peace corps

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

Go out light and come back heavy

Makal Monday!

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

Jengil bar — Oor kel

Жеңил бар — Оор кел

“Go out light and come back heavy”

Part I

Thin tendrils of ice fractured the surface of the puddles in the street. My breath broke the morning air as I clomped along in faux-fur lined boots to the bank.

“How much would you like to take out?” she yelled through the glass.

“63,000.” (About $1,300, or the price of a small horse.) I answered back, trying not to sound too conspicuous.



“How many thousand?”

“Sixty. Three.”

I punctured the glass with my words. The two other people in the room had stopped moving and were now staring.

“Do you have enough on your card?”


“Here—write your pin number on this paper.”

She slid a scrap of a post-it note and a pen under the window. I wrote it small and passed it back. She punched it in, and the money was there. Her coworker came out of the vault with the top of an old cardboard box filled with cash. She began counting it out.

“Where are you from?”

“Here, in Kochkor.”

“No, where are you from, from?” The daily question came early today.

“The US.”

“What’s your name?”




She asked me to scratch my name down for her and passed me back the same slip of paper with my pin code on it. I ripped it off, wrote down my name and passed it back.

Her name, it turned out was Akjol, or “Goodluck.”

“Goodbye, Goodluck,” I said, a hand in the air and 63,000 som in my pocket. “And hope you can hang onto some,” I thought. It seemed like the bank needed it.

My life is things

There is an entire industry consisting of multi-million dollar companies which exist for the sole purpose of providing us ways to haul around our shit.

Think about it.

Samsonite. Jansport. Chanel.

We have so much that we run out of places to keep it on our own person so we have to fashion straps to a large pouch and drag it around.

Turtle syndrome – even more painful than it sounds

I was walking out of school one day with my counterpart, Nazgul, when another teacher tagged up with us.

“What’s in his bag?” The teacher asked Nazgul, pointing at the turtle-like shell connected to my back.

“Ask him yourself,” Nazgul said, a kind head jerk thrown my direction.

“My life.” I answered automatically.

“Good answer,” she nodded, adding one of those breathy nose laughs for good humor.

Then it hit me. My life is things. It’s not people. It’s not situations. It’s not doing or even being. My life is a laptop computer, a water bottle, various power chargers and apparently a few used Kleenexes and empty candy wrappers. My life is sad.

I remember one occasion vividly, if not for its harrowing sear, then for the humiliation. I had detaxied and was standing in the center of the large bazaar in Naryn City with a giant backpacking bag on my back and another 40L bag strapped to my front, and was unsurprisingly looking around at where to pick up even more shit. I looked utterly ridiculous. Two kids passed me in the bazaar, stopped, turned around, came back, circled me, and then lost it in fits of laughter. I’m not even exaggerating. They absolutely lost it, doubling over and slapping their knees all while pointing and generally drawing the type of negative attention to me that I deserved. I looked blindingly stupid.

I couldn’t tell you today what was in those bags. I know I didn’t touch three-fourths of it on my two day journey. So why had I felt the need to carry it around all weekend?

IMG_4757Let’s see, what am I forgetting…oh yes, my sanity.

I eat pieces of stuff for breakfast

It’s just stuff. And this is one of the hardest lessons for me to learn.

I’m getting better at it. I’m getting better at letting people touch my things, pick them up and mull over them. (Or maw over them with their grubby little fat fingers, placing oily little fingerprints on every surface and…ok, ok, breathe.)

Once, for a secret-santa-slash-white elephant gift giving party many years ago, I parted with my SpongeBob alarm clock I paid seven dollars for at a CUB Foods grocery store. It spelled out the word FUN in big plastic letters and launched into “F is for friends who do stuff together, U is for you and me…” at whatever interval you set it at. It was glorious. And giving it up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I still think about that clock.

Now two plus years into the Peace Corps, I’ve given away so many items I don’t really think about it anymore—books, chargers, food, clothing items, cookware, to name a few. I still get a little cringy when anything under the age of 12 walks through my door and starts pawing stuff, but as long as they don’t smash anything I can’t cheaply replace, I let them go on touching. (While quickly thinking of an intriguing story that would usher them to further shelves beyond the line of my room.)

We need things. We do. Our quality of life insofar as health and well-being and options depends on them to some extent. But we know that life is not measured only in number of years spent trudging along, dragging our stuff behind us.

It’s measured in the time we give each other.

It’s measured in the wide space in which we allow our minds and souls to soar.

It’s measured in growing and stretching and experiencing and engaging and finding new and fantastic ways to love life, love each other and love the world.

It’s measured in daylights, in sunsets, in midnights and cups of coffee. (Oh, wait, nope. That’s just my Rent DVD.)

And now I’ve found another thing to get rid of, another item to lighten the load, and a refocus on things that matter—the things you can’t carry because you always hold them in your heart.

The battle of the English “moods”

As an English teacher in the Peace Corps, I spend a lot of time explaining points of grammar I never thought about or noticed before. I’ve become adept at explaining tenses and certain points in particular because I’ve either studied them or am asked them over and over, but still every once in a while a new little rule or concept pops up that intrigues me.

Sometimes I’m simply stumped, like when one of my counterparts asked how she should know if a certain verb is followed by a gerund or the infinitive. (For example, we say “I enjoy playing soccer,” but “I want to play every day.” It’s wrong to say, “I enjoy to play soccer. I want playing every day.” But why, and how can you be sure which form to use following newly learned verbs??? I found the answer, but it took a little googling…and not even the BBC’s website had the right answer!)

Some questions make me see English in a whole new way, revealing culture and the way we think through our language.

The use of modals raises just a point. Modals are simply words that set the mood of our verbs, like “can” or “should” and can’t be conjugated on their own. (In a bit you’ll see the word “want” which is technically not a modal; however, it does express modality so I’ve included it J.)

It’s easy to see the modals (moods) at work when you compare these sentences:

  • I should prepare my lessons.
  • I can prepare my lessons.
  • I want to prepare my lessons.
  • I will prepare my lessons.

In the first example “should” implies it would be good if I prepared them, but maybe I will and maybe I won’t.

The second simply denotes ability. I am able to prepare them, but I may or may not choose to.

The third shows my desire. I wish to prepare my lessons. I would like to get them done, but there still may be factors preventing me from doing so.

The last example is the only one where we know I will get the lessons prepared. For sure, I will prepare my lessons, whether or not I want to, should do, or even at present have the ability to.

The battle at Grammar Field

How and when we use should, can, will and want to, tells us a lot about our thinking process, what we value, and how we see the world.

The first task is to listen carefully to which modals you find yourself saying.

I spend too much time on the word “should.”

  • “I really should be more involved.”
  • “I should make handouts for that training I’m giving.”
  • “I should add an extra club for students preparing for their national exams…”
  • And on and on ad nauseam

The problem with this is that I don’t want to.

My modals do battle. Should and want raise their coats of arms and march off to war where should almost always takes the decisive victory. At the very least they reach some kind of uncomfortable truce where should eventually wins by war of attrition anyway. Want starts to die a slow and painful death before surrendering in full under the flag of should.

In some cases should “should” win out over your Wants. You can’t always live a selfish life; I’m not arguing to always follow the whims of your desires.

But when I stop and listen to the situations where I use these words, I find there are all sorts of things I feel I should be doing, and I end up letting should drive my actions out of guilt.

Taking charge

Being aware of the language you use is half the battle. After recognizing what kinds of words you’re telling yourself, the next step in reclaiming control of your life is to make purposeful decisions in how you use these words.

  • There are truly very few situations where should must be your master. You should eat food. You should show up to work most of the time. But, those teachers will live if there’s no handout for the training tomorrow.
  • Can is powerful when you use it in focused ways. You are capable of a lot more than you think.
  • Want helps you discover your desires and leads you to find more joy and satisfaction by spending more time doing what you enjoy.
  • And will helps us go about our daily lives with determination and action. It helps you separate what you will do from what you choose not to do.

Whether your specialty is in teaching English or in another sector of the Peace Corps, placing yourself as Commander-in-chief in the grammar battle not only puts you in command of the English modals, but it puts you in a better mood too.