Thursday, January 31, 2008

An appropriate welcome :P

There should really be a word for "feeling surprise at how familiar something feels after returning from a long absence." That's truly how I felt walking into the Almaty airport last night around 2am local time. The flight was long, but what else is new? It was the least painless it's ever been, so I have to be grateful for that.

Anyway, I hinted to some of you that there was a little drama at the airport when I arrived, so here's the full run-down. So, the organization that gave me this research grant - American Councils (known here as ACCELS) - informed me that they would be sending their driver to pick me up at the airport, which as I mentioned before was a huge relief. So imagine my dismay, after a painless flight, quick customs processing, and almost immediate baggage delivery, that the afore-mentioned driver was nowhere to be found!!! The swarm of taxi drivers in the receiving area immediately sensed my confusion and swooped in to try and "help" -- "Do you know the address? Well, if the driver's not here, just let me take you! Why wait around?" Normally I stay far away from these guys, but when I eventually told one of them that my driver was late, he very generously offered me his cell phone to call him. I called the director of ACCELS in Almaty, who sleepily answered the phone. I explained the situation, expecting her to assure me that the driver, Igor, would be there soon. Nope! "Ohhh, I thought you were coming tomorrow night!" she exclaimed. Oh, great - now I'm at the mercy of the taxi drivers, I thought.

She called back a few minutes later (on the taxi driver's phone) to tell me that Igor was on his way -- I could just imagine him stumbling out of bed and searching for his keys at that very moment. By this time, the taxi guy was complaining that I was using too many credits on his phone, so I had to cut it short. Then I decided I'd better pay him for his cell phone credits -- don't want to start out by pissing off the locals -- so I ran over to the airport's 24-hour currency exchange and got enough to give him a few bucks (300 tenge). Then, I figured I should get my own cell phone up and running, so I had to buy a SIM-card at a separate kiosk. But of course the phone's battery was dead (after two years of disuse), so I also had to ask the kiosk owner if I could charge the phone using her outlet. At this point, I'd been in Almaty for maybe 40 minutes, and already it felt like all hell was breaking loose.... But hey, on the bright side I was totally in control of the situation, getting what I needed, not wailing in despair like a lost little kid -- so, I guess I was actually doing pretty well, all things considered. :)

So besides the kiosk lady, her friend, and about thirty taxi drivers thinking that I'm a crazy American chick with a bit of a psycho independent streak, there was no harm done and things eventually got straightened out. Igor arrived about half an hour later, and then we were on our way to Batyes' apartment. Unfortunately, though, due to some construction near her neighborhood, we got lost on the way. Surprised? :P

FINALLY, at around 3:45 am, I stumbled through the front door of my friend's place. She had woken up to let me in and had to go to work the next day, but she had still taken the trouble to prepare some snacks and tea for me. We sat and talked for about another hour, then I finally got to sleep.

So you see, this is an extremely typical scenario in Almaty, which is why I'm so delighted that I can share it with you! Yes, schedules will get horribly mixed up. Yes, a series of sktechy taxi drivers will try to "help" you (and in some cases they actually do!). Yes, you'll have to throw together a last-minute contingency plan. Yes, your driver will get lost because he doesn't actually know the city as well as he claims. But at the end of it all, the door is open and there's a hot cup of tea waiting for you. I guess this is where the familiar feeling comes in....

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to Almaty....

Reporting from the Philadelphia Int'l Airport, en route to Kazakhstan!

Just had to share this funny "Tale from Airport Security"....

So, I am bringing a Kazakh instrument with me to Almaty - it's called a kyl-kobyz and its portrait is hanging to the right here. It's carved from wood and has two strings made from horsehairs. The sound is incredible, very mournful and resonant, and able to imitate sounds of nature. Kazakh shamans used to use it for ritual communication with the spirit world. I bought mine two years ago in Almaty and took lessons from a local Conservatory student. The kyl-kobyz (or just kobyz for short) is one of two Kazakh national instruments. The other one is the dombra (described in earlier post). Eventually the kobyz will be part of my dissertation because I'm going to look at the "national instrument" concept and how it bolsters the formation of national identity. But I digress....

So here I am going through airport security with this kobyz sticking out of my otherwise unassuming tote bag from an SEM conference.* I made sure to leave the instrument partially uncovered so as not to provoke fears that I was packing some sort of oddly-shaped heat, and it seemed like nobody was really paying attention to it besides a few fellow travelers. Then I started loading all of my crap into the x-ray off, laptop out, etc. The bag with the kobyz went in first.

And what do you know -- it gets pulled for a search!! I was actually a little curious to see what they would do with it (by the way, i had an unpleasant experience in a London airport on account of this instrument as well -- but actually they were just idiots who wanted to make fun of me so I guess it wasn't that big a deal...). As I was gathering my things to go over to the search area, the lady in front of me asked if I was carrying a berimbau -- the Brazilian instrument used for capoeira. She had brought one home from a trip for her son once, she said -- which made me sort of incredulously wonder how she would confuse my kobyz for its apparent Brazilian counterpart.


So there I am watching the girl search the bag, and I ask her if the instrument is indeed the issue.

"No," she said, rummaging around in the bag. Then, finally, she found what she was looking for -- a tube of hand lotion! (cue the comedic "wah wah wah.......") The hand lotion had committed the egregious offense of being in my bag without a ziplock baggie around it. For shame! I quickly corrected the error and went on my sheepish little way.

So, I guess one possible moral of this story is that maybe people are actually more tolerant about unfamiliar things than I give them credit for. Or more apathetic, I'm not sure. Either way, I'm just kind of glad they didn't make fun of me this time.....

*SEM = Society for Ethnomusicology. We have a journal, we conference, it's cool.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rewind...!: Some background info

So, I realized after talking to a reader that I haven't exactly introduced Kazakhstan or my project properly -- and I forgot to do any blurbs for my photos! Actually, I thought the photos would be just decoration, but if they are provoking interest in learning more, then I'm happy to oblige with some background info.
OK, so Kazakhstan is the 9th largest coutnry in the world, situated between the Middle East, China, Russia, and the other four "Stans" of Central Asia (but let's not be too casual -- the Stanleys, please). Its culture is a pretty accurate reflection of its geographical location, mixing a lot of different influences in its food, music, spirituality, and everyday life. Since Central Asia made up the longest stretch of the Silk Road (a 7,000 mile long overland trading route connecting cities from Italy to China), the whole region is distinguished by a history of many cultures interacting and exchanging ideas. (Click here to see more about the Silk Road.)

I should point out that the Kazakhs are a distinct ethnic group, not to be confused with the other ethnic groups who live or lived in the same areas. The Kazakhs were pastoral nomads -- they herded their sheep and horses and camels, and moved around frequently so they lived in portable houses made of felt, called yurts (see one being built here). Because they were somewhat weak from a military standpoint, though, they had to ask for help from Russia in the late 1700's and that started the gradual colonization of Kazakh territory by the Russian Empire.

When the Soviet Union took over in 1917, Kazakhstan (literally "land of the Kazakhs") was drawn on a map and named by Soviet authorities. Over the next 70 or so years, the Kazakhs were forced to give up their traditional way of life, and instead live on collective farms. Many of them fled, and many of those who stayed behind died of starvation. Then, lots of other ethnic groups started settling in Kazakhstan -- often they were either farmers working on the new Soviet cotton plantations, or they were forcibly deported to Kazakhstan by Stalin. Long story short, by the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kazakhs were a minority in their own supposed "homeland."

Since then, the Kazakhs have been going about reconstructing their national identity. "National identity" means to them what "ethnic identity" means to the average American -- your cultural traditions, family lineage, etc. To the Kazakhs, this is extremely important because a lot of other ethnic groups live in Kazakhstan now, including Russians, Koreans, Germans, Ukranians, etc. And in this part of the world, your citizenship (e.g. "Kazakhstani") has nothing to do with your national identity. If you were born in Kazakhstan, but your heritage is ethnically Russian, then you are considered Russian. Your "national identity" is even printed in your passport, it's that important.

So, in order to reclaim "their" country from a legacy of colonization and repression, the Kazakhstani government (which is mostly ethnic Kazakh) has been promoting Kazakh culture pretty aggressively. The Kazakhs feel that they are entitled to a privleged position in government, culture, media, etc. because it is, after all, Kazakhstan. But where does this leave non-Kazakhs? Needless to say, it is not a simple situation.

Now -- where does MUSIC fit into all of this? That is my field, after all -- not political science... Basically, I am trying to see how this struggle over ethnic/national identities is literally playing itself out through music. I'm interested in finding out not only how people construct their national identities musically, but also how music is a sort of battleground for people fighting to express themselves and their national identities in a country where the Kazakh identity is supposed to come first. Pretty cool, right? :)

So there you have it -- my dissertation topic.
I'll go ahead and describe those photos for ya now, too:

01/17 - Western and Kazakh instruments hanging together in a workshop at the National Conservatory in Almaty. The Kazakh instruments are called "dombra" -- it's a two-stringed plucked lute that is one of the Kazakh "national instruments."

01/06 - A housing development in the foothills of the Tien Shan mountains. This is where the wealthy residents of Almaty live -- above the smog and the noise of the city, in houses that are huge and fabulous by local (and even American) standards. Most Almaty residents live in apartments, which are growing more and more expensive all the time.

01/05 - A billboard in Almaty that shows a Kazakh musical instrument and reads, "Honor the heritage of your people." I love this billboard because it is so blatant in its Kazakh nationalism, plus it draws on a Kazakh musical symbol to make its point. But its also problematic: honor the heritage of whose people? Just Kazakhs?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Progress and ponderings

Two weeks until departure -- the apartment search continues, but things are at least progressing. I think I contacted about a dozen people about my real estate woes, and as expected those friends have talked to their friends, and those friends have a few interesting options. One is a one-room place near the center of the city at $100 per week -- great! Except it comes with a roommate. Next...! Another intriguing offer is a newly renovated ("kapitalni remont") place near the Al-Farabi University -- sounds gorgeous, but this one's asking $1000 per month. Yow, I'm having flashbacks to apartment hunts in LA.... The general consensus seems to be that $700 is the average for a decent, one-room place in the city. Crap. I guess I can scrap my initial housing budget.

In more encouraging news, the organization that's funding me has offered to pick me up at the airport. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but trust me it is. Nothing worse than coming off an 18+ hour trip and the first thing you encounter (after the interminable lines at customs and the chaotic baggage claim) is a MOB of overzealous taxisti offering to drive you to your destination, and take you to the cleaners along the way (metaphorically speaking of course). They will ALWAYS charge foreigners more, mostly because we, poor fools, don't know how to negotiate; but also because they assume we have lots more money than locals. It's a safe assumption, considering most foreigners are working for either an oil company, an embassy, or an NGO. So, based on this imbalanced scale of wealth, foreign grad students occupy a kind of (dare i say it?) liminal space. They don't have the insulation of the mad money, chauffers, and phat apartments that most other inostrantsii (non-natives) have. But unlike the moneyed ones, we poor grad students have the advantage of actually knowing our way around, speaking the local language, and learning the fine (and utterly underused in the west) art of haggling for EVERYTHING.

Ah, see what I have to look forward to? C'mon, you are totally excited for me.....!

Oh, lastly, I went on a little shopping spree and got some fun techie items for documenting lots of musical-type things for my research. Plus -- the thing that will make life so much easier -- Cyrillic keyboard stickers! So that I can type in Russian and Kazakh on my computer. How did I live without them up to now?? Well, actually, by guessing a lot. Sad, huh? Well, it's a new world now, baby!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The great apartment hunt begins.....

I've sent out appeals to several Almaty contacts to see if they can assist with my current trans-hemispheric apartment hunt. You see, I had the option of living with a host family for the five months of my stay, but in the end I decided that even though it might be nice to have the extra language practice, social company, and personal security that a local family setting provides, I just really prefer not having to share a tiny apartment and/or live by someone else's house rules! I guess my clearly American feelings about personal space are a tad obvious....

Anyway, I'm hearing varying reports from the ground in the City of Apples. An Almaty acquaintance described the current rental market as "expensive," and that a furnished, studio apartment ("one-room" or odnokomnatnaya in local lingo) would cost at least $500 per month. This is not too bad. One American friend who just came back from Almaty in November reported that she was able to rent a nice studio for $600/month, utilities included. This is a decent rate, considering how real estate is kind of skyrocketing over there. This friend was smart too, because she rented from local Kazakh friends (actually her former host family), which pretty much guaranteed that she would get a fair price. When I lived there in 2006, I paid $600 per month PLUS utilities for a really nice, centrally located studio - and after a few months I was able to talk the landlady down to $500 plus utilities. The back story on that deal, though, was that a local friend helped to secure the place by contacting a realtor, then making a pseudo-shady arrangement with the guy to lower the initially advertised price (esentially blocking the realty company out altogether and going under the table with the realtor himself). This just goes to show that (and this will likely be a recurring theme) it's ALL about who you know. Hence the reason why my first plan of attack in the apartment hunt is to beg my local friends to keep their eyes and ears open -- hopefully it will pay off!

Saturday, January 5, 2008


Welcome, dobro pozhalovat, khosh keldingiz....!
As many of you know, I've been working on issues of music and national identity in Kazakhstan for a while now. I spent 2005-06 in Almaty researching, and now I'm going back for a shorter stint of five months. Hopefully, this will result in a decent dissertation so that I can finally finish my doctorate in ethnomusicology at UCLA!
Last time I spent time in Almaty, I was planning to keep a blog but failed miserably. So this time, I will stay true to my word and keep you (my family, friends, and/or beloved random readers) updated on my life and work in this crazy, crazy town.
Since I'm not leaving until January 30, my posts over the next month will probably be infrequent and full of pre-travel jitters and logistical babblings. On that note, I've already started having dreams about leaving. This often happens to me both before and after making the day-long trek to Kazakhstan. Usually my dream-self loses her luggage somewhere in a nondescript airport and spends the rest of the dream unsuccessfully searching for it.
Another thing that's occupying my mind is GIFTS. I don't know how true this is when travelling to other countries, but if you are going to Kazakhstan be prepared to reserve at least 1/4 of your suitcase for gifty-type items. It's not just a courtesy there -- for a country and a people that pride themselves on their hospitality, giving generously is an expectation and a time-honored tradition. As for me, I availed myself the abundant post-christmas sales around town -- my favorite christmas tradition by far -- to start my fulfillment of this obligation.
Lastly, I am trying to kick my ass into gear and get a chapter of my dissertation done before I leave. I've been talking about it since November, but as I am a highly trained and very experienced procrastinator I have yet to write a word. In fact, the very raison d'etre for this first entry is that I am actually supposed to be writing pages and pages about the history of Kazakhstan.
OK, I can already feel the collective pressure from the possibly dozens of eyes that will see this over the next few months so here I go! Chapter 1, page 1........