Monday, September 27, 2010

I Miss You, Kazakhstan

I now blog at if you would like to start the next chapter of this crazy book I call my life.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Blank Pages of My Story


I can’t help but marvel at the absurdity of my life. I’m a young guy, and a year or so ago I thought I had it all figured out. How comical that thought is now. I entered university with a beautiful girlfriend, a goal of getting my degree in 4 years, and the plan of being a pastor the rest of my life.

I started feeling different my sophomore year of college. My friends were different, and I wasn’t enjoying school nearly as much as I had the previous year. Then my mind started churning with new ideas, my old, simple views crumbling to pieces. My girlfriend and I broke up. It was sad, and I decided I was done with emotions.

I needed something different so I signed up to teach English as a missionary in Kazakhstan from January to June. That’s where this blog begins and ends. I learned more on my own overseas that I ever will in a classroom. I didn’t know where Kazakhstan was or what it was like, but it sounded like a good chance to “get away from it all.” The real kicker to the whole story was when I went to Barnes and Noble before getting on the plane to fly half way around the world—after all, I needed some reading material for my 6 months abroad. I grabbed a few books that I had been leafing through for months, and then I grabbed this yellow book that one of my best friends recommended. She was a big Donald Miller fan, but to be honest, I didn’t quite trust him. I was scared he might just be another one of those hopeless liberals, so I wrote him off—that is, until this yellow book made it with me to the checkout counter. I exhausted my Christmas gift cards, loaded my suitcase full of books and went out on a new adventure. When I got to Kazakhstan the first book I pulled out was this yellow book—A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. My first thoughts were that the title was too long, but I dove in and got lost in this man’s ideas. At the beginning of the book he talks about how we don’t remember most of our lives. This freaked me out and I wanted to make sure my Kazakhstan trip was well documented. This blog and the 5,500+ pictures and videos on my computer wouldn’t exist had I not read this book. I can honestly say that this book changed my life. I make everyone close to me read it, because I feel they’ll understand me better. That same best friend also sent me off with another Donald Miller book and I appreciate his work more than any other author at this point, but enough with the flattery. I don’t want Don to get big head or think I’m trying to sucker my way into winning a contest or anything.

As my trip was nearing the end and I was hugging all of my students goodbye I began to be afraid—afraid of my unknown future, afraid that my story would become boring in going back to my regular life in America. But, Kazakhstan changed me. Reading Million Miles changed me. Now I’m a character and I want all the good stuff like rainbows, happiness, and true love, but I’m trying to take life one day at a time. Right now, I’m working towards completing my college degree, but not in theology as I had previously planned. I respect pastors to the utmost and think they have one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. I think I could be a pastor someday, but right now I just want to get some more experience before I start trying to relate to the general population. When I was in Kazakhstan I realized I was arrogant, and I hate arrogance. So now, I am pressing on trying to be humble. Freshly back on American soil, I am taking a break from my expensive, private, out-of-state university, and doing some time at a local community college. Instead of working in a rare job that nobody understands, I’ve applied at the local BestBuy and In-N-Out Burger. My goal is to meet new people, to really invest myself in building relationships and to see the beauty in God’s kids. The whole putting others first thing—I’d like to be more like Jesus, and Jesus put others first.

As for the next few pages in the story of my life, well, like I said, I’m looking to get this college degree so people think I’m legit. I want to travel and become more ‘international’ while making a difference in different individual’s lives. While I still don’t know exactly what I want to do when I grow up, I’m getting a better idea. Looking into publishing, business communications, and who knows—maybe even writing. I’m learning that I’m just as lost as all the other teenagers out there and I’m okay with that.

I’m almost done here, but I have to take a moment to talk about a specific part of my story. One of the best parts of my Kazakhstan experience was before I ever left America. I got stranded in Tennessee because of visa complications and ended up staying with this friend of mine who had recently adopted 6 kids. They were all brothers and sisters who would have been split up had my friend not stepped in. His wife and him also had one little girl of their own and one that will enter the world in about a month from now. So, for a little over a week I lived in this house where there was never a dull moment. I fell in love with these kids who called me “Uncle Kyle” and truly discovered the joy of children. I experienced pushing them all on the swings and running with them through the park. So if you ask me how I want to live a better story this is the first thing that comes to mind—I want to adopt kids! And lots of them! Who knows, maybe someday I could even work for/with an orphanage.

When I got home I told my parents (I made them read Million Miles) about this conference They told me to go, but I knew there was no way. (My Dad has been out of a job, and I had been volunteering for the past 6 months.) However, I had about 400 bucks left to my name, and my mom told me that if this is something I really want to do, then I should buy the ticket. She said that it was all part of living a better story; that if I spent the money on the ticket then I would be forced to find my way to Portland. (My parents are so awesome!) So, I decided to hop online and buy the ticket before the logical part of my brain turned on. I have my ticket to the conference, but still have no idea how I’m going to get to Portland or where I will stay when I get there, but the main thing is—I will get there! (I looked at it as a birthday present to myself—I’ll be turning 20 on September 28th!) Hopefully Don will have some compassion on me, and fly me out to his beautiful city! I am really hoping to get some clearer direction for my life and learn some amazing pointers on how to make the story of my life be the story I want, and a story worth reading.

Living a Better Story Seminar from All Things Converge Podcast on Vimeo.

When I view my life as a story, I get very excited, because I love movies and books. I can’t wait to fill up these blank pages with excitement. I’m on an adventure with the God of the universe—nothing could be more exciting!

I realize that I’ve been pretty vague and very wordy so let me sum this up:

Kyle Stiemsma is a well-known author and speaker who runs several orphanages around the world, but what he is most successful at is loving his ginormous family. At least that is his dream. In order to get there he is going to have to plow through this broken world filled with uncertainty, embrace his emotions, humble himself, and intimately connect with the God of the universe. He’s going to have to get through school and educate himself while making connections with the right people. He's going to need to practice and refine his skills, learn to take harsh criticism, and make a buttload of money. Winning the lottery certainly would help. As he travels the world and makes new friends, he'll see the value in each human being. The blank pages of his life intimidate him, but he is determined to fill them with tear-jerking victories of a world that is a better place because he lived.

The End.


It all happened so fast. Sitting on a plane bound for Phoenix, Arizona I honestly don’t know what to say, or think, or feel. I suppose I am feeling a wave of many different emotions so my mind has just shut them all down. It is almost like I feel nothing. Yes, I am very excited to see my parents in a few hours, but I just don’t know what to feel. The night before I left, I felt like I should feel sad, but it was like I couldn’t feel sad. Now I feel like I should be excited, but I can’t. I just can’t feel anything right now. Right now (I don’t know if it is all the in-flight movies, or the C.S. Lewis book I’ve been reading) I feel as though Kazakhstan was just a dream. Like these last 6 months never really happened. I feel as though I’m going home after being gone just a short while. The feeling of not feeling is very peculiar.

In other news, I decided to go horseback riding on Sunday. All the trotting made my butt very sore and since I have been sitting on a plane for the past 20 hours, you can imagine how it is feeling now. I can’t wait to be out of a plane. The process of traveling used to really bother me. I used to hate long car rides and flights, but now they don’t really bother me. I can see myself in the future sitting on a plane like I am now, typing away at my computer. The future... Now that is something that I have been trying to put out of my mind. Never before in my life have I been so unsure about my future plans. Now, however, I look forward to discussing them in depths with some close friends and my parents.

I feel like I should go out with a bang, like my final blog should say something super profound or have a heartwarming story. But, I am honestly at a loss for words. I feel like it shouldn’t be over, yet it is. I don’t know if I’m ready to get back into the monotony of school, yet I am. I feel like how I felt on my flight to Kazakhstan—completely uncertain about what was ahead of me, but holding onto the hand of Jesus and diving into the adventure.

Earlier I was fearing that I would forget Kazakhstan. That since these past 6 months have felt like a dream, I would soon forget all of my experiences. When I really think about it though, I know this is not true. I have over a thousand pictures and these 150 pages of blogs reminding me of all my experiences. I have changed.

Steven and I decided to put on the same clothes to go home as we had on when we left to Kazakhstan (that is, except for Kazakhstan t-shirts) and we were joking in the taxi on the way to the airport that we are going back as we came. Yelena smiled as she told us we are going back completely different. She’s right. I’m going back the same on the outside (also save the hair) as I came, but on the inside I am different. How have I changed? What is different about me? I honestly am not sure. I think it will take some time to find out. Once I’m back in my “natural habitat” the people who used to know me well will call out all the differences and I will be able to see my “new” self more clearly.

So what about Kazakhstan? I could write a lengthy book on all my experiences, on all the things I learned, and the wonderful people I met. But in the great picture of life, Kazakhstan is like one page in my book. However, it will be a treasured page—a glowing page that I will go back and read frequently. I made friends there that I will have for the rest of my life and experienced things that I will be talking about until the day I die. As for you. Whether you read a few blogs, or you were a faithful follower, I want to say thanks. I told you straight out that this blog was more for me than it was for you, but I hope you enjoyed the ride and were able to get something out of it. I really enjoyed sharing all of this with you. I suppose now I will make a new blog, for a new adventure. It’s time to turn the page.

Waves of Emotions


As I sit here typing my thoughts I am truly lost in a sea of emotion. Ok, I’m really not that emotional, I’m just trying to be poetic. But, I do have many feelings right now, all of them knocking me from side to side. Feelings of excitement for going home, feelings of sadness for saying goodbye to my students and friends, feelings of fear for the unknown future, feelings of anxiety for going back to a life that has now become foreign, and feelings of ecstasy for being able to see my parents and loved ones back home in just a few days.

All of these emotions are bubbling up like a fountain and each drop is fighting to get higher than the other.

Kid's Camp


I am constantly kicking myself for not keeping a better record of all that went on during the 2 weeks of kids camp. Steven, Veronica and I put on a program for a kids summer camp at a local Kazakh public school. We got to feel what it would be like to teach 5-7 graders. We did this for two weeks. We had to start at 10, which required us to wake up and be out the door by 9 (something that we are certainly not used to in Kazakhstan. All of this was followed by teaching classes as usual at night. Mondays and Wednesdays were especially bad because we had classes from 3:30-9:00pm including this early morning program. I suppose this sudden surge of busyness, and the fact that I couldn’t connect to my blog is the reason that I am writing about this now.

Most of these kids were lower level English speakers, but pretty good for their age. Like in every class we had our smarty pants kids who communicated at an Upper-Intermediate level while other kids had no interest in learning new languages barely communicated at all. We split the group of about 40 kids into 3 groups; each of us teachers leading one. In just two weeks I really connected with these kids. Being a teacher is fun and rewarding, but it is also the hardest job in the world. Coming home from teaching, you feel completely warn out, beaten, and exhausted, but you don’t get to relax. You’re job is not over because you have papers to grade, lessons to plan, on top of assignments and tests to create.

God bless teachers!

Monday, June 21, 2010

ASTANA and the Southbound Train


This past weekend was quite possibly one of my best in Kazakhstan. Veronica, Steven, and I decided to venture across the country on the train and see the capital city of Kazakhstan—Astana. For starters, Steven and I didn’t know where the train station was, and we were waiting in our apartment for Veronica. However, there was a change of plans that we were unaware of so at the last minute we realized Veronica was at the train station. We started walking towards where we heard the train station was and couldn’t find the bus we were looking for so in a panic I flagged down a taxi and paid him a little more than I should have, but I was happy I did it because he brought us right to the front door. We ran up to the train, tried to find our wagon number, and hoped that Veronica had made it on. After showing our passports we hopped on and found Veronica.

I had once taken a small train to the Grand Canyon for fun with my parents and grandparents. They surprised all of us and it was great fun, but this was my first real train experience—with the beds and everything. On our way to Astana Yelena (our boss) was wonderful and bought us tickets on the nice Spanish train, so we got to enjoy some luxury and it only took 12 hours. On the way back, we had to pay our own way (except for Veronica, she flew back early because her boyfriend was going to be in town) and of course, we chose to buy the cheap train tickets on the crappy train. The crappy train wasn’t so bad, the worst part was that the air conditioning was broken. So we had to fight with the window and prop it open with a water bottle still to have our compartment feel like a sauna. The cheap train made several stops so it took us 20 hours. The Spanish train wasn’t bad at all because we left at 8:00pm and arrived around 8:00am so it was just like sleeping in a small, shaking hotel. On the way back our train left at 2:00pm and arrived at 10:00am. It finally started to cool off around 8:00pm and I was able to breathe again. For the first several hours I just laid in my bed with a towel, trying to read and wipe the sweat off my body. You would never believe how hot it was.

When we arrived in Astana we had no plans except that we had tried to make some vague sleeping arrangements at our church conference that operated out of the city. So we got out of the train station, hopped on a bus, and got out at the first sight of something interesting. The first interesting thing was a big orthodox cathedral. We wanted to go inside, but we found out that they weren’t finished building it yet. So we saw all of the big buildings in the distance that made up the “new part” of the city. Astana is only about 10 years old. The president moved the capital to this city and renamed it Astana (which means Capital in Kazakh). Now he is pouring tons of money into making it an impressive and sought after city. I must admit the buildings are impressive, but it seems as though there are no people yet to fill them. I’m pretty sure they are building faster than people and businesses are coming, which I think could cause some problems pretty soon. But anyways, we walked all over the city and through big parks, occasionally sticking our heads in the sprinklers trying to cool off. The climate in Astana is ridiculous. In the summer it gets over 40 degrees C while in the winter it gets below -40 degrees C. That is crazy. We first came to a big pyramid they call “The Palace of Peace and Accord.” We got to tour this pyramid and go to the top where they have a ring of chairs and translation booths for when Kazakhstan has peace conferences every 3 years. It was actually pretty neat. We then walked across the river, having a great view of the Kazakh “White House” where the president lives and continued to just walk, seeing everything, with no plan or schedule. We ended up touring some fancy and expensive Chinese hotel acting like we were considering a stay in the place, but it cost over $400 a night so there was no real consideration going on. We then came to the famous tower of Astana which is on all the Kazakh money and tourist signs. The real name of it is hard to pronounce so we just called it the Chup-A-Chup which is what people here call suckers or lollipops. We went up inside of it and got a great view of the city and then went down walked a whole bunch more, until we hopped in a taxi to go to the MEGA center (which is like a big, fancy mall, they have one here in Almaty too). There we replenished ourselves with some lunch. Veronica and I got a whole bucket of colonel’s fried chicken at the KFC and some amazing frappucinos from a coffee shop. Since we were both vegetarians, and both had given up on it when coming to Kazakhstan, we had determined that before I left we would indulge in some good old fashioned fried chicken. And we did it. We polished off a whole 16 piece bucket along with some French fries. It was amazing.

After lunch we headed across the street to the national aquarium. It was pretty cool. They have a very large shark tunnel, and for being the largest landlocked country in the world have a good collection of ocean fish. We also paid some extra money to go on a 5D ride which was like a cheesy motion ride that I used to ride in Las Vegas as a kid. I always loved them and even this cheesy one was worth it. It was Veronica’s first time in an Aquarium and in a motion ride. She is older than all of us (by a lot) and it seems she has done the least as far as the crazy fun stuff goes, so we have had a blast introducing her to all the crazy attractions of the 21st century. The three of us have a blast in whatever we do.

After the aquarium we got in touch with Altyn, a former teacher of our center who had just moved to Astana a few weeks earlier. She offered to pick us up and take us to the conference since we had no idea where it was. She had planned to pick us up in a few hours and in that time we had to get Veronica to the airport. We tried to find a bus because we heard that taxis were super expensive. We walked a ways, with no luck of finding a bus. We didn’t know where the airport was and on the bus map it didn’t look so far, but when we offered the cab driver 800 tenge he laughed and told us it was very far. So I ended up negotiating a taxi for 1200 tenge (less than $10) and we put Veronica in this taxi with a weird looking guy and said goodbye. Our cell phone is broken and since we leave next week we didn’t bother getting it fixed or buying a new one. Veronica decided to leave us with her cell phone and we were just going to hope that everything went well. As I watched Veronica drive away I thought, “What in the world were we thinking?!” Putting an American girl, who doesn’t speak the language, into a taxi with a creepy looking guy is a recipe for disaster. But, all we could do was pray at that moment and sure enough, everything turned out fine. She got to the airport on time and got back to Almaty safely to spend some time with her boyfriend. Steven and I now had some time to kill before Altyn picked us up. The first thing we did was look for water, it was an incredibly hot day and neither of us felt as though we could get enough to drink. We then meandered through a little more of the city, but moving slowly because by this time our feet were aching and our bodies had had enough walking. We went to the Central Mosque of Astana, took our shoes off and walked inside the beautiful building. When we got inside I really liked what I saw. There were a few tables and some chairs and then a huge wide, open space. There were people off by themselves chanting a prayer or two in the corners, while others grouped together and seemed to have casual Quran studies. In that moment, I thought it would be great to have a church like this. Just a big open area where people could take off their shoes, study their Bibles, and pray. For a moment I was pondering how my churches would react if we just took out all the pews. Maybe Central Asia is getting to me, but I am a big fan of sitting on the ground.

After the mosque we went to the nearby market to pick up some bread. The next day was to be Sabbath and we didn’t know when or where we’d get a chance to eat again. So I stuffed a couple loaves into my bag and soon Altyn arrived to give us a lift to the place we were staying. The conference was described to us as “simple” and simple it was. In Almaty you’d think the Adventists were like Catholics, because we have nice buildings and all the church members seem to be pretty well off. In Astana it was not the same. The building was old, the beds creaked, and the rooms were filled with a stifling heat. Nevertheless we slept well. After a day of nonstop walking through an unfamiliar city, absorbing countless rays of the blistering sun, we could have slept anywhere that had a flat surface. A choir group was in town singing at church so the “hotel” at the conference office was filled with women. When we finally decided to come out of our room they insisted on serving us some breakfast (which was soup and bread) and we were very grateful. After that we sat through church and didn’t understand more than 10 words of what was going on. But, the people there were amazing—genuine and nice, welcoming and happy to have you with them. After church we went to Altyn’s mother-in-law’s house for lunch (again soup and bread, but this time with pizza!). The house we went to was unbelievable. Mike’s (Altyn’s husband) mother is an artist. Like a real, legit artist. She runs some sort of school out of her house and has countless paintings. The walls were covered with her work, and not only the walls but the ceilings too. Also there were more pictures stacked in every corner. The piano was painted and every room filled with art work. It was a really nice house. After lunch we had to rush to the train station to catch our train back. Mike gave us a ride, brought us to our wagon, talked to the conductor, showed us to our seats and made sure everything was alright. Him and Altyn treated us very well and were such a blessing to have in our crazy, unplanned adventure.

Anyways, we made it on the train and in some ways I liked the cheap train better than the expensive train. The people seemed to be friendlier. There was this older Kazakh woman in our compartment. She understood a little English and we understood a little Russian and so we were able to make some good conversation. She was the sweetest woman, always offering us nuts and food, coffee and tea. We began to feel very safe in this train because we knew that she wouldn’t let anything happen to us. Eventually two police men came into our car and wanted to see our passports. We showed them, but they were in no hurry to leave. They tried to make conversation, talking way too much. I tried to relax and just talk with them, but I certainly do not trust the police here and was never able to let my guard down. Most of the conversation was light, but they wanted to see our pictures and started talking to us about money. I was nervous, but good old train mama (that’s what we started calling her because we couldn’t remember her Kazakh name) was there and I knew she would fight for us. They eventually left and we were finally able to get some sleep. The day was ridiculously hot, and all the bed came with was a sheet. I thought this would be fine until I woke up in the night with the freezing wind blowing through the window. I shut the window and went back to sleep. Sleeping on a train certainly isn’t an easy thing to do. I woke up frequently because of the noise and bounce that comes with traveling. But, all in all I think I like trains much better than airplanes. I spent hours just looking out the window, enjoying the scenery, and literally seeing the world.

I now feel like I’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see in Kazakhstan. I’ve seen much of the country by gazing out the windows of trains and buses. I’ve experienced village life, as well as city life. I have seen the mountains, as well as the Capital.

Coming back on the train was interesting. Although I knew I was just going back to Almaty, I felt as though I were saying my goodbyes to Kazakhstan. I felt as though I was going home. After all a week is going to fly by and pretty soon I will be in the arms of my mom and dad and eating my favorite American food. I was sitting in that train contemplating going home. I’m at a stage in my life where it’s difficult to pinpoint where home actually is. If someone asks where home is for me I will unthinkably say Phoenix, Arizona and I suppose that is because it’s where I spent most of my years growing up and because that is where my parents and brothers are. But really, I’ve only spent maybe two or three months out of the year there in the past two years. I feel like I have homes in Tennessee where I go to school, in Northern California where I spend my Christmases and parts of my summer, and now in Kazakhstan where I have lived and grown for the past six months. One thing is for sure, home has nothing to do with location, it has nothing to do with buildings and belongings. Home, for me, is all about people. My home is where my loved ones are waiting to welcome me with open arms back into their community.

Am I excited to go home? Absolutely! But, I do recognize that upon going “home” I will be leaving a “home” and I may never see many of these people again. Goodbyes suck, but thank God for reunions. I’m looking forward to a big one coming up here soon—a really big reunion where the goodbyes will be done away with. I think after that reunion I will finally be able to tell you the meaning and the significance of the word “home”.

до свидания


до свидания is Russian for “Goodbye.” Today was Emily’s last day in Kazakhstan. After teaching last night we headed over to a small, old-style roller rink on the other side of town. To get there we hopped on a bus after work (it is never easy to find a bus late at night) and we got on the craziest bus possible. It took us for a loop all around the city and finally dropped us off in some crazy part of town we didn’t know. Luckily, we just kept walking and came to some familiarity. It wasn’t long before we joined everyone and tied on our quad skates that were very popular before my birth. We skated around to some pop and disco music. It was my first time skating like that and so I was trying new things and trying to learn how to do the cool moves the other guys were doing. I failed, but it was fun anyways. We had planned after that to go back to the girls’ place and stay up all night partying, but everyone wanted to go home after we got done skating around midnight. Needless to say, we didn’t stay up all night. We went to their apartment and took part in the few hours of sleep we had available until we had to wake up to see Emily off to the airport. We woke up early, Emily got in a taxi with Brian, Veronica, and her luggage while the boys (Steven, Orken, and I) hopped on a bus. By the time we were almost there we got a call and heard that her flight had been delayed (something I’ve noticed is quite common at the Almaty airport. It was delayed until later that night.

Emily was in Kazakhstan for an entire year before getting on that plane. She loves this place, you can tell. Life is so simple here in Kazakhstan, at least for us volunteers. Sure we have the occasional plumbing problems, and the normal inconveniences that one has living outside his/her homeland, but aside from that we have to show up to work, teach some classes, and then do whatever we want to do. We don’t make a lot of money, that is for sure, but we make enough to have fun, and occasionally buy some imported peanut butter. Life in America, at least my life, never seems to be simple. I’m sure it is because I make it this way, but it always seems to be filled with a good amount of uncertainty, difficult decision making, friendship drama, financial trouble, overly busy schedule, and more lovely parts of this mess we call life. I was thinking about this and all of Emily’s mixed feelings she wore on her face seemed to make sense. Not only was she leaving many good people, and her familiarity, she was leaving a simple life, going into the uncertain future.

I love communication, and I love getting inside people’s heads. I empathize with people, not always for the good reason that I care so much as the fact that I find people hugely interesting. And so I found myself trying to get into Emily’s head as she was going through this crazy time. I was trying to feel her feelings and then it hit me that in just two weeks, these feelings will be more real to me that I might want them to be. So very soon I will be the one saying the goodbyes and stepping into the complexity of normalcy—stepping into the uncertainty that lies before me. It’s quite frightening, but I guess all I can say is: Bring it on!