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.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 6 - A Day in Taraz and the Departure of the Delegates

Friday would be the last day that the delegation would be in Taraz before taking the night train to Almaty. A tour of the city was arranged for those who wished to go, so I was happy to go along and see some sights. One of our first stops was small mosque located on a hill overlooking the city. It wasn't particularly big, but it was in an ideal location, with nice views of the river and the town. We watched as a number of children waded into the water to cool off. Much to my surprise, a white SUV backed right into the river looking very much like the owner was giving it a cheap bath. It seemed a bit risky to me! We visited another holy place, this one located in what appeared to be a park. Again, we didn't go inside. On the same grounds some ancient ruins had been found and we saw several men excavating the site. An ancient temple had been restored, so we took a look inside. Next, it was off to the town square where we visited the local historical museum. It contained the usual artifacts, including a significant number of stone carvings that used to dot the countryside. Our official tour ended with lunch at a nearby restaurant. I ended up ordering pizza (different, but not bad), forgetting that I had been invited to a pizza party that night. After lunch, we broke into groups to visit the bazaar. I didn't really need to do any shopping, but thought it would be fun to soak up some atmosphere. I joined Randall and his daughter, along with their translator, Jenya. There were shops of every kind--from food to rugs to electrical goods. Randall's daughter wanted a special mat to lie on, so we got directions to a shop that sold them. She found one that she liked, and after some bargaining, bought it. Our time was about up, so we grabbed a taxi and headed back. I took a short break at the office, then several of us headed over to the Knouse's house for "family night." We enjoyed homemade pizza and watched a movie. Tonight was the last night that they would spend in the house (they were moving back to the States), so it was quite nice of them to open up the place to us. After the movie, everyone headed to the train station. The delegates would be taking the night train to Almaty. Most of the translators and many others joined in to wish the group farewell. Just like in a movie, those on the train waved goodbye from the windows as the train slowly chugged its way out of the station. This was the second set of good-byes that I had witnessed and I knew that there would be more to follow.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 7 - Farewell to the Knouse's

Today I had nothing "official" on the schedule, but Sara asked if I would like to join her for lunch then later take the youngest two Knouse boys to the park in order to keep them occupied while their mom and dad packed. It was a nice day (so far, the weather has been much milder than I had expected), so I was happy to go along. The park was much bigger than I had anticipated, with a huge selection of carnival rides (similar to those found in "parking lot" carnivals in the States) and a variety of cafes and snack shops. Twelve-year-old Daniel and ten-year-old Caleb clearly maintained a certain rivalry, but managed to enjoy themselves as we rode the ferris wheel, the swings, bumper cars, and a small roller coaster. It wasn't particularly crowded, and one man typically operated more than one ride, waiting until someone showed up at the entrance before sauntering over. The hours went by quickly and we were soon back at the Knouse's house. Sara had offered to prepare dinner (hamburgers, salad, chips, etc.) for the family and for all of the guests that may show up. She explained that it is Kazakh tradition to stop by a departing family's home to offer them good wishes. It is also tradition that you have something to offer your guests when they arrive. Sure enough, neighbors and friends, some coming from a considerable distance, stopped by for the next few hours. I felt a bit uncomfortable that I was often the subject of the questions ("What year were you born?" again!), but the friendly nature of the guests quickly put me at ease. I was amazed that the Knouse's were able to pack and entertain guests at the same time. In the States, such a situation would induce much panic. For the second night in row, I went to the train station. Once again, a large crowd was present to say good-bye. I told the Knouse's that I felt a bit strange having just met them, yet being a part of such an important night in their lives. Interestingly, I was scheduled to move into their house the day after they moved out. As before, those departing waved good-bye from the windows of the massive train. It seemed that I was saying good-bye as often as I was saying hello. Tomorrow I anticipated another hello and good-bye; this time it would be with a second child that I sponsored.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 8 - Ulan Orphanage & Another Day at the Park

When I woke up this morning, I knew that today would be different in a couple of important respects. For one, I would be moving from the apartment at the office and into the Knouse's house. One of the Interlink staff, Ken, was also living there, but he was away in Almaty. The second task for the day would be far more personal--Sara would be taking me to Ulan orphanage to visit with the second child that I sponsored, a boy named Oleg.

Sara picked me up at the office and we head to Ulan, which was not far away and still within the city limits of Taraz. She suggested that we see if we could take Oleg to lunch and spend some time with him off campus. When we arrived at Ulan, there were a handful of boys hanging around outside along with a couple of caregivers. As it turned out, Oleg and his brother were spending the summer at the home of some relatives on the outskirts of the city. For the second time on a my trip, the orphan that I sponsored was away. Sara said that Interlink would be able to track him down and that perhaps we could visit later in the week. Naturally, I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to see him today, but glad that Sara offered to try again. At that moment, some of the boys said that they knew where he lived and would be happy to take us there. Sara said that if they got permission from the caregivers, then we would be grateful to have them help us. With little persuasion, the caregivers said that it was okay. The trip to Oleg's took us on some very bumpy gravel roads to what appeared to me to be a small, somewhat run-down, village. We turned down a one-lane lane and stopped when the boys said that we had arrived. Would he be home?

We were greeted by an older woman, who at first appeared surprised to see us, but then happily invited us in. She led us to the porch of what must have been the kitchen to a fly-covered table with the remnants of what must have been breakfast. An older man was stretched out on a nearby bed. He sat up as we seated ourselves. A baby girl in a scooter chair eyed us with interest. Oleg introduced himself then helped clear the table. He appeared slightly embarrassed at the state of the table and quickly cleaned it. The older woman insisted that we sit down and have some tea and bread. It turned out that she and the man were invalids. They were also the parents of Oleg's sister's husband. The baby was Oleg's sister's. While we were chatting, Oleg and the boys played with the girl and drew some water from the well just a few feet from the porch. I mixed some fresh raspberry jam into my tea and ate some bread. Sara translated and once again I was asked how old I was. I was now getting used to the question and to the fact that it was always in the form of "What year were you born?" I wondered what kind of life this woman and her husband had led. The lines etched into their faces seemed to indicate that it had been a difficult one. The man, only wearing shorts, joined us for some photos. After several more cups of tea, we asked if we could take Oleg and his brother out for the afternoon. She said that it was fine and invited us to see her house before she left. We walked across the courtyard into the small house. We walked through a small salon, and then what appeared to be two bedrooms, although there were no beds. Did they sleep on the floor? She showed me some old photos of her family. The house, despite it's size, was neat and clean. Oleg changed clothes and we headed for the SUV.

We needed to get the other boys back to the orphanage and were actually running a bit late. Sara explained that the caregivers would understand that we had been invited for tea. We pulled up at Ulan and saw the caregiver that we had spoken to earlier. She thought that maybe Oleg and his brother would like to have a couple of their friends come along with us for the afternoon. The caregiver gave his consent and we headed off. We asked the boys if they wanted to go bowling or go to the park and ride some rides. They couldn't make up their minds and asked me to decide. Although I had been to the park the day before, I thought they would like it (and knew that I preferred being outside) and suggested that. They laughed and joked on the way and were clearly happy to be going out together. The first stop at the park was the very (by American standards) modest roller coaster. They laughed and screamed and even dared to hold up their hands for a moment. The rest of the afternoon was spent riding rides and eating snacks. I enjoyed the Kazakh version of a hotdog, with its cucumber salad topping. The boys were clearly having a good time, and I was happy that we had managed to find Oleg. As the afternoon came to a close, we loaded back into the car and returned to the orphanage.

Oleg gave me a quick tour. Like Savva Orphanage, it was neat and clean. Oleg showed me his bed, complete with the Madrid sticker I had sent him at Christmas. We said our good-byes to the other boys and then headed back to Oleg's house. I gave him a backpack with some clothes and a soccer ball. He seemed pleased and surprised. I told him that I was happy to be his sponsor and that I was pleased that I had finally gotten to meet him. We posed for some photos and then said goodbye. I watched as Oleg and his brother walked down the gravel lane to their house and wondered what the future held for them. Oleg had actually graduated from 9th grade and would now move on to college. He told me that he wanted to be a lawyer. I told Sara that I would be happy to help Oleg and his brother as long as it was possible. I considered what their lives might have been had it not been for the fine people at Interlink Resources. I also considered how my encounter with these children would change my life. It had been a good day.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 9 - The Circumcision Party

I woke up very early this morning because we had been invited to attend a "circumcision party" at 7 AM. A friend of Interlink, a Tae Kwan Do teacher named Ruslan, was hosting the event for his six year old son. Apparently, this was supposed to be quite an important occasion and Beth suggested that it would be a wonderful cultural opportunity for me as well as a good chance to get some video. I just hoped that I wouldn't be asked to videotape anything too personal!

We were joined by an English teacher, Heather, and some Americans who would be helping her present at a conference. As we pulled up near the house, a large number of cars were parked along the street and I could see people milling around near the entrance. As I got out of the car, I wondered just what the morning would hold.
Ruslan's place seemed very nice and we were ushered into a large courtyard filled with colorfully decorated tables. It appeared that the men were on one side of the courtyard and the women on the other, but since we were guests we were allowed to sit as a mixed-gender group. The tables were completely covered with plates of food, ranging from salads to candy. An English-speaking relative of Ruslan's stood at the end of the table and served us. From time to time, music would begin playing and the women, some dressed in traditional Kazakh garb, would dance. To my surprise and great shock, Beth informed me that Ruslan wanted me to film the circumcision. I took a deep breath and considered what this might mean. I knew that I could not refuse and quickly began thinking of how I would handle the situation. I decided that I would use my wide-angle lens and stay as far out of the way as I could. For the rest of the meal, I tried to take my mind off what I had been asked to do, comforting myself only slightly by the fact that the boy would have it much worse than I would!

The time arrived and Ruslan called me over. We slipped off our shoes before entering, then made our way to the salon. A group of men surrounded a mattress and blanket that had been prepared. To my great relief, Ruslan told me that I was only to tape before and after, but not during. To my further relief, I would be asked to step out of the room for the "during" part. Whew! As the boy entered, I was impressed at his composure. As the older men removed his trousers, he stared straight ahead, almost expressionless. I considered that a young boy in America facing such an ordeal would no doubt be screaming his head off. I decided to stay with my original idea of using a wide-angle lens and stood at the back of the room and taped as the men put the boy down on the mattress. The older men prayed, then I was dismissed.

When I came back outside, I discovered that walnuts had been thrown all over the ground and on the tables. Apparently this was a fertility blessing of some sort, wishing everyone many sons. A few minutes later, I was called back into the salon. I wondered if the boy would be crying. When I came in, he looked very much as I had left him, with an expressionless stare. His older brother and a few of his friends were now beside him, looking at him with great interest. The other men were talking and smiling. I was informed that the older man next to the boy had performed all of the circumcisions in the village and was now training his son to do the same. I videotaped from a distance, then excused myself, never having imagined that I would be witnessing such an event.

Upon my return outside I was peppered with questions and subject to just a bit of teasing. I ate some more food, then filmed a bit more dancing and cooking. After the dance, we said our good-byes. Ruslan thanked us for coming and said that we were always welcome at his house. Having now spent several days in Kazakhstan, I knew that he meant it.

The celebrations were not over--now we were heading to a graduation ceremony at a local college. Several former Savva students would be graduating and Beth would be saying a few words. We arrived very early to set up a slide show and watch the MC's practice their dialogue. Music punctuated every introduction and it began to occur to me that this would no doubt be much different than the rather dry graduation ceremonies that I was used to. It ended up starting about an hour late (I suspected that we had gotten our times mixed up) and turned out to be very entertaining. There was singing and dancing, and each speaker was introduced with a blast of music. It seemed as though I was watching "Kazakh Idol" or something. Of course, I had no real idea what the speakers were saying, but I enjoyed all the music in between. The students were not dressed in caps or gowns, but just came from the audience as they were called. At the very end, a huge group of them came to the stage for their "closing number." The time went by quickly and I thought it was fun. It was hard to believe that a few hours earlier I had been video-taping a circumcision!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 10 - Visit to Shymkent

Today was another early morning. Sara would be driving me to Shymkent, where we would be visiting the Interlink Resources center there. Originally we had planned to spend a couple of days there, but accommodation could not be arranged. Also, Beth had developed a cold, so everyone thought it best just to do a day trip.
The morning was cool and bright, and I was relieved that the ultra hot temperatures that I had been told to expect had not materialized. The three hour journey was made a bit more interesting by the narrow, winding roads, which meant that we had to pass quite frequently. We also made a couple of stops, including one to see a lonely camel who seemed to be guarding a holy place. He didn't mind at all that I was invading his space and cooperated for some quick picture-taking. Much of the journey took place in the foothills of the mountains and made for some spectacular scenery from time to time. I was surprised at how quickly the time went.
The Shymkent center was bigger than I expected and was composed of several large buildings. While the exterior was a bit rough, the interior was very neat and clean. The center hosted many English classes and housed a nice library. It was fun to speak English with most of the staff and to sense their enthusiasm for chatting with native English speakers such as Sara and I. We went from room to room videotaping and doing interviews with the staff. We also visited a cerebral palsy unit and videotaped an emotional appeal from one of the patient's mothers. Afterwards, we had lunch with the director of the center, a very kind man with a name that I cannot spell! In a somewhat amusing fashion, he kept hinting that he wanted me to come to work with him in Shymkent. I wondered if someday I would. After lunch, we did a bit more taping, coming across some Americans who had come to Kazakhstan to adopt children. They were speaking with some students who clearly loved practicing their English and chatting with the foreigners. After leaving the center, we stopped at the home of Dr. Laurie, who had an office at Interlink but was at home that day. She had been in Kazakhstan for seven years and I marveled what grace God must have extended to this kind woman. I felt a bit guilty that my visit was only two weeks. We said goodbye and headed back to Taraz.

We stopped at a couple of villages along the way, and I enjoyed the spectacle of seeing the cows come home. Their respective owners would meet them at an intersection and the cows would obediently turn down the road and go to the correct house. I had heard the expression many times, but until now I had never seen "the cows come home." Although long, it had been a good day. I thought about all the wonderful people that I had met. Would I ever see them again? I hoped so.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 11 - Some More Interviews and 4th of July

The last couple of days my stomach has been just a bit dodgy, and I wondered what it was that might have caused it. Could it have been the ice cream that Sara (who also reported a funny tummy) and I had on the way back from Shymkent? In any case, it was just enough to be noticed, but not enough to stop me from doing anything.

Beth, Olya, and I went to visit a few dentists who had gone to the States for training sponsored by Interlink. While no doubt very professional dentists, their offices were fairly old and not the sparkling clean places found back home. (I don't say this as a criticism, only an observation.) They were very grateful for the training that they had received and looked forward to working again with their American counterparts. I didn't ask, but wondered what a typical trip to the dentist would cost here. The last dentist that we visited, an older, blonde-haired lady, did not have an assistant or a receptionist, nor did she take appointments. You simply showed up and waited. When we arrived, there was no one waiting, and only one patient being treated. The dentist explained that the treatment would take a while, so she asked the woman to get up from the chair while we were doing our interview. I felt a bit bad that this woman had to wait, but I wasn't the one in charge! After returning to the office, I taped an interview with Olya, who was working with the Youth Impact program.

The following day, I did another videotaping seminar to a group of young ladies and their teacher. The seminar was the same as the one I had done at Savva Orphanage last week and went well I thought. In the afternoon, Beth took me to a local university to videotape some more teacher-training sessions. The workshops were being run by a group of Americans who we had met earlier at the circumcision party. The videotaping went well, and the level of competence displayed by the students as they spoke English impressed me. The building itself was battered and beaten, the hallways grim and poorly lit. The classrooms were cramped, but functional. None of that mattered to the students or their teachers, who were clearly enjoying what they were doing.

The next day, Friday, was a day off for the Fourth of July. While the Kazakhs don't celebrate the holiday, Beth explained that it was good to observe the traditional American holidays when so far from home. After lunch, many of the office staff and their families came by the house where we enjoyed hamburgers, french fries, watermelon, etc. Later, what started as an "egg toss" with water balloons, soon turned into a huge water fight with everyone ending up soaked. Using my camera as an excuse, I managed to stay fairly dry. The evening was capped off with a bonfire (including "some-mores") and some fireworks. It was good fun. The next day should be fun as well--we are heading back to Savva one more time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 12 - Return to Savva Orphanage

I woke up this morning with a certain amount of anticipation. Today we will be traveling to Savva Orphanage for a video-editing workshop. To be honest, while I am happy to do the workshop, seeing the kids one more time is what I'm really looking forward to.

Sara and Ember arrived around 8:30 and we all enjoyed some pancakes cooked by breakfast chef Ken. I hadn't had a good pancake in ages, so it was a real treat. We drove to the office to pick up some equipment and meet our translator. There was only one problem--our translator wasn't there. We waited a while, then realized that she wasn't coming. Sara explained that in Kazakh culture it was perfectly acceptable for someone to back out of something that he or she had volunteered for. Ember made a quick call to Kiikzhan (one of the office staff) who not surprisingly agreed to translate. We picked him up and began our trek down the bumpy road to Savva. As usual, we had to do a lot of passing. Although it is the main road to Almaty, it is almost entirely two lane. The Kazakhs tend to be "bold" passers, and I witnessed more than just a few close calls. As we pulled up to the orphanage, I hoped that the editing workshop wouldn't prevent me from spending some time with the kids.

We got out of the SUV and headed for the main building where some kids were engaged in some sort of jump-rope relay. Others, I was told, were playing soccer. Before I knew it, several familiar faces greeted me, including little Vadim, who had seemed to take a liking to me on my previous visit. He led me by the hand to a nearby bench and motioned for me to sit down. The crowd around me grew as I began to hand out some photos that I had printed for them. A few moments later I was asked to finish handing them out later so as not to disturb the game. I went inside the building where some confusion was ensuing regarding the use of the director's office for the workshop. When we finally gained access, there were a host of technology issues that prevented us from using the LCD projector that we had brought. In what seemed like just few minutes, we were called to lunch. We would have to finish setting up later. We enjoyed some tasty soup and then some rice. I wanted to get back to the equipment so as not to be caught unprepared, but there was little that I could do except to wait for everyone to finish. With 30 minutes before the seminar would start, we returned to make our final preparations. Adding to the fun, of course, was the fact that the entire process would require translation. We would also be using an English and a Russian version of the software. It's a long story, but I had to demonstrate software that I had never actually used before. I know what you're thinking--but trust me, there was no way around it! Thankfully, it was fairly intuitive and similar to other editing software that I had used before, so I felt only marginally apprehensive about using it. The participants, mostly staff members who had attended my last seminar at Savva, joined the director for the workshop. As it turned out, the director often interrupted, and a few things were quite difficult to translate properly, making for a sometimes frustrating hour. It all turned out okay in the end, and I hoped that that everyone got something from it. Now I was anxious to see the kids.

As it turned out, it was quiet time and the caretaker was reluctant to let me disturb the kids. I tried to explain that this would be the last time that I would see them, but I'm not sure that she understood. In any case, Kiikzhan and Ember, with the help of a couple of the kids, led me from room to room to hand out photos and to say goodbye. They loved the photos, although I did feel bad that I didn't have photos of all the kids. There were many hugs and then it was time to leave. I was a bit disappointed that I had spent most of my time with the editing workshop, but nonetheless glad that I could see the kids one final time. Two of the kids, Stas and Daniel, ran to the gate and waved at us as we left.

On the way home, we thought we would stop by Mukbar's house. When we arrived, we found that he had just left. We were told that he had looked for us in the morning but then had to go to Almaty to visit his father. I was, of course, disappointed, but knew that there was little I could do. The ride home was, not surprisingly, just as action-packed as the ride there. Adding to the excitement was the fact that we got a flat tire and had to pull off the narrow road to change it. Kazakh drivers do not tend to slow down for vehicles on the side of the road, and I held my breath as the cars and truck zipped past Kiikzhan as he changed the tire. We were finally back on the road, and I looked forward to an uneventful remainder of the journey. The only other thing of note was the number of people we saw swimming in some rivers and canals. In one case, the water was flowing so quickly, the guy in the water looked like he would be swept away at any moment. After a few minutes and with some effort, he pulled himself out and rested near the edge. It wasn't long before we were home.
Tomorrow will be the last day for me in Taraz. Sara and I will take the night train to Almaty, then spend one day sight-seeing. I will have been here nearly two-weeks. The time has flown by, and I already know that I will miss this place. My next, and most likely, final blog entry will probably be written when I return to Madrid.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Kazakhstan Update Part 13 - Almaty Then Farewell

While I still had a couple of more days in Kazakhstan, I had mixed feelings about today, knowing that it would be my last in Taraz. After breakfast I began to organize my things so that when it came time to pack, it wouldn't take me very long. The rest of the day went by fairly quickly with "team time" with Beth, Sara, Ember, and Ken followed by a very nice home-cooked Mexican lunch. I also ended up reading the rest of the "airport book" that I had brought along.

Finally, around 10 PM, we drove to the train station. This was my third trip there, but the first with me as a passenger. Sara would be joining me on the journey to Almaty because she had to meet the members of a new delegation that were arriving. As Sara, Beth, Ken, and I chatted on the platform, I was happy to see Kiikzhan peddle towards us with his bicycle. His friendly nature and almost constant smile had been real blessings to me on the trip, and I was flattered that he had chosen to see Sara and me off that night.

The compartment itself consisted of four fold-down beds and a very small table near the window. I had taken overnight trains before and knew that it was unlikely that I would get much sleep. Sara and another woman took the top bunks, while a young guy and I took the bottom bunks. Thankfully, no one seemed to want to stay up very late so it wasn't long before we made our beds and climbed in. For a few minutes we enjoyed air-conditioning, but for some reason it was soon turned off and the rest of the night our cabin was quite stuffy and hot. I did manage some sleep, but the stuffy compartment and the poor state of the railroad tracks made it difficult indeed. I was happy and relieved when we arrived at the Almaty train station the next morning.

Sara hailed a taxi and we headed off to Teen Challenge, a drug-rehab center which also happened to run a small hotel. Sara told me that not only was it the best value in town, but it also was in a quiet neighborhood. The fifteen-minute drive went by quickly, and we were soon pulling up the wooded campus of Teen Challenge. My room was clean, comfortable, and quiet--just as Sara had described. I enjoyed a nice shower and some breakfast, happy to be free from the cramped train compartment.

An hour or so later, a friend of Sara's arrived to drive us into town. He was a friendly guy, and Sara told me that he ran a clothing shop in the city. The roads were very smooth and Almaty was very much a modern city. The driver insisted that we stop by the "Mega Mall", a very upscale and fancy shopping center. We spent perhaps 20 minutes walking through it, and I wondered what the poor villagers that I had met in Taraz would think of it. We soon left and continued our mini-tour of the city. I've never cared much for soviet-style architecture, so as we drove through Almaty I wondered if I could ever live in such a place.

Our plan was to drive to the base of Chi Bulak, a ski resort with very nice views of the city. Our driver bid us farewell and after an aborted attempt at lunch, we found ourselves in another vehicle racing through S-curves towards the resort. While the scenery was quite beautiful, we were going at such a speed that it was hard to concentrate on the view. I was happy when we arrived at Chi Bulak and escaped the vehicle. We enjoyed a nice lunch at the base of the ski lift, then bought our tickets and headed up on the ski-lift. The air temperature grew colder and colder with each meter we rose, and we saw several people in thick jackets (which you could rent). The ride, despite the now chilly air, was very beautiful. When we got off the ski-lift, we had the choice of continuing on two more lifts. As it turned out, there was a fair amount of fog, making a continued journey useless. We wondered around, snapping pictures of the resort below. It was nice to be out of the city and in the green mountains. The ride back down on the lift was just as nice as the ride up. With some apprehension we got back into the car driven by "Speed Racer" and flew back down. Sara, at my request, asked him to stop a couple of times for photos. He didn't seem to happy about it, but he complied.

Back at the base, near a huge skating stadium, we hopped on a bus and headed into town. Earlier, I had mentioned to Sara that a couple of my former students at TASIS had once attended an American school in Almaty. She knew the principal of one such school, so we hailed a taxi to take a visit. As it turned out, it wasn't the same school, but the principal was quite nice and gave us a tour. The present campus was a bit old and cramped, but she explained that through a series of miraculous circumstances, God had blessed them with some new property and the money to build a new school.

We headed back into the city-center to a pedestrian mall and looked around a bit. Our plan was to meet up with a friend of Sara's (a Kazakh woman who used to work at the Interlink office in Taraz) and a friend of a friend of mine (a Canadian guy who was good friends with a teaching colleague at ASM). We met Sara's friend first, then about an hour or so later, we met up with Albert and a lady friend that he had brought along. We enjoyed lively conversation and many laughs for the next several hours, ending our time with lots of pizza at a soviet-style pub nearby.

Back at Teen Challenge, I said good-bye to Sara. She would be leaving at 1 AM to meet a delegation. I, on the other had, would have to get up about 4 AM so that I could get to the airport by 5 or so. I was a bit worried that my Teen Challenge driver would forget, but he was there with time to spare and in about 15 minutes I was in the airport, awaiting to board my KLM flight to Amsterdam. As I sat in the airport lounge, I considered what a heart-warming and enjoyable time I had spent in Kazakhstan. I thought about all the kind people at Interlink who spent each day helping others, I thought about the orphans at Savva and Ulan and wondered what the future held for them, and I thought about when I would return to this place. Soon, I hoped.