Friday, January 12, 2018

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Amy Ortega

Thursday, December 10, 2015

from Amy

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Amy Ortega

Monday, August 13, 2007

I've just returned from a week long Habitat for Humanity build. We worked in a village 2 hours west of Karakol. Normally this organization builds complete houses for needy families. The Kyrgyzstan branch has expanded to include half-built houses. The family we worked with had begun their house 12 years ago and didn't have the money to continue. That's saying quite a bit about how poverty-stricken they are, considering it is a mud house.

During the week, five of us volunteers worked nailing rafters, building tamped earth walls, laying a mud ceiling, and 'dry walling' the walls with mud. It was extremely labor intensive work. The Kyrgyz people aren't too keen on planning and we were continuously changing the methods of building according to what the homeowner felt like doing. They also don't think about easy accessibility throughout the house. I tried to help a little, but since I am a woman my ideas were ignored.

To build the walls, we set up a wooden form, filled it with slightly moist dirt and hay, and pounded it down with weighty metal rods. When the dirt slab is finished, we deconstructed the form and set it up again. The form is falling apart, and a pain to work with. The boys were inside nailing the rafters to the ceiling. In Kyrgyzstan, you nail the rafters from the bottom up. It was an awkward position for them and it took a long time. They also bent a lot of nails. How frustrating. Once the rafters were completed we filled buckets of mud and Jason pulled them up to the roof with a rope. He did that job for 6 hours without asking someone else to switch. In case you’ve never pulled buckets of mud up one story, let me tell you: THEY’RE HEAVY!!! The mud was then smeared into the rafters creating the ceiling. A lot fell through to the floor below, and it wasn’t very thick of a ceiling. No wonder these houses don’t hold heat. On the final day, I had the pleasure of throwing mud at the walls inside. Another guys then smoothed it out. I think they will put stucco later as a final layer before painting. I don’t know how difficult it is to build a house with wood and dry wall, but building a mud house is tough work.

We almost finished the walls for one room and the other room we worked on is nearly livable. My muscles are sore and I have blisters on my feet and splinters in my hands. But the week was great. I've been here in Kyrgyzstan for 2 years, and this was the most tangible help I've given.
In July, Jason and I traveled to Almaty and Prague. I took the GRE (for Graduate school admissions) in Almaty before our flight to the Czech Republic. Due to scheduling, we spent 5 days in Almaty. The city is leaps & bounds more advanced than Bishkek and we had a great time shopping in an actual grocery store, taking a walking tour, and eating delicious foods. We later found out from some Peace Corps Volunteers that the rest of the country is living in poverty very much like Kyrgyzstan. They said the gap between rich and poor is sickening. It completely changed my view of that city.

Next we met Jason's family and friends in Prague. That's right – I met the future in-laws. I really hit it off with them and we had an awesome time.
The city was fantastic. It's much smaller than I thought it would be and very walkable. The prices weren't too expensive and everyone speaks English. They also like Americans there, which is an increasingly rare thing. The architecture is beautiful. The Czechs really have a sense of humor and it comes out in the history of the city. My favorite part of the city was the astronomical clock tower in old town square. It was built in the 15th century and doesn't work properly. It has been rigged to ring every hour and the 12 apostles make an appearance. It wasn't a spectacular show, though I found it charming.

Summer camp was a hit. The pre-camp panic paid dividends when everything ran smoothly. I of course thought it was going disastrously because things weren't absolutely perfect. The participants corrected me and told me everything ran smoothly with activities, logistics, food, etc. The glitches were all behind the scenes. Students had a great time and learned a lot. For example, many of them didn't know the importance of regularly washing their hands with soap. None of them had ever seen the food pyramid. A few sessions split the students up to discuss different gender issues in Kyrgyzstan, and then brought them back together to discuss as a group. We also played sports, did some crafty activities and even made tie-dyed t-shirts. Thank you to everyone who donated to our camp! The kids loved it.

Between these big events, there have been visitors, including two of Jason's close friends. Other volunteers' friends and family have been visiting and I've met a lot of them. Summertime is a very social time amongst volunteers in Kyrgyzstan.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Greetings from the village! I’m in Tory-Aigur this week for Jason’s birthday and his host father’s 20 year high school reunion. The reunion is being held here at Jason’s house with people coming and going all day and night. Yesterday marked the start of the festivities.

When Jason and I returned from an end-of-the-school-year recital, the women were busy making borsok (traditional bread, small pieces of deep fried dough). They make enough to cover every table in the house for about 4 days. The tables must always be filled with borsok, jam, sugar, butter and salads during any festivities. It’s a way of showing you’ve prepared for the guests and they are welcome anytime.

We waited all afternoon while the men sharpened knives, filled the cellar with fresh produce and other products, and chopped wood. When they were finished with all the smaller tasks, everyone headed out to the back yard to watch them slaughter a cow. It is much different and more intense than a sheep or goat. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty details, but it’s a little more difficult to watch. Since it was the first cow I saw slaughtered, I couldn’t stay for the whole process. Luckily, Jason videotaped the entire thing. [If anyone is interested in seeing it, I can send a copy to you.] After the cow was cut up and stored away, the women prepared kurgak (meat and liver sautéed with a brown gravy). It was fresh and delicious.

I thought after we ate, everyone would go home and rest until the morning, since we ate at about 9:30. But everyone split up and continued working. A few people were in the small house making chak-chak (dough similar to pie crust, which is cooked in long noodle like strands, and covered with honey); some men were cutting the meat into smaller pieces and tying it into bundles; and two women were cooking and cleaning the stomach. That’s when I went to sleep.

On a separate note, plans for the summer camp are moving along. With the local teachers, I wrote a grant. It is posted on the PCPP website:

If you know someone who would like to donate, please direct them to the website. The grant took a month to make it through the Peace Corps bureaucracy and onto the website. Translation: we are on a time crunch and need to have it funded by June 10.

The rest of last week was exhausting. The party lasted about 20 hours of every day, with people drinking vodka the whole time. By Sunday I was ready to leave the village and get back to my quite apartment.

Some things about life in Kyrgyzstan.

TRANSPORTATION. The public transportation system in Kyrgyzstan is quite fantastic. You can get to any place in the country without having your own vehicle. It takes a long time and the roads are rough, but its cheap. To go from Karakol to Jason’s village costs 120 som (less than $3.50) in a marshrutka. A marshrutka is a mini-bus – larger than a van and smaller than an actual bus. It generally seats 15 people, with room in the aisle for people to stand. We just go to the bus station or stand out on the road at any time of the day and eventually a marshrutka comes and picks us up. Taxis are another option. They’re more expensive and different from American taxis. If you are traveling a long distance, the price you pay is for 1 seat. That means at least 3 other passengers will be in the car with you. Some of the passengers bring 1-3 kids with them, which they don’t pay for. The kids sit on other passengers’ laps.

POSTAL SYSTEM. Kyrgyzstan has post offices and mail is delivered daily. The staff at the post office is about as unfriendly as they come. I don’t know why they’re so mean, but no amount of smiling, small talk and candy will change it. Kyrgyz people rarely, if ever, get personal mail. Many of them have never received a letter at home and don’t even know their zip codes. Mainly businesses receive mail.

PRODUCE. In the summer time, Karakol has a great selection of produce. Currently in the bazaar we can find lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, radishes, green onions, bell peppers, apples, cherries, bananas, oranges and lemons. This is in addition to the staple potatoes, carrots, cabbages, turnips, and onions.

GROCERIES. Karakol is starting to see more product choices. The selection of juice, candy, cookies and milk products is getting larger. We can buy dried and bagged soy, dried mushrooms, canned sardines, and frozen chicken. These products are offered at 3 small stores in town; and the stores are more highly priced than the bazaar.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Watch Out Mouthy Punks

The seminar is finished and was a success.  Two days before the seminar, I went to the university to confirm that we could still use the room.  They had cancelled us because the 'commission' came, but I have no idea what that means.  From the snatches of reality that I understand, it meant that everything I had planned for two months had to be redone in two days.  Luckily, I was able to find a new location and work out a new café for lunch in that short amount of time.  I had planned for 50 students to attend the seminar, and I was hoping at least 25 would show up.  We had a great turn-out with 43 students.


Last Friday was my first cooking class at the hotel.  I think it went well, though I can't tell if the trainees enjoyed it.  I'll find out if they let me teach again. 


The weather here is starting to warm up.  I took the plastic off of the windows and now I have a clear view of the outside world.  Being able to see the sky through my windows is a definite mood enhancer.  The apartment was starting to feel like a cage.  Soon there will be more fresh vegetables in the bazaar and we can have a more balanced diet than we've had lately. 


Wednesday, the 21st, is Nooruz.  I don't have any definite plans for the day, but I've heard there will be a concert in front of the university.  There has also been talk of an outing to the zoo.  Now we just need to keep our fingers crossed for good weather.


About two months ago, the U.S. Embassy opened an American Corner.  It's a decked out resource center that they pay for.  That's where I've been hosting my English club, although we had trouble with the staff.  One woman was always yelling at me in Russian so not only was she disrespecting me in front of my students, but I couldn't understand a word of it.  There was also a punk 'technician' who talked to us (volunteers) like we are stupid because we have accents.  First I tried to be diplomatic about it and talked to the director about having club there with support from the staff.  She was very receptive to the idea and said that the staff would give us whatever help we need.  That's not what actually happened.  After one particularly horrible day of dealing with them, I called the embassy and ratted out two of the staff members.  It worked.  My students and I have enjoyed club much more since the workers stopped acting like we were bedraggled mice that the cat dragged in.  I didn't want to pull the 'American card,' but it is our embassy that funds their resource center and pays their salaries.  I wasn't being unreasonable to want to host my English lesson there.  I think they all understand that now.

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