Archive for June, 2008

Almaty’s “well kept secret” sanatorium

mountainsyard and gardensHUGE sanatoriumYelena and viewsanatorium endgolf coursedouble rainbowman made lake

Thanks to American taxpayer dollars there were about 200 English teachers from all over Central Asia. I enjoyed meeting those especially from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan since they come from some real hardship posts.  Many difficulties to get their necessary paperwork done for some of these participants whose governments are rather suspicious of conferences such as this.  Some of those teachers I spoke with were SOOOOO very grateful for this opportunity to be exposed to learning new strategies on how to teach reading and writing in English better.  Andrea Schindler did an amazing job pulling this conference off as a Regional English Language Officer with her office and staff up in Astana. Yelena and I felt VERY privileged of the few of us who came from Almaty to take part as presenters and participants in this Central Asian Teachers of English conference.  I met many wonderful people and Yelena saw her Kazakhstani friends from years ago when she used to be president of TEA (Teachers of English Association). 

My friend and co-presenter, Yelena kept saying, as only a native Russian speaker can with their stress and intonation, “I LIKE this conference!”  Heavy emphasis on “LIKE” which almost made it seem like two words rather than one.  Yes, I did too and I felt the money was well spent on deserving teachers who are dedicated to the craft of teaching. I also believe that the setting is one of Almaty’s well-kept secrets!

Comments (6) »

“30 minute shoes” in exchange for a suit

The following was written by my current writing student named Olga for a narrative essay assignment. I have not done any retouching to her words, enjoy a delightful story preserved in her family. 

Sometimes we make an action which at first sight seems to be a little strange. Usually we are motivated by our hearts and souls rather than by our minds. One of the main heroes of a following story, who is, actually, my mom, made one such decision, but it might have helped her to find her destiny and happiness. Thus, one young girl’s life story with plain shoes, played fateful role in her life.  

This event took place when my mom was about my current age. As she said “That time we were young, happy and were sure about our bright future”. It was about an early 1960’s. By that time, mom had had boyfriend, and although girls, especially who lived in villages, usually got married after finishing middle school, my mom, maybe, because of some ambitions decided to get higher education. That is why she left her village and went to one of Kazakhstani cities. While mom attended classes, her boyfriend, who later became my dad, had already graduated from technical college and was sent to northern region of Russia

as an young specialist. Actually, in spite of education being free at that time, normally graduated students rarely could work at those places where he or she wanted to work in, almost everyone was sent somewhere by the government. Usually it was in the remote backward regions. That was some kind of government program aimed to develop villages. In this way, young people lived far from each other. They met one or maximum two times a year, when mom had holidays and dad, his vacation. But one day young women received a telegram from her boyfriend which informed that he was going for business trip and in train station of her city he would change his wagon. It meant that they would have about 30 minute to date.At first she was very happy but after a while those feelings changed to “blue fear”. She became aware of the usual women’s problem: she had nothing to wear. Everything she had was only one dress and one suit, and nothing for her foots. She tried to find something from her roommate with whom she lived together, but they were at the same situation as she was. Eventually she came up with a hasty idea to sell the suit and buy shoes. Perhaps it was some kind of blunder, however that time nothing had more vital importance for the young girl than meeting with her boyfriend and making an impression on him.

So, her suit was sold, and shoes were bought and at an appointed time she was staying on the platform and looking forward to see her favorite man. She was wearing a bright dress, new shoes and her very long beautiful hair was streaming in the wind. Lovers spent their time which as always spent too fast and then dad joined back his team. It turned out that everybody was admired by his girlfriend and that time young man was given an advice from his older colleagues who said: “Catch her as quickly as possible, in other case you will lose her”.


Being honest, young women on platform had not “killing” beauty or very expensive clothes, but she was really charming and that was wonderful.  Finally, when my dad was back, he declared to his relatives that he was going to get married and some time later my mom got … gold watches from her future father-in-law. Saying about the shoes, my mom wore it quite long time until it became worn-out, and she never regretted such a ridiculous exchange.


Leave a comment »

“Close to Eden” in Kazakhstan

“Close to Eden” is a gem of a foreign movie which came out a year or two before 1992, however, that was the year when it was nominated to be Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards.  It should have won, it is hilarious if you love seeing the big, open steppes of Mongolia which borders China.  The plot starts with a Russian man named Sergei stuck in the middle of a nowhere outback. You see, Mongolia is Asia’s version of Montana’s BIG SKY Country!


Three cultures are at odds with each other because of language barriers yet it all comes together in this 109 minute movie to make it a true delight. (In other words, a must-see for those who want to know what life was like outside of any Central Asian city.)

Gombo, the Mongolian shepherd and his family, help Sergei to get his old, blue Russian style truck out of the lake and are hospitable to him until he can get back on the road again. A poignant scene shows up with Sergei remembering his sad past under the Soviet system.  This happens in a bar when he is drunk, a way to cope with his maladies. The funniest part is when Gombo crosses the border to China to buy a TV set at his wife’s request so they can watch it in their yurt.  As I recall, all they see in the picture is the reflection of waving grass while the TV sits outside the yurt.  Gumbo also comes back with something else in an effort to modernize and keep pace with globalization.


I remember when I first saw this film back in 1990 or ’91, it was soon after I had returned from teaching in China for two years.  This movie went by a different foreign name, something like the long lasso or whip that a shepherd uses.  Maybe the producers changed it to “Close to Eden” because it is easier for westerners to remember.  I sat with my brother and sister in a darkened, sparsely attended theater howling with laughter, really no virtual LOL the whole way through.  Several years ago I had to special order the VHS tape and bought it even before I knew I was going back to the steppes region of Kazakhstan.  I always tell my husband when we run out of places to adventure to, that we could always go to Mongolia.


At some point in our teaching careers, we just might go to Mongolia.  Then we would see if we are any closer to Eden.  As it is, this weekend I’m going to Almaty’s version of Eden at Alatau Sanatorium for a Central Asia Teaching of English Conference (CATEC).   I hope to meet some other like-minded educators from all over Central Asia.  It should be a fun time, especially once my presentation is over.  It is titled:  “Orality vs. InfoLiteracy in Central Asia:  What’s a Teacher to Do?” 


All that to warn my dear readers that I might not be posting for a couple of days, “What’s a Blogthor to do?”

Comments (1) »

Sheep Shearing and 6,000 Tenge Haircuts

My morning turned out differently than I thought it would.  I went to the health club later than usual and once finished with my workout routine on the equipment, skipped the Turkish sauna and swim. I NEEDED a haircut!  After a 6,000 tenge haircut, I was home by 12 noon.  That translates to $50 which I’ve never paid before, back in the U.S. I usually pay half of that amount counting tip.  The cost damage could have been 11,000 tenge which is over $85 but I only had the six and I was having trouble adjusting to that figure.  I wanted my hair washed and cut 2 inches (about 4 centimeters).  I was committed to doing the blow-drying and curling myself once I got home.


Once I made myself understood to the person behind the counter at the beauty salon, a girl led me to the sink where she expertly washed my hair.  I was asked by the receptionist if I wanted coffee or tea.  I have never been offered that kind of hospitality at a beauty salon before so I promptly said, “Coffee with milk.”  It arrived in a cup with sugar cubes to the side.  I thought to myself, “For 6,000 tenge, I SHOULD get a nice cup of coffee.”  I was plopped into another chair once the shampooing was done and saw a young, muscular man with spiked hair in the mirror behind me.  You could tell this Kazakh guy worked out, his arms and back muscles rippled under his green, Calvin Klein shirt.  The only way he seemed to fit in with all the girls who swarmed in this salon was his greased out, spiky hair.  Little did I know that he was going to me my haircutter and the girl who washed my hair would be like the dental hygienist, assisting him all along the way. 


Yes, the young man had an air of a competent dentist as he washed his hands in the basin first and then began to comb out my tangles and pile my excess hair on top.  Round One – Instead of using clips, his assistant held it in place as he snipped away.  Round Two – he sliced and diced with a different kind of scissors then Round Three he trimmed the front bangs.  I was ready to eject but I suppose any good barber worth his salt likes to see the final results.  His long suffering assistant was surprised that he wanted to blow-dry my hair and style it when I had made it clear I could only afford the wash and cut.  Away he went with a big brush and aggressively but gently he curled my tresses under.


The result felt wonderful and looked great.  Except for that ONE little gray hair that popped up in the back.  Even though he didn’t know English and his assistant did somewhat, he KNEW I wanted it cut out.  He asked for a scissors, she gave him a comb.  He repeated with hand motions that he wanted a scissors.  I suppose at barber schools they are taught to never pull out gray hairs.  That is always my first reaction when I see a stray, gray hair.


I wondered if this Kazakh barber’s skill at cutting hair had something to do with maybe having ancestors from the distant, nomadic past who were experts at cutting sheep’s wool.  Sheep shearing HAD to be done with speed, accuracy and confidence. He had a flair with wrist movements and twirled his combs and scissors like a seasoned Japanese chef flings his knives up in the air.  Finally done, I gave him a big thank you and a tip knowing he had just gifted me with 5,000 extra tenge worth of grooming.  He returned a happy smile and I was out the door feeling ready for the presentation I have to give on Saturday morning about being an American English teacher here in Central Asia. 

Comments (1) »

“English as She is Spoke” and Written

English as She is Spoke is an old classic book over 150 years recently republished which rivals anything Mr. Barot scripted in his recent movie about cultural leanings of America for make benefit glorious nation.  (I purposely misspelled his name and don’t want to draw any attention with search engines to Barot’s gross errors depicting this wonderful country where I presently teach English.)  


Of course, I’ve read some tortured writing of English done by my Kazakh students that leaves much to be desired, but at least they are trying to get their message across.  I understand they come from minimal learning experiences where writing was not encouraged in Russian, much less English.  Ironically, I’ve also seen some fairly horrific examples of writing from natives speakers of English too.  Let’s have Hollywood produce a movie which graphically shows how American students get away with playing video games for hours on end and how they have no time to do their writing assignments or read the material to show what is expected of them in a composition class.  Now THAT would be a sleeper movie!!!


Apparently Mark Twain loved this little book written by Pedro Carolino who was a hack just like Barot and used Jose Da Fonseca’s name as co-author of this comprehensive phrasebook of the English language.  Da Fonseca was a upstanding scholar who happened to have a phrasebook for Portuguese that was worked over by Carolino to make it purposefully absurd.  It came out as a “masterpiece” in 1869 and had many reprints and other spinoffs such as English as She is Taught or English as She is Wrote which shows funny exam-answer humor that only a teacher can fully appreciate.


Reading through this little book made me squirm simply because it is so obviously hacked.  For Twain to give it the thumbs up brings my estimation of him a bit lower even though I loved reading his Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer stories as I was growing up.  Twain lived later into life and died an unhappy man.  Reading English as She is Spoke would not improve one’s mood.  However, it makes me more determined than ever as a writing teacher to have my students improve their English skills so they don’t get laughed at by quacks similar to Carolino or Barot.


In Part One of this book are vocabulary words supposedly translated from Portuguese to English titled “Index of the Matters:”  The Mankind, Ages, Defects of the Body, Servants, diseases, remedies, parties a town, of the bed, eatings, quadruped’s beasts, fishes and shell-fishes, colours, games, of the altar, chastisements, familiar phrases.  You get the idea that articles and prepositions are put in where they don’t belong, taken out where they DO belong.  On page 22 is a phrase “stop a little” or “Let us go to respire the air.”  Page 24 “At what o’clock is to get up?” p. 26 “dress your hairs” or p. 30 “This girl have a beauty edge.”


My sister lived in Brazil at the tender age of 16 on an AFS student exchange.  She got to know her host family and quickly picked up the language of Portuguese.  I’ll have to give her this book to see if she recollects any of these supposed “familiar phrases.”  Several years later, one of the daughters of her Brazilian host family came to the U.S. on a similar exchange to live with a typical middle class American family.  Somehow I got caught in the middle a family squabble because the rich, young Brazilian girl did NOT know any English.  She kept saying over and over, “I no happy, I no happy.”  That was one thing she made everyone painfully aware of.  I think she was eventually moved to a different family and that resolved her happiness issue.  It didn’t help for her to come off the plane to a cold Minnesota winter with only sandals and a light dress and coat.  Obviously, no one had fully prepared her for the stark weather conditions or the language barrier once she arrived in the U.S.


One phrase that caught my attention was under the section titled “Idiotisms and Proverbs.”  I had asked my ESL students when I taught in Virginia years ago to give me three idioms or proverbs from their country.  One guy from a South American country, I don’t remember which one, gave me “The robe don’t make the monk.” That’s a good proverb.  However, Carolino was up to his tricks with changing “robe” to “dress” so it reads on page 128: “the dress don’t make the monk.”  Funny huh?  The actual saying in Portuguese is: “O habito nao faz o monge.”


Why is “the robe don’t make the monk” a good proverb?  Even though it is not proper English, the point comes across loud and clear. Supposedly there are people in places of authority who may have the title in their respective job but do NOT embrace the work ethic or are NOT skillful enough to fill that particular job and its job description.  Consequently, people under them suffer.  I might add there are perhaps many teachers who are teaching writing who don’t know how to write.  May the land of Kazakhstan have fully educated and talented teachers who know how to write in English.  Thus, they can teach their Kazakh students to write well, especially in a western style university where that is the expectation and the norm.  That is, if Kazakh students should ever leave Kazakhstan on some exchange program to the U.S. or U.K. to find out how miserable they can be if not fully prepared.

Comments (4) »

Challenging Kazakhstan’s Mountains

Our Internet is still down at home and so when I don’t have anything to write I usually put up photos. Can’t do that today since I’m tapping this blog entry at work and all my photos showing off Kazakhstan are back at my flat on my home computer.

Busy is my day today with preparing for classes as it is soon nearing the end of the first summer session.  Also, I’m getting ready for a conference to present at this weekend.  Much to do and NO time to complain about it so the next best thing is put in a poem I got from Streams in the Desert about mountains.  I looked out this morning when I awoke and our mountain view looked glorious with white puffy clouds and some changes in the color with the shadows in the mountains.  Time for a picture, I thought to myself.  When I looked five minutes later, it was not worthy of a photo.  Kind of like sunrises or sunsets, you HAVE to take the photos that very second, otherwise, if you delay too long the moment has passed, the glory has gone.

There was a scar on yonder mountain-side,
Gashed out where once the cruel storm had trod;
A barren, desolate chasm, reaching wide
Across the soft green sod.

But years crept by beneath the purple pines,
And veiled the scar with grass and moss once more,
And left it fairer now with flowers and vines
Than it had been before.

There was a wound once in a gentle heart,
Whence all life’s sweetness seemed to ebb and die;
And love’s confiding changed to bitter smart,
While slow, sad years went by.

Yet as they passed, unseen an angel stole
And laid a balm of healing on the pain,
Till love grew purer in the heart made whole,
And peace came back again.

I hope to find the article from a Kazakh magazine I just read the other day about some westerners who biked 14 hours across the mountains south into Kyrgyzstan to get to Lake Issykul.  The toughest part was keeping up with their Russian guides who said they couldn’t make it.  Breathing in the high altitude and getting flat tires delayed them a bit too.  But they DID achieve their goal and saw some beautiful mountain views along the way.  Such an extreme sport that maybe these bikers were in too much pain to fully appreciate it.  Usually people hike these mountains and take it in 2-3 days.  I’d like to do that sometime in the future when I’m in much better shape.

Leave a comment »

Life “Under the Sun” in Kazakhstan

Our Internet has been down for over a day and Ken is trying to remedy the situation.  We are coping with withdrawal symptoms of not getting our news or e-mails from friends and family. Technology, love it or hate it.

Yes, modern technology has finally arrived in Kazakhstan, such as it is.  Our landlady called the other day to ask if there was a speeding ticket in our mailbox.  Ken told her no.  The only thing we get in the “snail mail” is the usual monthly bills for Internet, water and electricity.  According to her, there are now hidden cameras in specific intersections in Almaty that can catch license plate numbers which triggers a photo and time of speeding infraction.  She was afraid that she could get a worse penalty if she didn’t pay what might have been a traffic violation. Traffic technology has arrived in Kazakhstan to hopefully protect the innocent in other cars or on the sidewalks from predatory, high speed drivers.

Yesterday I was told by our British friends that a Kazakh woman who was crossing the street to her place of employment at 8:30 a.m. was knocked face down onto the pavement by an errant driver of a car.  Her colleagues witnessed the accident from the office window overlooking the street.  Brian, being the good boss that he is, took her to the emergency room of the hospital but she was not treated until three hours later when they eventually switched her to another care facility and three hours after that she was mercifully put into a wheelchair, given a glass or water but she was still bleeding all over.  An x-ray showed that her nose was broken.  She has many more bruises to recover from but at least she was not killed.  I know another American who witnessed a man get hit by a car, he was thrown into the air and he died.  It took her months to get over seeing that tragedy.


Moral of the story:  don’t get hit by a car in Kazakhstan even if you are legally walking on the white and black “zebra lines.”  Pedestrians don’t seem to have right of way here.  I’m not sure if the guilty driver in this recent accident will pay for the damages suffered by this young woman or if he will even be fined for his carelessness.  If he is rich enough, he will be able to buy off the system. In any case, it is good to know there is an ultimate Judge in matters being “under the sun” on hot pavement.




The book of Ecclesiastes, supposedly penned by King Solomon of old, has the term “under the sun” at least 28 times that I counted and only several times wrote “under heaven.”  Seems strange that a king of his stature, whose life was fairly cushy with a plethora of servants and concubines, would even be exposed to a moment “under the sun.” So pampered would King Solomon have lived befitting a king under fans of palm branches and under the shade of thriving grape vine leaves.  “Under the sun” seems more appropriate as a phrase that a manual laborer would use while picking cotton or cultivating the field behind some beast of burden.


Most all know that the punch line of wise old King Solomon’s life which depicts “vanity of vanities” comes in the last chapter and verse (12:13-14) FEAR GOD!  However, there are foreshadowings of this bold statement in other places of Ecclesiastes such as 3:14 “I know that whatever God does, It shall be forever.  Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it.  God does it, that men should fear before Him.”


Also in 5:7 we are warned to keep our vows: “For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity.  But FEAR GOD!”  And again in 7:18b “…For he who fears God will escape them all.”  We can take hope in 8:12 “Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and his days are prolonged, yet I surely know that it will be well with those who FEAR GOD, who fear before Him.”


Finally, the whole duty of man is summed up with, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: “FEAR GOD and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.”


Of course, Ecclesiastes has other familiar quotes of wisdom, such as from chapter 3: “to everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance…”  Or later in verse 11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”

Comments (1) »

Friendship – “Do you see the same truth?”

petuniasred roseskaput roses

Some friends of ours are FINALLY getting married on July 12th after an eight year courtship.  Ken and I were instrumental in getting them together in Ukraine, one is from Texas the other from Michigan.  So I guess that qualifies us as bona fide matchmakers for people who are about our age.  However, it may be too soon to tell for sure that this knot will actually be tied because they haven’t gotten married YET.  Other false starts make me leary to even write about this unique friendship that started in Ukraine and has continued over e-mail and phone calls these eight long years.  I found out about this upcoming wedding on a Skype conversation the other day, my friend still isn’t quite sure herself this is going to pull off so she sent me a simple attachment as a wedding invitation.  So low budget will this wedding be, yet we intend to fly from Kazakhstan home to Minnesota first and then the next day after fly down for the wedding in Texas.  The TRUTH of their union together as man and wife will sink in once they both say “I do.”  Until then, it is still up in the air.

From C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves he wrote the following in chapter four:

In our own time Friendship arises in the same way.  For us of course the shared activity and therefore the companionship on which Friendship supervenes will not often be a bodily one like hunting or fighting.  It may be a common religion, common studies, a common profession, even a common recreation.  All who share it will be our companions: but one or two or three who share something more will be our friends.  In this kind of love as Emerson said, “Do you love me? means Do you see the same truth? – Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth?’ The man who agrees with us that some question, little regarded by others, is of great importance can be our Friend.  He need not agree with us about the answer.”

I hope the “answer” on July 12th will be a resounding “I do.”


Leave a comment »

First Day of Summer: Pink, Blue and Green

pink cloudsblue flowersgreen trees

First day of summer seems strange to read on our western calendars when we have been enjoying summer for almost two months already in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  The roses are about kaput, but the petunias and marigolds flourish everywhere.  The landscapers are changing all the wild, blue flowers into rubble and then eventually sod to plant grass seed.  They are making way for the “new park” look with grass growing to a ferny, luminous green with sprinkler systems encouraging the growth.  The early sunup with puffy, pinkish clouds was something to capture from our balcony the other morning.  We rarely see clouds here like we do on the flat plains of northwestern Minnesota.  I wonder how our garden is growing back home?  This is what my Mom wrote in this morning’s e-mail to me:

“I transplanted the spirea bush this morning to the front of the house.  Dad helped me take out the shrub that was there, using the van to pull it out.  The potatoes at the farm are growing fast and will bloom soon.The beans I planted have been chewed off by some critter that likes them.  I did some spin trimming around the sidewalk and we weeded the sweet peas at the yard light and got the fence up. The corn is not germinating evenly.  I have not put the rose bush outside yet. The killdeer nest is all gone.”
Sigh, seems life goes on in BOTH places.  Soon we will be home but missing Kazakhstan.

Leave a comment »

“Tall Holly Hock Syndrome”

sunrisesquirrellandscapegreen yardTurkish saunapoolexercise bikeholly hock and schoolwhite holly hock

Ken and I get up VERY early (note 5:00 a.m. sunrise) to go to our health club down the hill 15 minutes away.  On Monday Ken had commented on a small tree that was growing on the roof of a deserted elementary school, it was about 2 meters high.  When I came back two hours later it had been cut down.  Thus, I will call this phenomenon “The tall holly hock syndrome” because these nice flowers are blooming right in front of where the tree was cut down.  It had tried to flourish in the WRONG place.  May that not happen to us!!!

The following is what I wrote to my sister yesterday with accompanying photos:  “we really do feel blessed and small wonders what a health club membership can do to keep us here in Almaty.  It really is cushy, we get thick robes, all the towels we want, free health drink at the bar (apple or orange juice), the Turkish sauna is my favorite place, the swimming pool is Ken’s favorite.  There is only one exercise bike so that is in high demand and four walking-in-place machines.  I’m getting used to the leg press and other machinery there but the hardest part of my workout is walking uphill home to our apartment which is five stories up.”

The landscapers have done a magnificent job of cleaning out the rubble and planting new grass seed just west of the President’s Palace, it is a nice pathway.  I actually saw my first wildlife which usually belongs in parks, a red squirrel.  Ordinarily I hate these pests that feed off our bird feeders at home, but it was nice to see him flit about in this new environment.  May his tribe increase.


Comments (2) »