Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Goodbye Sleetmute, Hello Kalskag

Some of my favourite sisters from Aniak - Juliana (age 12), Miranda (age 7), Kendel (age 10) - photo taken by Miranda's twin sister Emily. Miranda and Emily have both written me stories, Juliana is a wonderful poet, Kendel loves books. Lovely, bright and funny girls.

By the way, did I mention that I flew a plane? :o)

Yesterday's commute to Lower Kalskag Elementary School was a huge one - 30 seconds across the snowy playground. Karen had told me that the students had been awaiting my arrival yesterday and were disappointed that my plane was late. A lot of the older students in Sue's class (age 11-13) had written me e-mail and stories last year so I was looking forward to seeing them.

But first it was off to the younger classes for the morning. Then, at lunchtime when I went in for lunch I got hugged to death by Sue's class :o) I spent a couple of hours with them in the afternoon and we had fun doing some exercises. Again, they showed great imagination and humour and really came up with some great stuff. They were excited to see their books and one of the boys, Joey, said "I think I will send it to my grandma". So I gave him another copy. I told them I was doing another competition and he said "How much do I have to pay you to let me win this time?" LOL.

For the final hour of the day it was off to the youngest class. One of the little girls, Julia, had fun impersonating me. I think she has a future in entertainment. She's 6 and she managed my accent perfectly. "How do you know our names?" said one little girl, amazed, when I said "Why don't you come up next Axenia?" Their names are written in big lettters on the front of their desks :o)

After school Sue came to take me for a walk with her dogs. We tromped through the forest, saw moose tracks, I fell over in a snowdrift. It was lovely. We then walked down to the river. Down here it's completely frozen over and they will soon be able to drive on it. It was amazing to see this really wide river just stopped in its tracks.

Then it was over to Sue's for burgers over a fire pit in her back yard. Yes, we ate outside at 20 degrees below freezing. I am so intrepid. I am also bloody freezing. Some of the children came over - Levi, Menzo, Russell, Eliza and Richard. They had no gloves. I was wearing 2 pairs of gloves, scarf, hat, and 3 sweaters. They kept saying they weren't cold - what are their hands made of out here? It's not human flesh, at any rate. They put hotdogs on sticks and cooked them in the fire, and then toasted marshmallows. I did Eliza's because she is only 5 but I burned them to a cinder so Menzo (age 6) had to take over, raising his eyebrows at me. He's promised to draw me a snow machine, a sled, and a big truck that apparently I will like a lot.

Levi told me he will be 13 in January. When he's 13 he told me his mom is going to allow him to chew. I thought he meant chewing gum. What he actually meant was tobacco. The children roam about the village at all hours. A lot of their mothers go to bingo and the children are called 'bingo orphans'. Children change hands a lot. They are sort of 'adopted out' from family to family. Most girls have their first child at 14 or 15 and have a couple of children by the age of 18. For the most part the children are well looked after and very much loved - by everyone in the village. However, there are a number of registered sex offenders here. Mostly, again, due to alcohol. There are about 400 residents in the village. When I asked Karen what percentage of families have problems with alcohol she said "All of them." FAS is a big issue. It's quite easy to spot the children who show signs of it. A lot of the children are very bright. Others have real difficulties.

Apart from anything else a lot of the families live in one room. When mum and dad are up all night drinking, fighting and shouting at each other then there's not much chance of you arriving on time at school the next day, let alone concentrating on your school work. But the happy faces I saw today mean that someone is doing something right. They have good things happening in their lives too, and the teachers here are amazing.

Today I was supposed to be flying out of Kalskag first thing to come back to Aniak, but Aniak was snowed in, so I went back to the Elementary School for more hugs. I also got a trip around Kalskag with Earl who has lived there all his life and he told me all sorts of things about Kalskag then and now. Kalskag is actually split into two villages - Lower and Upper and they are 3 miles apart. The Elementary School is in Lower Kalskag, the High School in Upper. Each village has its own clinic, shop, tribal council, and post office. There are no doctors, no police. The only village with a State Trooper is Aniak. Most of the villages are trying to recruit VPSOs (Village Public Safety Officers) who are essentially the first responders to any crime or emergency - to stabilise situations and protect crime scenes until the State Troopers can get there. However, it's difficult to get people - the State Troopers are not well liked, and if you are a native Alaskan VPSO then a lot of the people you are supposed to be arresting are your relatives and friends.

Lower Kalskag is predominantly Russian Orthodox, Upper is predominantly Catholic. Russian Orthodox weddings can last 2 hours ~(and some of the Elders moan that the priest is too quick "In my day a good wedding lasted 4 hours"!! Everyone stands - men on one side, women on the other. And that's also how people are buried - although more and more, married couples are being buried side by side. The ground here is permafrost at 12-18 inches below ground. So even in the summer when they dig a grave, they need to use a jackhammer!

Many houses still use a honeybucket (which is basically a bucket with a seat on top. If you're lucky, your neighbour goes to the wood to empty his, if you're unlucky, they empty it out in the back yard. Even some recently built houses, while they had a bathroom built in, there is no plumbing. So the toilet, sink and bath can't be used. Sometimes they boil water and use the sink or bath, and just let it out under the house (most of which are on stilts). It would cost about $2m to put in a proper sewage system here (getting the equipment to the village, the pipes need a lot of insulation, plus the difficulty of burying the pipes given the permafrost), so only a few houses have proper working bathrooms.

There is no fresh milk in Kalskag, people use dried milk or long life stuff. There is very seldom fresh eggs either. Fruit and veg is even more expensive, and even less fresh than in Aniak, because it has to come that much further. When Karen and Dave go to Anchorage they go to Costco and spend $200 on stuff...and another $200 transporting it to Kalskag. Yeast and Vanilla Extract are kept behind the counter in the shops - yeast because it is used to make illegal alcohol. Vanilla extract because it has alcohol in. Karen was warned to watch her mouthwash if people visited.

Today I went to the airport 5 times. I finally got out. Oh the ignominy. Usually when asked my weight at the airport I can at least answer discreetly at the check in counter. Well, in Kalskag you basically drive out to the plane, stick your luggage in the hold yourself and then get in the plane. So there we were, about 8 of us sitting in the plane and the pilot asked us each in turn how much we weighed. "Donna Moore - how heavy are you?" (What I actually heard was "Donna - how much do you weigh fatso?" )I whimpered. A woman who was bigger than me said she weighed less, so I am afraid that I shaved 20lbs off my weight and then worried all the way back to Aniak (a 10 minute flight) that we would crash into the Kuskokwim because we didn't have enough fuel because I had lied. I could see the accusatory faces of my fellow passengers as they eyed me up and down. I DID warn the pilot about my heavy boots though.

Here are Kendel and Juliana at the back and Miranda and Emily in front. I now have a list of things they want from Scotland - chocolate, books, necklace like mine, candy.


Vincent said...

Just for once, I am actually going to make a serious comment and say that your travel adventures give the likes of Michael Palin and Stephen Fry a run for their money. You should contact the BBC before going on your next one.

And it was certainly impressive how you not only flew a plane, but also took photos of yourself whilst flying that plane.

Now, while I'm sure you're right that little Julia has a future in entertainment, I'm not sure if doing an impersonation of you is *that* impressive, given all you need is a suitcase of shoes and a canister of tear gas.

Ewan said...

Oh, Vincent, you so nearly did it, made an exclusively serious contribution, until you blew it right at the end with the shoes and tear gas gag! Ha, ha, and i was rooting for you so much, too!

We just can't help takin the pish, it would seem!

Well, Donna, another great post about more great stuff. I agree with Vincent, you would give the celebs a run for their money in the travel programs stakes. And Vincent mentioning that makes me think more Bruce Parry than Michael Palin, since his stuff seems more extreme, and that's where you're at. Really enjoying all the stuff about the villages, and the culture and stuff. Especially intrigued by the drink problem, though. Why is their so much drink-related grief? Is it boredom? Cold? Lack of sunlight? Lack of prospects? All of the above? Answers on a postcard.

Now that is one funny story about you lying about your weight on the plane, then worrying that you would crash, oh I near wet maself on that one. What a brilliant story that would be - loads of women on a plane, none of them telling their real weight, and all worried that the plane will go down, aaaaaagh, that cracks me up. Honey, I'd rather DIE than have you know how much I weigh!

I also love that word by the way, for the river, Kuskokwim!! Brilliant! But pray tell, Donna, can one swim the Kuskokwim? Or peer over the rim? Etc, to fade.....


Bobbie said...

What a grand day in Kalsag, finally! :o) Very interesting those students, good comments, good fun, and those lovely bright and interesting girls-I have a feeling you inspire them a bit.

And then, always, the other side. It's big and it's scary, and there are no easy answers. But teachers try, and once in a while, a woman from Scotland might wander in and create some fun and adventure and something to look forward to. Ok, 'nuff preaching. :-)

You can't cook a marshmallow? Good thing there was a 6 year old ready to do that. :o) And yes, maybe it's a different type of skin there, not to need gloves in that temp, or maybe their gloves are skin colored? Hmmm....

I agree with Vincent, your travel adventures are right up there. I'd like to see a book with photos and words of yours and some of the people you've been with, and some of your wonderful upbeat comments.

Thank you Donna for another day, learning and enjoying and appreciating your Grand Adventure. And your heavy boots, and such a different world. Thanks!

Bobbie and Larry

Donna said...

Vincent - haha - very funny - you just can't help yourself can you?

Bobbie - no - to my shame, I have never cooked a marshamallow. From the packet to my mouth is as far as they have ever got before.

Ewan - don't encourage Vincent. And no, it would appear that you cannot help taking the pish. As for the alcohol...well, the answer would appear to be all of the above. Although I'm not sure about the cold weather bit. Everyone I have asked prefers winter to any other season. It gives them a lot of freedom to travel as they can then either snowmachine or drive on the river and they can get anywhere they like. In summer, they can go by boat, but that is slower and what do you do when you get to the other end and haven't got transport? There are two times a year when they ar really restricted to their own village - during freeze up and when the river is melting. I believe that alcohol was introduced in a major way into bush Alaska in the 1950s. Prospects for people are very limited, and a lot can't see any future. Some parents don't see the point of sending their children to school although the schools are doing all they can to change that. There's also a lot of peer pressure - both on young people - many of whom are adamant in early childhood that they will not drink, after seeing the effects it has on their families. But then their friends gradually start to drink, everyone around them is drinking, so what do they do? A lot of the teenagers have low self esteem and very little parental control. Plus, because it is so prevalent, it seems to be seen as "Well, everyone else does it so it's expected of me."

The suicide rate for Alaska Natives is almost 4 times the national average in the US and around 80% of all Alaska Native deaths are related to alcohol. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is the highest in any US community.

At the last census, the unemployment rate in Lower Kalskag (population 268) amongst males was 57%. Amongst males over 25, 12 of them only reached 4th grade (about age 8 or 9), 6 reached 7th and 8th grade (12 or 13). Amongst females aged 25 and older 7 had no schooling, 5 reached nursery to 4th grade.

I shall stop there shall I?!

gary warren niebuhr said...

So many stories--some make me say yeah and others make me say oh no. There has to be a book in this somewhere for you? Yes? GWN