Monday, May 31, 2010

Interupted Service

My 27 months in Kyrgyzstan, ended after 22 months. On May 8th I left Kyrgyzstan with one way ticket in hand. A few weeks prior to that day, Peace Corps had issued me an "Interupted Service". Interupted Service means that due to circumstances out of the volunteers control, they can no longer serve in their assigned country. Let me explain the details of my Interupted Service.

On April 7th political riots broke out all over Kyrgyzstan and the president was overthrown. The following day Peace Corps flew all the volunteers from the southern part of the country to a safe location just outside of the capital. We waited there for 3 weeks not knowing if we were to go back to our sites, move to a different part of Kyrgyzstan or if we were going to be sent home. I'm still not allowed to publish my whereabouts during that time, but shoot me an email and I'll tell you all about it and all the trouble I got into there! : )

Eventually Peace Corps Headquarters decided to keep the country open but volunteers from my group who were living in Jalal Abad and Talas were to return home. A total of 10 of us were told to leave, five more took the optional Interupted Service.

Upon recieving the news, I was heartbroken. When I left I had two fully funded projects for that summer and I was mid-training in two different seminars. I was not allowed to return to collect my things or say goodbye to the friends that I had made over the course of the two years.

On May 8th, at 5 am I flew out of Bishkek. I extended my layover in Turkey once again and spend 10 days exploring Istanbul and the Aegean coast with my mother.

After an amazing time seeing ruins, laying on the beach and recouperating, I landed in Houston and will be staying with my parents while I look for a job in the financial industry.

Please feel free to contact me at I would love to answer any questions about my experience in Kyrgyzstan or my plans for the future. Good luck to you all and thank you for following this blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Women's Day

Last year I spent the Women’s Day educating people on the history and significance of Women’s Day with my NGO. This year the same group changed melody and hosted a private party at a local restaurant with everyone from the organization and several individuals with whom they work with. When I received my invitation I accepted under the conditions that I could bake a cake as the evening’s desert and I could bring a friend. These may seem like strange requests but both are crucial to my survival of any Kyrgyz celebration. The reason why I insisted on baking a cake is that nobody here makes deserts but instead they buy a cake from the bazaar. These cakes make Wal-Mart’s sheet cakes taste like a gourmet desert! The second request was made because I knew that vodka and cognac would be flowing and having somebody there with you is never a bad idea.

So with Peter, a volunteer who lives about 6 hours away from Jalal Abad, I showed up with a chocolate cake and half a dozen roses for all the women who would be there. Upon sitting down I was poured a shot of vodka and encouraged to eat some of the many salads placed in front of me. The night began formally with introductions and small talk but as people became more liquored up, the night became more interesting.

The pentacle of the evening was when we started playing games. Over the course of the evening we played four games, the first one was a relay race and went something like this. Two groups of four lined up on either sides of a hall way in front of a table with two settings of a flask of vodka, a shot glass and a salad. The first person of each team ran up to the table and opened the bottle and then ran to the back of their line, the next person ran up and poured the vodka into the shot glass and they ran to the back of the line, then the third person ran up and took the shot, then the fourth person ran up and took a forkful of salad and the cycle start all over again until the bottle of vodka was gone. It really set the mood for the evening.

The second game we played was when things started to get a bit racy. This game required six volunteers; three of the men and three women. The men were told to sit down and were give a piece of A4 piece of paper that they were to hold on their laps. Next the women were told to each sit in one man’s lap and tear the paper…not using their hands…there was a lot of wiggling and squirming in laps. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!

In the third game we were all instructed to write down a line from 5 different songs, then a scenario was read out and we were to answer with our lyrics. For example one of the scenarios was “How would you describe your wedding night?” my corresponding lyric was “I get by with a little help from my friends…” Unfortunately because most of the guests were quoting Kyrgyz songs I couldn’t understand most of the jokes but apparently some people had an absolutely hilarious taste in music.

The last game that my counterpart directed was with only two players. Each person was given a spoon that was attached to their waist by a piece of string and dangled down between their calves. Then a ball was placed at their feet which they had to move to the other side of the room by hitting the ball with their spoons. The main technique used was hip thrusting!

The rest of the night was filled with dancing, toasting and eating. It will probably be the wildest women’s day I have for the rest of my life!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Protesting the Protest

Earlier this month my counterpart turns to me and tells me that the following Friday I must turn off my phone for an entire day in protest of rising prises for calling units. I resisted the urge to say, "you're kidding me, of all the problems that people face here, Kyrgyzstan is protesting the rise in price for talking on their cell phones?"

I wanted to ask her why they didn't protest last fall when all of southern Kyrgyzstan was without gas, which I would like to add is our main heat source for cooking, for a month because the gas company had fallen US$2m behind in their gas payments to Uzbekistan?

Or what about the fact that on January 1st this year, the coldest time of year, the electricity prices DOUBLED. And still we have regular power outages and electricity cuts from midnight to dawn every day?

Or what about the time honored tradition of bridekidnapping?

But I resisted and I guess at the end of the day its easier to protest a rise in cell phone prices than it is to fight such over whelming battles against machines that don't want to change. That Friday I tried calling my counterpart, just to see if she was really protesting...she picked up.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Banya

Having whined profusely about the winter in my last blog I would like tell you my favorite part of winter; the banya. The banya is a building where people bathe. Volunteers and I have also adapted this noun into a verb. For example; I banya-ed today. This is a much used word in my vocabulary.

If you recollect, in my last blog I mentioned that I had to bundle up just to go to the bathroom so bathing isn’t really an option in my apartment. But one still has to bathe so I go to banya once a week. There are two grades of banya; public and private.

The public banyas cost about $1 for an hour. The process is a simple one, what you do is you gather up all your supplies (i.e. shampoo, soap, razors, flip flops, ect.,) go to the banya, change and then go into a giant room where you grab a bucket, wait in line with other naked women to fill your bucket up and then you find a spot along the wall and start bucket bathing. The first time at the banya was intimidating to say the least, but I have come to love those steamy rooms! I usually go with other volunteers and we make a day of banya-ing and a girls day out. Its better than a day at a spa!

Then there are the private banyas, these can range in price any where between $2 and $20. The nicest banya I have ever been in was with my NGO. This place was amazing! The first room you enter is the place where you change, I remember meeting my NGO there for the first time and thinking “well I’ll probably never do this with my in co-workers in the states!” The changing rooms led into two rooms, one a dining room where there was fried rice, chicken and vodka waiting to be eaten, and the second room the shower room where my entire NGO was standing completely naked. On my first banya with my NGO, I remember meeting this scene with hesitation but I quickly realized that I really didn’t have any other choice but to drop my towel and join the party!

Once I walked into the bathing room, I saw there was a forth room which was like a sauna. One thing that I hadn’t mentioned was by the time I arrived at the banya my co-workers had already been there for about 4 hours. They had made a whole afternoon of it, I’ve never been able to last more than an hour in a banya! After I got over my initial shock and started to relax, I got all uncomfortable again because my director offered to scub the dead skin off my back with her loofa… there is nothing that can prepare somebody for that!

After that point, the evening became a whole lot easier and I even managed to have fun. That night I was dropped off at home with a tummy full of fried rice, very clean and a different view of my NGO.

Its cold over here!

Despite the seemingly warm weather during the end of January and beginning of February, Jack Frost has returned to Kyrgyzstan and for the last two weeks we have had regular snow storms and lots of cold weather. The freshly fallen snow was beautiful but with every snowflake that fell all I was reminded of the frozen hell that was to follow.

Unlike in America, buildings here are not heated and streets are not cleared of snow and ice. This makes leaving my warm bed very, very hard. The only source of heat I have in my apartment is an electric heater which keeps my bedroom warm but leaves the rest of my apartment so cold that I have to bundle up just to go to the bathroom. I can even see my breath while I cook! The other day I woke up and went into the kitchen to make coffee and when I went to look out the window I couldn’t see anything because my window was covered in a sheet of ice…on this inside!

In spite of these discomforts, I am one of the luckier volunteers in Kyrgyzstan for two reasons; first is that I live in Jalal Abad which is the warmest place in Kyrgyzstan. We don’t see our first snow till December and spring sets in during the beginning of March. People who live in Naryn, the most mountainous and coldest part of the country, start seeing snow in October and don’t see spring till late April.

The second reason that I consider my situation significantly better than most people is that my office is heated. Many volunteers still have not returned to work since the winter break because their schools or offices are so cold that their sites have been closed till it starts warming up. I went by my site mate’s office the other day and the entire time I was there I wore my jacket and could see my breath. Props to him, if it were me I don’t know if I could find the motivation to go to work under those conditions.

Even with these luxuries I will still complain! For me, the worst part of winter is after the snow when everything turns to ice. The sidewalks become runways of death and the bazaar is a frozen hell! In addition to the fact that about the only thing you can find in the bazaar is carrots, cabbage and onion, shopping in the bazaar is awful because you still have all the pushing and hassling of the bazaar but its on ice. Knock on wood I haven’t fallen this year, but last year I fell and walked out of the bazaar with a cold, wet butt and mad as hell!

Right now, everyone is cranky because of the weather but everyday I remind myself that we are a little bit closer to my favorite season in Kyrgyzstan; spring.

P.S. As of today I have exactly six months till I C.O.S. (Close of Service) and leave Kyrgyzstan.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Transit Trip through Turkey *Pics added*

Istanbul is a very common transit station for flights coming from the West to Central Asia, the first time I traveled to Kyrgyzstan I waited impatiently at the airport for 9 hours between flights. This last time I took advantage of my layover by extending it by 4 and half days so I could see Istanbul’s notorious sites, get my fill of seafood and temperate weather before I returned to Kyrgyzstan for my last 8 months of service.

Prior to this trip, September had brought a change of events that allowed my dad to accompany me during my stay in Istanbul. Initially I was excited to experience Istanbul with him but it wasn’t until the plane left American tarmac that I realized just how much I needed him next to me. I hadn’t been ready to leave my family or friends to return to Kyrgyzstan and having him there for the long flight back and those few days before I returned to Kyrgyzstan made the journey significantly less painful.

Upon arriving in Istanbul, the first thing we did was drop our luggage off and have lunch. While walking through Old Town looking for a place to eat I distinctly heard someone scream “Martha!” When I turned around a saw three Peace Corps Volunteers who were also on their way back to Kyrgyzstan and had taken advantage of their 9 hour layover and gone into the city for a bite to eat and a quick tour of the Blue Mosque. Upon seeing them there were a flurry of words about America, Kyrgyzstan, New Years, Christmas, and the ending of service. Eventually I excused myself and Dad and I continued our search for food. Not long after we found a small cafĂ© on one of the main streets and had freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, Turkish coffee and crepes.

That first day all we saw was the grand bazaar. We had not even walked through the entrance gates before we were caught completely off guard and dragged into a carpet shop where we were served hot apple tea and the shop owner shared the history of carpet making in Turkey and showed us carpet after carpet. Let me tell you, if I had the money he could have sold me ten carpets within the first 8 minutes! They were beautiful, but as I am a Peace Corps volunteer and my dad is not in the market for a carpet, he dragged me out of there before the shop owner could show us the other half of his stock.

Once we were in the bazaar we were approached by carpet salesman after carpet salesman. Each one had a different phrase to catch our attention, it varied from; “Let me help you spend your money,” to “You walk like you want to buy a carpet.” It was amazing; they all spoke excellent English, had at least one relative and one friend somewhere in America and they all had a carpet specifically for you! Between beating down salesmen and fighting our jetlag, the two of us lasted all of two hours in the bazaar before we retired back to the hotel.

The next day, much refreshed from a good night sleep, we started our day with a lovely cappuccino and headed to Hagia Sophia. The entire time I was guided by my dad who read aloud from our guide book, Istanbul by Rick Steves. I highly recommend his travel series as it is very thorough and filled with fun facts like Paris’ Notre Dame could fit inside of the Hagia Sophia and the statue of liberty could do jumping jacks within the walls of the Hagia Sophia….graphically described, Rick. We filled the rest of our day with the underground cisterns, the Blue Mosque and a dinner at a lovely little seafood restaurant which we only discovered by getting lost while in search of the Spice Market.

The next day we continued our newly developed routine of waking up a late, enjoying a leisurely cappuccino (or two) and eventually site seeing. The first item on our agenda was the Topkapi Palace. In addition to the beautiful architecture and well manicured courtyards there was a huge collection of precious jewels, emperor’s clothing and ancient artifacts including the Islamic prophet, Muhammad’s footprint, a couple of his beard hairs and the hand and forearm of St. Peter in a gold cast. While looking at these artifacts there was a imam (Islamic priest) singing excerpts from the Qur’an giving the gallery a very eerie atmosphere. As I walked amongst the collection I continuously peered around corners looking for Indiana Jones!

That day, two of my best friends in Peace Corps, Fritz and Ginger, were meeting their children in Istanbul for a family vacation. When we realized that they would be in Turkey the same time my dad and I would be we decided to spend the day together. So the following day, my dad and I trekked over to their hotel and I had an opportunity to meet their children who i had heard so much about and my dad had the opportunity to meet them. After breakfast we took a cruise along the Bosporus River all the way to the Black Sea. The cruise took all day so after we got off the boat, I had to go back to the hotel to pack for my return to Kyrgyzstan.

Saying goodbye to my dad was really hard but once I got to the airport I had calmed down and bumped into another Peace Corps volunteer going back to Kyrgyzstan on the same flight. Having that time in Istanbul with my dad made that last flight into Kyrgyzstan infinitely easier, now I'm hoping on my way back to the states, I can meet my mother there and see the rest of Turkey!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Back online!

Over the last nine months I have been horribly negligent of my blog. I wish I could attribute it to some exciting change of events or even a busy schedule but in reality the only excuse I have is laziness and lack of imagination.

As I have been here for over a year and a half, life in Kyrgyzstan is no longer a new adventure, rather it has simply become life as I know it but I must remind myself that despite the fact that I find my daily activities mundane it is still a foreign world to people who read this blog. So my one of my (many) New Year’s resolutions is to maintain this blog for the next 7 months of service which remain for me.

Since I have last written I have developed a series of professional development classes for local university students where we have developed their professional skills, resumes, practiced filling out applications and addressed many other practicalities which they are not taught in school but are crucial for a successful career.

Last November I finally witnessed the Central Asian game of Ulok, an ancient game where two groups of men ride horseback and attempt to throw a decapitated goat carcass into one of two barrels. It was FACINATING!

More recently, after a year and a half in Kyrgyzstan I took my first out-of-country vacation back to Texas. Flying out of Kyrgyzstan, through Turkey and over the Atlantic Ocean, I feared reverse culture shock of reentering American society. I imagined the shock I would have when my electricity never turned off or the over-whelming amount of peanut butter and pork I would eat. I had heard horror stories of other volunteers returned feeling so out of touch with American pop culture that they could hardly follow their friends’ conversations on the recent reality shows or celebrity gossip, but within my first days back home I realized, rather anti-climactically, that everything just seemed as it should and I felt at home immediately. Although the development of Twitter, Snuggies and the overwhelming number iPhones did seem very bizarre to me…

During my month back home I spent a lot of time with my family, I even had a chance to swing up to Missouri and see my grandma, uncles, aunts, cousins and my roommate from my freshman year of college. Four of my best friends flew/drove into Houston to spend New Years with me- which I would like to note, I spent hours agonizing over for two reasons; first I was combining high school friends and college friends, and secondly we were celebrating New Years and I hadn’t been to a bar, let alone a club in a year and a half. Despite all of my anxieties the weekend went beautifully. I am truly blessed to have such amazing friends and family.

By the end of my time in the states I had gained six pounds, illegally downloaded more music and books then I know what to do with and recharged my (metaphorical) batteries for my last 7 months in country.