Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kazakhstan
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
While most Volunteers will have access to e-mail, it can be very slow, irregular, or simply unavailable at times. Do not expect to have e-mail access in your home or at your site; many Volunteers must travel to larger cities to access e-mail accounts. (Note that many Volunteers have difficulty receiving e-mails consistently when using Hotmail accounts. If you use Hotmail, please consider setting up an alternate e-mail address for use during your time in Kazakhstan.)
You may consider bringing your own laptop computer, modem, and e-mail software. Volunteers with computers are often able to connect to the Internet over their home phone line (assuming that they have a telephone in their home), though this is a costly and slow option. There are several computer outlets in Almaty and other cities, but U.S. computer warranties are not accepted in Kazakhstan. Some Volunteers also bring a small printer; if you bring one make sure to bring extra ink cartridges since they may not be available locally. Some hotels in Kazakhstan provide fax services in their business centers for a fee. Telegrams can be easily sent and received from most post offices. You must pay for your own telegrams, faxes, and e-mail access.
Some letters from the United States may take two to six weeks to reach a Volunteer, while others may take three months or more. Some mail may simply not arrive. Current Volunteers have estimated that they receive approximately 90 percent of the mail that is sent from the United States. Some letters may arrive with clipped edges because postal workers have tried to see if any money was inside. Boxes and packages take about one to two months. You may have to pay a special handling charge to get your packages from a local post office. All items may be opened and inspected by government officials. Occasionally, items have been missing from packages sent to Volunteers. Your friends and family should not mail expensive items to you. As a general rule, the smaller the package, the better. If you have a package sent overnight or sent by a company other than the USPS it may have to go through customs and you may have to pay a fee to get the package. Fees vary but can be up to $100 (U.S.). Generally, a letter takes three to four weeks to get back to the United States. However, the mail system here is not that efficient, and it is not unheard of for a letter to take three months. To mail a letter to the United States through the Kazakh system, you can buy pre-stamped envelopes at the post offices. Bring a supply of U.S. stamps to send letters back with people traveling to the United States.
Despite the inevitable delays, we encourage you to write to your family and to number your letters. Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail and e-mail access may be sporadic and not to worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/Kazakhstan would notify the Office of Special Services at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and it would contact your family members immediately.
Your address during training will be:
“Your name,” PCT
P.O. Box 257
Once you become a Volunteer and are at your site, you should have your mail sent directly to your new address rather than to the Peace Corps Office.
Long-distance communication via telephone is available but expensive (the equivalent of $1.50 to $6.00 per minute depending on location). If you are calling from outside Almaty, it may take a very long time to get a line; telephone calls to the United States are usually made through an international operator, and it can take anywhere from half an hour to three hours or longer to get through. Long-distance calls within the country can be made either by dialing a special code or through an inter-city operator. You can order a call to the United States from a home telephone or from an international post office. In some sites it is very difficult, if not impossible, to call the United States. You often must go to the international post office to place the call. In Kazakhstan “smart cards” are extensively used in pay telephones. Cards must be purchased in Kazakhstan; cards purchased in the U.S. or Europe will not work. American telephone calling cards (such as AT&T) can be used in Kazakhstan by calling an access number. If you plan to make international calls, you should establish an international account with AT&T, MCI, Sprint, or another provider before you leave home. Some Volunteers choose to purchase cellphones at their own expense once in country. Due to the cost of calls, text messaging is extensively used among Volunteers.
Volunteer sites are selected by the Peace Corps staff in Kazakhstan, with the approval of the country director.
Volunteers are posted in sites upon the request of a
Kazakhstani agency and where the need for Volunteer services has been established. It is impossible to say where Volunteers will be posted before they arrive in Kazakhstan. The staff matches Volunteer skills with the needs of the site. You should remain flexible about the type and location of the job you will have during your service.
You will live with a host family for the first four months of your service in addition to staying with a host family during pre-service training. Depending on your site placement, you may continue to live with a host family or move to a dorm or apartment. There are many sites in smaller communities where independent living is not an option, so some Volunteers will stay with families for the duration of their service. If you feel you cannot live with a host family for this period of time, you should consider carefully whether you wish to accept this assignment in Kazakhstan.
There are many benefits to staying with a host family, including companionship upon arrival at site, faster acquisition of the local language, and improved integration into the local community. Aspects of host-family living that Volunteers may find challenging include the lack of privacy and independence and eating local cuisine. Volunteers are not allowed to supplement their living allowance to live in an accommodation above the level acceptable for a Volunteer.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Kazakhstan, you will receive four types of allowances: Living, vacation, settling-in, and monthly travel.
The living allowance covers basic living expenses. The allowance is for food, rent, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, local reading materials, and other incidentals. The amount is reviewed once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. Presently the living allowance in Kazakhstan is paid in the local currency, tenge, not U.S. dollars, and ranges from the equivalent of $180 to $450, depending on your site. The current exchange rate is approximately one U.S. dollar to 128 tenge. The living allowance is paid every month directly to Volunteers via electronic funds transfer to the Volunteers’ Kazakhstan bank accounts, which can be accessed by their ATM cards at most places in the country.
A vacation allowance, equivalent to $24 per month, is added to your living allowance each month. A one-time settling-in allowance of $200 and paid in local currency is given to buy basic household items when you move to your site. Volunteers also receive a monthly travel allowance, which is intended to cover all Volunteer travel in-country other than travel mandated by the Peace Corps.
Most Volunteers find that they can live comfortably in Kazakhstan with these four allowances, although many Volunteers bring money (in cash or traveler’s checks) for out-of-country travel. All Volunteers are strongly discouraged from supplementing their income for daily living with money brought from home. The living allowance is adequate, and Volunteers should be living at the economic equivalent of their neighbors and colleagues. If you bring cash, the bills should be new and without any written marks, creases, or tears. Only dollars in very good condition will be exchanged in Kazakhstan, as banks only want bills in good condition.
Credit cards can be used in several establishments in Almaty and in a few stores in the larger cities, but they are most useful during vacations and travel out of the country.
Traveler’s checks can be cashed for a 2 percent to 3 percent fee at most large banks. There are a few retail places in Kazakhstan where they can be used. American bank debit cards can be used in a growing number of cities in Kazakhstan.
Food and Diet
A variety of food is available in Kazakhstan in the summer, although there are fewer choices available in the winter. Each town has a green bazaar (similar to a farmer’s market in the United States) and small food stores. At the green bazaar, you can find—when in season—fresh tomatoes, potatoes, beets, carrots, squash, radishes, pumpkin, cucumbers, onions, cabbage, melons, oranges, grapes, bananas, pears, pomegranates, and apples. Garlic, fresh dill, and basil are generally available; however, spices tend to be somewhat sporadic from site to site. Pack your favorite spices! Markets usually have chicken, cow, sheep, goat, pig, and horse meat. Horse meat is the Kazakh national favorite. Pork is forbidden by Islam, but is popular with Russians and other non-Kazakh ethnic groups (and to Kazakhs who do not adhere to these Islamic tenants). Dairy products include milk (from cow, horse, or camel), butter, cheese, cottage cheese, and sour cream. Stores usually carry staples such as rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, spaghetti, pasta, vermicelli, flour, sugar, salt, juice, sausage, butter, cheese, yogurt, eggs, meat, and chicken, though supplies may be sporadic. The bread stores carry a variety of breads. Bread is a part of every meal here. There tends to be a lack of green vegetables, however.
To Americans, mealtime should be a time of relaxation, but in a strange country mealtime may be a perpetually unsettling challenge. The available food may not only be strange in type and appearance, but it may be unpalatable and even unhealthy from an American perspective. Meals in Kazakhstan are meat-based and fairly normal according to American standards, although without as much diversity as American meals. Eating is a significant social function and is a way to develop your working relationships and friendships. You may feel obligated to demonstrate your friendliness and willingness to accept local customs by eating food that you do not want. Sometimes you may not be able to refuse the food without offending your host. Your decision in each case will be the result of a fine balancing of many factors: the requirements of courtesy, the limits of your own tolerance to unaccustomed foods, and realistic concerns for your health. This will take time, and until you get comfortable in making such decisions, it will be a strain.
There are very few vegetarians in Kazakhstan. There may be issues for vegetarian Volunteers, whether strict or not, in most parts of the country. Kazakhstan is a meat-eating culture, and school cafeterias, business lunches, and special dinners will all feature meat. Vegetarian Volunteers will have to overcome these obstacles and face limited food choices at times.
Transportation within Kazakhstan is primarily by trains, buses, micro-vans, or private taxis. When traveling long distances, it is usually necessary to book tickets on the national railway service. This can be done either at the local train station or at specialized kiosks that provide train tickets and information. Train transport is available in three classes: Luxury-kupee, kupee, and platszcart. Most Volunteers purchase the four-person sleeper car kupee-class ticket. When on the train, it is common for the police to ask for your passport and other documents.
Short distances between adjacent cities and within cities can be traveled by public bus. The fare for buses varies by location but is usually between 40 to 60 tenge. Private taxi may also be hired when traveling within a city. Prices for taxis vary widely, with taxis in Almaty costing 400 to 1,000 tenge for cross town rides to 60 tenge within smaller towns and villages.
In some cities in Kazakhstan, you may go to a concert, theater performance, bowling alley, circus performance, a movie, museums, saunas, or local cafés. There may be a few interesting restaurants. English movies are dubbed into Russian. Chess is a national pastime. Ice-skating and snow skiing are available outside of Almaty; you can rent skates and skis there. Soccer is extremely popular, and in the rural districts, horse riding and hunting are also very popular. You will have to create much of your own entertainment, especially during winter or in villages.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the difficulties of finding your place as a Peace Corps Volunteer is fitting into the local culture while maintaining your own cultural identity and acting like a professional—all at the same time. You will be working as a professional and are expected to dress and behave accordingly.
While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn clothes, this will be due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner in Kazakhstan wearing ragged, unmended clothing is more likely to be considered an affront than someone trying to “get closer to the people.” In Kazakhstan, people take pride in dressing well. Kazakhstani women are very fashion conscious, although the clothing available in Kazakhstan may be of lower quality and is often expensive.
Professional dress, especially in a business setting, is more formal than in Silicon Valley in the United States. For men, it is appropriate to wear a shirt, tie, and slacks to work, or perhaps a suit—definitely not jeans. Women usually wear skirts with shirts/blouses or sweaters or dresses. Both men and women should bring one or two sport jackets or blazers. Women can and do wear high-heeled shoes. Keep in mind, though, that you will be doing a lot of walking. Generally, Kazakhstani women wear dress boots to work in the winter and pumps and open-toed dress shoes in summer. Hiking boots at work are not acceptable. You may want to bring one suit or dressy outfit, but dry cleaning is not available in many places. Nice jeans and shorts are appropriate for casual wear and shorts are becoming more common among adults in major cities. The “grunge” look is never appropriate.
Overall, your clothing and shoes should be comfortable and warm. Many schools and offices are not adequately heated in the winter. Bring warm professional clothes! You should dress conservatively. Although local women wear miniskirts in the summer, you will get additional unwanted attention wearing this type of attire.
Toasting and drinking alcoholic beverages (primarily vodka) is part of the local culture in Kazakhstan and many Volunteers experience pressure to drink more than they desire or are accustomed to. Unfortunately, excessive drinking on the part of Volunteers has resulted in a number of alcohol-related incidents impacting both Peace Corps’ reputation and the safety of Volunteers in Kazakhstan. As a result, Peace Corps/Kazakhstan has implemented an alcohol use policy. It has been included below so that you will an opportunity to review this information in advance of making a decision to serve in Kazakhstan.
Volunteers/trainees serve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and at all times are representing the Peace Corps and the United States. Kazakhstani culture can encourage use of alcohol in social situations; however, it discourages drunkenness and losing control of oneself.
Drinking excessively can result in behavior that is inappropriate and damages the reputation of all hard-working, committed Peace Corps Volunteers who have served and will serve in Kazakhstan. In addition, Volunteers/trainees compromise their personal safety when under the influence of alcohol. All allegations of alcohol misconduct will be investigated beginning with a discussion with the Volunteer/ trainee concerned.
Drunkenness and lewd, offensive behavior resulting from alcohol consumption are not allowed and will result in one of the following disciplinary actions:
- Alcohol Contract. An official alcohol contract that will either prohibit or limit a Volunteer/trainee’s alcohol consumption may be instituted for the duration of service. The Volunteer/trainee, country director, and Peace Corps medical officer will sign the alcohol contract and a violation of the contract may result in the initiation of administrative separation procedures.
- Administrative Separation. Violations of this policy that diminish a Volunteer’s effectiveness or adversely impact the Peace Corps’ program in Kazakhstan will result in the initiation of administrative separation procedures.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (often alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive.
As solid as our emergency plans and training are, Volunteers are ultimately responsible for their own safety and MUST take every reasonable precaution to ensure it. Every friendship you cultivate, every decision you make—traveling away from site; staying out late; drinking; becoming involved in personal, intimate relationships—will impact your personal safety. Thoughtful decision-making, preparedness, awareness, and vigilance will all help reduce the possibility of crimes against you.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is quite high, like all Volunteers you will encounter numerous frustrations. Due to financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support promised. The pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and many people are hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys that occur throughout your service. You will need to demonstrate self-motivation, resourcefulness, and initiative in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will ever experience. Often you will find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your counterparts with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing a visible impact and without receiving feed-back on your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress is often seen only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers and over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
In many aspects of daily life, you may feel pulled in opposite directions between your accustomed life and that of your hosts. At times, life may seem a series of minor nagging frustrations. Such frustrations can accumulate, and you may come through a long struggling day feeling exhilarated and happy with your achievements and yet become angry because you have to wipe your mouth on your hand for want of a paper napkin.
To approach and overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, and open-mindedness. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Kazakhstan feeling that they have gained much more than they have sacrificed during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.