September 15, 2016
Hey Jodi! How are you?
I met a disheveled guy who was sleeping on the train recently. I was really not in the mood to stand all the way into SF so I woke him up and asked him to let me sit. We ended up talking and it turned out he was a pretty nice guy, working security, really out of options and feeling like a new environment would help jumpstart things. He was planning to enlist, we talked a bit about what other options were out there.
One option I threw out there was Peace Corps, and it seems to have stuck; he emailed me and said he was looking online for more info. So then I wondered: could I find someone who could give him a firsthand experience?
Would you be interested in that if he’s open to it? Let me know!
Well, I am always happy to share my Peace Corps experience because it was one of the best decisions I made in my life. It continues to have an impact on me to this day, and it’s been 16 years since I served!
My service was in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, part of the former Soviet Republic, and my permanent site was on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakstan border. If you look up pictures of Kyrgyzstan on the internet, you’ll see glorious photos of mountain crested scenes, green rolling hills and perhaps the famous Issyk-Kol lake. It really is a stunning country to have served in. My town of Tokmok was in the Chui Valley, and I was surrounded by mountains on all four directions. I never got sick of seeing those mountains. Because I lived in a border town, it naturally attracted a lot of migrants and refugees so it was a richly diverse community full of Kyrgyz, Russians, Chechnyns, Dungans, Turks, Afghans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Chinese—all sort of co-mingling in this true Central Asian melting pot.
I lived with a Kyrgyz host family who spoiled me rotten. I had my own bedroom with a lock (per Peace Corps rules) and a host mother, father and two young kids (who were helpful in helping me become very proficient in the local Kyrgyz language and the official Russian language). They say Peace Corps is the best place to learn a foreign language, and it’s true. During our pre-service training, we had 8 hours of classroom instruction with native speakers as teachers and after class we went back home to our host families (who spoke no English). We were also regularly tested and everyone who lived with a host family improved their language skills by leaps and bounds. We were not only proficient in speaking, but also literate (although at a low level) and able to read and write in Cyrillic. It was intense, but quite an adventure.
I volunteered as an English teacher and taught grade school through high school. I also ran after-school English camps and started a girls’ leadership class as many Kyrgyz girls tend to graduate from high school, get married and live the rest of their lives in often abusive marriages. The goal of my class was to present other options to girls getting ready to graduate, and I am proud to say three of the girls who attended my class went on to live “unconventional” lives. One went to university and two used their English skills to become flight attendants for Turkish Airlines!
They say Peace Corps service in Central Asia and Africa are the hardest places to serve. I won’t lie, it was really rough. We had no indoor plumbing and spotty electricity. We often had brown-outs or black-outs. Baths/showers were once a week in the summer and once a month in the winter (I survived the winter by giving myself bucket baths by heating up a kettle of water and mixing it with with cold water from the pump outside). Illness was common among volunteers, but the Peace Corps offers excellent (free) health coverage with their own American doctor who would do house visits and who always accepted patients at his office in the capitol of Bishkek. The winter was rough though. No fruits, no vegetables, few warm showers/baths, and sometimes it got so cold the ink in my students’ pens froze, and we’d have to cancel class.
I wouldn’t say serving in Central Asia is the same as serving in Latin America or some far-off island nation, but it was still the wildest adventure I have ever had. And the friends I made in the Peace Corps are some of my best friends to this day. You start off as a group and sometimes you quickly identify people you want to avoid, but after a while, you realize you are all in the same boat and in it together—close bonds form and they last well beyond service.
Do I feel I made a difference? Yes. Maybe a small one, but definitely I think I made an impact. However, at the end of the day, Kyrgyzstan and the people I met there made the biggest impact on me. I wouldn’t change my experience for the world, even the hard parts like home sickness, culture shock, occasional loneliness, illness and the frustrations of living in an impoverished country with all its imperfection (alcoholism, corruption, organized crime). Yet, that was all part of the adventure! I have so many wild stories from my time there! And there were so many good experiences as well such as the friendships, the travel, the ability to have an idea and implement it within a community, the chance to live a slower pace of life (I read so many books while in Kyrgyzstan!) and the chance to see a part of the world few Americans will ever visit.
I still toy with the idea of serving again, even though I’m older now (39)—the experience made that much of an impact on me as it usually does with many Peace Corps volunteers. To say it was a life changing experience is an understatement. It literally set the path for the rest of my life and career which has spanned four countries and now an international affairs job in Washington, DC. It truly was an adventure of a lifetime, and one I will never forget!