Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Peace Corps?

Last week was Joe’s birthday over in Shymkent (city about two hours away), so a bunch of us volunteers gathered there to celebrate on Saturday. It was another occasion that really illustrated how varied the Peace Corps experience can be. It began with a conversation I had with Joe a few days before going down there.

Joe: Sorry I missed your call before. I was in the pool.
Me: Uh… Did you say pool?
Joe: Yeah, Britt and I go swimming three times a week.
Me: You have a pool! What?!

So despite it being the middle of winter in one of the world’s coldest countries, some volunteers get to work out in a swimming pool. (Later I found out that it is an outdoor pool, but heated, and you have to jump in a hole and swim under a wall to get to it, but still a pool. And still Peace Corps.)

I arrived in Shymkent a day before most people and hung out with Joe and Britt at a café. A nice restaurant with wireless Internet right near the city’s four-story mall. Afterwards, I went back with Joe and we watched four episodes of Top Chef he had downloaded on ITunes. Watching Top Chef does not feel like Peace Corps, but it is. (But it sure was enjoyable. We ended up watching the rest of the episodes Monday night, so now I’m caught up on the season. But I’ll have to wait about a month and a half before I see any more episodes probably. And I’m now convinced I can watch LOST this season somehow via the Internet.)

Fortunately, after a long time spent with a large group of Americans, I rode in a crowded marshutka (van) down to one of the southern most cities in Kstan to visit a Kaz19 volunteer that works with farmers. Riding in a marshutka in the bumpy roads staring off at either the steppe or the mountains always brings ones back to reality of Peace Corps though. It’s hard to forget your in Kazakhstan when you’re in one of those.

That night we also gathered at a volunteer’s house, cooked dinner (with vegetables!), and watch Slither with a nice set of speakers and a personal projector. Lounging on a sofa, eating peas and beans, while watching a movie projected on a big wall also does not feel like Peace Corps. But it is.

I then went back to the other volunteer’s house who had high speed internet. I was able to chat with some friends and tried using Skype, but it wasn’t working too well for me. The high speed internet is probably about 20 to 30 percent of our monthly stipend. Not cheap, but affordable if you budget. Of course, this house did not have a toilet or running water. High speed internet, not feel like Peace Corps. Squatter and bucket rinsing, definitely Peace Corps.

The next day I returned to Shymkent via marshutka. And the trip that was supposed to take about three hours took about four and a half because our van kept breaking down. Having to get tow-started three times by other marshutkas does feel like Peace Corps. Arriving back in the city and watching Top Chef, does not feel like Peace Corps.

And after this last trip, I’m beginning to wonder if I am leaving my site too much. I travel about every other weekend, and many weeks I spend an afternoon in the city to working on the Internet or meeting with other organizations. I always make sure I am doing stuff related to work, but I am out of the office a lot. But not right now. After a short pit stop at my old site to get some clothes, I am officially back at my work. And I am sitting in my office. Alone. Not really doing work, but rather writing for my blog. My coworkers were here, but they all went off somewhere telling me they’d be back soon. Where? I never know

Yeah, this definitely feels like Peace Corps again.

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