Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008


What follow are entries that I posted on another blog over the summer. While the postings now show October dates, my actual trip to Kazakhstan was June 22 - July 7, 2008.

Kazakhstan Update Part 1 -The Journey from Madrid to Taraz

June 28, 2008

Greetings from Kazakhstan! This has been the first chance I've had to really write much since my arrival, so I thought I'd let you know how things are going. I'm sure that I won't be able to include everything that's happened, but I hope that this gives you some flavor as to the trip so far.

The journey to Taraz, Kazakhstan took about 24 hours from door to door. I flew to London, then Amsterdam, then Almaty. My flight from Amsterdam was delayed, so I was a bit worried that my luggage wouldn't make it. As soon as I got off the plane in Amsterdam, I raced to the other terminal where my next flight was already boarding. I boarded without any trouble and ended up sitting next to a very nice Kazakh lady who gave me a few tips. I did manage to get some sleep, but not a lot. The six and a half hour flight landed on time in Almaty at 5:10 AM. I got through Passport Control without any trouble and headed for the luggage claim area, hoping that mine had made it. As it turned out, mine had already been offloaded and was sitting on the floor. I suspect that it was one of the last bags on the plane and therefore one of the first off. I was told that after I exited customs that I would be met by a driver. I pressed my way past a herd of taxi-cab drivers all insisting that I ride with them. I was looking for someone that was holding a sign with my name on it, but I saw no one. Maybe he was late, I thought. Just before I got to the door leading outside, a guy approached me. "Mister Steve?" he asked. He was holding a piece of paper. I pointed to it and he unfolded a printout of my photograph and some telephone numbers. He didn't speak English, but we managed to exchange pleasantries and he lead me to his car. The parking lot was jammed and people parked wherever they wished. Many of the exits were blocked with cars, but after about ten minutes we managed to find our way out. I was told that the ride would take anywhere from six to nine hours. After about thirty minutes, we found ourselves in fairly flat and not so scenic territory, so I layed down in the back and thought I would try to get some sleep. The roads were extremely bumpy and full of potholes, but I was so tired that I managed to fall asleep for a bit. After a couple of hours I sensed that we were pulling over, so I sat up. We were at a roadside restaurant. He led me inside the rather large outdoor seating area and he ordered from a menu. I had no idea what he was ordering for me, but hoped that it was nothing too "exotic." First, some bread and tea arrived. He swished some tea around in our cups, splashed it onto the concrete floor, then poured me a cup. He also wiped off our silverwear with a napkin. A few minutes later some soup arrived. He told me that it was "rooskie borscht." Having been to Russia, I recognized the beef and vegetable soup and was happily enjoyed my breakfast. We also took a restroom break at the restaurant. The concrete building was full of "squatty pottys" which were nothing more than large slots in the floor, and I was relieved that my task there required only standing! We continued our trip, with me doing a bit more sleeping. I was suprised that I arrived we arrived in Taraz in record time, no doubt due to the significant amount of passing we had done on the bumpy two lane road. Now you know the real reason I was lying down in the back!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 2 - First Day in Taraz

June 28, 2008 (Continued)

We pulled up to a two-story white brick building with a black wrought-iron fence around it. The ironwork in the center of the main gate had been fashioned into a heart, which is part of the Interlink Resources logo. The driver led me into the building, where I was warmly greeted by the staff. I soon met Sara and Beth, who had arranged for my visit. They gave me a brief tour of the building and led me to my guestroom upstairs. I was very impressed by how modern everything was. I could have easily been in an office in Indiana. I was especially pleased to see that my room had a very nice shower! I don't remember whether or not I had lunch first, then showered, or the other way around--but both the shower and the lunch were both much appreciated!I had been traveling for over 24 hours and was in definite need of an energy boost!

I later met with Beth and Sara and we discussed their plans for me during my stay. Interlink resources wished to produce a new promotional video and they wanted me to film examples of their various outreaches and to conduct on camera interviews with key personnel and partners. We discussed several ideas, then I took a much needed nap.

Later in the afternoon, we ran some errands with one of the staff interns, Ember, then went to Beth and Sara's place for some delicious homemade Thai food. After some enjoyable food and chat, Sara took me for a walking tour which included a visit to the main square in Taraz. As we approached the large square, flanked by large pastel colored buildings, to our surprise, we heard what sounded like gunshots. As we got closer, we found ourselves at a huge "Honor Our Police" type of celebration. Hundreds of policemen filled the square. The crowd surrounding them clapped politely as various divisions of police marched, rode on horseback, or zoomed through the square with their squad cars. Also included were a tank and some sort of anti-riot vehicle with a water cannon. There were a couple of somewhat amusing demonstrations--one of a mugger being swooped up by two policemen on horseback, and the other of the traffic cops twirling their flashlights. We remained until the end of the demonstrations and then some local singer was introduced. As we began to leave the square, Sara suggested that I ask to be photographed with a couple of policemen. I said that I was happy to give it a try and so she approached a couple of policemen and asked on my behalf. They seemed quite happy to be a part of a photo and soon I found myself surrounded by some of Kazakhstan's finest near their new squad car. We had a nice chat and they seemed genuinely happy to meet me. As a matter of fact, ever since my arrival in the country, everyone had displayed an overt friendliness and hospitality. Tomorrow I would be going to Savva orphanage and suspected that the people would be no less kind there. More importantly, I would finally get to meet the children that Interlink was working so hard to help. After returning to the guest room, I quickly fell asleep, grateful to no longer be trying to rest in a cramped airplane seat or in the back of a speeding Audi. I knew that I would need my rest--not only in order to take good video, but also in order to cope with the emotional ups and downs that surely would be a part of my visit to the orphanage.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 3 - Savva Orphanage Day 1

June 29, 2008

As I ate my breakfast in the guestroom, I considered what the next two and a half days would hold. Sara and I (along with Diora, a translator) were scheduled to drive a couple of hours to the Savva Orphanage in Merke. We would join a delegation of Americans and their translators who had already been at the orphanage for a week. They were part of an annual visit organized by Interlink Resources and held English classes and other activities for the 180 children at Savva. I had already heard what a significant time this was from my friends in Indiana who had visited on previous trips. Also on my mind was the fact that one of the two children that I sponsored in Kazakhstan was at Savva. There were rumors that he was not on campus at the time and was instead living with an aunt in the village. I hoped that somehow I would get to see him. We had exchanged several letters, and earlier in the year he had sent me a very nice painting of a bull. It would be a shame to have traveled so far and not get to visit with him. I put the thought out of my mind as I packed a backpack and gathered my video equipment for the trip.

The journey to Merke was uneventful and in some ways familiar. We were merely backtracking along the route that I had taken a day earlier from the airport in Almaty. When we drove through the gate of the orphanage, I was surprised at how large the campus was. There was a dormitory, dining hall, school, soccer field, power plant, and several other buildings as well. I was told that the orphanage was 90 years old. With the exception of the dining hall, which had been recently built, the rest of the campus looked to me to be from the 40's or 50's. It was clear that an effort had been made to keep in neat and clean. We parked and walked over to the open area between the main building and the dining hall. There many children and members of the American delegation. It was just before lunch, so most were just talking, throwing a frisbee, or writing good wishes in notebooks that all the kids seemed to have. There were an abundance of smiles, and it was clear that the children and adults alike were enjoying each other's company. The children's clothes were in good repair and they all looked to be in good health. Over the next few minutes, I met several delegates and children, all of whom greeted me warmly. A tall American approached me with a big smile. "I know you," he said. His name was Tony and one of his best friends had been on my talk show years earlier. As it turned out, his friend's wife was part of the delegation and I would have an opportunity to meet her later. We chatted for a bit, then headed to lunch.

The food was very good, and it was clear that dill weed was a popular herb. I happen to like dill, so it was a pleasant surprise. During lunch I got to meet some more of the delegation and learned that several of them had made multiple trips to the orphanage over the years. Most were from Oregon, Virginia, and Indiana. I also met some more of the translators. They were university students, and like the delegates, some had made multiple visits. By the end of lunch, it was evident that something special was going on here. They all knew that they would be leaving in two days, but there was not even a hint of "I can't wait to get back" from any of them. I felt a bit awkward since I had arrived so late into the visit. I wondered what impact the two and a half days would have on me. Would I get to meet Mukbar (the boy that I sponsored)? Would I be able to encourage any of the other children? How would the experience affect me?

After lunch, I took my bag to my room. There were seven us staying in a dorm room. We each got a small bed with a mattress of about one-half inch. There was a card table in the middle of the room and a fan near the door. The kids, I learned later, often stayed with 10 in a room and lived like this every day. I grabbed my video camera and when back downstairs. In the afternoon, there were various activities. Many of the girls (and a couple of boys) enjoyed getting their hair and nails done (and doing the hair and nails of the female delegates!). Others played in the sandbox, still others were on the soccer pitch. Others simply wandered around talking. I met a few more of the kids and they were quick with a smile and a hug. It wasn't long before I was signing their notebooks and being led around by the hand. There was a tangible joy in the air. Later in the afternoon was "quiet time." Sara wisely suggested that I take a nap (she must have known that I needed one!) and so I went upstairs to my bed. The mattress offered little support and the room was quite warm, so I predicted that I would get little sleep. I was wrong. I soon dozed off, and was only awakened when Ken, one of the staff members at Interlink, woke me up.

Dinner was very good, as was the conversation. I was quite impressed by how well-behaved the children were during meals. They talked, but it was not the shrill cacophany that I was used to hearing as a teacher of middle school students. Afterwards, there was a break, then an arts and crafts night. The children were divided into groups and given one of three models to build and paint. I went from classroom to classroom videotaping and watching. Again I was impressed with their behavior. I saw no horseplay or rampant silliness. They were clearly having fun, but they had not pushed the limits as my students so frequently did. They also seemed to be grateful; there were no sullen teenagers here.

After the arts and crafts time, the students wandered back to the open area in front of the main hall for a dance. Loudspeakers were set up and a constant flow of lively music (most often in English) poured forth. The kids loved it, and almost all danced at one point or another. The adults joined in as well, and the evening ended with many smiles and much laughter. Again I thought of my students back home and the dances that we had arranged for them. Did they have this much fun? When the dance ended, everyone slowly head back to their rooms. The little children had gone to bed earlier, but the older ones wanted to talk a bit more. I suspected that they knew that there was only one more full day with the delegation. Before going to bed, we had a chance to clean up. There were no showers, just a large building with a changing room and a bath room. What I mean by bath room is that it had several water taps and a bunch of buckets. All the men would go in, grab a bucket, and wait in line to fill it with water. Thankfully, there was plenty of hot water. You would then find a place to soap up. After that, you would pour the bucket of water on yourself. I found that it usually took two buckets to get clean. It was rustic, but it worked! After cleaning a day's worth of dust from my body, I returned to our dorm room. As I put my head down on my pillow that I night, I reflected on the day and what a blessing it had been. These were special kids. And these were special adults--some who had come year after year. And what about Mukbar? Would I see him tomorrow? I began to emotionally prepare myself for the worst. I was told that we could even go to his aunt's house and get him. What if he wasn't there? I tried to supress such thoughts and rather tried to fill my mind with the smiles of the children that I had met that day. Sleep came quickly. Tomorrow would be my first full day at the orphanage and, ironically, the last full day for the delegates.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 4 - Savva Orphanage Day 2

I slept a lot better than I thought I would--until the coffee pot started perking away at 5:50 AM! Apparently this was part of a routine that I was not aware of since I had just arrived. The smell of coffee soon spread throughout the room, and any thoughts of sleeping until 7 o'clock disappeared. I joined the delegates for a morning prayer meeting then headed off to breakfast. Everyone was in good spirits, but I knew that this would be a tough day for most; it would be the last full day that the delegates would be at Savva.

There was a short break after breakfast, and I used the time to jot down my thoughts for the video-making presentation that I would be giving to some of the local staff later in the morning. I then headed outside to the school building to film the students arriving for school. The various groups shuffled off to the same classrooms that they had used the previous evening for the arts and crafts. As a matter of fact, many of the students still needed a few more minutes to paint their creations, and so some class time was used for that purpose. Other classrooms were engaged in English classes. It appeared that "months of the year" was the topic and the students gladly shouted out each successive month. I had to leave the classroom sessions early because I had a classroom session of my own coming up.

Sara had asked me to give a one-hour videography class for some of the local orphanage staff. They had been given a new video camera, but had not received any training. It was my job to present them with the basics. The 5 staff members seemed interested in what I had to say (either that or they were being polite!) and my translator, Diora, did a great job of keeping up with me. The group asked quite a few questions, and the hour went quickly by. They asked if I would be able to come back to talk about editing, and Sara quickly arranged for me to do so. I was quite happy to agree, knowing that I would be able to spend some more time with the kids at the orphanage when I returned.

After the session, I did a few interviews. One was with a translator, another with a graduating student, and still another with the director of the orphanage. It was clear that they loved the work that Interlink Resources was doing and were excited by the fact that the delegation had come to visit.

It was soon lunchtime, and all of us enjoyed the chance to sit down and have a bite to eat. Once more, dill weed played an important role in the cuisine, but it didn't bother me a bit. I had forgotten how much I liked the herb and made a mental note to see if I could find it in Spain. I had been trying to sit in a slightly different seat each meal so that I could talk with as many different delegates and translators as I could. I didn't entirely succeed, but I can say that I did manage to talk with at least one new person each time. When lunch was over, I knew that something I had been waiting to do was in the making.

Mukbar, the boy that I sponsored, had not yet showed up and there were rumors that he was hesitant because he was in some sort of trouble. One of Mukbar's friends, Stas, knew where he lived and offered to take us there. The director supported our plan and allowed Stas to leave campus to show us the way to the house. There was no guarantee that Mukbar would be there, but we thought that it would be worth a try. It only took a few minutes to drive to the house of Mukbar's aunt. Stas ran to an opening between the doors of the gate and yelled something. I heard the word "sponsor" and hoped that Stas was talking to Mukbar. As it turned out, he was, and I was told that he was going to quickly put on a hat and he would soon be able to join us. Moments later, the gate swung open and there he was. The boy that I had sponsored for nearly 3 years smiled and extended his hand. "I am Mukbar," he said. We shook hands and smiled at each other. It was clear that he was just a bit embarassed, but after a few moments of chat (facilitated by Kijon), he seemed to relax and was quite happy when I suggested that we go to the baazar. We all hopped in the SUV and drove another five minutes down the road to the baazar. I offered to buy him a few things and asked him if he would help me pick out a few things for Oleg, another boy that I sponsored. I ended up getting him some shorts, a shirt, a belt, some paint, and a soccer ball. I also bought Stas a pair of shorts for helping us out. We snapped a few photos and talked some more as we walked. It was clear that he was a bit "rough around the edges" but equally clear that he had a good heart. He smiled often and was quick to throw his arm around me. After picking up something to drink, we drove down a side-street towards the mountains. He said that he wanted to go to a "castle." As it turned out, he was right. It was a recreational area surrounded by castle-like walls. It had a swimming pool and a nice outdoor cafe. We took a few more photos and then sat in the cafe and talked for quite a bit. It started to rain, but since we were underneath an awning, we were fine. As the rain let up, I knew that we probably needed to go. I invited him to the carnival that we would be having that night, but he said that his aunt was having a birthday party. The ride to his home went all too quickly, but I was grateful that I had finally met him. He asked me to come back to Kazakhstan and I told him that I would try. He gave me a big hug and then we had to say goodbye. I wasn't sad; I was happy to have met him and had the strongest feeling that I would see him again.

Upon returning to Savva, I taped a couple of more interviews and had some dinner. Shortly after we ate, it began to rain, but this time much harder than earlier. The rain didn't stop those who decided to do a bit of dancing outside. With soaked hair and clothing, they continued their pre-carnival disco without missing a beat. The rain let up with sufficient time to set up the events and before long the children were enjoying bowling, sponge toss, funny photos, and many other events. Despite the simple nature of the carnival, everyone loved it. The kids awaited patiently in line for each event and their almost continuous smiles revealed much gratitude. Besides videotaping what I could, my only other contribution was to show some of them how to pull of their thumbs! After the carnival there was another dance, and I was persuaded to join in. Thankfully, my lack of dancing skill seemingly went unnoticed!

After the dance, the children and adults signed more notebooks and many hung out in the halls for at least another hour. I talked with a group of them for at least 30 minutes and gave up a trip to the "bano" that night. I decided that I needed some sleep, so I went upstairs to our dorm room only to discover that about twenty kids and adults were right outside the door. I got into bed anyway and hoped that someone would suggest they get some sleep. That someone turned out to be Sara, and I was grateful to finally nod off. I knew that tomorrow would be difficult, and I also knew that if I didn't get enough sleep, it would be even more so.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 5 - Saava Orphanage Day 3

The smell and sound of coffee brewing once again woke me up at 5:50 AM. I was glad that I had slept well, but wondered how many others had. They had spent a lot more time with the kids than I had and would be much more emotionally attached. I joined the delegates for a prayer walk around the perimeter of the orphanage and watched as the kids began coming out. Normally they wouldn't be out quite so early, but they knew that today the delegates would be leaving right after breakfast. I wondered how I would react. Sara had warned me that as soon as the bus pulled up things would be harder.

After breakfast I taped another interview with one of the kids. As we walked back towards the main building, the red and tan coach approached. Sara was right--the sight of the bus caused my emotions to accelerate. I took a deep breath and took comfort in the fact that I would not be on the bus (I would be riding home with Sara shortly after) and that I would be returning a week from Saturday to do another video workshop.

The boys began carrying out the suitcases and boxes, some barely able to drag them, others balancing things on their heads. In between packing, the delegates and kids chatted, hugged, and cried. Some of the kids that I had talked to came running over. I gave them a hug and told them that I would be back soon. I videotaped mostly from a distance, not wanting to invade the privacy of those sharing what could be their final moments together. We had been told to try to keep things as upbeat as possible, and for the most part, it was. Some of the delegates held two or three kids in their arms. Others smiled and talked. The team leader, Jim, had told everyone that as soon he said "it's time to get on the bus," then everyone must quickly comply. I wondered how I would have reacted had I not been videotaping. The dreaded words finally came. Some immediately offered a final hug and smile, others could not quite let go. Jim and Sara had the task of prodding the stragglers, and it was probably another five minutes before the bus was loaded and ready. Dozens of young faces stared upward into the heavily tinted bus windows and tried to get a final glance of the visitors who had meant so much to them. I videotaped as the bus drove down the dusty lane and out of the orphanage. I took another deep breath and headed towards the main building. I had about five minutes to get my things and get back to Sara's car. I noticed that one of the boys who I had interviewed was having a tough time. I put my arm around his shoulder and walked him back upstairs to his dorm floor. I said a few more good-byes and got a few more hugs as I worked my way back to Sara's SUV. I was honored to have visited Savva and was already looking forward to visiting again.

Sara and I pulled onto the main road and headed out of town. We needed to stop at a nearby sanitorium where some of the kids from Savva had been assigned. I wasn't quite sure why, but it had something to do with TB prevention. It wasn't long before we arrived at the fairly modern pastel yellow buildings and found our way to the proper floor. The interior was very clean and modern, and looked as though it wasn't more then five year old. The kids from Savva were rounded up and greeted Sara warmly. "Sara! Sara!" they called. After a mini hug-fest we handed out gift bags containing some toiletries. The kids were all very excited and eagerly looked through the bags. We couldn't stay very long because we had an appointment at a teacher-training center and didn't want to be late. Again, we said our good-byes and headed off down the bumpy road.

Sara and I were heading to what I understood to be a college, where Interlink was training english teachers to teach other teachers, and so on. When Sara called to ask directions, she asked the woman if the school was on the right or left side of the road coming from Merke. She didn't know! As a result, we sped right by it, but some kind men at what appeared to be an auto repair place pointed us in the right direction. One minute later, we were there. The woman was waiting for us and led us upstairs to the classroom. The building was older and in the midst of getting an interior paint job. The smell of turpentine filled the halls. When we reached the classroom, about twelve students were seated around a table. They were listening to a song (I Want to be Your Hero?) in English, then singing it back. They seemed to be having a good time and didn't mind as I walked around the room taping them. Later, they did an activity that involved listening to a weather forecast on the radio, and another which required them to interpret or predict parts of the film "Les Miserables." From time to time during the lessons, we snuck off to another room and taped some interviews with the teachers. A couple had known we were coming and had already prepared remarks, which they were eager to share. They were very excited about the curriculum that Interlink had provided and looking forward to sharing it throughout the region. We were asked to stay for lunch, which we happily did. Since they were all learners and teachers of english, I was able to enjoy talking to them directly, without Sara having to translate. I found it ineresting that they asked me what year I was born. Sara later informed me that it was a typical Kazakh question. I was tempted to ask them in which year they were born, but I resisted. It was a delicious and very enjoyable lunch. Afterwards, we took some group photos, during which they practiced their slang. The most amusing for me was "see you soon, baboon!" I wondered where she had learned that one! After an emotionally difficult morning, it was nice to have an uplifting time at the school, and Sara and I left feeling upbeat. The trip home went quickly, and we were soon back at the office.

That evening, I enjoyed another nice dinner at Beth and Sara's place. We had stopped on the way and gotten a roast chicken, which was quite good. Beth offered to walk me back to the office (I was still staying in the guest apartment there) and I enjoyed the fresh air. The town square (where the policemen had been on my first night) was alive with people. It was more or less a mini carnival, with a bucking bronco, some games, cotton candy, etc. It was all a bit chaotic, with roller-bladers and cyclists zipping right between us. Especially amusing were the remote control mini-cars "driven" by little children. Sometimes I wondered if the parents knew how to use the remotes! Beth and I managed to survive the square and continued to a little park. We ran into a couple of people from the delegation, chatted a bit, then continued to the office. It had been a long, somewhat emotional day, and I was all too ready to relax. So far, my trip to Kazakhstan had been wonderful. I hoped that the days ahead would be just as good.