Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Monday, June 28, 2004

Trying Out AudioBlogger for the First Time!

this is an audio post - click to play

Questions and Answers Re: My Departure for Kyrgyzstan

June 27, 2004: 1:04AM

When people who don’t know me too well hear that I am moving to Kyrgyzstan as a Peace Corps Volunteer, they often say, “Just think what you are giving up…” or “Just think what you are leaving behind.”

What am I giving up? What am I leaving behind? I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I suppose my attempt to put it to words is also an attempt to confront a reality I am about to face. That said, I don’t like the phrase, “just think what you’re giving up” or, “what you’re leaving behind?” I don’t like these phrases because of the negativity they connote. Giving up! Leaving behind! I’m not giving up and I’m not leaving behind. I am moving onward and bringing with me, not only the memories of a life lived elsewhere, but, the experiences, knowledge, love and morals that have made me who I am.

I am not abandoning those I love nor am I escaping from a life I don’t enjoy. I am blessed—I’ll be the first to admit that. I am not a religious man, but I’ve found no other term (lucky, serendipitous, fortunate) that embodies the blessed life I’ve lived. I have three wonderful parents whose unconditional support and love for me has never wavered. I have grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—who, despite my spotty record of correspondence, love and care for me—as I do them. I have friends whose trustworthiness, devotion, self-awareness, intelligence, humility, imagination, wit, patience and forgiveness—challenge me, daily, to become a better human being. I have surrogate mothers and fathers who’ve taken me in, shared their food, their families and their friendship. These surrogate families have allowed me to become an extra sibling or son, break bread at their table and drink beer from their fridge. To all of you who read this: Please know, I have not taken your generosity and love for granted. Please know, You All shaped me into who I am. Please know, whatever good you see in me is simply a reflection of that which I learned from all of you. And finally, Please know how grateful I am.

So, I am not “giving up” and I am not “leaving behind”—then what am I doing? Why, after three years of law school and mountains of debt, am I volunteering for the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan? This is a good question. Part of my answer to this question can be attributed to my parents. From an early age, my parents instilled in me the importance of civic contribution. Through both words and deeds, they repeated the theme of “Giving Back”. My father “gave back” through his work as both a counselor and then administrator at a Pennsylvania state-run rehabilitation center and as an officer in the United States Army. My stepmother “gave back” through her work as both a social-worker, an occupational therapist, and as volunteer with various non-profit organizations and support groups. And, my mother “gave back” through her work in helping to bring safe pharmaceuticals to the market, as an organizer and peaceful protestor, and as an active and concerned member of her Unitarian/Universalist Church. Although they never said, “Son, look how much I’ve given back to society”, it didn’t take me long to realize how much their contributions meant to others. When you repeatedly hear from strangers how hardworking, smart, witty, caring and helpful your parents are, you can not help but be awe-inspired and prideful of your origin.

Throughout my life, my parents stressed the importance and value of contributing good to society. Although they never defined it for me, I define the giving of good to society as any action taken with the intent and purpose of achieving an end that places people or their environment in a better position than before the action was taken. This contribution, need not be purely self-less. Anyone who has volunteered their time, services or skills to assist another human being make a better life for themselves, knows the feel-good value of emotional cash that is redeemed when such a transaction takes place.

While some may argue that an action undertaken with the hope of redeeming such a reward is ultimately selfish, the fact that such action entails an intent and purpose that is “good”, preserves the value of that which was contributed. Simply put, helping others because it makes you feel good, does not reduce the value of any good you bestowed. In fact, I would argue that one of the most important parts of “giving back” is what you “take away”.

In the dog-eat-dog world of getting ahead, it appears to me that many have forgotten what one can “take away” from the experience of helping others. I know this is something I need to be reminded of and that is one of my reasons for volunteering in Kyrgyzstan. Other reasons will follow...

Friday, June 25, 2004

Kyrgyzstan Packing List:

Note: This may not be all that exciting for one to read, however, for those of you planning on travelling abroad (viz. for those planning on visiting me in Kyrgyzstan), I've assembled a little packing list. A special thanks goes out to Jeff Griffin, whose Gin & Tonics provided liquid courage in braving the giant mutant mosquitoes during our post-dusk creation of this list. I also extend my thanks to his lovely wife, Erica, who put her two-year old son, Loren (Ren), to bed that evening.

Things I am bringing to Kyrgyzstan:

I. Clothing
1. 2 Pair REI Pants
2. Hiking Boots
3. Walking/Dress Shoes & Cross-trainers
4. 8 Pair Socks (Four Pair camping)
5. Light Wool Sweater
6. 4 T-Shirts
7. 2 Long Sleeve Button –Up Shirts
8. 2 Short-Sleeve Button-up Shirts
9. Raincoat/Rain Pants
10. Sports coat
11. Hat & Baseball Cap
12. Gortex Gloves
13. Travel Towel
14. Tevas
15. Money Belt
16. Belt

II. Shaving Kit
1. Shampoo
2. Soap
3. Fingernail/Toenail trimmers
4. 3 Toothbrushes
5. Dental Floss & threaders
6. Toothpaste
7. 1 roll TP
8. Razor/Shaving Cream
9. Hand/Face-Lotion

III. Accessories
1. Sunglasses
2. Glasses (and Extra-pair)
3. Mini sewing kit
4. Plastic Flask
5. Watch
6. Gerber
7. Corkscrew
8. 2 collapsible wine glasses
9. Sleeping Bag (750 down filled 0 degree bag)
10. Mattress Pad
11. 4 Bungee Cords
12. 10 Ziplocs
13. 3 garbage bags
14. Compass
15. Duct-Tape
16. Picture-Book
17. Journal
18. OED-softbound dictionary
19. Travel Guide
20. 2 leisure books
21. Lighter
22. Matches
23. Cards
24. 2 nice pens & 1 mechanical pencil
25. insect-repellant
26. Beef-jerky
27. small binoculars
28. Leatherman key chain

IV. Electronics
1. Short-wave Radio
2. Laptop
3. Adaptor
4. Extra-Battery
5. Digital Camera
6. LED head-light
7. Flashlight

Wow. Another photo by a K10 RPCV. Need I say Beautiful! Posted by Hello

Krygyzstan Landscape

Wanted to Try out Bloggerbot. Here is a photo that a K10 RPCV took in Kyrgyzstan. I'll add a few more too. Posted by Hello

Peace Corps Aspiration Statement: June 25, 2004

After accepting your Peace Corps Assignment, Peace Corps requires Invitees to complete an aspiration statement and Resume to be viewed by the in-country staff. The Format for the Aspiration Statement is as follows:
Strategies for adapting to a new culture
Personal and professional goals

(please note: PC prefers responses limited to one typed page)

The Following Aspiration Statement will be submitted tomorrow, June 26, 2004:

Expectations are planted, like seeds, deep into the furrows of every volunteer’s mind. Come harvest time, the expectations I have sown should be flexible enough to bend easily with the changing winds of community needs. I expect my Peace Corp service to be almost nothing like I pictured it. I expect to be challenged by language and Kyrgyzstani culture and mildly frustrated with the remnants of soviet bureaucracy. I expect pre-service training to provide me with a foundation of the policies, skills and resources that are necessary to equip a creative, patient, practical volunteer for two years of SEOD service. I expect to learn much about the operation, structure, and implementation of NGOs. Finally, I expect my PC service will yield more rewards than I ever could have imagined.

Strategies for adapting to a new culture are often subjective and dependent on the world-view of the individual adapting. For me, strategy begins at home: absorbing cultural information; familiarizing myself with the Cyrillic alphabet and basic Russian and Kyrgyz languages; reading PCV blogs, NGO development manuals and RPCV books (such as, This Is Not Civilization (2004) and The Great Adventure (1997)). Having studied two semesters abroad in Thailand (8/94-2/95) and Indonesia (12/95-6/96), I understand that almost nothing is what you expect it to be. Flexibility, patience, creativity, and a sense of humor are often called upon to endure those times when Reality and Expectations don’t quite meet eye-to-eye.

When thirty-years of flesh plop down in a foreign country, adaptation becomes a bridge between the old self and the amorphous, future You. In order to cross this bridge without falling, I plan on holding on to two fundamentals that run like handrails across the cultural divide. First, I will hold onto my desire to learn the language(s) as best I can. And second, I plan on remaining patient and refraining from fast judgments based on incomplete knowledge of a culture I am trying to understand. By holding onto these fundamentals, I hope to look back and see that I have crossed into a Kyrgyzstan that is a little less foreign than when my journey began.

Personal and professional goals can not be over-stated. My becoming a PCV was not spawned from a directionless decision to do something with my life after college. I am not wet behind the ears and dripping with naiveté. I am a licensed attorney, who is consumed more by a desire to contribute to the good of the world than the consumption of worldly-goods. I chose Peace Corps and happily Peace Corps chose me. That said, my personal goals remain quite simple: maintain patience and flexibility, learn the language and history of the Kyrgyz peoples, participate in cultural events and complete my service. Professionally, I hope my Peace Corps experience will assist me in further developing a skill-set that may be utilized throughout the remainder of my life. Whether I continue down an international path of NGO development work, pursue a career with the Foreign Service or choose to return to the practice of law, my goal as a PCV is to acquire the knowledge and experience necessary to assist regardless of where my life takes me.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Peace Corps Assignment: Kyrgyzstan

June 12, 2004
Kyrgyzstan. I found out less than a week ago I would be a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Kyrgyzstan. Where is Kyrgyzstan? I hopped in my car and took-off for Borders Bookstore.I didn’t bother to check my appearance, so with tousled hair and crazed eyes, I stormed into the bookstore and walked straight-up to the information booth, “Gimme all ya got on Kyrgyzstan!”

The pimple-faced kid behind the counter stepped back a pace or two and instinctively glanced at my hands to make sure my demand wasn’t backed-up with the threat of violence. “ahhhhh…I’m sorry sir, what did you say?” His eyes bounced from side to side trying to spot a manager or the closest Exit.

“Kyrgyzstan.” I spat out again, “You know, Central Asia; Uzbekistan, Afghanistan…Kyrgyzstan!”

“Oh is that a place?...we’ve got atlases and travel-guides upstairs and to your right.”

“Thank you.” I replied over my shoulder as my legs carried me toward the stairs.
After rifling unsuccessfully through a few shelves of travel books, I finally opened up an atlas and flipped to the index, K-Y-R-G…ah, Kyrgyzstan, page 19. I flipped to page 19. China, Russia, Kazakhstan. And there, nestled between three stans (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) and China, was my home, my country, my future.

Less than a week ago, I knew absolutely nothing about Kyrgyzstan. Now I’m studying Russian and trying to track down Kyrgyz language books. Today, I can tell you that the capital Bishkek has an Opera house and that Lake Issyk Kul is the second largest alpine lake after Titicaca. That the U.S. air-base established in Manas, post 9/11, brings in over $50 million/year. That the average Kyrgyz makes about $350/yr. and that Askar Akayev, the thrice-elected president has spoken to two previous Peace Corps groups. I can tell you that the Kyrgyz people are predominantly Muslim but that alcoholism runs rampant, and I can tell you about Bozo and Kumys, the millet and mare’s milk based alcoholic beverages they consume.

I can tell you lots of facts and things… but I can’t tell you how it will be to live and work there. I can’t tell you about the smell and texture of boiled goat’s head, I can’t tell you how my water faucet bleeds rust for about 45 seconds before each use. I can’t tell you that I wrote a grant to help the local mullah set up an internet cafe …. I can't tell you these things because they have not happened yet. In fact, they are not likely to happen in anyway that I imagine them. I know this, and yet I imagine. I imagine everything from the spectacular; tracking the prints of a Snow Leopard over a glacier on some Tian Shan mountain pass, to the practical—trying to earn the respect of my Kyrgyz co-workers through hard-work and example. I imagine shaking the hand of Askar Akayev and buying a horse to ride to work. I imagine growing so sick of boiled potatoes that upon my return to the states I’ll hunt down Mr. Potatohead and slowly melt him over an open fire--a sadistic smile stretching across my face. I imagine all of this, because I can’t help but wonder about my future.

Peace Corps Essay: Cross-cultural Experience: Written November 2003

Five Dollars Per Person

In January 1996 I took advantage of an opportunity promoted by Saint Olaf College to participate in a Study/Service semester in Indonesia. The idea behind the program was to study Indonesian language, culture and history while also serving the community in which you were placed. The service portion of the program involved teaching English as a second language at the local university. While I found teaching a rewarding way to interact with Indonesians, I also felt compelled to explore the broader community of Pemantang Siantar, a city on the Island of Sumatra.

About three months into my six month stay, I began volunteering at an orphanage on the outskirts of town. I worked with the children in their garden tending the cassava plants and answering questions about the United States. One afternoon, after the work was done and the children were at play, I stopped to talk to the director of the orphanage. She was a western educated Indonesian, full of ideas for the future of the orphanage.

While discussing the history of the orphanage a panicked young girl ran up to us, tears streaming down her face, screaming in Indonesian “Krishna fell! Krishna fell! Come quick!” The director and I glanced at one another and immediately followed the young girl to the site of the accident. Krishna had been playing with another girl on a make shift teeter-totter and had toppled off of it while her end was at its apex. When we arrived at the scene she was still in shock, unaware that her leg had snapped exposing a portion of the bone.

The director of the orphanage took charge, shouting commands while attempting to comfort Krishna. Feeling out of place and a bit helpless, I asked the director if there was anything that I could do. She responded compassionately with a “No” and reassured me that everything would be fine. I promised her that I would be back in a few days to check on Krishna. “That will be fine.” she said.

A few days later I returned to the orphanage and requested to see Krishna. Krishna’s friend, the one who told us about the accident, was summonsed to lead me to the orphanage’s “Infirmary”. In a delicate voice, I asked how Krishna was doing. Her big brown eyes met mine and her bottom lip quivered, “She is very sick.” She said and looked away. I asked her if Krishna had been to the hospital and she said no but that a local witch doctor had wrapped her leg with traditional dressing.

Krishna was asleep when I visited her. Beads of sweat were gathering on her forehead and cheeks and during the few moments I spent with her I noticed her shivering intermittently. She did not look well at all for a girl who merely had broken her leg. How many kids break their legs everyday in the United States? I left the infirmary intent on speaking with director, but was informed she had gone out of town for a few days. Again, I felt helpless.

When I returned the following week, Krishna was being buried. She had contracted Tetanus and died a couple of days after my visit. I told this story to an Indonesian doctor who shook his head in dismay and shared with me that tetanus shots cost approximately five American dollars.

How does the death of a young girl demonstrate or provide evidence of my ability to adapt cross culturally? I believe the answer to this question resides in my reflection of what transpired. If I had offered to pay for Krishna’s hospitalization or even just a visit from the doctor, she would likely be alive—that’s not a guilty afterthought, it’s a simple fact. Had I known this, I certainty would have acted on it. However, I was a stranger in a strange land and through my cross-cultural desire to be respectful and allow events to unfold as they may, I opted for complacency and acquiescence.

Today, I remain respectful of cross-cultural differences. However, I have learned to ask more questions in order to get to the underlying truths. I also learned to offer my assistance at times when it may be of use. Even if the offer is rejected, the fact that it was extended often opens up avenues of dialogue. Sometimes these avenues lead to greater awareness, respect and understanding. Other times, they simply lead to dead ends. Regardless of the direction that dialogue takes, I learned that we are all at a greater loss without it.