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Ken and Lynne Best of Zillah are currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal
Ken and Lynne Best of Zillah are currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal
Couple's Plan to Join Peace Corps Started Long Ago
Ken and Lynne Best of Zillah are currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal. Ken, 56, is an agricultural and civil engineer helping develop water and sanitation facilities. Lynne, 46, is a nurse working as a health care instructor. Their two-year assignment will end on May 7.
The following is an e-mail interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic:
YHR: What was your job before joining the Peace Corps? When did you join?
Bests: Ken is an agricultural/civil engineer. He worked for the Yakama Indian Nation for eight years and then went into a private consulting business until joining PC (Peace Corps). Lynne is an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner. She worked for Planned Parenthood of Central Washington before becoming a PCV (Peace Corps volunteer).
We submitted our applications to Peace Corps in March 2001, and were finally notified that we were accepted in November of that year. It can be a rather lengthy process with many forms to complete, medical examinations, interviews and questionnaires. It definitely tests your resolve to make the commitment, but that is probably a good thing since it gave us a lot of time to think about whether this was a good decision for us. We left Yakima Airport for Nepal on February 18, 2002. Our two year period of service will be completed on May 7, 2004.
YHR: Why did you decide to volunteer? Was it something you'd considered before?
Bests: We talked about volunteering with PC even before we were married (23 years ago), then our careers started to develop, we purchased a home and remodeled it, had bills to pay like everybody else, so that intention got pushed further and further back until one day we realized if we were actually going to do it instead of just talk about, we had better get with it while we could still enjoy the experience.
The reasons we volunteered were: To experience another culture, not as a tourist, but as a resident with neighbors, friends and coworkers; to experience life in a developing country, and see if we have what it takes to help in some way; and finally to add some adventure to our lives, which were beginning to feel routine and predictable.
YHR: If you have children or parents, what was their reaction to your decision?
Bests: Ken has only one brother in his family, and he thought we were crazy for going overseas during this age of terrorism, but he has softened his views on that because we stay in communication via E-mail and occasionally send pictures to show that we are enjoying ourselves and not living dangerous lives by any means.
Lynne's sister was a Peace Corps Volunteer 20 years ago so her family was used to the idea. They have been very supportive and encouraging. We regularly communicate by E-mail as well.
All of our friends were also very supportive of our decision to volunteer. It seems that most people would like to do some kind of overseas volunteer work, but because of circumstances many are unable to. We feel fortunate because we are able to do it.
YHR: What were some of the considerations that might have prevented you from going?
Bests: There were many considerations that could have kept us from volunteering. Lynne's parents are elderly, but in good health, and Lynne's brother and sister live close enough to take care of any emergency that could arise.
We did sell our home in Zillah which we really loved but, hey, it's only a house.
Financial and career issues were particularly troublesome. "Will we get too far behind in our careers?" "Will we ever be able to retire?" Questions like that can never be answered for certain. As it turns out we didn't need to worry about that because Peace Corps has opened up a whole new world of international employment opportunities for us.
Last, but certainly not least, we had to consider our pets. We had them for years and couldn't abandon them, so we did not even consider volunteering until after they passed away.
YHR: What is your job with the Peace Corps and where are you stationed? Is it a job you've done before or did you need training?
Bests: Lynne is Health Care Instructor. She teaches staff nursing students at the Janakpur Nursing Campus. She also volunteers with the Family Planning Association of Nepal as a clinical advisor, and in her spare time she conducts workshops for young Nepali women, age 14-19, on reproductive health and about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. She didn't have any previous teaching experience, but she has 20 years of nursing experience as an LPN, RN, and an ARNP.
Ken's job is a Water and Sanitation Coordinator. His office is the Water Supply and Sanitation District Office in Janakpur, Nepal. He assists the staff there with activities related to providing water supply and sanitation facilities to rural villages in this district. He is also assisting the Janakpur municipal government to develop a solid waste management plan for the town, identify and acquire a suitable site for a sanitary land fill, make improvements to the town storm drainage system, and improve other municipal services such as street lighting.
Although we were both well qualified for these jobs we still needed a lot of training in the beginning. Peace Corps provided us with intensive cultural and language training for the first 11 weeks in Nepal. During that time we lived with a host family, we got use to the food, the climate and the customs. We were like children again actually. We had to learn how to eat with our hands, wash our clothes at the pump, take a bath at the pump, use an eastern toilet, and so many other things that are second nature to us now.
We also had to learn about the system of government here (Nepal is a Kingdom) and the educational system too. So many things here are different from what we were use to.
YHR: How is life in Nepal (job, housing, people, etc.) different from your life here?
Bests: Nepal is a small country, about the size and shape of Tennessee, literally squeezed between India and Tibet. Most people think of Nepal as a mountainous country — the Himalayas, Mount Everest, and Sherpas — which is one part of Nepal. Indeed, Nepal contains six of the 10 highest peaks in the world.
We are posted in Janakpur, Nepal which is in the south very close to the Indian border. Janakpur is only 300 feet above sea level and is a flat fertile agricultural area called the "terai" that is an ancient flood plain of the sacred Ganges River.
Being so close to the border, the Indian influence is predominant here, but less so as one travels north into the foothills and the mountains where the Buddhist influences become more evident.
The climate in the Terai is, we are told, very similar to the interior of Florida. Nepal has all of the climate zones from tropical to Alpine, all within a distance of 100 miles.
There are many different ethnic groups living within this small country. Janakpur is mostly Mithili people, who inhabit large areas of north India as well. They have their own language culture and traditions which are 100 percent Hindu. In the mountainous regions the people are Sherpa, Gurung, Limbu and many others. They have more oriental features and they each have their own language and customs which are a mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences.
We have found the people here to be very much the same as we are. They are friendly, fun to be with and very intelligent. The customs here, however, are quite different from what we are used to.
This is a predominantly Hindu culture and religion is central to the lives of the Nepalese. This country was totally isolated from the rest of the world until the 1950s when the first major roads were constructed, so outside influences have only recently begun to affect any change here.
The younger generations are very curious about us, they want to know all about "America" (United States is not a term they recognize) and what life is like there.
Hindu society is a male dominated caste system with many rules about what the members of each caste can do and how they can interact with members of other castes and members of the opposite sex. This is beginning to change, however, as more women are becoming literate and better educated they are taking a greater leadership role, and members of the Dalit (untouchable) castes are realizing that they can make a better place in society for themselves.
The people we work with are intelligent and well educated professionals for the most part. Most Nepalese work six days a week with Saturday as the holy day and day of rest.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries of the world and is mostly dependent on foreign aid to provide services to the 25 million people who live here. The services they provide are very minimal because their budgets are so meager.
Ken's office has no equipment to work with except a typewriter, a few broken down desks and chairs, that's it. The hospital where Lynne works does not even have enough beds for all of the patients and many have to lay on the floor. The hospital equipment is outdated and not well maintained. These are the conditions we have to work with.
The diet here consists mainly of rice, vegetables (in abundance) and lentil soup called dal. Hindus do not eat beef, cows are sacred and it is against the law to kill one here, we can get chicken, goat and bisee (water buffalo) meat but they are expensive and so we have adapted to a diet with much less meat than we were use to.
Food is eaten with the right hand, there are no knives forks and spoons out side of fancy restaurants. In our home we eat with utensils and cook what we like on a gas stove like a camp stove. We need to filter and boil all of our drinking water.
The fruits and vegetables in the terai are very good and so cheap compared to home. The mango and papaya are especially good in season. Apples are grown in the higher elevations up to 10,000 feet. In the town of Jomsom in the Anapurna mountain range we had apples that were sweet and juicy just like back home.
Travel here is very difficult. Outside of the terai the landscape is very hilly and steep. There are very few good roads and even those are often washed out during the wet season. There are few cars outside of the capital city, Kathmandu, but motorcycles are becoming more popular everywhere in Nepal.
Most local transportation is by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, and ox cart. Public busses are very old recycled ones purchased from India. They are usually very crowded with people goats and chickens.
It can take anywhere between 10 and 18 hours to get to Kathmandu from Janakpur by bus (a trip of approximately 300 miles), but we are fortunate to have an airfield in Janakpur with daily service to Kathmandu. The flight takes just 20 minutes, and views of the Himalayas are spectacular during the flight. Travel to locations other than Kathmandu must be by bus and it can be fun and interesting as well as tiring. It is a good way to observe, meet, and interact with Nepali people.
YHR: How is your experience different than it would have been at, say, age 25?
Bests: Younger volunteers, have much better language skills than the older volunteers. They can adapt to the conditions and customs here more quickly than us older folks. Nepal has a young population, 40 percent are under 25 years of age. Most of the young Americans here have made many Nepali friends, have blended into their communities well, and are accepted by their peers. They are a wonderful group doing a terrific job.
We older volunteers have more patience with the system here and are better able to succeed with persistence and experience. Older people get quite a lot of respect here, men more so than women, unfortunately, but women interact with each other on a more personal level.
We have made many Nepali friends here too and feel appreciated for whatever contribution we are able to make. Older volunteers definitely have a different experience then the younger volunteers, but we can make a significant contribution to Peace Corps and the countries where we serve if we can remain flexible in our thinking and non-judgmental in our attitude toward the people and their culture.
We have made many good friends among the younger volunteers here as well and we will surely stay in touch with them for a long time to come. We know that many of them will go on to do great things with their lives and it has been a pleasure to work with them these last two years.
YHR: As a couple, do you spend more time together? Does it stress the relationship or make you closer in any way?
Bests: We definitely spend more quality time together (we don't have television anymore). Even though we have separate jobs as we did back home, we are closer because we are sharing the experience of living in this amazing new environment. Each day brings a new experience that we can't wait to share with each other. Being a couple definitely has its advantages in that we can always count on each other for support and encouragement.
YHR: Do you find that you're able to live on your Peace Corps allowance? Are you choosing to spend more to travel or for other luxuries?
Bests: Peace Corps Nepal encourages us to live simply and on a level with our peers. We would not be as effective here if we lived a luxurious lifestyle which would isolate us from the general population.
Our allowance pays our rent, utilities and food if we are careful to budget it properly. They also reimburse us for official travel expenses. Anything extra, like gifts to send home, a nice restaurant meal in Kathmandu, or travel outside of Nepal comes from our pocket. We get a small vacation allowance and about 25 days of vacation per year, so there is ample opportunity to visit other countries like Tibet, India, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and even Vietnam.
In addition we will receive a readjustment allowance when our service is completed. Generally, when at post we live within our allowance and when we travel or spend time in Kathmandu we mostly pay our own way.
YHR: What do you plan to do after you return to the U.S.?
Bests: Our close of service is May 7, 2004 which is approaching very fast. It is hard to believe two years have passed so quickly.
We have made the decision to pursue international careers for the next few years. Ken is still implementing the solid waste management plan for Janakpur and has requested Peace Corps to be extended for one additional year in order to insure that the project will be sustainable on its own. Lynne is supporting that decision, but is eager to get started on an international career in the health care field and will seek employment with international agencies based in Kathmandu.
We intend to return home at some point, but at present we are excited about the opportunities here.
YHR: Any thing else you would like to add?
Bests: Nepal is going through a period of political turmoil right now. You may have heard about the Maoist rebellion here which has been going on since 1996. Acts of violence, such as bombings, armed combat, extortion and murder are becoming a regular occurrence here, however, the main targets are government facilities and personnel, not the civilian population, tourists or Peace Corps volunteers.
There has been some anti-American rhetoric reported in the media and attributed to the Maoists, but we have never encountered this on a personal level and we do not feel threatened. The only concern we have is of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Peace Corps Nepal is doing all they can to keep us informed of any activity in our area, and our Nepali friends also provide us with information and advice concerning our safety.
It is a very sad situation here, since it is the Nepali people who are suffering from neglect while the government is focused on quashing the rebellion. We can only hope that the King and the politicians will find a way to resolve it peacefully. We hope the Peace Corps will remain here as long as it is reasonably safe, because now is when they need us the most.
Peace Corps has been a wonderful opportunity for us. The experience has truly broadened our horizons, given us a different perspective of the United States, and allowed us the chance to interact with many people here in a meaningful way.
All of the volunteers here, young and old, feel we have gained much more in being here than we could ever give back. Anyone who has ever wondered what life is like in a developing country should seriously consider volunteering with Peace Corps. It is worth the effort.