Life is changing with the natural cycle of Peace Corps Volunteers coming and going from site. Our contract is for two years, and every new generation brings with it its own character and dynamic. We recently hosted two groups of visiting volunteers, said goodbye to our remaining Kaz-20, and welcomed 4 new Kaz-22s to Shymkent. We hosted them, got them settled, took them to their workplaces and host families and are getting to know the few other Americans with whom we will be occupying the same space for the next year. On top of that, 2 Fulbright English Teaching Assistants arrived this fall as well, bringing our total number of Americans in these two programs alone to 9!
This made for a crowded but lovely Thanksgiving, in which us three Kaz-21s played host and between our 3 kitchens cooked 3 chickens, two types of cornbread (spicy and sweet), vegetarian chili, stovetop stuffing, buttered corn, garlic mashed potatoes, two delicious salads (one particularly popular one was lettuce, tomatoes, red onion, white cheese, walnuts and an olive oil/herb dressing), no less than SEVEN pumpkin and apple pies, and fall-inspired cocktails (cognac with brown sugar syrup, pineapple and lemon juice…highly recommended!). Our village volunteers came in from around the oblast to celebrate, and we managed to successfully fit and feed 20 people (Americans and some local friends) in my living room.
Right after Thanksgiving ended, I cleaned and packed up all the remaining food for local friends and volunteers, and we Kaz-21s headed out to a Peace Corps-run PEPFAR training on HIV/AIDS, followed directly by our group’s Mid-Service Training (MST). The PEPFAR training consisted of Population Services International (PSI) professional trainers conducting a Training of Trainers (ToT) for us on HIV/AIDS and sexual health, so it was a great refresher on the themes and methodologies that my organization uses in our daily work. We learned a lot of really fascinating statistics, both global and Kazakhstan-specific, and the training I thought was very comprehensive. I was happy to hear that all PCVs will be getting it at PST from the next group on, in order to qualify them to write and conduct PEPFAR projects on HIV prevention. All the exact content and information we got probably merits a separate post!
As for MST, it was fun as always seeing everyone from our group gather from all around the country. The big news was that our Close Of Service date has been moved up from November to August, so we will all be COS-ing three months earlier than planned. This is because PC Kazakhstan is expanding and getting an additional group each year, which with current timing means at some point there will be 3 groups together in country. They are letting the next two groups COS early to minimize the stress on staff resources with that many volunteers. Everyone was buzzing about the news and thinking about what will come next after a short 8 months (the jury is still out for most of us including me, but I am very happy with the skills and contacts I’m gaining from my job here and will keep you all updated:)). Honestly, it is true what they say: though some parts have crawled (i.e. Jan and Feb of last winter), generally the last 14 months have flown so incredibly fast. I was also amazed at how much things had changed for everyone from just six months ago at our IST conference. First of all, everyone’s Russian and Kazakh had much improved and people were basically expressing themselves fluently! I myself moved up to two levels in Russian too which was pretty surprising as I’d heard the curve is steeper at the advanced levels…I think we all just don’t notice how much our fluency is really growing when we’re immersed in it every day.
Also, it was fantastic to hear about the great community projects and work going on around the country from some of our volunteers. For example, I remember presenting on our Shymkent Women’s Club at IST when pretty much only one other city was running one that had been started by Kaz-19s…now there are at least 6 or 7 founded by PCVs in our group around the country! Our last MST session invited three winners of the essay contest “How Peace Corps Changed My Life.” These local girls presented on how their interactions with their city or village PCV inspired, motivated and helped them to reach new heights and got them where they are today (a PhD program, working for the Indian embassy, studying abroad, etc.). They mentioned that a lot of the real results in the individuals whose lives we affect may not manifest themselves until years after we leave, but the results will definitely be there. It’s great to be reminded of that as we move into our second year of service. [Somewhat related side note: according to the RPCV that works for American Councils, I was apparently mentioned three times by our wonderful Shymkent FLEX finalists during their interviews this week…hahaha thanks guys, I’m so proud of you and am sure you’ll all make it to America!]
Other than that, it was a great week in Almaty hanging out with my friends there that I didn’t get to catch in October because everyone was out on fall break. I temporarily left my camera in the PC office so was not able to photograph any of our adventures as I usually do, but suffice to say many delicious dinners and get-togethers were had over authentic Szechuan Chinese food, Vietnamese pho, sushi, homemade spinach and tofu, strawberry mojitos, pumpkin pancakes, salmon salad, lemon tarts, Bailey’s coffee and plenty of wine. Cheers to Janet, Brian, Eliza, Jeff, Aaron, Kunai and Aselya for showing me a great time as usual in Almaty, a city that will inevitably always feel like a luxurious vacation destination to a PCV. 😉 My last couple days were spent shopping with what seemed like the city’s entire expat community at the big Central Asia crafts fair at the national museum (which was perfect for buying overpriced but beautiful hand-made gifts to take home to Beijing for Christmas), and visiting my granny in Issyk who filled both my stomach and heart as always. 🙂 Now back to site and back to work – just 8 more months, and there is so much left to do!