Monday, December 10, 2007

Hanukkah and Looking Forward to the Holiday Season

[Once again a double post! Enjoy!]

Living abroad is exciting. Being an expat is fabulous! But it’s not without sacrifices and pain. How can I not long for my family, friends and the familiar during the holidays?

Now that Hanukkah is here I think most vividly of Hanukkah last year when I was living in LA and my aunt’s and uncle’s home was at the height of reconstruction. Dust was everywhere. We only had a microwave to reheat latkes and chicken soup. My friend David joined us and my aunt made sure he had a present too. This year I celebrated only night 3 of Hanukkah but I made it count!

A shout out to all my Dallas friends – I brought back the Latke Bar!

As you can see in the picture, this year was not about your average Latkes.
-For the traditionalist we had the The Original (just potatoes)
-Because we all miss Mexican food The Taco Latke (chilies and Taco seasoning).
-For the adventurers The Health Nut (green radish, carrots, spinach and curry, sans potato). This one turned out great! It reminded me of a snack from India’s Sweet and Spice on Venice in Culver City.
-Our toppings were also a mix – homemade applesauce (mashed the apples myself!), sour cream and pico de gallo! We can get great cilantro here.

Everyone was really gracious and excited to celebrate the holiday too. They learned about Hanukkah as kids but never celebrated it. My only regrets are that we didn’t make more latkes and we didn't have dreidels!!

It’s also strange how cultures adopt each others traditions. For the Muslims in Kyrgyzstan a “Christmas Tree” is erected on New Years and a man dressed like Santa Claus is the equivalent of Father Time! I don’t know where this tradition comes from – Was it way for the Soviet’s to remove religion from the tradition or a recent capitalist invention? I need to do more research. In any case, the grocery store next to my house is decked out in Christmas/New Years decorations and in a way it’s comforting. It’s just enough to feel festive and familiar but not overbearing. I certainly don’t miss the malls of America right now!

I’m also very excited to say Aaron and I will be spending Christmas in London and New Years in Paris! I’ve never been to either city and I can’t wait to see themI do plan on cooking dinner Christmas Eve (all my Atlanta, TX favorites) and then maybe we’ll go out for Chinese on Christmas Day. ! If you have any suggestions of great little hidden gems in either city, please send them along!

Happy Holidays!

Wrapping Up Thanksgiving

I’ve spent Thanksgiving away from family but I’ve never been abroad during the holidays. This year I didn’t watch Jennifer baking Mama Tine’s cornbread for dressing or Julia making asparagus casserole or Brooke adding apricot jam to the cranberry sauce or Mark making drinks or Dad and my brothers sneaking bites of the ham or Amy whipping the cream for ambrosia or Mom making her sweet potato casserole or Jessica chasing Hudson through the kitchen or Susan advising with her 3 ring binder of recipes or Pamela breaking open the boxed wine or Papa OJ observing all the organized chaos from the kitchen table.

What I did have was 15 wonderful expats who each brought their own tradition to the Thanksgiving table.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays so I knew ahead of time there were certain dishes I needed to make the holiday complete. Luckily I have very generous friends and family at home who understood that too.

A BIG shout out to my parents, my aunts Julia and Pamela, my cousin Gretchen and my friends Julie and Oren for their awesome care packages!

So what dish did I contribute to Thanksgiving Kyrgyzstan 2007? One of my top 3 favorites….. Sweet Potato Casserole. For the un-initiated, SPC is mashed sweet potatoes mixed with butter and brown sugar then topped with marshmallows. The marshmallows are added the last 5-10 minutes of baking and come out of the oven golden, puffy and just a touch crunchy around the edges. Oh- it’s heaven! See the picture? Doesn’t it just look like heaven? I bet you are wondering why a whole edge is missing? That’s a story for later….

By the morning of Thanksgiving only Cousin Gretchen’s box had arrived. The can of sweet potatoes she sent only served 5 people but 3x that were expected at our dinner. I fretted to my friend Becky about what to do! How do I satisfy 15 people with this one can? Then it hit me….. what also tastes good with brown sugar, butter and sweet potatoes? APPLES! So I bought a kilo of pretty red apples (6 large ones) and took them home to make an applesauce to combine with the potatoes. Becky peeled while I grated. I mixed in the same proportions of brown sugar and butter the SPC recipe called for and 30 minutes later had a nice mixture. It tasted just like apple pie. I feared overpowering the potatoes with the flavor of apples so I mixed it in 1 cup at a time. 3 cups later I had tripled the recipe and you couldn’t even taste the secret ingredient.

When I got to Colin’s the stove was occupied with the turkey. Yes. We have turkeys in Kyrgyzstan. And they are delicious! Of course the turkey took longer to roast than expected so when it was time for me to bake the SPC, it was also time for Becky to reheat her green been casserole and for Theo to cook the stuffing.

Colin’s oven is half the size of an American oven and contained only one baking rack. So, how are 3 people supposed to cook their dishes at once??

Peace Corps volunteers are nothing if not resourceful. Theo found a couple of pairs of chopsticks so we stacked each pot on top of the next and used the chopsticks to separate them. We only had a couple of mishaps. First Becky removed all 3 dishes at once and her casserole fell into my SPC. That was before the marshmallows were added so no harm was done. Then when it was time to remove my dish…..I got a little excited and the puffy golden marshmallows crashed with the edge of the oven. That is why my SPC is smiling.

During dinner Becky was the only one who knew of the secret ingredient. I kept asking everyone what they thought of the casserole – especially since it’s not a traditional dish at every Thanksgiving – and everyone thought it delicious! After it was all gone I spilled the beans. I know I came off a little bit boastful but I was just so proud of myself of finding a way to triple the dish and share a little piece of home with all of my friends here.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


A BIG HAPPY THANKSGIVING FROM HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD!! Thanks to many wonderful care packages sent from home, my friends and fellow expats were able to have a real thanksgiving! I'll post more later and some pictures as well. Just know that you are in my hearts and thoughts.

all the best,

Saturday, November 3, 2007

In the words of Nancy Regan, “Just Say No!”

[double posted today! See below for the follow up to Halloween. Much love, Kelly]

I am so thankful I know how to say “No” before coming to Kyrgyzstan. It took a LONG time to develop and embrace this skill. At one point I thought saying “No” would mean friends, family or colleagues would judge me mean or selfish or inconsiderate. Now I think it’s the most considerate thing I can possibly do for myself and the requesting party.

There is an English teacher who asked me to visit his class so his students could hear a “real American accent.” I agreed so we set a date for me to visit. A week before our scheduled time he says he’s arranged for me to teach English at his University every Friday at 9am! I told him that was not what we agreed to and I was sorry if I led to believe otherwise. I could not and would not teach his class because my first priority is my NGO and I’m not an English teacher. He tried to convince me it wasn’t a class but rather a club but still…. I just can’t do it. I know he is only trying to do what is best for his pupils – I admire and appreciate that – but I need these first 3 months to adjust and find my place at my NGO. I am not ready to take on responsibilities outside of my host agency. And I gotta be honest, it brings me no pain to tell this person “No” because I am confident it is the right decision. This may affect how I integrate into the community but it’s a chance I’m willing to take. Besides I already feel I’m integrating well into work and home.

We are VOLUNTEERS not employees. While we must work and function within our host agency’s rules we are, within reason, able to say no. We were also warned by current and past volunteers how important it was to set this bar because unfortunately there are people here who will take advantage of us.

I know of one volunteer who is clearly being mistreated by her counterpart. The counterpart has asked this volunteer to teach English classes 6 days a week (including classes the counterpart is paid for), research a book the counterpart is writing (which includes unreimbursed internet time) AND to teach the counterpart’s child English. Now while in my opinion it is unfair and irresponsible of the counterpart to make these requests, the volunteer is also responsible for their own choices. But what if this volunteer is afraid of losing the post? Afraid of being ostracized? Maybe this volunteer never learned how to stick up for themselves? Or simply to say “No.”

I am so thankful for my NGO. They are good people. In the picture above from right to left is Ulybka volunteer Alishar, my counterpart Shurik, Aaron then me.

ps. The counterpart is a local assigned to volunteers to help us intergrate. They are our personal guide at work and to some extent, the community. Usually they speak english as well. Shurik is trained as an english teacher so got doubly lucky with him! :)

Wrapping Up Halloween

I just couldn’t carve another pumpkin. It had been a long day and the idea of cold pumpkin innards on my hands was just too much. So instead I brought home a few treats and in my limited Russian explained Halloween the best I could. The supermarket had caramels with black cat wrappers and butter cookies that were half vanilla and half chocolate. I wanted to frost the cookies orange but couldn’t find food coloring so I mixed ‘almost’ powered sugar with orange juice…. It came out a very faint translucent orange and had a slight citrus taste (delicious, by the way.). I explained that children wore masks and walked from house to house knocking on doors yelling “Trick or Treat” and receiving candy in return. I found the Russian for witch and ghost and pretended I was Frankenstein. And said no we don’t eat the Jack O’ Lantern.

I spent most of that day at center not celebrating Halloween though. November 1st is a Police Holiday and since the center is a partnership with the local police force a party was held in their honor. I was wooed to the party with promises of Plov (a rice dish with a few chucks of meat) but when I arrived the luncheon was far from beginning. Some of the police officers were outside next to the summer kitchen already slightly rosy and glazy from vodka shots. I was invited to sit with them and give a toast. Using what words I had, I said “To a strong Militizia (police force) in Kyrgyzstan.” They loved this. I was an instant hit. And so at 12:15pm on a Wednesday I did a shot of vodka. To chase it a police officer gave me dill, cucumber and cheese speared by a fork. It was really delicious after the shot and I highly recommend trying it back home!

During training we are warned repeatedly about drinking in Kyrgyzstan because there will be lots of social pressure once you begin and it’s very difficult to stop without offending someone. This was the first time I ever felt any pressure to drink and I believe it’s because I was sitting with mixed company rather than just women. Volunteers and staff gave us many excuses created many funny ways to get around the numerous shots of vodka – throw it over your shoulder, say you don’t drink, you’re on medication or spit it into another glass. Luckily my Russian language teacher from Dmitrievka called so I was saved from dodging additional shots! Malika was in town with her mother and some friends so I left the center to meet her. I was planning to meet Becky at that hour as well. She was going to help me select candy for the kiddies. We plus a few other volunteers were introducing the kids at the center to “Trick or Treating” after lunch. So we went back to the center and the luncheon had begun. Malika, Becky and I sat for another hour. I listened to toasts I didn’t understand. Avoided more shots of vodka. The former Chief of Police called from prison and people cried. The new Chief of Police stopped by for some chicken and potatoes. It was a Kyrgyz holiday day. The kind I’ve been hearing about.

After politely excusing myself again I met up with the 3 other volunteers helping me that day. We met the kids in the TV room of the center and explained what we could about our strange holiday. The kids weren’t too keen on wearing the masks so of course we bribed them with the candy – “If you want candy, you gotta wear the mask!” Is it really bribe if it’s true though? I mean, if you aren’t dressed up you don’t get candy on Halloween. That’s the rule. I don’t know the Russian/Kyrgyz/Uzbek word from rule.

We taught them to say “Happy Halloween” and “Trick or Treak” which they never quite mastered. “W” and “Tr” are new sounds for them. Volunteers were stationed around the center and when the kids knocked on the doors the volunteers were greeted with “Tizor Teacka!” They loved it. We loved it.

So that’s my Halloween in Kyrgyzstan! A shout out to Emily, Pam, Nathan, Kim and David - Oh what a change from last year! Oh WeHo how I missed you too!

Also, check out my friend Becky's blog "Switzerland of the Stans," the link is to the right. She has pictures up from Halloween as well.

Hope all is well where ever you are. Whomever you are.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Happy Halloween!

For about a week now Peace Corps volunteers have been bringing Halloween to Osh!

Last Thursday Sarah and I made Jack O’ Lanterns at my NGO. We let the kids scoop out the seeds and membranes of the pumpkins. See the action shot to the left? I think they thought it was fun. They named the pumpkins “Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jennifer Lopez.” The certainly enjoyed the pumpkin (tikvah in Russian) they were eating it raw! The pumpkin here is sweeter and softer so it probably wasn’t too bad for them…. On Saturday Theo’s NGO sponsored a pumpkin carving contest. Volunteers brought their coworkers and family members. Together we carved over 10 pumpkins then voted on a winner. The pumpkins were very impressive and as soon as I get copies of the photos I’ll post them. Meg and I toasted the pumpkin seeds (the best part of making Jack O’ Lanterns) and check it out - in Kyrgyzstan people only eat the INSIDE of pumpkin seeds, not the outside too! To them, it’s like eating sunflower seeds.... Later that evening 30 volunteers between here and Jalal Abad dressed up and danced the night away at a local club’s annual Halloween party. The club is owned by a woman who spent time in America and it is one of THE events in the south. The staff was dressed up as well as some locals. Becky, Erika and I were the “3 Blind Mice.” Still waiting on those pictures too! At the club they served blood red beer and pumpkin pizza! Both were weird. I partook very little..... Yesterday I went to the center to make masks with the children and finally today we going to “Trick or Treat” around the center. I’ve recruited 5 other volunteers to help so it should be fun....... Tonight I’ll pick up one more pumpkin and carve it with my host family.

I’ve never celebrated so much Halloween! But this part of being a Peace Corps volunteer, right? Sharing American culture.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Who you are

I came to a big decision today. I’m going to start teaching English to my colleagues. I was avoiding this because I don’t want to be pigeon holed as an English teacher but when I asked Elmira (my director) “What day would work best for you?” she lit up like a Christmas tree and said "Everyday!" How can I refuse that? It's also a very sustainable use of me. If they can speak and read English they may have more opportunity to international funding. So the next question is, how often?

What I may do is teach English half of the week then play with the kids at the center on the other half. That's where the real inspiration.

The children at the center are homeless either because the families can't afford them or the children left on their own. Maybe they have been sent out by their parents to sell apples or carrots or beg. The police raid bazaars and empty buildings looking for these children. My organization offers safe refuge while the police search for their parents. We clean and feed them. We play games. We offer a bed. They are visited by a doctor to check for illnesses and by a social worker to see if any other harm has been done. If after 10 days the parents are not found the children are sent to orphanages.

Many children do not have birth certificates which will make it impossible to obtain passports. Passports are the legal document used by Kyrgyzstan to own a business, drive a car, purchase a home etc. Unfortunately, passports are also a form of racism. Passports in Kyrgyzstan document nationality, ethnicity and patronymics. For example, my host family is Uzbek. Their passport will say Nationality: Kyrgyzstan, Ethnicity: Uzbek, Patronymic: Father’s Name. Perhaps it’s part of a Soviet hangover. Perhaps it's an old European model. I don't know.

Saying I’m an American isn’t enough. My host father during training wanted to know where my father’s and mother’s parents were from. At the time I didn’t realize how significant and dangerous this question could be. I am of mixed heritage and it’s interesting to trace my historical roots to unknown villages in Europe. Here, it defines who I am. Once a week my host dad would say “Hungary,” the homeland of my father’s mother. As if that really means anything.

I’m sending along a very interesting article to about an obscure group called the Lyuli, a marginalized community in Kyrgyzstan. It highlights a little of what I talked about above.

Ethnic differences could also prevent the democratic process from thriving. My city recently held elections for the office of Deputy. As it was explained to me (in broken English and Russian), a judge over ruled the democratic election of one Deputy because he is Uzbek not Kyrgyz. I've been told it is because in the south, the Kyrgyz don't want too many Uzbeks in power. This person is taking his case to a higher court and hopefully democracy will prevail. Kyrgyzstan has only been a democracy for 15 years. They are in the middle of the teenage growing pains. I explained to my counterpart the United States is still trying to get it right as well and we are 231 years old!

The corruption is so blatant but it comes out of necessity. The wages here are so low. It is a vicious cycle.

What will it take to for this country to change? What will it take to inspire? What industry will help this country lift itself out of poverty? This is a question asked by many leaders and many organizations.

I tried to explain the concept of "return on social investment" to my director and counterpart. How an investment by community members in to our children's center and organization is an investment in a better Kyrgyzstan. How do we inspire the businessmen and mothers to make change the same way Carnegie or quilting groups did in America 100 years ago or the way Gates is making changes around the world? In a society so focused on social networks and family units, how can that sentiment be expanded? This is cultural bridge I’m trying to cross. I’m hoping it might be away to fundraise for our organization as well.

Ideas on how to fundraise in the developing world - something beyond international grants and small business enterprises is welcomed!

Hope all is well wherever you are-