Thursday, February 11, 2016

Transitioning to Talas

September 9, 2008

Transitioning to Talas

The big day, one I’ve been hoping would arrive for 30 years finally does. On September 18th, I, along with 57 fellow trainees, will be sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A PCV.

As much as I look forward to living in Talas for two years, leaving my training family will cause some tears to be shed. I have come to think of them as my family here in Kyrgyzstan. I only hope they enjoyed hosting me as much I as I enjoyed being hosted. And I also hope I left a positive impression of what an American citizen is. I believe I did because my host father (ата) has invited me for dinner the next time I am in the area. I know they wonder how I survive on the little amount of food (тамак) I eat. Actually, I do eat an ample amount. I just don’t have a Kyrgyz appetite. And part of the reason for that is I don’t work hard enough to generate one. Yeah, I can live with that.

The challenges that lie ahead will not be so overwhelming because of the education, care and nurturing given me by my host family. They helped in so many ways. Language, cultural adaptation and, most of all, accepting me as a member of their family so I wouldn’t miss mine quite so much. How do I thank them for that???

These past 10 weeks have conjured memories of graduate school. Learning, being challenged, living small. Real small. And having fun in spite of limited funds. Ah, the good ol’ days. This evening I sat outside and watched the sunset while playing with the dogs. Simple pleasures.

September 10, 2008

We lost two more trainees this week. (We’ll swear in 57 out of 63. That’s a pretty good percentage of survivors.) One I knew pretty well and the other I would have as they were both assigned to my Oblast (An оьласт is like a state in America) and I believe would have been solid volunteers; that they ET-ed (Early Termination) surprised me. I’ve heard that N (a male) left because he was sick throughout much of the training period and didn't know if anything would change going forward. I'm not sure if I would have survived as long as he did. The irony here is that he had the sweetest deal of any new volunteer in our group. His new host family would have been a young couple, both of whom speak English, no children, and a nice house, so his sick days were probably behind him. Another version had it that he had work opps in the film industry back in the States and had to take them. Probably a little truth in both. The other trainee, J (a female), was homesick. I got to know her because she was in my TEFL technical training class. We had a NY connection (she’s from a city upstate) and I was looking forward to having her as a fellow volunteer. She leaves tomorrow. I said good-bye today, wished her well and told her I wanted to meet in NYC in two years. When people left 10 weeks ago, it was not such a big deal because I didn’t know them that well. Now, and going forward, anybody who leaves will have a bigger impact due to our time together.

This led to a question. The PC policy is to match the skills of the volunteer to those of the country. Would the ET rate be less if the volunteer could choose his/her country? Or if not the country, maybe choose the continent? Who knows? I mean, if J were in Columbia instead of Kyrgyzstan would she not have succumbed to homesickness? But, N would have had enough with the sickness no matter where he was, right? The best of intentions are often thwarted by the realities of life.

Statistics in 2008 showed that across every Peace Corps country the average ET rate (Early Termination) after two years is 33%. Some leave voluntarily, others don’t.

I think we all played the “who would go and who would stay” game. I certainly did and would have lost money had I wagered on my selections. 

In the book, a surprise ET and my journey to a life of "living small."

Monday, February 8, 2016

Permanent Site Visit, Part 2: In Talas

September 5, 2008

Permanent Site Visit, Part 2: In Talas

Before I begin let me say y’all in trouble now, because I’ve learned how to type in Cyrillic on my computer, so the Kyrgyz words will be flying fast and furious. That is as soon as I learn where the letters are on the keyboard.

Okay, I’ll try to be brief as you’ll be hearing a lot about my work over the next two years, but all signs look good. My counterpart seems nice and speaks almost fluent English. Only English can be spoken in the school. So much for my Kyrgyz getting better. I’ll be teaching Conversational English to 3rd, 4th and 5th Course students. University here is five years, but students still graduate at 22, so they must start a year earlier. In the Spring I’m slated to teach a brand new course entitled Introduction to Modern Linguistics. When I asked if there was a text book for the class, my counterpart said I should look for info on the Internet. Good thing I have until March. I will also conduct an English class for the teachers once a week. Most speak competently, but want to speak better. I’ll hold outside classes on listening skills for the students and, yes, I get to start a Drama Club. That should be extremely interesting.

My family is nice. My new host mother is a German teacher at the school, in the same building, on the same floor. Not sure how I like this set-up, but I know why it was made. She lives two blocks from the school and they didn’t want me walking too far in the frigid winters. My host father is a doctor. A neurologist, if I understood my mother correctly. He’s also 65 so I don’t know how much doctoring he does these days. Mostly he mans the counter at the little magazine they own in the front of their house. (A magazine is the Russian term for a convenience store. Mostly, they sell candy, cigs and booze.) I believe my father’s career took a downturn after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Once Moscow quit paying everybody’s medical bills, who can afford a neuro guy? Average wage in KG? About $300/year, although it’s much higher in the cities. Still...

I’m a 20 minute walk from the bazaar, the cafes and the other city volunteers. The group that’s been there a year was very helpful this past weekend showing us the ropes and around. I also met the village volunteers yesterday at a group picnic by the river. Quite pastoral and the food was delish!

Now I’m back in Kenesh, wondering what the hell I’ll be doing for the next two weeks. Swearing in is September 18th. I know I’m getting a week of Russian lessons, but beyond that, I’m not sure.


It wouldn’t take me long to discover that, once again, most of what I was told about my stay in Talas differed from reality. I won’t say the PC lied to me, because each statement contained a grain of truth. The most egregious one had to be “only English is spoken in the English Department.” HA! The only times I heard English were in my class and when the teachers spoke to me. That’s it. Every other word came out Kyrgyz or Russian. Students repeatedly told me that the most common language in their other English classes was Kyrgyz. That was probably due to the students’ poor English skills.

In the book there is further explanation on the other points that were oversold to me.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Permanent Site Visit – Part 1: Getting to Talas

September 4, 2008

Permanent Site Visit – Part 1: Getting to Talas

On Saturday, August 31, at 9am, I hopped into a taxi with a trainee I’ll call K, and our new host fathers for what was to be a 4 ½ hour ride to Talas. It took us seven. Here’s why. We hadn’t even left the city when we changed taxis. Let me preface this account by saying our host fathers arranged the ride even though they had never met before last Saturday. Oh, and neither of them speaks a word of English. The reason for the switch, we learned, is that our first taxi was a city taxi. We needed a long distance driver. Well, we did upgrade from a VW to a Benz, so K and I weren’t complaining. (K is a female who is assigned to a village about 40 minutes outside Talas and will be teaching English. She also just finished at NYU so maybe that’s why the universe put our fathers together.) Then K realized she was out of units and needed a SIM card for her cell so she could text during the trip. We stopped. While there, my father bought some bananas. He was scoring points in my book cuz they’re expensive over here. Back in the taxi we drove for about 10 minutes when we realized the fathers also wanted watermelon. We stopped. They didn’t see any they liked. We drove a half mile. We stopped. They found a couple kinds of melons they liked and loaded them into the trunk. Finally, we were sure the open road was ours for the taking. And it was. For 15 minutes, when we pulled over to the side of the road and waited. For what, K and I were clueless. After a few sentences from my father, I knew we were waiting for someone. Finally a car pulled in front of us and six people piled out. Relatives of K’s host father, on their way to Talas for the Independence Day celebration on Sunday. We said hello, they chatted a while and we all got back in the cars. K and I are finding this rather amusing but figure we’re finally going to hit the road for good. Wrong. A few miles up the road we pull over at a cafe and get out of the car again. This time to eat. The other car had bread, cookies, a dessert, a box of juice and a bottle of vodka. It’s a little after 10am. They toast me and K, I make a toast, then someone else does. All these toasts have to be because the bottle must be finished. In Kyrgyzstan, there’s no such thing as “let’s have a shot and save the rest for later.” Thank goodness it was a small bottle. (I had none as I’m still sticking to my vow of no alcohol for two years.) K and I realized we’d left the hotel about two hours ago and we were barely out of Bishkek. Well, I can tell you we drove a few hours without incident. Through the most beautiful mountain pass I’ve ever seen, even better than I remember Colorado being. And the rain we drove through on the way to the top of the pass was pellet sized hail when we got there. Not sure how high we were, but we were up there. The snow-capped peaks were almost eye level. Pretty amazing. Now it was time to make our way down the pass and could envision being in Talas in a little more than an hour. Until we got the flat tire. Yup. Open the trunk, take out the luggage and the melons (remember them?). On the positive side, he had it in a beautiful setting. Tire changed, back on the road. Everybody’s relaxing; I mention to K that through it all, our driver was doing a pretty good job. That good job must have tired him out because he fell asleep at the wheel. Literally. The sound of the gravel on the shoulder roused him or we’re down in a ditch. I won’t exaggerate and say it was a 5,000 foot drop, although I was tempted. K’s father took the wheel and drove the rest of the way to his house. We were all invited in for some food, which was a good thing because it gave our driver a chance to nap. We still had 30 minutes left to Talas. At 4pm we pulled in front of my new home (well, it will be starting September 19). Seven hours, but truly a Peace Corps experience.

Cool as my trip was, it doesn’t top the 10-hour ride of my friend C (scheduled drive time: 6 ½ hours). Among other unnamed things, her driver stopped at a mountain waterfall, stripped off his clothes and went swimming. All while his passengers waited in the car. This must have tired him out because a while down the road, he pulled over and slept for an hour. Jeez, I wish our guy would’ve thought of that. 

Let’s talk taxis. The only time I felt afraid in Kyrgyzstan involved transportation. The two main types of transport were mini-buses (marshrutkas) and sedans, usually Mercedes, VW or Toyota. You could take either for short trips across town or distant cities; most people used marshrutkas from village to village, but not always.

Marshrutkas were (re)designed to hold about fifteen people comfortably. As I recall, two seats on one side and one on the other like a small commuter jet’s seating. Often they held more than twenty on the village to village routes. And that didn’t include the bags the passengers brought with them. We had to take them to our afternoon sessions as they weren’t held in Kenesh. Some of these vehicles didn’t seem fit for the road. Balding tires and enough klinks and klanks made one wonder when the engine would drop to the road. One flat tire or broken axle meant serious injuries or worse for all aboard.

The long distance taxis held different concerns, but the one that scared me the most was being placed in a car with the steering wheel on the right hand side. Nearly all of the cars in Kyrgyzstan came via Russia, stolen I was told, and the price was cheap. Poor buyers aren’t picky buyers. Anyway, since the roads were two-lane this meant that a driver who wanted to pass had to put the passenger half of the car into the opposite lane to get a view of oncoming traffic. Passengers would often be his eyes and shout, “machina” which if I recall correctly, was the word for car. I never felt more like a sitting duck in my life. The road from Talas to Bishkek is littered with memorials of fatal crashes.


I only took such a car once. After that, if one was offered to me at the taxi station, I’d wait. This could make for a long day because taxis needed four passengers before they would start out. If it was a slow travel day, I could wait for over an hour for a car to fill up. If I wanted to leave before the car was full, I’d have to pay for the empty seats. I only did this once, from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Bishkek after my trip to Turkey. Waiting for what could have been hours in a country I didn’t know didn’t suit me, so I talked my travel partner into each of us buying two seats. It was costly, but we made it back to Kyrgyzstan quicker and we had lots of room during our trip. The driver had his money so he didn’t care.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Culture Day

August 19, 2008

Culture Day

While it wasn't what I expected, it was still a lot of fun. The trainees live in 8 different villages and each of us portrayed a piece of Kyrgyz or Central Asian culture. Our group performed a skit about bride kidnapping, which, although against the law today, has been a part of Kyrgyz culture for centuries. We added some humor to it to lessen the “controversy effect,” and I added a disclaimer before my introduction saying this was one of several scenarios that could be portrayed and we are in no way condoning this practice. (I was the narrator for our skit.) We must have passed the test, because we received “no complaints” (oigo-good-ai).

Kyrgyzstan considers itself the Central Asian capitol of artistic talent, the land of artists, musicians, singers and poets. From the local talent that performed this morning, I would agree. They were phenomenal.


For lunch we ate plov, a very popular dish and some melons. I don't know how to spell “andeleek,” but I know how to eat it. Lots of it. It's shaped like a watermelon and tastes like canteloupe, only much, much sweeter. It's definitely my favorite discovery to date, food-wise. Second place goes to the homemade yogurt, called airan (eye-rahn). Some people add sugar to it, but I like it straight. Oh yeah, you drink it. Next time I'm going to add fruit to it.

Bride kidnapping. This occurs whenever a girl is taken against her will—sometimes it’s consensual—and forced to marry. Occasionally she knows the guy, but most times she doesn’t. She can call her father to come and get her, but he'll rarely come to the rescue. Several of my students were victims, at least five that I can remember; there were most certainly more. Why do boys, with assistance from cousins and friends, continue this outdated and humiliating practice? A few reasons. Some families can’t afford to pay the dowry to the girl’s family; a lot of boys lack the self-confidence to find a girlfriend the way most of the world does; I’ve also been told they do it because it’s a cultural tradition, although many Kyrgyz argue that it’s not and never has been.

In the book I tell the stories of three of my students, how they were kidnapped and how one escaped.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hard Lives in a Collective Society

July 30, 2008


I want to write about the life of the average non-urban Kyrgyz family, but if I may digress for a minute...today was a scorcher. It had to be at least 100 degrees and dry heat or not, that is flippin' hot. When I arrived home from my all day session with all the other volunteers, I was beat. I went to my room to lay down and escape the sweltering heat (and this is 5pm I'm talking about). I wasn't there five minutes when a knock on my door brought me an ice cream bar. Was my family reading my mind?! I tore open the package and saw chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream. And the chocolate coating had what looked like crispy bits in it. Until I took a closer look. Sesame seeds. Interesting. I bit into the bar and saw what looked like small dots of a vanilla bean scattered throughout the ice cream. Nope. Poppy seeds. Neither of these surprise ingredients altered the taste too much and I enjoyed every last drip of my unexpected treat.

Okay, like I said, I want to tell you about life at my family's house. (I know they are not my real family, but I have been so totally accepted by them, that I call them my family. I already know that I will cry the day I leave for my permanent site.) We live in a village of about 7,000 people. There are 22 nationalities represented here. (Per PC rules regarding safety, I can't tell you exactly where I live.) Many of my family's relatives also live in the village. Family comes first in this culture. Three and four generations living together under one roof is the rule, not the exception. Elders are given the utmost respect. Everybody keeps an eye on everybody's children and will discipline them, if necessary. This is the guiding principle of a collective society. People will share even if they don't have anything to spare. It's truly an eye-opening experience. Yeah, Americans are generous, giving people, but not in the way it exists here. We're more after-the-fact generous. We write checks after a disaster. We volunteer if there's any time left in our schedule. We take our parents in if the assisted living complex is full or unaffordable. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a senior citizens home in the entire country. 

Okay, about my family. First of all, almost everything we eat is grown in the big garden out back. Tomatoes, onions, eggplant, corn, peppers and other things I'm probably missing. Milk comes from the two cows; eggs from the chickens who prance around the yard freely; the chickens eventually find their way to our dinner plates, like tonight for example. I'm glad I haven't witnessed an execution, although I have seen a slaughtered cow being divvied up in someone's back yard. The beef we eat, well, you know...

In addition to working his small farm, my ata (ah-tah, father) is some sort of policeman or military security guy. All I know is when he leaves for work he's wearing a uniform and packin' heat. My apa (ah-pah, mother), in addition to milking the cows by hand and selling it for extra cash (35 som/dollar, in case you're wondering), is the seamstress for the village women. Money is hard to come by, which is why almost every house has a garden and many have some sort of animal as well. It’s is said that everyone in Kyrgyzstan, no matter what other job they may have, is a farmer. Last week I helped my host brother braid a length of rope to secure one of the calves for grazing. Actually, I just held the finished end of the rope while he did all the braiding. Yeah, I know, I'm a real cowboy, right? And like many American moms, my apa also has a house to manage, although Aijan, eighteen and the only daughter, is a big help in that regard, just as Aibeck, sixteen and the oldest son, is a tremendous help to his father. Nurbek, eight, is deaf. He's not asked to do much yet, but he does have one very important job. He calls me to meals.

Things are changing in the country, though. As Kyrgyzstan struggles to develop a successful market-based economy, this generation of teenagers are more likely to attend university than previous ones. The Harvard of Central Asia is located in the capitol city of Bishkek. It's called American University of Central Asia, stocked with American professors, and the graduates secure jobs with international corporations. Both Aijan and Ibeck will be college students, studying finance and engineering, respectively. They will not be at AUCA, but will still have a brighter future than their parents had at the same age. It's a weird mix, this agrarian/urban mixture that's propelling Kyrgyzstan into the 21st century, but very interesting, too.


We were told that we’d be calling our host parents mother and father, in Kyrgyz. When I first laid eyes on my host family, I thought, ‘No way.’ They were ten years younger than me, maybe more. I was wrong. It didn’t take me long to get in the habit of doing so, because I quickly felt a part of the family.

Also in the book, an update on the lives of my host family. So much has changed for them since 2008, all good I'm pleased to say.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Permanent Site Interview

July 29, 2008

Permanent Site Interview

This afternoon all the TEFL volunteers (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) had a chance to voice their concerns and preferences, and ask questions concerning our permanent site placement. I was interviewed by the Program Manager from the North region of the country, as were two of my peers; the fourth trainee in the university group was interviewed by the PM from the South. It lasted about 10 minutes.

The importance of this interview is based entirely on whether or not the Peace Corps already knows where they're going to place us. Many trainees have said this interview was just a formality because the Program Managers have already seen our resumes and read our aspiration statements, so they have a pretty good idea of where they want us. I mean, what more could we tell them? The cynical side of me tends to agree with this sentiment. Still, I reiterated my two main desires: to be placed in a university that has a drama club or is open to starting one; and live in an area where fruits and vegetables are plentiful (that is code for South Kyrgyzstan). Which of these desires takes top priority, you ask? Well, for the sake of discussion, let's say my permanent site has not been decided. I believe it's more important to be in a good working situation than have a cornucopia of fruits and veggies, because a bad work environment will make for a loooooong two years, while I can work with the local food supply. I also want to be in an area where independent living is an option and being in a city (where all the universities are located) will afford me that. Now, it's the waiting game with everybody putting out their positive vibes to the universe in the hopes of landing in the best situation possible. For those that don't, I can see our numbers dwindle. (After almost three weeks, we've only lost 3 of 63. While there will be others that leave early, I think we're doing amazingly well!) 

“Complete waste of time” aptly described my Permanent Site Interview, because the Peace Corps knew where they wanted to place me months before I left the states.

Also in the book, the Peace Corps interview process, How I came to be placed as a University TEFL, and the story behind why one of our village trainees left after only a couple of weeks.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Keepin' Kleen Kyrgyz Style

July 28, 2008

Keepin’ Kleen Kyrgyz Style


There was a time when I would go crazy if I didn't shower every day. How could I put on clothes without a thorough scrubbing and hair washing? And shave with cold water? Unthinkable. Put on socks over feet with dust ingrained in my heels from walking the dirt roads of the village? Are you kidding me? While it seems longer, that time was only a few weeks ago. Suffice it to say, since arriving in Kyrgyzstan, my acceptable standards of hygiene have shifted downward. This does not mean I traipse around my village looking like Pigpen from Peanuts. Far from it. But, two sun showers a week are a treat and daily (cold water) bucket baths are the norm for starting the day. A sun shower is washing with water from a small barrel, suspended above my head, which has been heated by the sun. They're actually pretty neat. Oh, and did I mention I may wear the same clothes a few times before washing them? Yup. And it doesn't matter, because while they may have some miles on them between washings, they're pressed and really don't smell so bad, at least not to me. Of course, one thing I learned is that if you wear the same pair of pants for too many days in a row, when you take them off they will take a few additional steps on their own. And it’s convenient to put them back on because they are standing where you left them. There are other reasons for multiple donnings (is that a word?!). I brought three pairs of pants and only slightly more shirts and since there's not a laundromat for miles, I have to wash my clothes by hand. It's damn hard work and not something I want to do more than once every ten days or so. I'm not sure why I'm writing about this except that I have an altered perspective on life ever since I began brushing my teeth every morning, standing in the backyard, while gazing at majestic snow-capped mountains. 

How well did I adapt to showering daily after my PC days? Also, in the book, why I never want to hand-wash clothes again.