Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Book Is For Sale

Today I can say I've accomplished a life goal by writing a book. That it's topic is another life goal, one I held on to for 30 years, makes it all the more special. "Mail from Kyrgyzstan: My Life As An Over-50 Peace Corps Volunteer" is available on in every country they have a presence. It's totally affordable at $4.49USD for the digital edition and $15.99 for the paperback. People from 50 countries viewed the blog I kept while writing the book at least once. I truly hope they have access to an Amazon wherever they live.
I'm an old guy and marketing the book on Facebook is as far as I can go. Any help you can give by tweeting, hooting and hollering about it will be greatly appreciated. Writing a nice review will be equally appreciated. Thanks in advance for your support.

Whether I sell a few copies or a lot the journey of writing the book has been life affirming for me. My Peace Corps experience made me a better person and I strive every day to continue to improve.

Saturday, September 3, 2016


November 9, 2009

I Want to Pull My Hair Out!!!

I'm punctual. I'm not usually on time. I'm usually early. I can't help it. I remember having to be at a play reading in Manhattan at 6 pm. These things never start on time so being punctual was not a necessity. I knew it usually took me about 40 minutes to get there. I left my apartment at 5:30. Wouldn't you know a train was pulling into every station where I needed one. I arrived at 5:55. Even when I try to be late, I can't. But, don't think I'm the King of Early. That would be my dad. 

Time takes a different meaning in Kyrgyzstan depending on the situation. Classes always start on time. Meetings sometimes do; often times don't. Social events? Fugeddaboutit. A 5 pm party will rarely begin before 6.  Closer to 7 most likely. I've learned to time my departures accordingly.

But, there's one aspect of time that drives me wild. If a student can't make a private class they never call to say they can't. They just don't show up. If they're going to be late, they simply arrive when they can. I guess they think our classes are a social event, and in many ways they are, but they should still let me know of any schedule changes. I tell them that this is inconsiderate and unprofessional, you know, trying to impress upon them that they can't do this in the real world after college. A couple have learned very well. The others...?

I think I know where this behavior originated. It stems from living in country which until recently had little access to technology. Even in a city like Talas, many people still don't have a land line in their house or apartment. Someone in the family probably has a cell phone, but that doesn't mean there are units on it to make a call. The most common excuse for not calling someone, for whatever reason, is “I had no units.” No cell plans here. It's pay as you call. Actually, I like it. Cell phones are still relatively new here. Five years ago barely anybody outside of Bishkek had one because cell towers hadn't been built out in the sticks. Village residents have neither type of phone, especially if they live in a remote or mountainous area. Anyway, what I'm getting at is this: the ability to notify someone that you'll be absent or late is a relatively new option. And the importance of doing so hasn't reached high priority status yet.

Frustrating? Yeah, for an on-time guy like me. End of the world? Nope. After all, the commodity in largest supply for a volunteer is time. What upsets me most are the lost classes. Classes I really want to teach and they need.

People definitely treat time differently in the countries I’ve lived in and traveled to since 2008 than in the US. I can attribute a large portion of the decrease in my stress level to letting go of my frustration concerning time. I had two choices in Kyrgyzstan: fight a losing battle or change the way I look at time. I chose the latter. I don’t believe I’ve accomplished less because a meeting starts an hour late or an appointment is rescheduled three times.

We’re taught that time wasted can’t be recovered, which is true, but that doesn’t mean if you’re not losing time that you’re achieving anything of vast, or even minimal, importance. Americans are professional time wasters. And when that work appointment was canceled, what were you doing during that time? At the turn of the century, people would read a newspaper, surf the web or go outside for a smoke break. In 2016, playing Spider Solitaire comes to mind, or messaging on FB or WhatsApp. I wonder how many people fill it with something useful.

I’m still an on-time guy. The difference is I have e-books and Duolingo, the language learning app, on my phone in case I have to wait for someone to arrive. (And, yes, Spider Solitaire, too) I also have a notepad app so I can write if ideas pop into my head. These are much more pleasant activities than looking at your cell phone for the time every two minutes while your anger percolates to a boil so when your late arriver finally shows, the first thing you do is ignore them, make a sarcastic remark or, worse yet, yell, ensuring the meeting or evening’s plans will not be very enjoyable. Forgetting about punctuality in others and preparing yourself for a wait will eliminate so much stress in your life it will surprise you. I know. Man, does that sound like a self-help book, or what? “Your Way to a Stress Free Life.” Dr. Wayne Dyer would be proud of me.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Did I Find a Girlfriend?

August 9, 2009

Three Types of Volunteers

My friend, the assistant to our Country Director recently told me volunteers, after a sufficient time at site, fall into one of three social categories. They either hang out mostly with fellow volunteers, surround themselves with locals or a combination of the two. I fall into the second category. I correspond with one volunteer.  She lives in a village in Naryn and one of the many things we have in common is she doesn't keep company with the vols in her oblast, either. The reasons that we don't differ, but we've both found contentment in having all Kyrgyz and Russian friends.

She was victimized by a false rumor (the #1 activity of PCVs is gossiping). I simply decided not to spend my two years of service chumming around with people I can find in Brooklyn. Additionally, I have little in common with know-it-all 22 year-old white males. I was one at one time. You may say I have even less in common with my Kyrgyz friends, but I would disagree. We share a sincere desire to learn about each other's culture. The biggest obstacle I face is their age. Most of them are early 20's and their life experience is limited. In spite of this, they've enlightened me in many ways.

The volunteer in Naryn (hereafter referred to as “N”) and I messaged constantly and spoke on the phone often. I found her a refreshing voice in the sea of GenXer’s. She lived in a village so didn’t have volunteers around her like I did and enjoyed her Kyrgyz family and friends. I felt she was ok with that, very similar to me.

I never intended to look for or find a girlfriend in the PC, either a volunteer or Kyrgyz national. I wanted to fulfill my service and move on, but as the universe often overrules our wants and desires, I developed an attraction to N, and when we had group meetings, I truly cherished the opportunities to talk face to face. I sensed that she might have felt the same for me, but I wasn’t sure. In time we spoke of meeting in Bishkek to hang out for a weekend.

In the book: Did we meet or did I chicken out?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

School Project Funded

August 3, 2009
School Project Funded

Thanks to everyone who donated to the school project.  I know tough times exist for many people and families, so your sacrifice is doubly appreciated.  The money should be in my bank account within two weeks.  Then, my counterpart and I will travel to Bishkek to purchase the goods.  When school starts, the students will be able to use their new TV, DVD player, computer and printer.  The director has promised to give us Internet access, too.

One mystery remains regarding the funding of the project.  When I wrote last week that the deadline for donations was 31 July, we still needed a little over $700.  On the 29th I went to check the web site and I couldn't find my project.  This meant it had been fully funded!  But, by whom?  One individual?  Or did several donations come in over a span of two or three days?  It's not important, but my curiosity is killing me.  I'm supposed to get a printout listing all the donors, so that may solve it because I think I know who gave up to last week. 

I'll be taking a photo of the new English Resource Center and including it in a future Mail from Kyrgyzstan.  I'm going to see if I can record a group thank you by the students and include that, too.

When I first arrived at my new school in March 2009 I asked Anara where we’d find the English Department offices. She laughed and led me to a room on the second floor, rectangular, maybe 8x20, and said, “Here we are.” It also doubled as her classroom. The ancient blackboard was three-foot square. I found no teaching/learning tools. Four teachers shared one totally tattered Russian/English text book, circa 1984. I knew something needed to be done, equipment and reference books purchased, but it wasn’t going to happen in that room. With a long table and chairs on each side there was barely room enough to walk from one end of the room to the other.

I told Anara that the Peace Corps had a program whereby we could raise money for a computer, printer, TV, DVD player and books, but we’d need a different room. She would ask the director. Not sure when he gave us a new room on the first floor, not much bigger than the one we had previously, but sufficiently large enough for the new equipment and room for students. I was able to set up the project on what would now be GoFundMe or Kickstarter. Alas, at that time I hadn’t created a Facebook page, so I had to rely on my personal Gmail contact list, about 60 people. As I recall, we needed about $1400 and I was certain that I’d have to cover any shortfall; I had a figure of $600-800 in mind.

Projects had a certain number of days to be funded and I can’t remember how many. I do know that our deadline was July 31st. I visited the website on the 29th and couldn’t find the project. This meant that it had been fully funded, but how could that be? I had checked a couple of days prior and we still needed about $700. I rebooted the computer thinking maybe I’d run into a technical malfunction. Still no project. I had no idea what was going on.

Turns out someone had donated the large amount we needed, a gentleman from West Hartford, CT. I had no idea who he was or why he chose my project, but angels do exist. That started me thinking that maybe there was a group people, maybe Returned Peace Corps Volunteers or folks who loved what the PC did and stood for that funded projects that needed cash and had a deadline looming. I learned the man’s name and my sister was able to get an email address for him. I sent him a thank you email, but didn’t dig for further information because why he donated wasn’t important to me. He didn’t want any thanks. He just did what he likes to do. And my school, the teachers and students and I were the grateful beneficiaries of his largesse.

The room was renamed the English Language Resource Center (that’s close if not exact). The printer was meant to be an income stream that would allow for the purchase of paper and ink for future copies, and books and DVD’s if we ever earned that much. Business was brisk as students always needed copies of documents and homework. At 2 soms per copy the money was adding up quickly. Sadly, while I taught there, we never purchased another DVD beyond what came with the initial project money, because the income stream flowed directly into Anara’s pocket. She was now a small business owner of sorts. While her action disappointed me, it did not surprise me. People must take advantage of every opportunity to make money in a country of low wages. I call it Survival Corruption.

I wonder if any of the original equipment still works, or if it’s even there anymore? I sent Anara an email asking for an update. The TV doesn’t work, but the computer and printer still do. As for any photos of the equipment, the vanished when my computer crashed in early 2010.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

An Opportunity Denied

Talas Tidbits

Now that summer is here, life slows down considerably.  At least for the volunteers it does.  So, there may not be much to report until school starts in September.  But, what I do think of or come across, I'll send to you.  Starting with the next email, I'll send some of the photos I took during my first year here.

But, Dad!!!

One of the best English speakers I've met is a university bound girl named Baktigul. She attended the Turkish Lyceum in town and placed 3rd in the country at the English Olympiad in Bishkek in March. She wanted to attend college in Malaysia, but her father said nyet. Then she asked if she could go to school in Turkey.  Again, dad said jok. When she asked if it would be okay to attend our summer overnight camp for a week to serve as a translator, once again, dad said no. Here's my question. The Lyceum is the best secondary school in Talas. It's also expensive, too expensive for most families. So, if Baktigul's father made the financial sacrifice to make sure his daughter get the best education possible, why is he stifling her further advancement? Baktigul will attend the Turkish university in Bishkek this fall. While it's a good school, I'm sure she could've attended better if dad had been more agreeable.

After I wrote the above paragraph I took a walk to buy some food and I got to thinkin' maybe I was too hard on the old man. Denying his daughter's request for Singapore might have had something to do with distance or finances. It's one thing to come up with high school tuition, quite another for a university in another country. As for the summer camp, that could've been a cultural decision. Maybe he didn't want his beautiful 17 year old daughter in a co-educational environment for a week. (The Lyceum is divided into two campuses, one for each gender, and they are nowhere near each other.) But the Turkey decision baffles me a bit. One of the benefits of attending the Turkish schools around the world (they're in at least 110 countries) is that you can study at a Turkish university for free.

This email revealed my lack of knowledge about Asia, Singapore, in particular. That would change a few years later during my second trip to Turkey where I met two lovely young women from Singapore. We stayed in contact and I spent two days with them as part of my Malaysia holiday several months later. Singapore rivals any expensive city in the world. When I asked the girls about teaching there, they told me to forget it, that I’d have to give up my traveling as the bulk of my salary would go towards my rent. Food was high, too, except for Chinatown. I paid $20 for a medium cheese pizza. (The Singapore $ is equal to the USD.) Now, I can see a very valid reason why Baktygul’s father denied her the opportunity to study in Singapore. Even with free tuition, he likely didn’t possess the wealth to handle living expenses and air travel. Her father was a lawyer, but he wasn’t super wealthy. Nobody is in Kyrgyzstan unless you’re related to or a good friend of the president.

Also in the book, opportunities for girls in Kyrgyzstan. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The President is Coming to Town

May 24, 2009
Preppin' for the Prez

A countrywide sports competition for teenagers who live in villages is taking place in Talas.  Opening ceremonies were last evening and the games begin today.  All week the word was the president of Kyrgyzstan would be here for the opening.  So, in preparation, many classes at the technical college and the university were canceled for the week so the students could make the stadium sparkle.  And it wasn't only the stadium.  Seems like everybody was out sweeping and picking up litter (a HUGE problem in our city).  Residents whitewashed walls and curbs and miracle of miracles, potholes were filled.  Guess when the mayor thinks the president is coming to town, the money for road repair magically appears.  It's a safe bet that without the sports games, they wouldn't have been.
The city is the cleanest I've ever seen it.  I'm thinking the last time it was this clean was the last time the president was rumored to be visiting. 

The opening ceremonies were pretty cool.  Each of the seven oblasts paraded their athletes past the crowd just like in the Olympics with Talas getting the loudest welcome, naturally.  There were singers and dancers dressed in traditional Kyrgyz costumes.  The few speeches we had to endure were short.  I was glad to see female athletes will be participating in volleyball. (This is such a male dominated culture that I would not have been surprised if there weren't any girls.)  I hope to get out to see some events before Wednesday when the games end.

And the president?  He sent his Minister of Sports instead.  Big letdown.  Really wanted to see him in person.

You’ll notice I haven’t talked much about politics in my emails, mostly because I figured if the Kyrgyz government really was reading them, I’d err on the side of caution. No sense calling the president a callous corrupt jerk, thereby ending my PC service with a comment everybody knew and most agreed with.

In the book I talk about the peoples' attitudes regarding their president and compare it to what I experienced in China.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My New Favorite City

June 21, 2009
Turkey Tidbits

--I was surprised to see women in traditional Muslim attire sitting in the park smoking cigarettes.  I also saw some younger women, traditionally dressed, cuddlin' and smoochin' with their boyfriends/husbands as they sat on park benches.

--Seems like everybody—at least everybody I encountered over the course of two weeks—could converse in English to a certain extent.  Many are fluent.  Now, since I spent most of my time where tourists typically stay, that could be expected.  But, I also walked in non-tourist neighborhoods and talked to shop keepers.  Most of them spoke English, too.  And since there are myriad English language schools in Istanbul, there has to be a desire for the Turks to learn it.  Someone told me his version of why this is.

“Turkey exports goods to many countries.  Clothes, shoes, carpets, food products.  If the sales person has customers in China, France, Russia and Germany, for example, the odds are low that they will be conversant in all those languages.  So, the language they could all have in common is English, the universal language for business.  I was told that many Turkish companies foot the bill for their employees to take lessons.” 

--We ran into 4 volunteers from Kyrgyzstan.  I also saw many young Americans traveling in groups of 3 or 4.  I have a feeling many of them were PC Volunteers from other Central Asian or Eastern European countries.  Turkey is centrally located and easy to visit.  You buy your 90-day, multiple entry visa at the Istanbul airport for $20.  How much easier can it get?

--Turkey is notorious for credit card fraud.  I had to email Citibank with the dates of my stay so they wouldn't automatically close down my debit card.  Many banks, if they don't know you'll be in Turkey, will do just that if they see a transaction from there.  I had to use an ATM twice and because there are Citibanks in Istanbul, I knew I'd have no problems.

--I don't mind growing old.  Honestly, I don't.  But, I don't need to be reminded of it.  Three times I was asked if X was my son.  Excuse me?!

--I never thought I had a universal look, but perhaps I was mistaken.  Three times I was approached by salesmen with “Habla Espanol?”  Two guys asked me if I spoke English.  I was also taken for Australian and Greek.  The best one though, was the guy who stopped his car to ask me for directions.  He asked in Turkish.  

Istanbul. The city on two continents. Something about the European side reminded me of Manhattan. Maybe it was all the yellow cabs, I don’t know, but something about it, the energy, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, well, I simply fell in love. After three days of soaking up as much of the city as I could, the sights, the food and talking to the people, I had found a new post-Peace Corps “top of the list” city. Of course, I knew more research needed to be done, so I did it.
In the book: why Istanbul was a great city to visit, but not where I wanted to teach.