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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.

Why I’m not a feminist

I’m not a woman. I’m also not a female. And…I’m not a feminist. Damn me if you must, but first hear me out. It’s not that I’m against feminism. I’m just not sure what it is. In my experience, there seems to be a disconnect between the definition and perception—between the meaning and what people mean.

It wasn’t until very recently that I learned feminism could mean equality. In the past, and especially on my university campus, my interactions with self-labeled feminists taught me that in order to be one, you needed to be angry at men, suspicious of men’s motives and desire a world where men felt the weight and pain of their sins. It also didn’t hurt your feminist cause to grow out your armpit hair and skip showers on a regular basis. Here was my first look at the disconnect; my perceptions of what people meant were overriding the true meaning of feminism.

It could be there were only a few overly vocal outliers to blame for my perceptions. For sure I too am at fault for not seeking the answers to my questions about feminism and instead allowing my stereotypes to lead my thoughts and conclusions.

It could also be the word “feminist” itself. Words matter. And labels matter. Their connotations often preclude the hearer from ever reaching their true definitions. An example of this is the Greek word adelphoi used many times in the Bible. Its direct translation into English is “brothers” but to a reader of Greek at the time, it would have meant “men and women who are believers.” Yet, because words hold so much power, translating the word simply as “brothers” can make modern women readers feel left out or relegated. I think the same thing is happening with the term feminist. I know it means “someone who’s for women being equal with men” and this definition is great, but it gives the sense that this is a women only kind of thing and skips over the fact that equality can only be understood when there are other things to be equal with. Why can’t we use a different word like “equalist” or something meaning “a person who’s for people being equal to each other?”

I first heard this kind of definition during a long discussion with a few British friends while traveling in Turkey last month. During our talk I learned that these women too were feminists and yet they didn’t hate men. They even held regular meetings to discuss feminism and reassured me feminists were truly for equality and not some kind of reversal of oppression. 

He progressively asked for only one kiss

I got the chance for another revealing conversation a week later. It spontaneously erupted over a toilet seat. I’m not even making this up. It was another battle in the classic, endless war of the sexes: up, or down? We were at a little gathering of volunteers in one room of our hotel where we were all staying for a training. I came out of the bathroom and my female friend said, “You put the toilet seat down, right?” Suddenly I needed to know something. “Are you a feminist?” I asked. She said yes and I continued, “Ok, then if you desire equality, tell me—how many times have you lifted up the toilet seat after using the bathroom?” The rest of the exchange is a bit hazy partially due to the numerous interjections from surrounding volunteers, the beverages in each of our hands and let’s be honest, the way I asked the question in order to get a bit of a rise out of people. But the result of the conversation was clear—one after another, for the remainder of the evening and continuing into the next day—my female volunteer friends approached me to say that they too were feminists. Why? It was because I had said I’d never met a feminist who was truly interested in equality instead of some kind of female chauvinism.

The results surprised me. It was nice to hear women who were my friends and whom I respected and who were doing great things in Kyrgyzstan say they were feminists.

Yet there are other ways in which I really don’t get it. Again, not because I’ve thought about it and decided feminists are wrong—I don’t understand the movement because I’ve never had to. I’ve never worried about being passed over for promotion for being pregnant and soon to be taking maternity leave. I’ve never worried about keeping a hand on my drink at all times. I’ve never worried about catcalls, being the subject of a vulgar joke or creepy handsy hugs at the office. I’ve never been called bitchy for being assertive or bossy for expecting more out of others or had my concerns brushed off as PMS. “Yes, but you have a mother and sister and friends who are women,” people say. And I get that and I see it, but it doesn’t sink in the same way it does for them. I can see the disparities. But at the end of the day I don’t have to live with them. I’m a man hanging out in a man’s world. 

English lesson flashcards kids understand: “Housewife”

Ironically, it may have been stepping out of the US and into places even more male dominated that’s making me aware of just how unequal men and women are. Like hearing and seeing just what it means for female volunteers who are joked around with daily about being bride kidnapped. Or how the frequency of catcalls skyrockets in a crowd if I’m a few feet behind my female friends versus walking along side them. Or listening to my landlord complain about how, when he helps his wife with the household chores, he gets shamed by his male friends because they think he can’t control his wife and subject her to the majority of the work. Or the number of women I’ve met who are angry in marriages because they had no say in whom they married, where they live or what they’re required to do for a job. I’ve seen so little of this before in my life and reality is just now becoming real. I am so incredibly lucky to have been spared of many of these things; yet the negative effect is I’ve grown complacent and inactive. Is feminism a kind of situation where, if you’re not actively for equal rights for women, you’re against them?

I should be more proactive, but I’m honestly not sure how to start. A contributing factor is never being quite sure where females stand on the spectrum of reactions to my words or behaviors. As an illustration, I always find myself at a loss when it comes to the potential object to be carried for a woman. I’m afraid of erring on both sides of the spectrum. Is she the independent kind who will bite my head off for offering to help because she’s perfectly capable on her own, thanks for nothing chauvinistic pig or if I don’t offer will she be harboring thoughts of what a lazy jerk—won’t even lift a finger to help a lady…? I feel stuck and squeezed between both sides, for not anticipating the perfect level of sensitivity to the apparently volatile subject of objects and their capacity for being lifted.

And then there’s always the “you’ll never get it because you don’t have a vagina” argument which I admitted before is fair. My opinion is almost never asked when it comes to issues of feminism or equality and I don’t really feel invited to the conversations. Of all the feminist discussion groups that meet on college campuses, basements and cafes across the globe, how many of them include a good mix of men and women? Judging by my own anecdotal evidence they’re mostly women and that’s probably greatly due to the fact men don’t want to attend, but the question remains, how well are these groups doing at inviting and including all kinds of people in these discussions?

I wish these discussion groups weren’t necessary. I wish we could all just start living and not have to talk about all this stuff. But I guess that’s kind of like the president saying he doesn’t like war and so he dissolves the military. There are always going to be belligerent people who will attack with or without logic and reason. Like peace, equality must be defended and requires careful construction of support among the greater public through education, public service campaigns, positive and imitable examples in media and strong moral teaching within families.

And then I think, do we even want to place equality as our highest goal? Is that the correct appeal? Could we reach a place of equality by striving after “service-ism” instead, promoting and engaging people in a kind of love that seeks others’ good above one’s own, whether man or woman, male or female? Maybe equality isn’t going far enough and after we reach it we’ll find ourselves disoriented and dissatisfied, always trying to balance the scale. Turning our relationships into measurements of debt against each other is a terrible way to live. The best human relationships have always been based on working selflessly in love for a common, higher good. If this goal can be reached we become equal through our mutual efforts to serve.

 And Kyrgyz men can serve women

I’m not a feminist. Not yet anyway. I’m so new to this whole concept and discussion on feminism and equality that I don’t have strong conclusions to draw at this time, only a lot of questions to ask. Are we using the right words? Could we do better at inviting more people into the conversation? Are there more people hanging out on middle ground than I’m giving credit to? How should discussions on feminism be guided and directed today? Am I way off base in my ramblings or musings above? What are your thoughts?