Archive for December, 2007

Christmas with sibs, sistahs and cuzins

sibssistahscuzinsElla bowElla and treeDDR and 2 nephews

Christmas in the Twin Cities was celebrated by all my family, almost all.  I’m sorry that my husband couldn’t be with us but he is holding down the fort in Almaty.  Us siblings haven’t been together in one place for several years so it was a good occasion to document it with a group photo.  The sweatshirts worn by my three sisters and sister-in-law were MY idea, they have the Norwegian rosemaling on the front.  Next time we will have to break into harmony, you have to ease in these ideas slowly with family.  The cousins are all together with the exception of three year old Ella who put up resistance but I caught her cuteness in other photos.  The big event in the basement was to learn how to do Dance Dance Revolution (DDR).  Of course, my 15 year old and 9 year old nephews are very good at it.  GREAT exercise! 

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Christmas with my Kazakh students

D.R. half of partygroup shotPeyton and skit costumesorange headbandopening gifts

Refer to my blog from several days ago (Dec. 23) to find out what we did for fun and entertainment at our Christmas party in Almaty with my students.

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Christmas with my family

Christmas CactusBro Toe and NieceChinese checkerssurprised sistersister and niecefamily

What fun to surprise my sister Karen about my homecoming.  My folks and brother Tony and I were able to pull it off.  Karen’s expression on her face when I came out from the computer room into their breakfast area was classic.  A combination of fright as if seeing a ghost (hand to her cheek) and unbelief (speechless) knowing full well I came from the other side of the world.  But how?  We had a fun time playing games, eating, putting together a puzzle, eating, taking photos, eating and being together.  Only 50% of us siblings celebrated with my folks and they are happy to host as many as possible in their house in NW MN. 

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My husband before my three security checks

My nomadMy dear husband allowed me to go to the U.S. without him.  Even though he had a ticket to go with me, he stayed behind for several reasons:  expensive, long trip, he still has bronchitis and he needed to rest up after a brutal semester for next semester’s punishment.  He is my hero!!!

Security check in Almaty

Sad irony that Ken and I began “celebrating” our day on our fourteenth wedding anniversary apart on Christmas Eve, in the very city where our romance had started in 1993.  After we kissed our last goodbye of 2007, about 6:30 a.m. at the new Almaty airport, I felt defenseless without Ken. 

Two “helpful” Kazakh guys with a cart really took over on taking care of me. Ken told me that their fee for toting my luggage would be 200 tenge, about $1.50 which he had given me.  For some reason, one of the guys took off with my passport, I was too tired to resist.  I followed with my eyes where he went with my precious passport while the other was filling out my customs form in English.  He knew enough English to ask the appropriate questions from the Kazakh form. He found out if I had any Euros – no, American dollars – no, but I DID have a 10,000 ($80) tenge bill, he didn’t put that figure down for some reason.   After being asked all the other usual questions, I simply signed it and we deftly moved into the bottleneck to get my luggage checked and my KLM boarding passes.   

However, for a fee of 5,000 tenge ($40) they claimed they could expedite my passage through to ticketing and customs.  Nix on that, I was only going to pay the 200 Ken gave me and NOT break my 10,000 tenge note.  They persisted by dropping their charge to 2,000 and then 1,000 tenge.  Fortunately, the guy who had been helped by me with his English interview at the consulate was also in the gridlock crowd.  He asked his dad for another 200 tenge note and then when I gave them 400 Tenge, the two guys disappeared.  They went to look for another clueless victim. 

Security check in Amsterdam

Once we landed in Amsterdam, I had a quick lunch with my young Kazakh friend along with his girlfriend.  She was eager to get a smoke before their 11 hour trip to L.A.  This was my chance to ask what questions he had been asked at the American consulate so he was able to get his visa.  They simply had asked “Why do you want to return to Kazakhstan after studying in the U.S.?”  He said it lasted two minutes, he felt indebted to me for instilling confidence in his English language abilities.   He promised he would keep in touch once he got established in art school in L.A. 

At my gate leaving for Minneapolis, I sailed through the usual security checkpoint questions conducted in English, ready for my trans-Atlantic passage.  The first security guard saw by looking at my passport that I had spent much time in Ukraine and had just come from Kazakhstan.  He asked if I knew Russian.  I said I knew enough Russian to haggle with prices and to get in and out of taxis.  I didn’t think anything of his question until the woman who interviewed me asked if I would help them out with asking an older Kazakh couple the same types of security questions.  I said dubiously I would do my best since I knew my Russian vocabulary didn’t include, “Who packed your bags?”  “Have you always been with them?”  “Did anyone give you anything to take with you?” kinds of questions. 

They were nice grandparent types from Almaty, Kazakhstan traveling to Dallas, TX after Mpls to meet up with their two daughters who are studying in Normal, Oklahoma.  Murat is a businessman and Klara an engineer.  We talked some in Russian so I could gain their confidence and then we launched into the ticklish questions initiated by the security clerk.  The one that was difficult to answer was “Why were you in Cairo, Egypt?”  Finally, after much working around 10 day vacation or holiday, the questioner let us all go.  We talked some more once we passed the x-ray security but then waited for our flight to Minneapolis with the rest of the crowd. 

Security check in Minneapolis

Since I had a six hour layover in Minneapolis before my FINAL destination, I took a taxi to my sister’s place while they were in church.  I found their secret key and let myself in to shower up before they returned home. My sister and brother-in-law were “IN” on my little secret to surprise my two nephews.  When the boys got in the door, the older nephew asked his parents, “Can we watch Polar Express?”  To which I called out from the downstairs, “Who will play chess with me?”  They knew it wasn’t their Mom’s voice but then how could it be Auntie Kristi?  Misha was the first to race downstairs to find me and he pointed and said, “Auntie Kristi!”  Zildjian was on his heels and soon the whole family gathered around me and my laptop that I had just booted up.  I was ready to make my next move on with my nephew. 

Fun to play with him while being face-to-face instead of half way around the world.  However, NOT fun to lose to my 9 year old nephew in a checkmate while we celebrated the Christmas Eve festivities. After the wonderful ham dinner my sister served up, Misha was very busy opening his presents as was Zildjian.  What wonderful memories to be around a real tree and a real fireplace with family!  My gifts were given to the boys and I received some in return.  One was a jar of honey as well as some jasmine tea.  I thought nothing of this as I packed it into my hand carry bag.  At the appointed time, my sister dropped me off for NW departures back at the airport and I went through my third security check of my 30 hour odyssey.  They spotted the honey jar on the x-ray.  I almost lost my honey when the security guard found it, similar to a year ago when my new Mary Kay makeup was dumped by the guard who went through all the suspicious items.  Thankfully, due to it being Christmas Eve, the security guard had mercy on me and let me keep it but warned that honey was considered a liquid.   

Traveling is only fun when you are with your HONEY and have reached your destination and you are with your loved ones.  I’m sorry that my HONEY is not with me to share in these experiences but I’ll be back to Almaty soon.

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“Democracy” in Kyrgyzstan – Part II

The gap in Kyrgyzstan widens between the former socialist, totalitarian system that had a stronghold for 70 years versus the democratic, political system and market economy of the industrialized countries. One 34 year old married male felt sure that “the developed countries have reached more prosperity due to keeping the democratic values, human rights and promoting market economy [while] the socialist countries disappeared due to substantial abuses of human rights, repression of people and recession of democracy.”  This same man admitted that “fraud and falsification of election processes exist in Kyrgyzstan” while the government officials are sunken in bribery and nepotism. 

A 39 year old single female from Tokmak, K. had her own ideas as an educator about where democracy starts, she believes it begins at school.  She wrote: “My motto is freedom but responsibility. Democracy is not a beautiful word that allows you to do whatever you like.  So I’m a guide that should bring democracy to education…teacher’s main goal is to change people’s attitude to children, as society will not change until individual attitude changes.”  Another 29 y.o. married male from Osh said that all of the CARs countries are “trying to recover after a long period of totalitarian system, yet experience difficulties in adapting to democratic changes, as many still think in an “old” way.” 

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Unconventional Christmas in a Nightclub

What a FUN party we had last night with about 25 Kazakh students packed into our small living room.  They are eager to practice their English in order to go to the U.S. next summer.  Our three room flat really maxes out with our arrangement of chairs and sofa at about 18 or 19 person capacity.  But six bodies were sitting on the floor which was okay since I had moved another carpet into the dining room area after I moved my office desk to make room for the dining room table in my office. That’s where the food stuff was set up for these hungry students. Thanks to Ken for getting all the extra food provisions, my Spritz cookies just did not happen.  Either the flour is wrong or the butter is. 

The guests’ shoes were all clustered in the entryway area and 25 coats thrown onto our bed.  Actually, once the party was in earnest, being on the floor was preferable because of all the body heat conducted throughout the room.  Eventually we opened our kitchen balcony and the outside door for some cross breeze of cooler air.  Other doors in our flat are sealed off for the winter to keep the cold air from coming in. 

Unfortunately, I have no pictures because my camera is in sad disrepair (see earlier post of my dunking my camera in Rooibos tea at Thanksgiving)  Fortunately, Ken is gifting me with a NEW waterproof ORANGE Olympus camera for my Christmas gift!!! (Thanks dear) Unfortunately, Ken’s digital was piled under all the coats.  Discovered after all possible “Kodak moments” had been snapped by other students’ digitals and the last coat retrieved with the goodbyes and final Merry Christmases.  Many Christmas related games seemed to break the ice and some of the guys turned out to be REAL characters.  (Of course, the girls sat demurely and just looked pretty.)  The guys took over being hams, especially those more comfortable with their English. 

We played “Twas the Night before Christmas” where they had to pass gifts to the Right or to the Left and by the end of the poem they would open whatever they had in their hands.  Then we did the Gift Exchange of “white elephant” gifts but it seemed that many of the gifts revolved around the rat, since it is the Chinese year of the rat.  Many gauche gifts were “stolen” from each other, once the students got the hang of the rules of the game.  One gift that picked up lots of momentum was a rat on a cross; another was a yellow, glass ashtray with two small, red Santas.  Another was a headband with fuzzy, orange pipe cleaner antennae with balls on the end of each.  The guys seemed to enjoy wearing that. 

We sang “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which was the only carol we sang of the evening, good practice for numbers in English. After those games, colorful costumes were put on by willing volunteers for each character in the Luke 2 story.  We had trouble finding the correct prop for the baby Jesus, so one of the smaller girls took on that role.  The funniest was a rather outgoing sheep who was one of the “lifes of the party.”  He didn’t know that his role was minor to that of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men.  No matter, the students had fun dressing up. 

Oh yes, the last game was “Pass the Parcel” and there were about 15 gifts to unwrap when the music stopped. I happened to use Amy Grant’s Christmas Album.  However, one of the requests with the sixth or seventh gift that was opened was to sing a pop song in English.  At first, the crowd was stumped but then the guy who played the sheep and another who kept holding on to the present started singing a song.  They sounded like the REAL thing.  I was only vaguely familiar with the tune, due to my “generation gap-itis” but most of the others chimed in. 

We didn’t have much to clean up, thanks to paper plates and cups, but it was good to get our living room temperature down to a normal temp after all the final group photos were taken.  The students were all profuse in their thank yous and we were happy that it turned out without much planning.  Thanks to Peyton, Clover and Aliya, we had a winning combination of versatility, talent and youthfulness exhibited.  Ken, of course, was the supreme “host with the most” taking care of the restocking and clean up. 

About our Christmas Sunday worship service in a nightclub?  Yes, we attend the “Dancing Star” bar every Sunday so that is now “conventional” for us.  The interior colors are somewhat garish in its red and black theme with no outside windows.  Thus, we were greeted today with total darkness upon entering the bar but many votive candles lit the way for us to find our seats.  It was truly a worshipful experience with familiar Christmas songs sung, sermon with good stories and communion at the end.  How easy to imagine the lostness in the crowds that Mary and Joseph must have felt that first Christmas when they groped in the darkness in the unfamiliar environs of Bethlehem to have their child, Jesus.  We didn’t feel so unconventional as we reflected on how our Christ child’s birth was a bit like our worship of Him in a nightclub without electric power.  God’s real Power shone in the darkness especially when we sang “Silent Night” at close the worship service. 

Merry Christmas was celebrated in an unconventional setting in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Where will we celebrate next year?

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“Democracy” in Kyrgyzstan – Part I

Over two weeks ago, I was reading through 117 applications, these are some of the observations that were made in some of the Project Statements. 

When marketing Kyrgryzstan to the rest of the world it is touted as “the islet of democracy” among the other CARS (Central Asian Republics) of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, etc.  The irony of that slogan is that while Kyrgyzstan at over 5 million people is small like an islet, it is really land-locked and suffers from severe problems of transition on micro- meso- and macro- levels.

One 27 year old married female from Bishkek who studies Law admitted that she is a “real patriot and a true citizen” of her native land. She wrote, “Kyrgyzstan is in a transitional state and continues to move from Soviet totalitarian government toward a more independent and sovereign country.”  Much potential resides in the peoples’ patriotic feelings, their knowledge and education but the pace of this evolution is long and slow, hard work.  The second way proved to be more radical with revolution. Yes, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, education is very important for its future if we look to the recent events after March 24, 2005, the Tulip revolution.  

One 28 year old single male who plans to study more in Public Policy wrote, “In my country of Krygyzstan one can observe enormous numbers of rallies and protests during the last 4-5 years.  Obviously, then, we have been ‘enjoying’ the full rights of one of the world’s ‘leaders’ in the development of street politics.  The basic and primary challenge is the lack of mechanisms for providing sustainability.  However, Uzbekistan was not able to sustain what began as their well known Andijan events in 2005.  Unfortunately, it resulted in a massive influx of asylum seekers into Kyrgyzstan.  UNHCR Field mission exists in Osh to protect such refugees.      


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