I have made it safely to Kazakhstan; sorry for the delay in updating, but I didn’t have internet until now. So much has happened in the last few days that it feels like weeks, but has not passed slowly or unpleasantly at all. Here’s a recap of my first few days on this journey:
Tuesday: I went to “Staging” in Washington D.C. and met 66 other fellow “Kaz-21” volunteers (we’re the 21st generation of PCVs to come to Kazakhstan). Everyone was really nice, but there were so many people that even by now I haven’t met everyone, and it was tough keeping all the names straight to boot. We filled out a bunch of forms and began our Staging sessions, which is basically where the D.C.-based Kazakhstan country desk officer and other staging officers fill us in on some basic logistical details, conduct introductory health/safety training, give us our passports/plane tickets, and let us reflect on our fears, aspirations, and commitment to service.
Wednesday/Thursday:We checked out of our hotel in Georgetown and boarded a bus to Dulles with 132 giant bags of luggage. 😉 The poor Lufthansa people checked us all in very leniently (a note for future volunteers: the 50 lb rule is not exactly strict and someone even checked in 3 bags without having to pay an overcharge, but honestly you will be towing it around so much afterwards to training and to site that it’s not worth it to bring more than 100 lbs. I just mention it so you don’t stress about an extra pound or two in one suitcase like I did!). We then boarded a looong 8-hour flight followed by an uneventful layover in Frankfurt – which by the way is the worst airport in the world, and made us go through not one but TWO more rounds of security – followed by another long 8-hour flight that I for one slept through almost completely.
At the airport in Almaty!
Friday, Kazakh Time: We finally arrived in Almaty at 1 a.m. local time, exhausted and frumpy but having all changed into “business casual plus” attire to be greeted by our Country Director (CD) and several very formally-dressed current PCVs (Kaz-19’s). They welcomed us to the country, helped us handle all our luggage, and boarded us on buses to our initial training site. We were put in a “sanitorium” (a resort-type hotel which was in no way fancy by American standards but was not quite an insane asylum like it sounds like….not quite:P) and made to go to bed for a scant few hours before a 7:30 wake-up call the next morning.
Right off the plane, exhausted but excited, with our first Kazakh snacks: Corny Big! 😛
The day was packed. We had our first showers in rusty (but hot!) brown water (that gets clearer when you run the pipe for 10+ minutes), and our first Kazakh breakfast of rice porridge and boiled egg…all of which were really not a big deal to me as they are the same as things I would have at home in China. The local staff gave an amazing welcome performance that included beautiful live dombra music (a traditional Kazakh guitar-like instrument), and a vivacious Kazakh male dancer who wore a sparkly brown “hawk” outfit to depict the traditional Kazakh falconry hunting. Candy was thrown at us in welcome (so our stay would be sweet!), and we got our first taste of the famous Almaty apples (which were tart and quite delicious). We then had a ton of sessions on health, safety, cultural issues, etc. and also had medical interviews and immunizations. For the first time this year, volunteers were all able to buy Nokia cell phones for ~$40-60 at the sanitorium so we could get all set up and trade numbers before splitting up into our regional PST villages, which was very convenient! At night we hung out with some current PCVs (Kaz-20’s) who had come into Almaty for the weekend, and heard their advice and experiences. They were very nice and all seemed to enjoy their sites and their work.
Finally freshened up and eating our first Kazakh breakfast: rice porridge, bread, tea (in bowls) and sausage.
Kazakh “eagle dancer” in our welcome Kazakhstanian show 🙂
Saturday: We finished up at the sanitorium, packed our bags again and headed off for the much-anticipated training villages and our first host families. One group we dropped off was greeted with big signs saying “Welcome!” and “We love you!,” as well as more candy tossing. All the volunteers looked doe-eyed and overwhelmed but very touched, while the host families looked excited, hospitable and adorable. I was assigned along with the other Organizational Development (OD) volunteers to Issyk, a small town roughly 45 minutes north of Almaty that will also serve as the “hub site” for all the volunteers to meet in the coming weeks. Besides the 10 of us ODs, we also have 16 EDUs (teachers), which is the first time the two groups have been mixed. This is awesome because we are not only at the biggest and most developed site (with two internet cafes!), but also didn’t have to be separated from a lot of the friends we have made who are teachers.
More about my own host family and accommodations in the next post!