Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Did I Find a Girlfriend?

August 9, 2009

Three Types of Volunteers

My friend, the assistant to our Country Director recently told me volunteers, after a sufficient time at site, fall into one of three social categories. They either hang out mostly with fellow volunteers, surround themselves with locals or a combination of the two. I fall into the second category. I correspond with one volunteer.  She lives in a village in Naryn and one of the many things we have in common is she doesn't keep company with the vols in her oblast, either. The reasons that we don't differ, but we've both found contentment in having all Kyrgyz and Russian friends.

She was victimized by a false rumor (the #1 activity of PCVs is gossiping). I simply decided not to spend my two years of service chumming around with people I can find in Brooklyn. Additionally, I have little in common with know-it-all 22 year-old white males. I was one at one time. You may say I have even less in common with my Kyrgyz friends, but I would disagree. We share a sincere desire to learn about each other's culture. The biggest obstacle I face is their age. Most of them are early 20's and their life experience is limited. In spite of this, they've enlightened me in many ways.

The volunteer in Naryn (hereafter referred to as “N”) and I messaged constantly and spoke on the phone often. I found her a refreshing voice in the sea of GenXer’s. She lived in a village so didn’t have volunteers around her like I did and enjoyed her Kyrgyz family and friends. I felt she was ok with that, very similar to me.

I never intended to look for or find a girlfriend in the PC, either a volunteer or Kyrgyz national. I wanted to fulfill my service and move on, but as the universe often overrules our wants and desires, I developed an attraction to N, and when we had group meetings, I truly cherished the opportunities to talk face to face. I sensed that she might have felt the same for me, but I wasn’t sure. In time we spoke of meeting in Bishkek to hang out for a weekend.

In the book: Did we meet or did I chicken out?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

School Project Funded

August 3, 2009
School Project Funded

Thanks to everyone who donated to the school project.  I know tough times exist for many people and families, so your sacrifice is doubly appreciated.  The money should be in my bank account within two weeks.  Then, my counterpart and I will travel to Bishkek to purchase the goods.  When school starts, the students will be able to use their new TV, DVD player, computer and printer.  The director has promised to give us Internet access, too.

One mystery remains regarding the funding of the project.  When I wrote last week that the deadline for donations was 31 July, we still needed a little over $700.  On the 29th I went to check the web site and I couldn't find my project.  This meant it had been fully funded!  But, by whom?  One individual?  Or did several donations come in over a span of two or three days?  It's not important, but my curiosity is killing me.  I'm supposed to get a printout listing all the donors, so that may solve it because I think I know who gave up to last week. 

I'll be taking a photo of the new English Resource Center and including it in a future Mail from Kyrgyzstan.  I'm going to see if I can record a group thank you by the students and include that, too.

When I first arrived at my new school in March 2009 I asked Anara where we’d find the English Department offices. She laughed and led me to a room on the second floor, rectangular, maybe 8x20, and said, “Here we are.” It also doubled as her classroom. The ancient blackboard was three-foot square. I found no teaching/learning tools. Four teachers shared one totally tattered Russian/English text book, circa 1984. I knew something needed to be done, equipment and reference books purchased, but it wasn’t going to happen in that room. With a long table and chairs on each side there was barely room enough to walk from one end of the room to the other.

I told Anara that the Peace Corps had a program whereby we could raise money for a computer, printer, TV, DVD player and books, but we’d need a different room. She would ask the director. Not sure when he gave us a new room on the first floor, not much bigger than the one we had previously, but sufficiently large enough for the new equipment and room for students. I was able to set up the project on what would now be GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Alas, at that time I hadn’t created a Facebook page, so I had to rely on my personal Gmail contact list, about 60 people. As I recall, we needed about $1400 and I was certain that I’d have to cover any shortfall; I had a figure of $600-800 in mind.

Projects had a certain number of days to be funded and I can’t remember how many. I do know that our deadline was July 31st. I visited the website on the 29th and couldn’t find the project. This meant that it had been fully funded, but how could that be? I had checked a couple of days prior and we still needed about $700. I rebooted the computer thinking maybe I’d run into a technical malfunction. Still no project. I had no idea what was going on.

Turns out someone had donated the large amount we needed, a gentleman from West Hartford, CT. I had no idea who he was or why he chose my project, but angels do exist. That started me thinking that maybe there was a group people, maybe Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or folks who loved what the PC did and stood for that funded projects that needed cash and had a deadline looming. I learned the man’s name and my sister was able to get an email address for him. I sent him a thank you email, but didn’t dig for further information because why he donated wasn’t important to me. He didn’t want any thanks. He just did what he likes to do. And my school, the teachers and students and I were the grateful beneficiaries of his largesse.

The room was renamed the English Language Resource Center (that’s close if not exact). The printer was meant to be an income stream that would allow for the purchase of paper and ink for future copies, and books and DVD’s if we ever earned that much. Business was brisk as students always needed copies of documents and homework. At 2 soms per copy the money was adding up quickly. Sadly, while I taught there, we never purchased another DVD beyond what came with the initial project money, because the income stream flowed directly into Anara’s pocket. She was now a small business owner of sorts. While her action disappointed me, it did not surprise me. People must take advantage of every opportunity to make money in a country of low wages. I call it Survival Corruption.

I wonder if any of the original equipment still works, or if it’s even there anymore? I sent Anara an email asking for an update. The TV doesn’t work, but the computer and printer still do. As for any photos of the equipment, the vanished when my computer crashed in early 2010.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

An Opportunity Denied

Talas Tidbits

Now that summer is here, life slows down considerably.  At least for the volunteers it does.  So, there may not be much to report until school starts in September.  But, what I do think of or come across, I'll send to you.  Starting with the next email, I'll send some of the photos I took during my first year here.

But, Dad!!!

One of the best English speakers I've met is a university bound girl named Baktigul. She attended the Turkish Lyceum in town and placed 3rd in the country at the English Olympiad in Bishkek in March. She wanted to attend college in Malaysia, but her father said nyet. Then she asked if she could go to school in Turkey.  Again, dad said jok. When she asked if it would be okay to attend our summer overnight camp for a week to serve as a translator, once again, dad said no. Here's my question. The Lyceum is the best secondary school in Talas. It's also expensive, too expensive for most families. So, if Baktigul's father made the financial sacrifice to make sure his daughter get the best education possible, why is he stifling her further advancement? Baktigul will attend the Turkish university in Bishkek this fall. While it's a good school, I'm sure she could've attended better if dad had been more agreeable.

After I wrote the above paragraph I took a walk to buy some food and I got to thinkin' maybe I was too hard on the old man. Denying his daughter's request for Singapore might have had something to do with distance or finances. It's one thing to come up with high school tuition, quite another for a university in another country. As for the summer camp, that could've been a cultural decision. Maybe he didn't want his beautiful 17 year old daughter in a co-educational environment for a week. (The Lyceum is divided into two campuses, one for each gender, and they are nowhere near each other.) But the Turkey decision baffles me a bit. One of the benefits of attending the Turkish schools around the world (they're in at least 110 countries) is that you can study at a Turkish university for free.

This email revealed my lack of knowledge about Asia, Singapore, in particular. That would change a few years later during my second trip to Turkey where I met two lovely young women from Singapore. We stayed in contact and I spent two days with them as part of my Malaysia holiday several months later. Singapore rivals any expensive city in the world. When I asked the girls about teaching there, they told me to forget it, that I’d have to give up my traveling as the bulk of my salary would go towards my rent. Food was high, too, except for Chinatown. I paid $20 for a medium cheese pizza. (The Singapore $ is equal to the USD.) Now, I can see a very valid reason why Baktygul’s father denied her the opportunity to study in Singapore. Even with free tuition, he likely didn’t possess the wealth to handle living expenses and air travel. Her father was a lawyer, but he wasn’t super wealthy. Nobody is in Kyrgyzstan unless you’re related to or a good friend of the president.

Also in the book, opportunities for girls in Kyrgyzstan. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The President is Coming to Town

May 24, 2009
Preppin' for the Prez

A countrywide sports competition for teenagers who live in villages is taking place in Talas.  Opening ceremonies were last evening and the games begin today.  All week the word was the president of Kyrgyzstan would be here for the opening.  So, in preparation, many classes at the technical college and the university were canceled for the week so the students could make the stadium sparkle.  And it wasn't only the stadium.  Seems like everybody was out sweeping and picking up litter (a HUGE problem in our city).  Residents whitewashed walls and curbs and miracle of miracles, potholes were filled.  Guess when the mayor thinks the president is coming to town, the money for road repair magically appears.  It's a safe bet that without the sports games, they wouldn't have been.
The city is the cleanest I've ever seen it.  I'm thinking the last time it was this clean was the last time the president was rumored to be visiting. 

The opening ceremonies were pretty cool.  Each of the seven oblasts paraded their athletes past the crowd just like in the Olympics with Talas getting the loudest welcome, naturally.  There were singers and dancers dressed in traditional Kyrgyz costumes.  The few speeches we had to endure were short.  I was glad to see female athletes will be participating in volleyball. (This is such a male dominated culture that I would not have been surprised if there weren't any girls.)  I hope to get out to see some events before Wednesday when the games end.

And the president?  He sent his Minister of Sports instead.  Big letdown.  Really wanted to see him in person.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked much about politics in my emails, mostly because I figured if the Kyrgyz government really was reading them, I’d err on the side of caution. No sense calling the president a callous corrupt jerk, thereby ending my PC service with a comment everybody knew and most agreed with.

In the book I talk about the peoples' attitudes regarding their president and compare it to what I experienced in China.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My New Favorite City

June 21, 2009
Turkey Tidbits

--I was surprised to see women in traditional Muslim attire sitting in the park smoking cigarettes.  I also saw some younger women, traditionally dressed, cuddlin' and smoochin' with their boyfriends/husbands as they sat on park benches.

--Seems like everybody—at least everybody I encountered over the course of two weeks—could converse in English to a certain extent.  Many are fluent.  Now, since I spent most of my time where tourists typically stay, that could be expected.  But, I also walked in non-tourist neighborhoods and talked to shop keepers.  Most of them spoke English, too.  And since there are myriad English language schools in Istanbul, there has to be a desire for the Turks to learn it.  Someone told me his version of why this is.

“Turkey exports goods to many countries.  Clothes, shoes, carpets, food products.  If the sales person has customers in China, France, Russia and Germany, for example, the odds are low that they will be conversant in all those languages.  So, the language they could all have in common is English, the universal language for business.  I was told that many Turkish companies foot the bill for their employees to take lessons.” 

--We ran into 4 volunteers from Kyrgyzstan.  I also saw many young Americans traveling in groups of 3 or 4.  I have a feeling many of them were PC Volunteers from other Central Asian or Eastern European countries.  Turkey is centrally located and easy to visit.  You buy your 90-day, multiple entry visa at the Istanbul airport for $20.  How much easier can it get?

--Turkey is notorious for credit card fraud.  I had to email Citibank with the dates of my stay so they wouldn't automatically close down my debit card.  Many banks, if they don't know you'll be in Turkey, will do just that if they see a transaction from there.  I had to use an ATM twice and because there are Citibanks in Istanbul, I knew I'd have no problems.

--I don't mind growing old.  Honestly, I don't.  But, I don't need to be reminded of it.  Three times I was asked if X was my son.  Excuse me?!

--I never thought I had a universal look, but perhaps I was mistaken.  Three times I was approached by salesmen with “Habla Espanol?”  Two guys asked me if I spoke English.  I was also taken for Australian and Greek.  The best one though, was the guy who stopped his car to ask me for directions.  He asked in Turkish.  

Istanbul. The city on two continents. Something about the European side reminded me of Manhattan. Maybe it was all the yellow cabs, I don’t know, but something about it, the energy, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, well, I simply fell in love. After three days of soaking up as much of the city as I could, the sights, the food and talking to the people, I had found a new post-Peace Corps “top of the list” city. Of course, I knew more research needed to be done, so I did it.
In the book: why Istanbul was a great city to visit, but not where I wanted to teach.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Almost Showtime!

February 23, 2009

Radio Serial Update

For those of you who have been following my exploits since last year, you'll recall one of my secondary projects was to write a radio serial.  I found four students willing to undertake the project with me.  It has taken a while, but I'm proud to say the first episode is “in the can” or, I should say, “on the disk.”  I heard it today and although I didn't understand much because it's in Russian, the voices sounded great and the special effects were nicely done.  A couple of script adjustments had to be made because of language, but nothing that altered the intent of the script.  For instance, I made a joke about a notebook (one you write notes in) and a notebook (laptop computer).  But, it had to be changed because “notebook” as a computer doesn't translate the same in Russian.  No one would get the joke. 

What makes this project so satisfying, aside from the fact that everyone is nice as can be, is that most of the people involved are teenagers. The voice of the 43 year-old father is 15.  The 21 year old daughter is 14.  And they sound fabulous.  I've been told they really liked the script and love their characters.  And it didn't take them long to start behaving like actors.  They've already started making demands.  The actress who reads the role of the mother wants to have an affair. Actors are the same the world over.  :-)

The 2nd episode has been written and is currently being translated.  I'm in the process of writing the third.  School resumes tomorrow after a two month break, so hopefully my student writers will be back on the job.  The station wants six episodes recorded before they put them on the air. They are also going to produce a “making of” show, which should be very interesting. 

The radio serial we created and produced at the local community radio station defined my Peace Corps experience. Not surprisingly, probably, because it involved playwriting. It was a true collaboration with a group of eager locals who were as dedicated as me to make “Kok Asman” a worthy project. We all expressed our opinions on topics and changes to the scripts. I recall only a couple of times when I had to override their suggestions, mostly because they, the actors, thought more in movie mode than radio drama. Their ideas would have been better off filmed than broadcast on the radio.

In the book I give all the background on the family in "Kok Asman," episode topics and some information on the "making of" project.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My Peter Finch "Network" Email

February 21, 2009

One (fill in the blank) American

I couldn't find just one word that succinctly fit the title for this entry.  Some that came to mind were disappointed, pissed, jaded, cynical, fed-up, expatriated.  I'm definitely angry, but that's such a futile emotion when dealing with the US government that I must let it go.  I think, no, I know my perspective of our (not so) great country has been significantly altered (and may I say I've been enlightened) by the views of non-Americans.  They are not all Kyrgyz, either.  While most have been Central Asians, I've also talked to Germans, Australians, Russians and a couple of Brits.  They all gave me insights into America that I had not seen.

If you didn't take five minutes to read the article I sent you the other day, you should.  It should come as no surprise that even a money-hungry corrupt government like this one, after so many broken promises, finally said to our military, “Get the hell outa here!”  We are so full of bullshit when we want something and actually always have been. It started with “all men are created equal” and went downhill from there.  All our talk about protection of human rights and the installation of democracy the world over is unadulterated crap!!!  All we really care about is what is best for American interests, and those mostly concern commerce.  I'm not basing this rant on a single newspaper column.  Or the killing of an innocent Kyrgyz civilian.  I am also reading one of the most fascinating, compelling and utterly disturbing books of my lifetime, “A Problem From Hell:  America and the Age of Genocide.”  Many of you are probably familiar with it as it won the Pulitzer (published 2002).  Samantha Power chronicles how the United States (and many other “democracies”) stood by and watched genocide being committed throughout the 20th Century, beginning with the Armenians by the Turks in 1915.  This was followed by the Holocaust, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Hussein trying to erase the Kurds in Iraq, The Serbs, Rwanda and now Sudan.  In every case our government had a political reason (or several) for not getting involved.  Example:  When Iraq was killing Kurds, the state of Kansas was shipping like a million tons of wheat to Saddam.  Yup, we were feeding the army while they were committing genocide.  Nice.  And why were we playing nice with a maniac?  Because we both hated Iran.  Strategic interests aside, how can we, as the biggest brute on the block, sit idly by and watch groups of peoples being eradicated?  History tells us that as long as it wasn't Americans gettin' whacked, who cared?  We ain't gonna lose soldiers if we don't stand to lose something really valuable.  Like access to cheap oil.  Oh, so that's why we came to the aid of Kuwait.  But, never fear, we are always there after the fact to rebuild.  Of course, we are. There's money to be made in reconstruction.  Lots of it.  And you can see we did squat under both republican and democrat presidents to make lives better in those countries, so that made no difference, except to some construction companies' bottom line.  Then for some silly reason I watched “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”  I need say nothing about how we screwed the Native American.  All I'm saying is yeah, America has many positives, but “all that glitters is not gold.”

I can imagine some of your reactions.  Michael's got too much free time over there.  Eating horse meat has made him crazy. Actually, I prefer to think I'm becoming a better thinker and decision maker, but that could be the horse meat talking.  Now, I realize there are dozens of countries worse than America in which to live.  Like, I'd hate to have been stuck in Zimbabwe the past 20 years, but I'm certain there are better places, too.  Places where governmental deception, duplicity and lack of diplomacy aren't the first words people use to describe their country.  And I won't mind searching until I find one of them.

Hey, KP, wanna buy a co-op?

No book I have read, before or since, touched me like the accounts of the genocides. My unfiltered emotion leaped off the page. Eight years of Bush 2 angered me immensely. I eagerly accepted the challenge of defending US citizens to foreigners; I had no defense for the government. The genocide book lit a fuse and there was no way to extinguish it. My feelings had to be expressed.

Also in the book: more on why I became disillusioned and no longer want to live in the US. Ever.