hills to the barren, snowy peaks of the Alatau mountains. There's plenty of water in the town, so everything is green and thick. Cherries are in season now, and we eat them off the trees on the way to class. Livestock walk freely through the streets, and sometimes in the yards. When I go running in the morning, I compete with flocks of sheep being driven to pasture, and once a cow broke into our yard and caused some commotion until we managed to pull it out again. There are chickens everywhere, and "stop chicken" sounds really funny in Kazakh - "У�УЎ?УВУ УВУ УГУ ?!" ("Tokhta tawakh!"). So far, saying this to the chickens has been endlessly amusing.

Some Kaz 15 slang:

* У�УЎ?УВУ УВУ УГУ ? (stop chicken)
* Fatty Dukan (the store in our village that has the most merchandise, including toilet paper and shampoo)
* Rasta Donkey (an natty looking donkey that we see here and there to whom mythical powers have been ascribed)
* Gosting (being a guest at someone's house, from the Russian word for guest)

I have been assigned to the Kazakh language program, along with six other volunteers out of the forty-two (the rest are studying Russian). I live with a family that speaks Kazakh and Russian, but in order to get into the Kazakh village I had to promise to never use Russian. I've been a little unfaithful with that, since some people refuse for some reason to speak Kazakh with me, some don't know Kazakh at all, and sometime my mom gets so frustrated with my not understanding that she blurts out what she's trying to say in Russian. But, for the most part, people are very appreciative that a Westerner is attempting to learn Kazakh and are helpful and patient. Now that I can express basic things in Kazakh, I'm now claiming to not speak Russian at all when I meet strangers.

Kazakh is a Turkic language, so it's coming a little slowly. Some of the wonderfully weird things about Kazakh are:

* It's highly agglutinative, so most words are made up from piling suffixes onto stems. You can form immense long words for concepts that take a whole clause in English
* There are no articles or present tense verb "to be"
* Kazakh has a law of vowel harmony and some rules about voiced and unvoiced consonants that dictate which of (usually) six endings one uses for a particular suffix. For instance, the word to indicate a question can be ma, me, pa, pe, ba, or be depending on the word it follows.
* "Eat" is Kazakh for "dog", which caused some distress when we first arrived and our host families pointed to the dog and said, "eat". (At least in our village, nobody actually seems to eat dog.) By the way, all the dogs are named Rex, except for my host family's two puppies, who are both named "Akhtaban".
* The Kazakhs have (and actually strictly use) both formal and informal second person pronouns.
* Kazakh has a lot of guttural consonants, closed vowels, and silent vowels, which is hard for English speakers to pronounce. For instance, "nice to meet you" is pronounced, more or less, "tanskhanima kwanshtmn".
* Men say hello to older men, younger men, and women in three different ways. Younger men always approach older men first and offer their hands. I've been at parties and accidentally been rude by neglecting to say hello first to an older man who walked into the yard, or by guessing wrong and using the hello for a younger man when the other person was in fact older.
* "Um" is a very bad word in Kazakh. Go ahead, try to speak a brand new non-Indo European foreign language without ever saying "um" and see how you do.

We're not volunteers yet, we're trainees. The Peace Corps keeps trainees busy. We have nine hours of language Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, four hours on Saturday, and safety and pedagogy in the hub site on Tuesday and Thursdays. In the evenings, we mostly feel obligated to spend some time with our families, or often go gosting (see slang section above).

The food is magnificent, and there's lots of it, and we're expected to eat as much of it as we can, particularly when gosting. The Kazakh culture is very generous to guests, so we are fed all the time. On our first afternoon in the village, we went from house to house of all the eight Kazakh-language volunteers and had table of tea and food laid out for us at every one. During my first week, I often ate to the point of feeling sick to try to be polite. My appetite had now caught up with my eating habits, and I can usually finish something without discomfort if I have to. At Volunteer Tim's host brother's circumcision party (he's five), I was able to clean my two sheep vertebrae admirably (earning me a beautiful wife according to Kazakh tradition).

What weird things have I eaten so far?

* Lots of tripe
* Sheep vertebrae
* Stuffed intestine
* Cow brains (tasty with vodka)
* Kymyz, or horse's milk (I was absolutely unable to finish the two fingers in my glass, though. I may have to resign myself to not liking horse's milk.)
* And probably some other stuff that I was unable to identify.

It seems to me that we're getting along well with our community. The children all love to say "hello" wherever we go, and often follow us around. They are usually silenced by us asking "how are you", so I think their education so far mostly stops at "hello". People love to invite us to their houses and feed us. I helped my neighbors unload gigantic rolls of hay for the winter, and in return, they let me watch them slaughter a cow. We were invited to the high school graduation last Wednesday, where we read a few sentences in Kazakh and sang "You Are My Sunshine". A few volunteers are getting a concert together, and I'm going to sit in on the harmonica for a couple songs. In our village, we're going to try to teach a basic computer skills class, in response to the immense interest that our host brothers and sisters have in our laptops. The graduating high school girls are giggly, particularly for Tim, the biggest and most American-looking Kazakh-language volunteer. Some clips from our Kazakh language class were on local television. I hope the good relations don't deteriorate as we actually become able to talk to our neighbors.

My host family's house is large and clean, and they are never inside it in the summer. Our table is in the yard, and we eat every meal there. There is a kitchen in a separate building, where they watch TV and sometimes sleep if they don't sleep outside. Doors and windows are often left open with hanging, lacy cloth for screens. There is a "solar heated" shower in the backyard, which is a dark metal canister of water on top of a stall. In the afternoon, the water is not too cold. There is an outhouse with a seat at my house, though I would rather have a squatter like the other volunteers, since the seat is not super clean. Water is carried from a communal spigot a couple hundred yards away. Clothes are washed by hand, of course. All in all, I find myself not missing American creature comforts at all so far, except possibly for how long it takes to do my laundry. Lots of people come and go in my house, sometimes sleeping here, sometimes there.

There's a different attitude towards cars here. While driving John (my volunteer neighbor) and I from Ciniegori, the Soviet-era retreat where we stayed when we first arrived, my host uncle's car broke down. We flagged down a van, and tied the car to the van with wire rope, and were towed to Koktebe Eki. Over the next week, the took the engine out, took it apart, smeared oil all over everything, put it back together, put it back in the car, and it worked again. While I was on the bus to Esik once, the bus started to shut down. The driver pumped the gas, pumped the clutch, but the engine was still sputtering. I was standing all the way in the front of the bus, so he handed me a can of water and told me to pour it into a plastic coke bottle that was sticking out of the dashboard. I did this until the water backed up, and the bus started again.

This is going to have to do for now. The day is wearing on, and I have to go gosting tonight for my host aunt's 25th birthday. Next time - pictures.