This week, us OCAPs (Organizational & Community Assistant Program, for those of you not following at home) got to go on a field trip to a different region in Kazakhstan. While we’re all training in or near Almaty (the largest city in Kazakhstan, though Astana is the capital – think NYC vs. DC), there is so much more to see of this humongous country and we finally got to experience a little of its diversity. While the OCAP program is split into Organizational Development (OD) and Youth Development (YD) groups this year in different training villages, we all got to go together on this little adventure. Our group had some of my favorite people from both villages, which made for an awesome trip to an amazing city right in the middle of the Kazakh steppe – Karaganda.
As you can see from this map, Karaganda is close to the center of Kazakhstan, and is the closest major city to the capital, Astana. Karaganda actually ranks in the top 3 or 4 largest cities in Kazakhstan (after Astana, Almaty and maybe Shymkent, depending on whom you ask). It was an industrial coal mining town that also served as home to many gulag labor camp workers under Stalin in the 40’s and 50’s (when you hear of ethnic minorities getting deported to Siberia under the Soviet Union, that very well may have been to Karaganda…it is technically the brink of Siberia). As a result the city, though now pretty, modern and developed, has a distinct blue-collar Soviet flavor with its many monuments to workers and miners.
One of the exciting parts of the trip was getting to take an 18-hour train ride (the furthest by far of our 3 fieldtrip groups, as the other 2 went to southern cities closer to Almaty). The Soviet-style trains are quite an experience in and of themselves. You can either ride platzcart (in a giant public car with many beds in a row where everyone sleeps), or the slightly more expensive coupé (a small cabin with four bunks, two on top and two below). There is also a two-bed cabin option that is rarely used by anyone (and basically cost-prohibitive for a PCV;). PC sprung for coupé for us on this trip, and we took up 2 cabins to ourselves. Everyone’s host families packed them tons of food and we all shared, which is customary for these long rides (locals often drink vodka on trains as well, though it’s technically not allowed). The bottom bunks fold down as seats before bedtime, and each person is provided a set of clean sheets and a small towel. There is hot water available from a small mysterious tap, and tea bags for sale for 15 tenge each (1/10th of a dollar). A small bathroom can be found on the ends of each car where the toilet opens straight onto the rails below, and it is quite an experience to go amidst the lurching and bumping (you are obviously not allowed to go when the train is stopped at stations, for good sanitary reasons!). We chatted, ate, drank tea, watched a movie and – my favorite – even had a short Russian lesson on telling time in our coupés. 😉 After a nice refreshing 8 hours of sleep (luckily I sleep like a baby on anything that moves…it’s the soothing rocking movements), I was almost sad to leave our cozy train in the morning!
Us on the bottom bunks with our fantastic LCF Lena (and her flipchart paper of Russian in the top right corner)
Once we got to Karaganda, we got straight to work doing a community mapping project and getting to know the resources in the city. It pretty much has everything you could ask for, including a big Ramstore like the one in Almaty, copious numbers of internet cafes, and even the odd Chinese restaurant. We also met the awesome PCVs that currently work there, who are all in fact Kaz-19s (which means they are finishing up their two years here and will be closing their service around the time we swear in). The trip may have been worth it just for Katie’s story about dropping her cell phone down an outhouse hole in -40 degree weather and crawling over a mountain of frozen poop to pick it up (you can’t make this stuff up). If I come out with a story as good as that one after these two years here, I’ll consider myself a resounding success.
After a night in our rented apartments in the city center, we headed out the next day for more practicum visits to Karaganda organizations. First we visited an awesome HIV/AIDS organization that one lucky OCAP-OD PCV will be working at as a pioneer volunteer this year (we now know: it’s Hilary! Congrats!). While the org is large and quite developed, it also seems to suffer from organizational drift (taking on too many projects and overstretching their scope of work for the sake of getting relevant grant money). They mostly work on helping people with HIV/AIDS, working with drug abusers (who are the top risk group for HIV/AIDS in Kazakhstan), and working with prisoners (who are often both of the above). They do everything from disseminating nutritional information, to helping released prisoners obtain necessary housing and registration documents, to women’s reproductive health (?), to building a new resource center with funds that are drying out due to the crisis. There is a ton of stuff for a PCV to do there, and a lot of larger-scale organizational development they can help with (funding diversification, strategic planning and streamlining, PR/outreach to the general populace to alleviate the HIV/AIDS stigma, etc.). It is always an interesting balance to see where orgs are in their development stages, and as a PCV it is never a bad thing to see room for improvement – it means you will have plenty of work at site!
The second org we visited was a disabled youth center that a current Kaz-19 works at. It was very large and took up its own building in the southern microregions of the city sprawl. Once again they seemed to offer a million services for both physically and mentally disabled children, including art therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, free lunches, language education, computer education, pet therapy, and a new pre-professional center that was in the process of construction (a common theme here).
This dog weighed substantially more than I do. It is specially trained to put up with any type of accidental abuse by curious children, and serves to improve their tactile coordination (and provide friendly fuzzy company…the likes and precise benefits of which I know not:P).
Our last visit was to the famous Gogol Library and its American Corner, funded by the U.S. Embassy. The American Corner is home to English clubs, various English resources, information about the U.S. and a very friendly coordinator who served us the most extravagant chai I have had yet here (loads of biscuits, sweets, nuts and different flavors of tea). We even got to participate in the weekly English club hosted by another Karaganda PCV, which was an amazing experience. Some of the kids who had come regularly for years had seen many generations of PCVs come and go, and told very moving stories about how their interactions with these Americans had not only improved their English immensely, but also opened their eyes to new opportunities and a globalized life perspective. There was a huge turnout too – everyone was so friendly and welcoming!
So finally, I promised you the story of the Soviet ambulance. Our last night, I ate a wonderful meal at a Georgian restaurant with the rest of our group. We all shared delicious stewed and spiced meats along with hatchapuri (their famous cheese bread, which I discovered and could have lived off of solely in Moscow. See photo below!).
The sign says: “I love hachapuri”
Lol – this statement was true until the next morning when I started throwing it all up, and knew that I was having one of my old bouts of unidentified stomach virus. I swear it was not the food (which as I said, everyone ate) or the water, but just something that happens to me every so often, especially when I change environments abruptly. I started vomiting uncontrollably about every 10-20 minutes for 4 hours, during which at some point our PCMO (PC Medical Officer) Dr. Viktor was called. After a brief conversation with him (had to be brief, as I was still vomiting), within minutes he had called up the nearest hospital in Karaganda, spoken to the virologist there, and arranged for me to come in. Though I explained that I knew what my illness was, I’d had it many times before, and I would invariably survive without the hospital trip (just gotta let me puke everything out, eventually eat some very mild foods and pass out), he of course insisted. Dr. Viktor was in the Soviet army and has treated a whole lot of things in his life – he is pretty much the most awesome, efficient, and frankly formidable exemplar of medical personnel that I have ever encountered, and we are all moreover required by contract to do whatever he says. 😉 So lo and behold, two Kazakh emergency medics came up to our rented apartment and assisted me into an ambulance, which may not have been immediately identifiable as Soviet but for the fact that it crawled the streets to the hospital at the speedy emergency rate of about 15 miles/hour. Which was fine, because as I said, this wasn’t an emergency (but I still vomited in the ambulance, for good measure). Finally it all passed and I lay for a few hours with a saline IV drip to prevent dehydration, other patients lying with me in a communal room (same as it would be in any hospital back home in Beijing), and in a few hours left to meet my worried friends at the train station – weak and exhausted, but almost as good as new.
If there was anything I took away from the field trip (besides the fact that PC Medical is bad-ass and can solve problems long-distance anywhere in Kazakhstan. Did I mention they foot the entire bill, too?), it was that this country has so much to offer and it should be easy to make local friends and have a variety of productive projects just about anywhere. While the other two field trip groups went to Taldykorgan and Taraz respectively (both southern cities closer to Almaty, with more Kazakh-speakers and dominance of traditional Kazakh culture), we all unanimously loved our trips and felt like we wanted to stay in whichever city we visited!