Much Love to My Kyrgyz Friends and Colleagues

IMG_2049As I have mentioned before, Kyrgyzstan is a very, very beautiful country. But its greatest beauty—and its greatest strength—is its people. I have been fortunate to meet, and to learn from, many wonderful Kyrgyz people in the two-plus years that I have served here, and I want to thank you all for helping me and for being my friends.IMG_1502IMG_117920160503_142954
I know it’s not possible to thank everyone who has helped and befriended me, but I can thank some of you. First, I want to thank the host families who welcomed me into their homes: Nurjan, Mairambek, Talant and Takmina in Luxemburg and Kochorbai Baike, Uzakbek, Benira, Nargiza, Aidanek, Aibika, Abdunur and Nabil in Naryn. You got me through the death of my dad, my first bitter Naryn winter and my first year in Kyrgyzstan. Then there are my Peace Corps language teachers: Ainura, Aigul, Usabaly and Nurlan. You introduced me to Kyrgyz language and culture, a gift that I will never forget. There are my counterparts and colleagues: Cholpon, Kuzjibek, Gulira, Asul, and Kubat. You introduced me to the community of Naryn and helped me to become a productive member of the community. There are my Kyrgyz language tutors: Kunduz, Janara and Ainura. You gave me the language skills that allowed me to become a real part of the Naryn community, and you taught me many valuable lessons about Kyrgyz culture. There are my Ride Alive friends: Aigul, Genya, Sanat, Daniyar, and Aijan. You introduced me to the community of Kyrgyz athletes, a growing and vibrant group. There are my Naryn friends: Gulnaz, Elvira, Manas, Tagai, Asel, and Gulzada. We shared meals, laughs and many great conversations. I learned a lot about Kyrgyz culture from you. There are my students—at Naryn State University, UCA, the American Corner and the Agro Horizons Project. You are wonderful, smart people with bright futures. It was a joy to be your teacher. All of you have invited me into your homes and into your lives, which is a gift and a privilege that I will never forget. 11390252_991459400877776_2583127015242540863_nIMG_1040IMG_3044IMG_4045

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It’s a cliché, but I know that I have received much more from the Kyrgyz people than I have been able to give them. I have been introduced to a fascinating, rich, and ancient culture. By seeing the commitment to family that Kyrgyz people share, you have inspired me to value my own family in America more, and I am determined to follow your example of love and commitment with my own family. I have met so many Kyrgyz people who selflessly serve their families and their communities. Your example has made me a better person. When I came to Kyrgyzstan, I expected to stay for two years, and then to go home. I didn’t expect that Kyrgyzstan would become my home. And it is my home because of you, my Kyrgyz friends and colleagues. I will carry you with me to America in my heart.

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Much Love to My Fellow Volunteers

All PCV Conf.In an early blog post, I wrote about what an amazing group I have served with. In this post, I want to thank them.

First, it’s important to understand the role that one’s fellow volunteers play in a Peace Corps volunteer’s life. Each of us has been cast adrift, separated from family, friends and a familiar culture. Our fellow volunteers occupy the life raft with us–they calm our fears, celebrate our triumphs, and share a longing for a good American IPA. Because we are a small group in the vast sea of Kyrgyz culture, we cling to one another and befriend each other quickly. The bonds formed in that crucible of experience are often strong and lasting.Al Archa August 17, 2014
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Peace Corps volunteers generally serve for a term of 27 months, and a new group arrives in each Peace Corps country each year. That means that when our group arrived (the K22’s), there was group already here (the K21’s), who would serve alongside us for another year. They trained us, both formally and informally. They told us that a taxi from Bishkek to Naryn should cost 400 com (not the 700 that many taxi drivers automatically quote when they spot a foreigner). They showed us how to stock up on tomatoes and peppers in the summer, when they cost 20 com/kilo, because once winter hits, they would become beyond the reach of a volunteer’s salary. They amazed us with their language skills, effortlessly cracking wise with even hardened and cynical taxi drivers.

Some of the K21’s became especially close. There were our trainers—Andrea, Maddie, Becca, Ramras, Nicole (Drake, Eric and Wally—I’m including you with the K22’s), and many others , who were our first teachers, and gave us our first glimpses of real life as a PCV. Then there were our sitemates, who served with us for a full year. Kyrgyzstan is divided into eight oblasts (like a state in the U.S.), and volunteers regularly socialize with others in their oblasts. The K21’s who served with us for a year—Ramras, Luke and Luther–showed us that it was possible to serve well in Kyrgyzstan—notwithstanding the prevalence of sheep fat, sheep intestines, poopsicles, sheep eyeballs, crazy drivers, bitter cold, and general unpredictability. You were our guides when we came, and our dear friends when you left. We will never forget you.

I’m 57 years old, so I have a special connection to the elder statesmen of our group. Wally, Joe, Eric, Eric, Janet, Tim, and Skip—what an adventure we’ve shared—eh!? During our service, some of our parents, and other dear friends, have died. And you understood. You know the pride and heartbreak of parenting, the drudgery and satisfaction of building a career. It’s been a pleasure to connect with you and to share the strange twilight of an “older” volunteer’s Peace Corps service.

But most of my colleagues are in their 20’s—the same age as my kids. It has been a delight to be part of their lives for a few years. I expected to be somewhat isolated as an older volunteer, but I was wrong. My days and weeks have been full of satisfying conversation, pleasant interactions, and shared experience. My younger colleagues have wholeheartedly welcomed me into their lives, and we have shared laughter, meals, conversation, despair and elation. Many of them-if not all—are Seekers, feeling their ways toward a better life and a better world. Being on that path together has been engaging and encouraging. I have danced more in the last year than I had in the previous 20. Sharing meals, conversations, hikes and holidays with you has enriched my life. Many of you have become good friends, and I hope that our friendships endure the years ahead. You never made me feel old or an outsider. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer has made me realize what a charmed life I lived in the U.S. and yet, the last two years have been some of the best years of my life.

Thank you and Ак жол!IMG_5221

What I’ve Learned: Part Two

In my last blog post, I wrote about what I’ve learned about International Development in my two years of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. In this post, I’ll try to make some observations about what I’ve learned in the same time about myself and the world that we live in. In no particular order, here are my thoughts:

1. The world is a big, beautiful place. As I have observed often in this blog, Kyrgyzstan is spectacularly beautiful—everywhere. Here in Naryn, we are blessed to have mountains right in town—they form the southerly boundary of Naryn. And they reveal a different aspect of beauty each day—indeed, almost each hour. Snow falls and melts, clouds roll in, the sun dapples the slopes or bathes them in an ethereal light. I will miss the mountains. And the lakes. The forests. The flowers.IMG_2649IMG_1976

And, of course, the people. People are beautiful, all over the world. Here in Kygyzstan, there are the ak sekals (literally, white beards)–old men—with their whispy beards, their kalpaks, and their hard eyes. IMG_2281And the old women—stooped, bow-legged, many with large laps for holding multiple grandchildren. There are the children, with their bright, dancing eyes, their rosy cheeks, and their wild abandon. The men, with their swagger and their quick laughs, and the women, with their beautiful, long hair and their shrewd eyes. Each face reflects a life, an invitation to enter into another world.IMG_2339

And people have beautiful hearts. When I ask my students about their hopes and dreams, helping their families and their communities are always near the top of their lists. And it’s not just talk: families depend on every member’s contributions. One of my students has worked in Turkey each summer for the last three years and brings home several thousand dollars each year for her family. She is a primary bread-winner for the family. The Kyrgyz have a wonderful practice of toasting one another on special occasions, and the toasts are often amazingly thoughful and heartfelt. A sincere Kygyz toast from a good friend is better than any jewel or gadget.

2. It’s also small. People are similar all over the world. They want the same things: friends and family; hope for the future; an opportunity to be useful, to contribute to their communities; to be safe and free from coercion. Before I came to Kyrgyzstan, I read about its economy and low per-capita income, and I expected a very poor country. But Kyrgyzstan doesn’t feel poor. Almost everyone has enough food to eat, clothes to wear and a warm, dry place to sleep. And people are happy. The grimness that I associate with the Russians is not in evidence here; instead, people are quick to smile and they love a good joke. IMG_0648

We make much of religious differences, but, really, most of the world’s religions are more similar than they are different. All religions seem to me to focus on how to contribute to a community and how to live a good, satisfying life. My muslim neighbors here in Kygyzstan have values very similar to my christian neighbors in America. They care for their families and their neighbors; they try to be honest and helpful; they pray to God for strength, for peace, for help and in thanks. IMG_2049

3. But it’s not fair. Liberal guilt is one of the main reasons I signed up for Peace Corps. We have so much in America: so much money and opportunity. Much more than people in most of the world. I had thought that people in other parts of the world must resent Americans for consuming such a huge share of the world’s resources, but, at least in Kygyzstan, they don’t. There is inequality everywhere, and, no matter where in the world you are, there is someone whose life looks more attractive. That’s true in America, as it is in Kyrgyzstan. And I think everyone, all over the world, accepts unfairness as a part of life.

That doesn’t mean that unfairness is right, or that it can’t be changed. But one thing that I have learned living in Kyrgyzstan is that it’s much easier to address unfairness in one’s own culture than to address unfairness in another culture. We are all mistrustful of others’ attempts to tell us how to live our lives. And Americans seem especially driven to tell people in other cultures how they should be living. We have plenty of unfairness in America, and I plan to spend more time in the future working to reduce the inequality that exists in America. I believe that, as humans, we each need to work to make our world a better place. For me, that means working within the culture I know best to make it more fair, kind, open and inclusive.

4. IMG_0713I’m not dead yet. I’m 57 years old. Catherine, my wife, and I have raised three children to adulthood. I practiced law with a wonderful law firm for 27 years. When I joined the Peace Corps, I didn’t feel dead, but I did feel deadened, stuck in a rut that I had been treading for as long as I could remember. Part of being an adult, part of being a good parent, is being willing to tread that rut for the benefit of others, to build a community, to give our children a stable, nurturing home. When I became a parent, I felt the yoke of those obligations strongly. I didn’t hate it—didn’t even dislike it—but it weighed heavy on my shoulders. In time, I got used to it–it became my life—I life I grew to cherish. . But it was a life largely defined by what I could give to other people. That creates a complexity and a richness that I miss and plan to return to, but it also led me to lose sight of myself, at least to some extent.

Serving here in Kygyzstan has given me the opportunity to see myself more clearly. Not as a husband, a father, a citizen, or an attorney, but just as an individual. Partly, it’s because that’s where many of my Peace Corps colleagues are in life. Most of them are in their twenties, like Catherine and my kids, trying to figure out where they belong, who they are, and what they’ll become. It’s tough, serious, important work. And talking with them and spending time with them has given me some space and time to ask some of those questions of myself, questions that I haven’t had much time to revisit since I was in my twenties.

I like people. I like adventure. I like helping people. I like to laugh and have fun. None of those things is a revelation to me, but they’ve become clearer while I’ve served in the Peace Corps, and I hope and expect that that clarity will help direct my future.

5. There’s no place like home. I have enjoyed almost every minute of the two-plus years that I’ve lived in Kyrgyzstan. Every day has been an adventure. I’ve made many good friends and been to some amazing, beautiful places. But I want to go home. Catherine and I have built a life together, a life that I sorely miss. Our kids, our families, our friends, our neighbors, our home, my colleagues and clients—I miss them all, every day. IMG_1323

I now realize clearly what a charmed and magical life I lived in America. It was easy and comfortable, filled with interesting conversation, delicious food and drink, and regular visits with dear family and friends. And, so, it was filled with love. Yes, I love new friends here. But back in Minnesota, I have friends who I have laughed with for fifty years. Catherine and I share memories from over 30 years of marriage, of challenges, great joys, shared experience. Each of our children is a unique, fascinating individual, with skills, talents and experience to share. Life is very, very good—almost everywhere in the world. But my home is in Minnesota, and I am delighted to look forward to my impending return there.

What I’ve Learned: Part One

IMG_1040Well, my service here in Kyrgyzstan is winding down. In less than two months I’ll be closing out my Peace Corps service and going back to the USA. So it seems like a good time to think about what I’ve learned by serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. And I want to blog about it in two parts: What I’ve learned about Kyrgyzstan and about international development, and what I’ve learned about myself. This post will be about the former, and my next about the latter.

International development, that is, coming into another country to try to help the other country develop, is difficult, slow, and often not done very well. I want to focus on three challenges for international development organizations. First, most international development organizations do too much talking and not enough listening. Second, the overwhelming majority of international development organizations make too small an effort to achieve real, lasting results, their claims to the contrary notwithstanding. And, third, no international development organization can accomplish real, lasting change without first winning the hearts and minds of the people they intend to serve.

The first challenge is related to the third. That is, in order to win peoples’ hearts and minds, you need to listen to them. One current trend in international development is scalability. Funders want to fund projects that can be scaled up from a small demonstration project to a regional, national or even international level. And it’s great to want to have a larger impact. The problem with that approach is that it’s often difficult to replicate a successful small-scale project in another location without adapting it to local needs, customs and conditions, and, too often, international developers ignore or minimize that necessity. Implementing any international development program requires an understanding of the community being served, and developing that understanding requires that we listen to and really understand the community. Too often, international developers come in and impose their “best practices” on the local community. And too often, those best practices fail because they are neither accepted by nor adapted to the community. Sure, those “best practices” may be the most efficient and most effective theoretically, but theory fails in the face of practice if it doesn’t take into account the unique features of the community being served.

And there is no substitute for time and hard work if you want to understand the unique features of a community. We humans tend to tell people what they want to hear and to keep our real thoughts to ourselves when talking with strangers, especially strangers who want to give us money, jobs or other valuable things. To gain real understanding and real trust takes time—years, not months. Yet most international developers fund projects for a year or two. Often, a project is finished before the implementing agency really understands the idiosyncrasies of the community being served.

Most funders indicate that they intend to create “lasting change,””transformative change,” or “sustainable change.” And then they work in a community on a project for a year or two, maybe five years if they are unusually committed. But real change takes time—decades, or, in most cases, generations. Again, it takes years to gain a real understanding of a community’s needs, and even longer to gain the trust and support of community leaders. So, maybe, after five or ten years, an organization can begin to work on changing conditions in a way that will be truly lasting or transformative. They can begin, but accomplishing that sort of change takes decades. We are creatures of habit, and, as anyone who has tried to break a habit knows, breaking any habit takes persistent work over a long period of time. Few international developers commit themselves to their work long enough to change habits, to accomplish lasting, transformative, sustainable change.

Ultimately, accomplishing such change requires winning the hearts and minds of the people being served. Change is, notoriously, difficult. And unless people want to change, they usually don’t, even if change may be in their best interests. So, an international developer that wants to accomplish lasting change must lead people to want to change. They must win peoples’ hearts and minds. As Russia, and then the USA, discovered in Afghanistan, it’s very difficult, often impossible, to force people to change. Winning hearts and minds requires that an international developer gain the trust of the community served. That takes time and requires persistent effort. It requires that we do more than spend money and give lectures. We need to listen to the communities that we serve and to truly understand their values, their hopes and their fears. We need to share meals with them, to celebrate their holidays, to share their pain and their joy. IMG_3727

I think Peace Corps does a pretty good job at listening (or encouraging its volunteers to listen) and at winning hearts and minds. But, like most international aid organizations, it fails in making the type of long-term commitment needed to achieve lasting change. Our Peace Corps training included intensive language and cultural training to help us integrate into our communities. We were encouraged to spend our first month in our sites meeting members of our new communities and listening to their assessments of the communities’ needs and strengths. And Peace Corps places volunteers in communities outside of the capital city, living with families at a standard comparable to other community members. That’s different from many aid organizations, whose workers speed through local communities in their SUV’s, live in gated compounds and spend most of their time with expats. Members of the community notice, and living alongside community members at their standard of living goes a long way toward winning hearts and minds. Where Peace Corps does not do so well is in making a long-term commitment. Yes, Peace Corps has served in many countries for decades. But the work of a particular volunteer in a particular community generally ends after two or three years, when the volunteer leaves. Peace Corps, at least in Kyrgyzstan, makes little effort to carry out the decades-long effort needed to achieve truly sustainable change.

So, how do I feel about what I’ve accomplished? I feel confident that I’ve made a difference. The trekking routes that I’ve mapped and the tourism promotion that I’ve done will increase tourism to Naryn Oblast and provide income to dozens of families. By demonstrating the power of online marketing and promotion, I hope that I’ve inspired my tourism colleagues to keep using and expanding on those resources to build and grow the tourism industry. I feel good about that. I’ve made real connections with dozens more of my Kyrgyz neighbors, and I think I’ve shown them some different ways of looking at the world (and, of course, they’ve taught me different ways of seeing my world—but that’s for Part Two). Ultimately, it’s those personal connections that have changed my life, and, I hope, the lives of my friends, students and colleagues here.

Horsemeat

IMG_1976Here in Kyrgyzstan, we eat a lot of horsemeat. Next to goat, it’s the go-to protein, and the primo meat for any celebration: weddings, funerals, births, new house, new car. National Geographic has a good article on the status of horses (and horsemeat) in Kazakhstan . In Kyrgyzstan, it’s pretty much the same.

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Cold

IMG_0748Shifting sands, mirages shimmering on the horizon, local people cooking over open fires: before I became a volunteer, these were the sights I associated with the Peace Corps. But you won’t see any of them in Kyrgyzstan. Peace Corps currently operates in 68 countries, and I have been told that only a few of them have “real” winters, where snow and ice cover large parts of the country for weeks at a time. And Kyrgyzstan is one of the coldest. And Naryn is the coldest city in Kyrgyzstan, where the temperature is routinely 15-20 degrees colder than other cities in Kyrgyzstan.IMG_0149

How cold is it? Well, almost every winter, the temperature here in Naryn drops into the -30 degree range (once you approach -40 degrees, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales converge), and it can get colder than -40 degrees. Kyrgyz even has a word, чйлде, that describes the few weeks of numbing cold that settles over Naryn in the depths of winter. Snow and ice cover the streets and sidewalks here from mid-November through the end of March.

I’m from Minnesota, so I know cold, but it’s a different beast here. First, Kyrgyz houses tend not to be heated as well as those in Minnesota. Last year, when I was living with a Kyrgyz host family, my bedroom had no windows, and the temperature inside my room never got above 50 degrees fahrenheit for all of December through February. Everyone in the house wore their winter hats and coats inside, and I would wear fingerless gloves while I typed. Even then, my fingers would get numb after about 45 minutes. And when you’re cold inside, it seems like you never get warm when you go out.IMG_4160

Naryn is also humid in winter. Usually, the humidity is 80-90% and every week or two, we get ground fog that leaves all of the trees and wires frosted in white. It’s beautiful. But it makes it feel even colder.

And once winter sets in, Naryn doesn’t thaw. In Minnesota, we usually get a January thaw, where the temperatures get above freezing for several days (several weeks sometimes in these times of global warming). That doesn’t happen in Naryn. Here, the weather keeps getting colder and colder until sometime in January or February when temperatures finally start creeping up again. And once things do start warming up, it’s painfully slow in coming

As volunteers in a country where outhouses predominate and intestinal problems are common, we talk a lot about toilets and toilet habits when we get together. Winter brings a whole different set of issues into the mix of conversation, from the height of the poopsicle in the outhouse (which sometimes needs to be chopped down before it rises up out of the outhouse hole) to how to secure your footing on the frozen mess that covers the outhouse floor. You really haven’t lived until you’ve dropped your pants and done your business in the outhouse while the thermometer hovers below -30 degrees!IMG_0148

This will be my last winter in Naryn, at least for the foreseeable future. I will miss seeing the first snowfall high up in the mountains in September, then watching the snows creep farther down the slopes each week until they invade the city itself. Herds of sheep, cows and horses clog the roads as they move in from summer pastures ahead of the snows. The stocks of kumiss (made only in summer) dwindle, then disappear completely. There’s more of a rhythm to the seasons here, a rhythm that I will miss. And I imagine I will think often of these differences—from the comfort of my warm home!BlogChallenge

Infrastructure!

Hauling water from the creek

Hauling water from the creek

Wow! You clicked on this post despite the title. That’s kind of how infrastructure is in the US–boring! But I have gained a whole new appreciation for infrastructure while living in Kyrgyzstan. In the US, when you flip a switch, the light comes on. When you open a faucet, clean water pours out. The roads and sidewalks are straight and mostly cleared of ice and snow. That’s not always the case in Kyrgyzstan. The photo above is of a family in Alush, a village just east of Naryn, bringing water home from a nearby creek. Like many families here, they have no running water at home. Can you imagine hauling every drop of water you drink, cook with, and wash with that way? Or how would you like to cross this footbridge every time you wanted to leave your house? IMG_1884Here’s a great article by a Turkish immigrant on the wonders of American infrastructure. Today, just one time, when you flip a switch, drive the freeway or open your mailbox, give a thought to the wonders of American infrastructure and give thanks to the previous generations and responsible politicians who have left us such wonders.<a href="http://Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015“>