Wednesday, 8 July 2009

GX Week 13

Monday 15
th June

The day started with a press conference at the British Council which we were all rather nervous about as we hadn’t a clue what we were expected to be doing. It turned out, to our relief, that we weren’t expected to talk in the formal part of the conference, rather Ali and Malika were in the firing line. A few journalists asked what specifically we would be doing in terms of volunteering, but it is impossible to now until we get into the community. Malika handled the question pretty well I thought explaining that we would be supporting the work that the organizations we will be placed in are already doing. One asked whether we had permission from the parents to work with children infected with HIV. This question however got misinterpreted so that the panel thought it was about whether they had gained permission from our parents and the lady from the British council got really defensive about how there is no risk to us as HIV cannot be transmitted through normal social contact. After the conference some of the team gave interviews while I served the useful purpose of having my USB stick on me with the video Grace produced of the first phase saved on it. Back at Kargaly (I think that might be now it is spelt) we checked out of our rooms and Misha took us to a supermarket to buy food for the train which was “not far away.” It was like a mile! I was confident in my ability to pay until the cashier held up my apple and started talking at me. All my, all be it limited, Russian went out the window and all I could do was gape and say “sorry?” It turned out that I needed a bar code on it. We have now started the 13 hour journey to Shymkent. Space on the train is pretty tight but we do have beds and the toilets are not as bad as they could be.

View of the Kazakh Steppe from the Train Window

Tuesday 16th June

My sleep on the train ride was actually pretty good. My feet however have mysteriously swollen. I think it might be the heat plus all the walking we have doing. We had a proper welcoming party at the station complete with banner, balloons and flag! I was first off the train and pleasantly surprised by how good some of the English I heard was. After settling into our host home, eating breakfast, napping and showering our team met at the Shymkent offices of the association of business women of Kazakhstan for surprise surprise some training! Luckily this was limited to a safety briefing, timetabling, brief teambuilding and discussion of the team contract. I am slightly disappointed with my host home after hearing about everyone else’s. Again Gulnara and I are with a single older woman whose children have flown the nest. Except this time she doesn’t speak any English. Everyone else seems to be with families or young couples. I would have like a change. The rules are stricter here also, we have to be back home by 10pm although we are allowed to stay with friends and have friends to stay. After training we visited Gulnara’s home village to have dinner with her mother and sister, experiencing my first cramped Shymkent bus ride in the process, squashed against an old man and a canister of gas. Her house wasn’t what I was expecting because she seems so at home in the places we have been staying yet in the villages they have no proper plumbing and the toilet is a hole in the ground outside surrounded by a wooden shed. Our host home, an apartment on the outskirts of Shymkent, only got hot water last year. Gulnara gets no hot water at home. At least they have clean running water I suppose. During the train journey we stopped at one place which is apparently notorious for drugs. There were children begging along side the train and Beth who braved the platform said she felt very uncomfortable. At another station that was some kind of military outpost hordes of women and children descended on the station with bags and boxes stuff with goods to sell, mostly beer and vodka. I had never really thought before now some people make their living in this way. While we were in Almaty Dinara commented that “new buildings grow like trees”. That “people think if they build tall new shiny buildings it means that the country is developed but it does not.” I see more now how capitalism works, making a few people rich while the majority get poorer. I see the divide and also a very different way of life between the cities and the villages.

Gulnara with her Mother and Sister

Wednesday 17th June

More training today. After some degree of discussion, mostly around the communications committee who had it pretty rough in the last stage, we chose our committees. I volunteered for the CAD and the farewell committee. After a coffee break two American Peace Corp volunteers came to give us some much needed advice. One of them is a placement supervisor and I have no doubt they will be a constant source of information. The first piece of advice was not to drink the tap water despite what the locals might tell you (Malika insisted that it was fine).It won’t kill you but contains a lot of minerals and is likely to upset your stomach. They also suggested some good social locations and that we learn some Kazakh words to impress the locals but concentrate on Russian as being white that is the language people will tend to use when talking to us. Most importantly we were told the police are not our friends. They are likely to stop anyone who they think has money and corruption is rife. Drivers apparently keep 500 tenge under their license as a matter of course. It would be best they said not to talk English when going past them. Rory may need to shave his beard as the police are likely to stop bearded men thinking that they are Turkish business men, not that Rory looks remotely Turkish. Furthermore we should not walk alone at night. I had already got that impression when our host mother, Nassima, gave us a 10pm curfew. After lunch some volunteers from a program Malika used to volunteer for came to speak with us. Some had been present at our welcome at the train station and they all seemed really excited to meet us and hoped to become our friends. It was lovely to have such an enthusiastic welcome but it made me feel like people have some pretty big expectations of us. Y-PEER is a peer educator program run by a youth volunteer network called Shymkent-Plus with UNFPA project support and management. It has 5000 members in 40 countries and works on peer education about adolescent sexual and reproductive health. Currently the project only works in South Kazakhstan where they are 11 focal points, >1000 peer educators and 70 000 people have been informed. They have a lot of work to do as both the Muslim and Soviet heritage of the Kazakhstani people mean they don’t talk openly about sex. There is a famous quote from an old Soviet woman talking with a group of Americans. “There is no sex in the Soviet Union”. To finish we played a game to the catchy tune of

“There she goes rided pony, x3

This is how we do

Front, front, front my baby

Side, side, side my baby

Back, back, back my baby

This is now we do.”

Our team were then left alone to discuss how we were all feeling. Rory had a bit of an outburst about how he felt “terrified” and “frustrated” about being in a new country and unable to understand anything or get around on his own. I wonder what he expected. We have only been here two days. I feel in the minority in that as yet I’m not too put out by the whole experience. Of course I don’t know my around yet. I haven’t a clue and I’m relying on Gulnara. It doesn’t help that people here don’t use maps. The reaction of one of the Y-PEER volunteers when she saw mine was “Oh wow! Is that a map of Shymkent?” No one can locate the business women’s association. If you know the name of the bus stops it seems to be enough. I never appreciated before how much we British rely on maps and on “getting our bearings” to feel comfortable in a place. I’m sure that once everyone has settled into their placements, has learnt their bus numbers and bus stops people will start to feel more relaxed. It surprises me just how laid about everything I am. I never used to be like this. I used to panic about going on school trips incase I got left behind. Through growing up and being through university I seem to have changed. I rarely build up expectations about things now, though I know this is not always a good thing it means I am rarely disappointed. I doubt that I will just sit in my host home for the next three months but if I do it won’t be the end of the world. I can still learn things. At the days end a few of the group went to an internet café while the rest of us took a stroll around some of Shymkent’s parks. We visited Abiya park where we rode a big wheel which became rather terrifying at the top in a high wind, looking down upon the rusted metal suspending us and the Technopark (not nearly as exciting as it sounds) passing the cinema and Shymkent’s only square on the way. The trip helped only a little with getting my bearings.

Rusty Spokes of the Big Wheel in Abiya Park

Thursday 18th June

I agree with my mother when she said that Kazakhstan is about 20 years behind the UK in terms of attitudes to disability and HIV etc though it could be more like thirty. Yet fashion and music taste are stuck in the 90s. In terms of the development of a middle class I’m not sure where the country is. Staying in the cities I see a lot of evidence of what I assume to be a growing middle class but the Kazakhstanis say that the majority of people in the country are very poor. For women’s rights, well god knows. Sarah’s host mother (who is younger than she is) was actually kidnapped for marriage. She had dated a guy for a while then they hadn’t seen each other for months. She was at a party when he rang her asking to meet her. She said no at first but then went to meet him. He told her that he loved her and then kidnapped her. She locked inside his house which was guarded by his friends and family and cried for two weeks (or two days depending on whose version of the story you hear) then married him. The family tells the story like a funny family anecdote and jokes about being stolen are forever being bandied about. I didn’t believe that it really happened. On the other hand she has a job as an office manager and spent six months in America where she apparently enjoying lots of partying. She wanted to live in America but she can’t as her husband want to stay in Kazakhstan. Today we had out one to one supervisions with Ali and Malika at 11am after which we dropped into a bazaar near the business women’s association where Gulnara bought underwear and some sunglasses. We went home for lunch and rested for a few hours before Gulnara settled me in an internet café down the road from our host home for an hour while she got her hair cut. After this we headed off to where we were supposed to be meeting a Korean group at 7pm but on the way Malika rung saying that they couldn’t meet until 9pm so we had cancelled. Apparently this happens a lot. Instead some of us met at a spring near the central bazaar where people come to swim and take the waters. Apparently its holy.

Paddling in Holy Water

Friday 19th June

I used to think that doing the washing was a chore. That was before I had to hand wash. My fingers are rubbed raw and I took so long that eventually Nassima got fed up of waiting for a shower and did the rest of the rinsing for me. Nassima could be Ilma’s counterpart. An older woman who lives alone, doesn’t work, has three daughters who have all flown the nest and spend a lot of time talking with family and friends on the internet. Today I stayed at home while Gulnara went to meet her mother and have a massage which was actually quite a challenge in itself. Having to talk with Nassima without Gulnara there to interpret. Nassima gave me a 1000 piece puzzle to do. I don’t normally like puzzles but I think it will keep me amused for a while. At half 6 we went to meet the others for a football match. We were late and missed the first and only goal. The home side won at least. There were loads of police present and I was worried about us all talking English around them but all was well. Something that strikes me here is the numbers of gold teeth glinting from the mouths of older people but even some of the young. Gulnara’s sister had a nice set.

Saturday 20th June

It’s sooo hot here and people keep telling me it will get worse. Apparently there are two weeks in July where the nights are as hot as the days. I’m sweating from places I’ve rarely sweated before; ankles, knees. Today was our community welcome. Despite our usual hasty and haphazard planning it all came off rather well. We all introduced ourselves, presented a brief sketch about our first impressions of Shymkent, showed the video that of the first phase that Grace made for the farewell and got everyone to participate in some English country dancing. Beth and I gave an interview (translated by Malika) to a local TV station who asked some good questions about how we were coping with the food and what we were finding most difficult. The answer being the heat and the language. After Malika showed Nina and me our placement. Stopping by the bazaar on the way so that I could buy a pair of flat shoes as my wedges were killing me. The shoes cost me 450 tenge about 1 pound 85. I also got a big dark blue floppy hat for 300 T. I got a discount for being English. Apparently the people in the neighborhood around our placement don’t know that it is a centre for HIV+ clients for fear of attack. The others met at the cinema at 6 but Gulnara was tired and I chicken out of going alone so we stayed at home and helped Nassima cook.

Team 93 at our Communtiy Welcome

Sunday 21st June

On a Saturday night here you can hear Muslim prayer with 90s backing music provided by the nearby bars. The nightline sounded pretty exciting and I almost wished that I was out there, but we have a curfew of 10pm. Nassima says that it is not safe after dark and I can see that she might have a point. There is no street lighting in our area for a start. However she did say that we would be able to stay at other people’s houses. Gulnara left me alone in the host home again today while she went to church. Actually it’s 1pm and she’s not back yet. I guess she is with her mother. This has given me time to catch up ion paperwork but also time to think which maybe isn’t such a good thing. I found myself questioning why I am here. I’m craving stability. When I get home I want to be moving out, starting a career and all that. This programme is not good for stability. You settle into a community for three months and then you are torn out of it. I’m feeling a bit lost here. I’m worried about not achieving anything. I think because I fitted in so well at Catch 22 I worry that I won’t be able to get as much out of my placement here. The expectations for this phase seem so much higher. I worry about not meeting them. The ‘culture shock’ must have hit. My earlier lack of worry was particularly strange for me. Last night I asked Gulnara about her family. When she has talked about them before she has always given the impression that she considers them poor but when I asked her outright she said that their life is good. They have a house and land though they must work hard and their house is not as comfortable as others. She said that they are better off than the people living in the area near the spring we visited who have small houses and resort to prostitution.

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