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Adventures of a Unitarian-Universalist Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan
Adventures of a Unitarian-Universalist Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan
Silk Road Tales - 8/22/2002 Adventures of a Unitarian-Universalist in Kazakhstan
Silk Road Tales
Shymkent, Kazakhstan, August 22, 2002
By Jeff Fearnside
UUCP Member At (Very) Large
I have some very shocking and sad news. Itam, my host father in Kainazar, died of a heart attack just a few days ago. I found out through the Peace Corps grapevine on Monday, my first full day in Shymkent. I'm doubly sad because I never got a chance to say goodbye to him. I'm not sure where he was, but it's possible he was experiencing health problems that kept him from returning home the day I left. He was only 45 but was a heavy smoker of the unfiltered cigarettes here and occasionally binged on vodka. Since my host family doesn't have a phone, I have no idea how they're doing. This is one of those times where the transition from communism to a market economy could be difficult for them. Itam made essentially all the money for the family, and I don't believe there's such a thing as life insurance here. His wife Farida may possibly get his pension; I don't know. The one saving grace is that they have a large family network to rely on for support. I know you don't know them, but they've been extremely gracious to me. Please hold them in your thoughts and prayers.
This unfortunate news has darkened what otherwise has been an exciting time of transition for me. I'm now an officially sworn-in representative of the United States government! Up until Friday (August 16), I'd merely been a trainee; now I'm a full-fledged PCV-Peace Corps volunteer. It's strange, because time is moving so incredibly fast and yet slow at the same time. I can't believe that training is done, that my adventure is really just beginning, and that I still have two more years to go, but I also feel as if I've lived a complete lifetime here already. In chronological time, I've been here almost eleven weeks, or three weeks longer than both of my pervious trips overseas put together. But mental and emotional time are far different from chronological time.
A friend of mine who served in the Peace Corps in Africa once told me that she felt nostalgic for her experience even as she was living it, that she understood its importance without having to look back on it. I've been feeling the same for the past several weeks, but especially so the night after our swearing-in ceremony. Nearly all 44 of us Kaz-11s (we're the eleventh group to work in Kazakhstan) congregated at our favorite hangout in Esik, the Cafe Victoria. Mike played the guitar, and we all sang along to songs by Johnny Cash, John Lennon, The Violent Femmes. The wait staff was telling us how much they were going to miss us, and we all knew we were going to miss each other. My new friends-like my old friends-are smart, interesting, fun, and talented. (I'm not ashamed to give you all a big collective pat on the back.) The Peace Corps staff has been telling us we're special, and it's true. No other group came to Kazakhstan with our experience. We have people from age 21 to 72 serving, with volunteers representing every decade in-between-30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s (the average age is probably mid-thirties). We have several volunteers with MBAs, myself with an MFA, and a 30-year full professor with a Ph.D. We have two married couples and several grandparents.
With a few expected exceptions, we all get along well, and now we're all spread out over different parts of the ninth largest country in the world-second largest that the Peace Corps serves. Some of my friends are 60 hours away by train. Others, like Mike, are living in cities with no direct roads or railroads between us. So last Friday, as we all talked and laughed and drank beer and sang, I looked up at the green foothills and snow-covered mountains and felt nostalgic for the moment as it was happening.
I've now been in Shymkent for only three full days, but I love it! I'm living right on the main drag, Tauke Khan. Everything I need is a five-minute walk away, including a small bazaar-Sputnik, a satellite to the main bazaar down the road-and several excellent, inexpensive restaurants. My friends Cora, Becky, and Josh visited from nearby villages on Tuesday, and between us we ate two bowls of soup, two plates of plov (a rice, meat, and carrot dish), two flat rounds of bread (more than we could finish), two plates of "salad" (cucumbers and tomatoes), four sticks of shashlyk, and a liter of Coke-all for 500 tenge, or about $3.40! Most everything is cheap here, even cheaper than in the villages of Talgar and Esik where we trained, and much cheaper than in Almaty. I've found an internet cafe that costs half of what I was paying before, and it's only about two minutes from my apartment. From my windows, I can see the stop where either the No. 5 bus or marshrutka (taxi van) will take me to work if I don't feel like walking the twenty minutes.
Contrarily, Josh is living in a small village that didn't have electricity until two years ago. His "apartment" is a room in a house with a doorway so low he hit his head on it twice the first day. It has no door (and thus no privacy) and no furnishings except for a bed. When he saw my place, he said, "You must have the nicest apartment in the history of the Peace Corps." I've since been told by a Kaz-10 that it's standard for a city, but after the donkeys and dung of Kainazar, my new residence feels palatial. My counterpart Nadia has known several Peace Corps volunteers before, but she's never regularly worked with one, nor has my academy, and I believe in her excitement she's bending over backward for me. She's personally seen to it that my apartment is fully furnished, including a phone, a brand-new hot water heater, and a brand-new sit-down toilet! My street is lined with trees and shaded from the sun all day, important in a city where the temperature can reach 50° C, or 122° F (no, that's not a typo). Directly across the way is South Kazakh State University, and below me are new businesses sprouting up on the ground floor as they have been for the past couple of years all over this central district. I'm living in the Greenwich Village of Shymkent.
This site is definitely atypical, but even it exhibits the kinds of schisms that make Kazakhstan so interesting and perplexing. The district in which I'm living is close to the standards one would expect in the Western world, but only a few blocks away cows sometimes walk the streets past mud brick homes with corrugated tin roofs. Pollution is a terrible problem here, as it is throughout the former Soviet Union. And I can always hop on a train and ride not too far off into the desert or steppe and find blighted villages and cities that are clearly living in third-world conditions, places that have flat-out failed to make the transition from collective living to a market economy.
Kris Besch, our new country director, has a long-term plan to move us out of the cities and into more small rural villages. (Naturally, there will always be a handful of university teachers like me who must live where the universities are, usually the cities.) At the same time, I think she recognizes that the role of the Peace Corps is changing. We're not so much about building roads and digging ditches anymore. The government of Kazakhstan didn't ask us to do that. They want the skills needed to survive in the 21st century-business, health, ecological, and language skills. Right, wrong, or otherwise, English is the international language of business and science. If the Kazakhstanis can learn this from us, they can work not only with Americans but with business people and scientists from all of the many countries that want a slice of Kazakhstan's potential riches.
Mostly, though, I'll be building understandings and friendships with people who will learn that not all Americans hate Muslims, that not all Americans want to blow up the world. When I left America, I knew almost nothing about Kazakhstan. I can now tell you two things: it's not anything like I expected, and it's not anything like the American press-either intentionally or unintentionally-makes it appear. It may look close to Afghanistan on a map, but it's culturally another world, one where the women are an educated part of the workforce, wear high heels and short dresses, not burqas, where the men are Muslim by custom but aren't strictly religious. The people are generally friendly. Many are deeply interested in America and Americans.
My phone number, including the country and region codes, is (7-32-52) 53-66-79. I don't plan on calling America from my apartment as it's prohibitively expensive; I hope to find a cheap calling card soon. For those of you with good international rates at home who want to call me, just remember I'm 14 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, 13 hours ahead of Mountain Standard Time, and so on. It will be nice to hear voices other than the Russians who keep trying to find some family who had this number before me! Ya nyeh punimayoo (I don't understand) most of what they say, but evidently I speak my few stock phrases just well enough that they don't believe me when I tell them so.
I'll pass along my new address after I decide whether to have my mail delivered here or to the post office. Until then, thanks for all of the great emails. I'm sorry I haven't responded individually to everyone yet, but I hope to catch up soon.
Sau bolynyz (Kazakh for "goodbye"),
Das-veedaneeya (Russian for "till we meet again"),