Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Volunteering, and other musings

I’m finding plenty of volunteer opportunities here (something that Fulbright likes us to do and something that I would do regardless). Oddly enough (?) these opportunities all involve teaching. Lyudmila—my landlady—teaches English at the Kazakh-British University right around the corner, and I’m going to be doing some sessions on teaching methodologies this winter. I’ve also met the director of the school of English philology at Ablai Khan University, and will be working with her on some similar training sessions. Then, when I do my fieldwork in other parts of Kazakhstan, I will likely be working with area universities in what are called the “American Corners” (locations where we have Peace Corps volunteers, and small American centers run by the Embassy), I will once again present some seminars and/or lectures on teaching methods. Schools are clamoring for ideas on how to improve how courses are taught, and, even with my limited background on teaching methodologies, I am considered something of an expert (scary thought!).

In addition to teaching and other volunteer work, I have also had the chance to work with our consular office here in Almaty to screen applicants for the Humphrey fellowship. It was very interesting—I gave the Test of English Language Proficiency to the 13 applicants—it was definitely possible to gauge how they would do on the test based upon their behavior during the exam. The test was at a local university, and a consular representative was there to assist me. Afterwards, we were picked up in an official diplomatic vehicle and driven back to the consulate to grade the exams and determine who would proceed to the next stage of the process. I was able to have lunch at the embassy—which sounds much cooler than the actuality. They had plov (essentially the national food of Kazakhstan—rice with carrots, sometimes dried apricots, and roasted lamb or mutton), which is now my new favorite food. I just need to find someone to show me how to make it!!! Afterwards, I walked to the nearby Ramstor (a mall with very chichi stores, a small ice rink where several students were practicing their figure skating—a la Tanya Harding, but without the metal baton for rivals). There’s a huge Turkish grocery store at Ramstor, where I was able to find the glasses I mentioned in an earlier post. The meat counter there was quite an experience—they have many foreigners shopping in the store, so to prevent any confusion they put a picture of the appropriate animal in front of each display case. It’s very helpful—especially if you don’t know the word for horse (which, I’m finding, is very easy to avoid eating—thankfully!).

After leaving Ramstor, I headed over to the bus stop. However, the bus I needed doesn’t run stop there, so I walked to the next stop—or to where I was told the stop was. But there wasn’t a stop there. So…I kept heading north toward the city center, thinking that I could catch a bus at the next stop. Unfortunately, none of the buses that passed by stop in the vicinity of my house. By the time I saw a bus that would take me home, I was nearly on my doorstep. Four miles on uneven sidewalks—avoiding the maniacal Kazakh drivers—in 3-inch heels is not something I would recommend. My calves are still sore.

As to the drivers…well, there are LOTS of cars here in Almaty. But there seem to be no traffic rules. Walking anywhere near the vicinity of a crosswalk will lead to drivers beeping their horn at you, warning you not to even think of crossing in front of them. Of course, the drivers can beep but pedestrians are expected to ignore them and not respond. My inner New Englander is hopelessly offended by this practice, but I try to overcome it by thinking of Kevin Kline’s favorite line in that all-time classic film Fish Called Wanda. And it’s not “don’t call me stupid!!”. After about the 25th time in a 2 mile walk, it gets rather difficult, though.

Well, that’s about it for now. There are many, many more stories to tell, and I will write more when I have the opportunity. Right now, though, I’m going to curl up with a good book and perhaps a second glass of Old Tblisi!


Many of my days are spent at the Ablai Khan University of World Languages and International Relations (quite a mouthful!!). Three days a week, I have individual Russian language classes with an instructor whose English is severely limited. It’s great—since it eliminates the ability to ask a question in English and forces me to communicate almost exclusively in Russian. She’s determined to get rid of my accent—but I fear she’s fighting a losing cause. But since I’m usually one language behind with my accents (my Russian has a German accent), when I learn Kazakh I will probably speak with a Russian accent. I’m so thankful that I am able to participate in the critical language training program, though—I couldn’t imagine not having the additional language training before attempting to conduct interviews. The research would be impossible.

When I’m not studying or in Russian class, I’m also teaching two separate courses for the university. Originally, I was to teach Geopolitics three times a week (the same lecture each time). It was pretty straightforward, and something that I can easily do. However, another department was upset because the “Fulbright PhD Candidate” was being monopolized by the department of international relations (listening to some of these conversations, you sometimes feel like a bit of a commodity—and a rare one, at that!). So…the end result was that I had less than 24 hours to prepare my new course on American Studies that I teach to 2 sections of students. Am I ever glad that I taught the Geography of the US and Canada last summer! I have all of my course notes with me, and I’m just teaching the exact same class again. As much as I would love to revise the course, I simply don’t have time to do so and to simultaneously focus on my Russian—which is my priority, and what I’m being paid to do at the moment. I don’t mind helping out at all, and I enjoy the teaching—but it’s important to remember what my priorities are.

Housecleaning-don't laugh, Dad!!

House cleaning is quite an experience, I’ve found. There is an inordinate amount of dust around here (although not as bad as just outside of town), yet there are few vacuum cleaners. Instead, there is the birch-twig broom that is used to sweep carpets and floors. I made the mistake of picking up my hall carpet (a rather long carpet runner) to take it to the balcony to shake out. Imagine my surprise when immediately fine dust particles began to rain down all over the hallway—filling the air with a dark cloud and seeping into the smallest crevices imaginable. The aforementioned birch broom does little to sweep up this type of dust. Instead, it was me, a rag, and a bucket of water that I used to swab down the floors and walls. Every 2 minutes, the water would be black and have to be emptied—and then the floor had to be washed two or three times before it was truly clean.

Fortunately, housecleaning usually doesn’t take too long. The same can’t be said for laundry, though. I am lucky to have a washing machine here in the apartment, since there are no Laundromats to be found anywhere. Without a washing machine, laundry would need to be done in the bathtub. Of course, that’s not far from my reality even with the washing machine—which more accurately should be called an agitator. To do laundry, I first place a wooden shelf across the bathtub, and then sit the machine (which looks like a large box) on the shelf. After checking to ensure that the hose is attached underneath the machine, I put a few clothes into the agitator and add some laundry soap. Next, I turn on the faucet and fill the machine with as much water as necessary. Finally, I turn it on and wait about 10 minutes for it to finish. The second stage requires draining the water out of the agitator into buckets, and pouring the water into the toilet to flush away (so the lint doesn’t block the tub drain). Then, I add more water and continue the process until the water is relatively clean (about 4-5 cycles). The clothes then come out of the agitator and are rinsed in the bathtub before being hung to dry on the clotheslines on the balcony (there are no dryers in Almaty). It’s quite a process—but if the clothes are hung out before 11am, they will be dry by mid-afternoon. The sun is pretty strong around here, so it doesn’t take too long—you just need to take the clothes in quickly, before they are faded by the sun or get full of dust.

Settling In

After taking the last ten days to settle into my new apartment and something approximating a routine, I now have an opportunity to sit down and write about some of my latest adventures in Almaty. It’s nice to have a free evening—one in which I’m not too exhausted from teaching, walking around the city, and hours spent trying to improve my Russian. So now it’s time to listen to some music (The Beatles—a nice break from all of the techno-pop you hear on the radio over here), enjoy a glass of “Old Tblisi” red (for those of you unfamiliar with the post-Soviet states, Tblisi is the capital of Georgia—a country known for its good wines), and catch up on writing.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my apartment here in Almaty. Housing prices are incredibly expensive—it’s not unheard of for an apartment to rent for $2000-$3000 per month, which the Fulbright stipend simply wouldn’t cover. However, our embassy contact arranged for an apartment near the old city center that has a very modest rent. Her friend owns the apartment, and lives next door with her family. Surprisingly for the city, my apartment is very private—it overlooks a tree-filled courtyard away from the street. Even better, the building has a southern exposure. Around here, that means only one thing—it faces the Tien Shan mountains that rise up just south of the city. My apartment is on the 4th (and top) floor, and each morning I wake up to a beautiful view of the mountains. From a certain angle, one peak in particular looks just like the Alpspitze in Garmisch—it’s strangely comforting.

The apartment is typical of Soviet-era apartments (although much nicer than the huge Soviet style apartment buildings on the edges of the city). It’s only about 450 square feet, with a small bathroom (complete with toilet tucked away in a room smaller than a broom closet), kitchen, and bedroom/living room combination. My landlords ensured that I had the most essential item before I moved in—they bought me a new tea kettle, so that I can sit in the kitchen and drink tea all evening long. The kitchen is rather standard—if a little on the larger size. It had most of the necessary equipment—pots, pans, plates, etc. I have had to go out and buy a few things, though. A few good knives, cutting boards, and mixing spoons make all the difference in the world. Monday, I was able to add the one essential that, as an American, I found incredibly difficult to live without. Yes, I was able to find a set of actual drinking glasses that weren’t smaller than juice tumblers. Before that, I only had a set of tea mugs. I was so thrilled that I didn’t mind having to walk 4 miles back to my house—in 3-inch heels. But more on that in another post.

Back to my apartment…the bedroom/living room is very Russian in character—rich carpets hanging on the walls, a large schrank occupying one entire wall and filled with items of importance. And books. Wonderful, wonderful books. Agatha Christie, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Victoria Holt (yes, that author of the Victorian-era tripe, that I loved so much in 7th grade before developing at least some critical faculties). There are shelves and shelves of books, both in Russian and English. Lyudmila (my landlady) has shown me the bookshelves in her apartment and invited me to go over to get books any time I want. My first night here, I sat listening to the rain (the only rain we’ve had since I’ve been here), and reading an Agatha Christie. Absolute bliss. So if you think of me over here in Almaty, picture me enjoying a cup of tea in the evening, a wonderful pastry from one of the many bakeries, and reading a good book on my balcony—occasionally looking up at the mountains and thinking of how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy these simple things.

Calling Almaty

Several people have asked about calling Kazakhstan. It is possible, and fairly inexpensive (about 4-5 cents a minute). If you’d like more information, just let me know! Calls (and emails) are always welcome!


A few weeks ago I set up an option that allows people to be automatically notified when there’s an update to the blog—you were supposed to have been sent an invitation so that you can choose whether you want this option. Instead, I (thanks to the inability to think with the worst jet lag I’ve experienced) selected the button that automatically signs people up. Many, many apologies for this error! If you don’t want to get automatic updates, just let me know. The last thing I want to do is to clog people’s inboxes with more superfluous email!