Tuesday, September 20, 2011


My stomach was too small. As I have experienced while grocery shopping when hungry, my stomach was no match for my eyes. Except this time I was shopping for food I knew I wouldn’t get for the next 2 years. I had just finished my second chipotle burrito, was halfway deep into a pepperoni pizza, and had still only barely made a dent in my bucket list of food. My stomach was just too small. I was because of times like these and people like me that gluttony was on that list of seven. I half expected Kevin Spacey to walk in, tie me down and force feed the rest of the food I craved, but could not fit. These, were my last thoughts regarding food in the United States, thoughts I might have retained given I never discovered my new reason for existence: verena.

Verena is a delicious homemade jam made by every Kyrgyz household worth their own salt, i.e., anyone that can mix fruit with sugar. But do not be fooled, as simple as the recipe sounds (fruit and sugar) every verena is different. And it was upon this realization that I understood what must happen for my duration in Kyrgyzstan. My mission: To seek and consume as much of the best verena within the politicized territorial boundary of the Kyrgyz Republic as possible. Challenge Accepted.

First, we must ask ourselves, what makes the best verena indeed the best? Should it be, which verena complements the meal or drink with which it is being consumed? Or simply how much can I shovel into my face before getting sick? As the distinguished and intellectual individual that I am, I obviously chose the latter.

Now a rubric was to be created. Things like sweetness, texture of whole fruit, and thickness of adjoining syrup were, of course, to be taken into account. But things like healthiness and the difference of whole fruit and syrup specific gravity throw a wrench into the usual calculation methods.

The best verena in country- will be sweet but not over poweringly so, an essence of the original fruit must be present. The whole fruit must also be present, but not too tough, as most apricot verenas tend to be. A proper preparation of whole fruit must be observed. And the difference of texture b4etween whole fruit and the syrup is an often overlooked attribute. One cannot be fishing for hard chunks of fruit in a watery syrup- verena must be able to be consumed as one substance. This is a reason why raspberry verena always scores so high on the Verena Calculator. The mashed raspberry integrates well with the syrup. And if proper sweetness is observed, a near perfect verena is achieved.

But we cannot overlook the healthiness factor. Loaded with tons of sugar, healthiness is often inversely correlated with other positive factors. However keep in mind, as the mission states: “Consume as much of the best verena … as possible.” And acquiring type 2 diabetes from over consumption is most certainly not part of our goal, and is in fact contradictory to the sustainability of our main objective. As acquiring type 2 diabetes would probably result in a medical separation from Peace Corps.

Armed with nothing but the best tools (my impeccable sense of taste and the infallible Verena Calculator) and the financial backing of the US Government (kind of), my search has endured and will continue until I find that perfect combination of flavors and ingredients, textures and tastes of the perfect verena… or until I get sick.

Please see the attached excel file, entitled “Verena Calculator” (patent pending) to grade your own local/homemade verena.


Verena Calculator

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thanks Kevin!

This is a rather short post of something that a Facebook update just wouldn’t cover. Let’s rewind about 2 months ago, our (John, Meghan, and myself) friend Kevin (who is also coincidentally from flagstaff, hooray!), had a camp on the north shore of Issy-Kul. Now, let me also preface this with the fact that not all volunteers live with host families, after the 3 months volunteers are relieved from their probationary period and are allowed to find their own housing accommodation, usually an apartment. This is not an option for some volunteers, who live in villages where there are no apartment complexes, yours truly. But Karakol is a relatively large city, so 90% of Karakol volunteers live on their own.

Kevin has a very nice apartment in Karakol, and is also one of our favorite places to crash at during our weekend trips into the city. Now Kevin was going to be gone for a month at this camp, so what does he do? Does he take his keys with him? Does he tell us all to stay with other volunteers? No, he handed us the keys to his apartment and tells us to have fun. Not expected, but very cool nonetheless. So far every volunteer in the city has been super cool with us staying at their place for weekend excursions but handing keys over with the only caveat being don’t burn the place down. Downright awesome!

John, Meghan and I were obviously very impressed by Kevin’s generosity, and felt we had to make it up to him in some way. So upon his arrival back from camp, we made him a feast of Mexican food. Now what maybe cheap back in the states, costs a fortune over here. I swear canned beans and flat bread (tortillas) were a majority of the cost. Not really, but were outrageously expensive. We went all out for this meal, we bought a whole chicken (cost us 2 full days of pay), rice, beans, and even chocolate for an amazing mole sauce. We go to a specialty cheese and meat shop and buy 200 grams, almost half a pound, of cheese. Then decide that 200 gr is not enough and buy another 200 to bring our total for the meal to about 1500 som. 33 dollars is a lot of money for one meal over here mind you… Now we go back and make a masterfully crafted Mexican feast, complete with beans, rice, and the first chicken enchiladas I’ve had in country, and they were amazing! So Kevin comes over just as the enchiladas were all gooey and fresh out of the oven. We all sit down and start eating our amazing meal, we all give our thanks to Kevin for his generosity with the apartment, and what does he say? “Guys, I’m a vegetarian.”

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Go Buckeyes!

As with most developing countries, Kyrgyzstan has some of the most interesting written English you will ever see. Chinese imitation clothing is just about as popular as breathing in the KG. Shirts that have Latin script letters just for the sake of having letters are pretty popular, as are the Adidas fakes. The rip-offs are absolutely shameless with their copies. Words like ‘Trademark’ or ‘Copyright’ might as well be in… well, in English. You don’t see the off brands here where the colors are a little bit different or they use 4 stripes instead of 3 like in the states. Everything is exactly the same, everything except when some poor Chinese worker has to write in English. I have seen so many Abibas, Adibas, Addidas, and Ebbibas that seeing an actual pair is quite shocking.

Armani takes a close second for trendy Kyrgyz brands, I myself, recently purchased a nice pair of brown stretchy corduroys with fleece lining at Osh Bazaar made by the popular and most reputable, Armmannill of Shanghai. The sad truth of the matter is that the English language is by large associated with prosperity and affluency. And generally it is at the cost of grandmothers wearing shirts with large print curse words or manly men with shirts that say things like ‘sports girl’. Another reason I am glad to be teaching English on the side.

Another favorite are Kyrgyz toys. In Bishkek a while back I saw a nice little white and pink toy horse, any little Kyrgyz girl would love to play with. That is, until she finds out her ‘My Little Pony’ actually reads ‘Demon Donkey’ in nicely coordinated light blue lettering. A while later In Karakol I also found a toy gun emblazoned in bright red words a not-so-nice, ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’. No wonder the boys are all so tentek here. Parents will soon be telling their children that their bad behavior is spawned not from watching too much television but from reading too many English words.

Coming from a place where even the cars are rumored to be Chinese rip-offs, the occasional real shirt makes for a huge and generally random surprise. Today I came home to my Apa wearing an Ohio State University shirt, it has the correct school colors, Ohio State logo and no misspellings- a true OSU original. I still have no idea where she got it. But needless to say, I completely lost it. We’re talking doubled over laughter, lost it. Go Buckeyes!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Food! ... I think.

Before you start reading this, go get a steak, Thai food, pizza, a good beer, or wine that doesn’t taste like it was made by Welch’s, and then come back. Seriously this can wait, sating you appetite with something that isn’t from the head of a sheep can’t. Not that all the food here is horrible, some of it is actually very good, but as they say, the highs are high and the lows are… well, are usually made of some unidentifiable organ.

But I’ll start with the good news, possibly my favorite food in country, which I actually have cravings of, is pluff. This, as the name suggests is a kind of pilaf, made with rice, carrots, sheep meat, and green onions. Pluff is always a winner and was my requested birthday meal. Next is monte, which are steamed dumplings with all sorts of fillings ranging from chives and pumpkin to sheep fat, (called mai) which is actually not bad in moderation. The homemade yogurt, is also very good, it is significantly more watery than yogurt in the states but is a nice healthy change to the constant marathon-prep-carb-loading that usually occurs every day.

Now for the not so exciting part. From day one we had all been warned about the sheep’s eye (think of a grape wrapped with calamari, chewy with a wet burst in the middle). But what we weren’t warned about was far worse. My first experience with the exotic was at PST, I walked into my youngest host sister crying because her older brother had stolen her last bit of … wait for it… spinal cord. They then proceeded to fight over a couple of connected vertebrae so they could suck on the spinal column for those last bits of nerve. Thankfully my host mother had saved some for me. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down to lunch which was a pile of noodles (typical) with a pile of steaming intestine on top (not typical… but not unusual, I’ve been told). I just hoped I wouldn’t find partially digested grass inside, like I said you should have probably eaten prior to reading this. Another national favorite is the mai, as aforementioned this winner is nothing but the pure fat that most people in the states cut off their steaks. But in KG, mai is the most sought after portion, right behind the eyeball that is, and my family says is also good for your heart. Coronary heart disease, and heart attacks only happen west of the International Date Line, western scientists are still looking into this phenomena.

Aside from the random, “What part of the animal did this come from?” moments, the food is better than I expected. Although I have given up on things like good cheese, protein, and salads, and when frying is the preferred method of cooking, it’s difficult not to be constantly eating something dripping with oil. Carbs are the staple nutrient in country, potatoes with pasta or rice and bread on the side is the go to combo. The only way to battle the endless carb overload is to keep active and embrace the permanent naan baby.

Tasty deliciousness...

'Borsok' - fried dough, basically a few cups of sugar and some glaze short of a Krispy Kreme.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I thought this day would never come...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finally all my efforts thus far have culminated into this one earth shattering spectacle.  What could nearly be described as a secondary project, with all the village cooperation and input I have recieved I am finally ready to come forth and unveil before the world the work and efforts of many.  After weeks, of constant second guessing and headaches, arguments and high tensions, the fruits of effort are ready to be consumed in one large knowledge pie. The people of Tasma, without whom this would never have been possible, and myself are very proud to present... my address!

Иссык-кул облусу           
Туп району                      
722413 Село тасма         
Кочо тынтай 48                 
Мэтью брутон                

Issyk-Kul Oblast
Tuup Rayon
722413 Tasma Village
Tintai St. #48
Matthew Bruton

If you are going to be so nice as to send me something (please do!!) write both, the English and Kyrgyz versions.  FYI care packages (which are AWESOME!!) get the best value if you get the flat rate box thru USPS, costs about $45 for shipping.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I, Matt Bruton, do solemnly swear...

Saturday,  June 12th, 2011

Whew! What a week! This has been one of the busiest yet. Since swearing in I have been in my village a total of 2 days. There have been constant seminars and meetings ever since the first of June, in every place except for my village. Since day one, everyone has been telling us that life in the KG is slow. Things just aren't developed enough to have expectations of anything other than marshrutkas* to move quickly. But if this past week is any indicator, I just don't see it...

Marshrutka  n.  See also: a 15 person vehicle that fits 30, one of the most uncomfortable and yet intimate experiences in country.

First off, swear in was amazing, because it is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the Country Director and staff went out of their way to make the event extra special. We rented out a large auditorium in downtown Bishkek, invited heads of state (many of which showed), host families, and future counterparts.  The American and Japanese Ambassadors both made speeches, and volunteers made several dance and song performances made the event a great success. You can watch videos of the performances and the Ambassador giving our oaths online, www.ustream.tv/channel/k-19.

After the ceremony and picnic that followed we once again loaded up, this time for good, and said our sorrowful goodbyes.  Because this is Kyrgyzstan (TIK) we crammed 8 people, including 3 volunteers' belongings for the next 2 years, into a Chinese version of a Dodge Plymouth and drove 7 hours to the eastern shore of the lake. Like I said, the most intimate moments generally occur whilst hurtling through space at pee-yourself-speeds.

Two days after I arrived in Tasma, and much convincing later, I found myself in Karakol, the capital of Issyk-Kul, wandering semi-aimlessly until fellow K-19s Meghan and John showed up several hours later. We had agreed to come check out the city the first weekend together.  Karakol is a beautiful place with the lake on one side and the Ala-Too range on the other, which would and does make a great base camp for tourists looking for some outdoor activity.  One of the largest glaciers in the world is accessible via Karakol, as well as hundreds of backpacking and mountaineering trips- which I plan on taking as many as possible.

 Bishkek was a week of seminar after seminar. Yawn. The first of which was put on by the US Dept. of Commerce, which means they had some serious money! The cool thing about this was that Mike, a fellow PCV and myself were the only English speakers, meaning everyone was given a mic and an ear piece for translation into Kyrgyz, English, and Russian (picture the U.N. - Crazy!)  following the seminar the speakers took us out for the best lunch drinks we have had in country thus far, though its not difficult to beat 15 som plastic cups of vodka. 

I finally got back to Tasma today, whew! Which takes a lot more work that one would think. As I mentioned in a previous post, taxis only leave my village at about 8 am and return again at about 2. Needless to say I missed my half an hour window; not to mention I have no idea where the taxis going to Tasma leave Karakol from, I'll put it on the 'things to figure out' list right next to finding healthy food. A marshrutka (which presumably still has my cell phone) dropped me off about 14 kilometers away from my village, uh-oh.  So I did what any risk-averse and safety oriented volunteer would do in a foreign country, I hitchhiked. This is actually quite a common way for people to travel in country. Virtually every car on the road is a taxi, you can't drive 5 kilometers without seeing someone hitching with either their groceries, children, family cow, a new yurt, etc.

But on a more serious note, I miss everyone and I really appreciate all the emails and quick notes I've been getting, things get lonely out here, I mean really lonely, so thanks for all the hellos! And I PROMISE I will write you back even if it takes me a little while, if there is anything you'd like to know or want to hear about I'd be happy to send a more personalized email or write a post about something in particular. i.e., ridiculous medical practices, and ahhh.... interesting food items. But have a good night and I hope you are all well, I miss and love you all!