In life, you never arrive

I’ve rounded the corner on three years in the Peace Corps. I have less than four weeks until I “COS”, or see my close of service.

It’s arriving with little fanfare.

Peace Corps service is like climbing a mountain, and then climbing back down again. The peak was somewhere in the middle. Little heralds the return journey. There is no culmination in the last steps.

Maybe that’s why it feels so strange. I’m looking for that final moment, the finish line, a nice and neat wrap-up to everywhere I’ve been, everything I’ve done, everyone I’ve met along they way. And then I realize, the culmination was all these little things, all these moments that have already passed me by.

I think in some ways I knew that. I could feel it in those moments. Those moments where your surroundings dim and you see everything by the light of a smile. Those moments where you’re simply present, enjoying and being washed in the immensity of now. You don’t see those moments while you’re in them. You somehow can only recognize them afterwards—these times of deep satisfaction, of eminent value.

Maybe it’s also the fact that I’m coming back. I’ll finish my contract in June, be back in the States for a couple months then return to Kyrgyzstan in August to live, study Russian, work a little and finally get to live close to my girlfriend who’s in the capital, Bishkek. I don’t have to have closure. I don’t need to summarize my experience. I don’t need to face the fact that I will be leaving people I love.

Part of me doesn’t want there to be an end. Maybe that’s why I’m coming back—so I can have an excuse to not hold any going away parties, to not wrap things up, to let it just trickle out, to simply say, “See you later” instead of that final and crushing, “Goodbye.”

It’s just life

Those familiar with Peace Corps lingo immediately recognize the term “RPCV.” For everyone else, it’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. This phrase has always meant one thing or another to us volunteers on this side of the finish line. I don’t know what yet, but I guarantee you this phrase is going to mean something totally different once we do finally finish our service.

Some might see it as a culmination—see that label as a final stamp on two years or more worth of work, of experience, two years of blood, sweat and tears. But if we couldn’t see the peaks of service until looking back, it’s likely to be the same for all of the rest of life.

I used to think life was marked by these large milestones: high school, college, first job, spouse, house, family. But anyone a good ways into it can tell you it’s a bit more convoluted than that. Things come in spurts, or never at all. And once you hit a moment where you think you’ve arrived, you find that life keeps rolling on and there’s little time to realize those significant moments in your life.

When you live life for the culminations—for the arrivals—you end up missing so much in between. So live now. Take your eyes off the future significant and dwell in the immense significance of now, in the momentous moments of today.

How to keep naked guys from talking to you

I’m not sure of a more awkward situation than a naked guy striking up small talk while I’m scrubbing my privies. Yet this is the ritual I must endure every time I head out for my weekly bath at the local banya. (Ok, well maybe bi-weekly.)

When I say banya, picture a combination shower-and-sauna. Now instead of a shower, picture two taps and a bucket. Also there’s a lot of bare skin. (I hope you stopped picturing.)

Being the considerably less pigmented and infinitely more tattooed (I have two) of the bunch, I tend to be identified as not being from around here. This invariably engenders the usual line of questioning for a foreigner in Kyrgyzstan.

“Are you married?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Should I be scared that a naked man who I’m showering with is asking me if I have a girlfriend? I brush it off, along with the water that’s splashing off his naked body onto mine.

So to alleviate my bathing woes, I’ve developed a strategy. I start talking first.

Because here’s the truth: nobody likes small talk from strangers while they’re naked. It’s one of those universal human things.

The trick is to immediately upon arrival at the banya start asking a ton of questions—where are you from, what’s your name, do you like to eat meat, are you getting married—the usual. The other person quickly realizes, “Oh my gosh. It’s a talker. If I start grunting my answers and hide my shame towards the corner, maybe he’ll stop.” After a few of these exchanges, you can close your mouth and enjoy the remainder of your bi-weekly washing in peace.

And if the other guy doesn’t stop talking? Well, then you might just make a friend for life. There’s nothing more enduring than a friendship made in the nude.

Where I used to bathe when I lived with my host family out in the village

Area Studies: Career Suicide?

Is a degree in Central Asian Studies useless? Christian Bleuer of Ghosts of Alexander seems to believe so, though maybe not if you’re into that kind of a thing…

Ghosts of Alexander

[Yes, I’m back to writing. I had quit because of impending employment prospects, expected fieldwork, plus dissertation duties. But unhappily/happily I was deemed under-qualified (or overqualified…or too specifically qualified) for employment, my next bout of fieldwork has been delayed and my dissertation has made some unexpected quick progress. So here I am.]

Answer to the title: yes, probably. At the PhD level this is widely acknowledged by the PhD students themselves. The job market for recently minted PhDs is abysmal. It’s a simple supply and demand explanation. And that is for PhDs in history, political science, sociology, anthropology, etc… Now imagine you are getting a PhD from an area studies department; how many area studies departments are out there? And realize that these departments often hire social science and history PhDs who focused their dissertation on a particular “area” that the area studies department specializes in. Long story short is…

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A life mantra

Enjoy

Always. Choose joy. Deal with the hard stuff in its time.

Observe

Make mental maps of places, people, experiences, thoughts. Read lots of books.

Work

Keep your hands busy and do good, keeping a sober mind and body, and a disciplined spirit.

Write

Share your joy and observations through the end of a pen and pushed out through fingers on a keyboard.

Love

Love God and love people, dedicating special attention and time to the important people in your life.

Man v. Wolf

Here’s a great example of how they grow ’em out here in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan! I heard another story a couple of years ago about a man from Ortok, Kochkor who battled a wolf on his way home from the fields. Supposedly this man stuck his arm down the wolf’s throat and choked it to death. Subduing a wolf with bare hands–there’s only one word to describe that: badass!

Geezer Adventures

Ariel, one of my fellow volunteers, lives in a village about an hour west of Naryn.  Last week, a shepherd from her village heard his dogs fighting, went outside and found his dogs being attacked by a wolf.  What did he do?  He jumped into the fray, choked the wolf until it passed out, tied it up and brought it back to the village.  It’s been all over the news here.  Here are photos of the shepherd and of the wolf. jigit23jigit232We grow ’em tough here in Naryn!

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