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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.

Life is a series of interruptions

There’s this really weird thing that happens in Kyrgyz schools. You’re teaching a class when all of a sudden the door opens, some random face peers in, the jaw goes slack, and the door closes. Then it happens again. And again. Count ‘em, six, seven, eight times or more the door opens and bangs shut, eight times or more the flow of the lesson stops, the waves crashing against the blackboard.

Not a single face asks for anything.

Not even a foot steps in the room.

There’s no answer. No reason. No explanation.

I caught one of the people once as they were turning down the hallway, running after them to catch up.

“Why did you just open the door and shut it again?”

He just shrugged.

Once I tried locking the door from the inside to keep people from opening it. The next person just knocked until I opened it.

“Oh. You’re teaching in here.”

Yes, I’m teaching in here! What else goes on in a classroom!!

It must be the universe just having a laugh at this lesson. And I mean the lesson I’m being taught as I stand in front of the room.

Life is just one long list of interruptions. Whoever called life a path was wrong. Life is not a path. It’s a game of plinko.

As I was trying to insert this plinko video, my girlfriend called me. I looked at the phone and thought, “Eh, I can call back. I need to finish this thought.”

Five minutes later I’m hearing on the other end of the line, “You didn’t answer because you were writing?”

“Yep.”

“So…your blog thing is more important than me?”

“I…uh…you know…(actually plinko?)…well…actually you were interrupting my post on interruptions, so congratulations—you just made my blog!”

Oh, the irony.

Actually, it’s not ironic at all because interruptions are all that ever happen.

There’s no such thing as a line we tread through life. We’re jostled. Bumped. Tossed. Lifted and hurled. One of you out there tell me you’re in the spot you pictured being in 10 years ago.

My friend Maksat likes to say one little turn even from your current direction puts you in an unimaginably different place years down the road. One degree to the left or the right. One nudge. One phone call possibly.

And it’s so good to realize that. To know that the interruptions aren’t hurting your plans for your life. They are your life. That when the phone rings you’ve got life coming at you in a way you maybe couldn’t have anticipated and it’s your new little thread that you grab onto to ski along the waves. Life is interruptions, and that is great.

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What are your favorite interruptions? Where have they taken you?

Preparing the sheep head

 

Cooking up some sheep for dinner is one of the things that Kyrgyz do best. I would say mutton, but really it’s just sheep. A big pot of sheep. You get used to it after a while, and it even starts to taste pretty good. I especially enjoy it when the power goes out and we’re eating in the dark.

Today we’re looking specifically at the sheep head (and legs). This is shortly after the cutting-the-head-off step which I thought I would spare all of you, and immediately following the neighbor-who-came-over-and-sliced-off-a-little-bit-of-the-raw-head-fat-for-tasting-to-see-if-it-was-any-good step. (I’m not entirely sure that one is standard.)

Yes, it’s a bit gruesome, but that’s what makes it fun, right? …right?
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This is step one. Maksat took a break from lighting a fire inside of a bottomless, upturned bucket to snap this photo. The bucket acts as a kind of a makeshift blowtorch. Firing sessions are swapped in and out for the scraping of the burnt hair off the skin with a knife. After the firing comes the boiling.

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Here Maksat is preparing the “torch.”

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We had to keep yelling “white rabbit!” and hopping around the fire to keep out of the smoke of the shifting winds.

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The head’s getting pretty close to done, but there’s still some scraping to do on the legs.

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Now for some serious scrubbing with a rag and hot water. I think I might need to brush his teeth too. Next step, the boiling pot.

 

‘Foreign’ is a word we use for things we don’t understand

Almost everything I’ve ever read about Kyrgyzstan has made it seem so foreign. And why not, I suppose; it fits the definition fairly well of being something other than one’s own, and from a general western perspective it is strange and unfamiliar. However, I think this label gets applied more often because so few know even the first thing about this place. How often do we call Australia a foreign country? When an undergrad goes “Down Under” does she proclaim to Facebook she is “off to a foreign land”? No. She just says she’s going to Australia.

Kyrgyzstan’s really not that strange, once you get to know it. That’s the whole point of travel, or it should be anyway—that we go places for understanding and not to draw lines in the sand between what’s “us” and what’s “them.”

This week I’ve been going through the book Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron. In his book he states he is traveling again through Central Asia for understanding, yet I can’t keep from being shocked by how foreign he makes everything sound through his verbose description. I would assume it’s my problem as the reader since he certainly is introducing a lot of new things. Except…I live here. Take a look at Thubron’s rendering of a meal in Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan, my backyard:

“An hour later I descended the hill to the tent. The lamb’s intestines were swimming in a bowl, and its bloodstained pelt curled on the floor. Twenty men had assembled to feast. They settled in a famished circle, squatting or cross-legged in their hefty boots, I in the place of honour. Their mouths gaped black or flashed gold in hard, burnished faces. Soon they were engorging minced lamb in pudding-like fistfuls, scouring their plates with work-blunted hands, while noodles dribbled from their lips like the whiskers of so many cuttlefish. Their cups filled up with tea, then vodka. They wrenched and gnawed on the bones, picked them white, discarded them, and sucked in the last gravy with a  noise like emptying bathwater. Then they dispersed without a word, or slept.”

If I were writing this part of the journey I would say, “And then we had dinner.” Because that’s what we eat: sheep and noodles. That’s what’s available here and people sit on the floor because no one wants to drag a wooden table and 20 chairs up to a yurt in the mountain. The name of this meal was left out as well: besh barmak which means “five fingers” and gives a pretty good indication that it is to be eaten with the hand and not a fork and knife.

But it’s not as sexy or fun to say, “And then we ate.” No one’s going to pay you to write a travel book that sounds just like life at home.

 Emerging from hibernation, the Minnesotans squint into the sunlight 

So, to show just how funny and ridiculous it can be, let’s take a look at how a Kyrgyz travel writer might describe a typical meal in say, suburban Minnesota, a la Colin Thubron:

An hour later I mounted the steps to the dining hall. The pig’s rump was screeching in a pan, it’s dried out skin flaked in a bag upon the elevated counter. A man with a woman and several offspring were gathered to feast. They stormed the table, some sitting in plastic butt-shaped booths to extend their reach. I was forced to sit at the end of the table, closest to the door, in shame. Their mouths shone ungodly white with teeth bleached by chemicals, their faces occasionally rubbed by the roughage of a felled tree. Soon they were slamming back gallons of milk and stabbing pig stomach in fits of fury, drowning the torn flesh with an acrid, vinegary brown sludge, while milk dripped from the children’s mustachioed faces. Their cups filled with a bubbling and frothing sickly sweet liquid, and food was soon replaced with an even sweeter dense cocoa based goo procured from a searing hot oven not two meters from where they lapped at their utensils like flint on steel. Then they dispersed with cries of sorrow as the opening scenes of prime time television had inadvertently passed away.

When first making contact, it’s ok to revel in the peculiarities and laugh at what’s so strikingly different than what you have known. It’s fun to read someone who says, “I went somewhere no one’s heard of. It was crazy!” These experiences are unique and different. But don’t leave it at that. Find in your travels people who are like you—people trying to not be bested by life’s challenges, trying to find a bit of rest from a day’s toil, trying to turn a dollar to support a family. Find in your travels the things that make us all the same—shared meals, the enjoyment of a good story, and the desire for justice and hope and a shot at making a life for ourselves in this crazy world.

My neighbor sells drugs

(This is probably going to blow their cover but) my neighbor sells drugs. They have a sign and everything; “Drugstore,” in Russian graces their front gate. Business must be good because they recently upgraded their sign from a pencil-on-cardboard to the standard placard-sized plastic model for higher visibility and prestige. As if anyone in town needed a sign to know where to find them. With fewer than 300 houses, not only does everyone have each house memorized, but will have looked through the windows of half of them in their morning jaunt down to the water pump and can tell you who had raspberry jam for breakfast and who had apricot.

Their house is not mainly a drugstore. It’s mainly a house. They sell pharmaceuticals for the extra needed inflow of cash. Almost everyone in town runs some kind of business it seems. With an official unemployment rate around 90%, people need to turn to entrepreneurial enterprise to make ends meet.

Not that 90% unemployment means everyone is doing poorly. Those figures only count those with government paid positions in the village—teachers, city hall workers, and a few people at the clinic. The owners of the largest store in town don’t count as being employed, even though they have a two story house and own multiple vehicles. Many of those with private businesses are actually doing much better. 

 Business is booming

“What do you think her monthly profits are, Nazgul?” My counterpart and I are leaving school and I stop by the little hut to buy a pack of cookies. There’s a lady who runs a tiny little shack outside the school, barely big enough for her and one customer. She sells piroshkis (fried bread with potatoes), snacks and a few school supplies. “I’m not sure but I know she makes more than me,” says Nazgul, biting into a Kontik Milk. “If all she sold was 150 piroshkis a day, she’d make more than me. And I have an education.”

I ask Nazgul about her AVON business. Once in awhile she gives me a small bottle of cream or cologne as a gift and I wonder if she’s making any money. “I mostly sell for the free gifts I get as a rep,” she tells me, “but I’m not losing money.”

But with a teacher’s salary of around $100 a month, selling AVON products isn’t just a hobby, it is a way of helping Nazgul and her family provide for daily necessities. Government salaries are only paid once a month and cash is needed throughout to buy foodstuffs and household goods. “If we didn’t have animals I suppose I’d be in the city,” says Nazgul, brushing her hands of chocolate crumbs.

Almost every household here raises farm animals and these are the true source of financial survival in the village. One of my business volunteer friends here calculated out profits for raising sheep and while he found it wasn’t a hugely profitable business it did provide two important things: food, and a buffer against inflation. A sheep can always be sold at market price.

The families with fewer farm animals are struggling. “When you have animals you have food and money,” my neighbor told me one day over the fence. He’s pitching hay. “No animals—no food and no money.” My good friend Maksat is one such family. His father passed away a couple years ago and through the various obligatory cultural ceremonies, hosting of guests and new financial burdens, he and his mother had to slaughter or sell off most of their animals. He has a job as a math teacher at the school, but the combination of his government salary plus his mother’s government pension is barely meeting the cost of living. He’s thinking about taking off for Turkey so he can find a job and send money home.

Since many Kyrgyz people who go abroad do so without visa’s or documentation, it is difficult to say exactly how many are abroad. Some conservative estimates put it at 20-25% of the population. This speaks volumes about the current economic situation here. When a quarter of the population has simply up and left, it sends the message that people are not able to live the kind of life they want here. Or at least they don’t believe they can.

Maksat is an incredibly intelligent and sharp man. His work ethic is inspiring and personally motivating. But Kyrgyzstan is about to lose him and his acumen to a foreign market. I often wonder about the kids and young people we train and teach as Peace Corps Volunteers here. How much are we contributing to the so called brain-drain in Kyrgyzstan? Are we simply providing them with the way to get out? While I would like for those with the knowledge and work ethic to make Kyrgyzstan a better nation to stay, I can’t blame them for doing what’s immediately best for their own families. Often that means taking their skills to further shores that will reward them for their work.

I drop my bag in the trunk of the taxi and head off to find a pit toilet while our driver is waiting for one more person to fill the cab. I pass by the group of men hawking DVDs on the side of the road. A sign displays a new price, 25 som, or about 50 cents for a burned disc of dubbed American and European films. It’s 5 som lower than last time I was here; it’s a competitive market. Those who don’t want to leave Kyrgyzstan, or those who aren’t able, still find ways to make a little cash. Here among the entrepreneurial stalls of a small village, hope floats above the dust of gypsy taxis and cows returning home. Somehow, people survive.