"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." -Mother Teresa

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

my family.

I must apologize to you readers. I’ve been missing in action for the last bit. I could bore you with the details of my delayed post or I could simply talk about something much more interesting- my host family. I realized I have yet to tell you all about my host family members- people whom time spent reading about would certainly not be time wasted.

During Pre-Service Training (essentially the first 2 months of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s service) we are told horror stories of past volunteer host family experiences along with those glorious success stories. Of course, a wide-eyed trainee hopes to be one of the success stories, hopes to be placed with an incredible host family and build a bond that will last long after the volunteer has finished their service. I’m happy to say I’m experiencing my very own success story.

I call my host father and mother “Baike” and “Eje” which literally translates to “older brother” and “older sister” and are terms of respect the Kyrgyz use for older members of society. My Baike and Eje are both in their late 40s and have three daughters and one son. Unlike my Eje whom I lived with during training who took until the end of the two months to call me her “Kuhz” or “daughter”, my Baike and Eje immediately referred to me as their “Kuhzm” or “my daughter”. I was automatically a member of the family.

By Kyrgyz village standards, my family is on the wealthier side of life. My Baike is a jack-of-all-trades businessman and my Eje owns and runs her own Café down the street from our house. My Baike is very respected in the village, I have yet to make mention of his name without all those in earshot knowing who he is. He is incredibly hardworking. Our morning routine is paralleled before the sun rises and he goes to bed several hours after I’m fast asleep. He is charismatic with a warm smile that makes me feel as though I was never a guest and I’ve always only lived here.

My Eje is what I like to refer to as a gentle spirit. While other older Kyrgyz women use their age as status and reason to boss younger people around, my Eje is the opposite. Like my Baike, she is very hardworking with some of the roughest hands I’ve seen on a woman. Grabbing a boiling teakettle’s metal handle off the stove doesn’t faze her. One night she was ill and stopped cooking long enough to step outside to throw up then quickly washed her face and continued cooking while laughing at herself. She is the epitome of strength while at the same time the cornerstone of compassion in her family. She constantly hugs her children and showers them with kisses.

My sibling I’ve grown closest to is my 15-year-old sister, Altynai. She is a beautiful, innocent, graceful teenage girl with all of the potential in the world. She is shy when speaking her broken English, but her boisterous laugh could make the grumpiest old man smile. She is polite towards people she does not know and very respectful towards her parents. As the oldest girl (currently living at home), Altynai does the majority of the household chores while her parents are working outside the home. When I first came to live with my family, Altynai would ask me to accompany her to the store to buy food for the café. One time she asked me to go with her after dark and while walking with her and our cousin in the pitch black (something entirely normal for these girls), I linked my arm through hers for safety. Since that time, anywhere we walk together, even in the bright of day, Altynai immediately links her arm with mine.

The last two members of my host family are possibly the most entertaining of the bunch: My 8-year-old brother, Begsat, and my 4-year-old sister, Bermet. Begsat is a loud, macho (if you can picture it) young boy who loves playing in the street with his friends and enjoys teasing his younger sister. He is suspicious of any food I make that is unfamiliar to him- what else should I expect from an 8-year-old boy? Bermet is very shy at first but once she gets comfortable around you, you had better be ready for it. During one of my first meals with my family we were trying to piece together English and Kyrgyz in order to understand one another. Bermet was stealing food from everyone’s plates and my Eje was calling her “tentek” or “naughty”. She asked me how to say “tentek” in English and I told her. Then, as I should have expected, my siblings start calling Bermet “naughty” in English. Without knowing what “naughty” means, but understanding it wasn’t a positive thing by my siblings’ taunting, Bermet blurts out “naught emesmen!”- a quasi English Kyrgyz sentence meaning “I’m not naughty!”

So there you have it folks, the members of my Kyrgyz family. I’m thankful for their friendly, hospitable, open, easygoing, kind, loving nature everyday. I couldn’t have been placed with a better group of people.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


I sit cross-legged on my bed after a long day. It is dark outside and lightening flutters in the distance. Wednesdays are by far my longest day of the week. 5 English classes back to back in the morning, lesson planning, and 3 English clubs in the afternoon. Earlier, I’d ambitiously wrote out an evening “to-do list” in my planner, only to find myself now pushing so many of the items to the next page- tomorrow’s tasks are boxes waiting to be checked off.

I think about how I find rest in my life in Kyrgyzstan. Days are exhausting- standing in front of classes of students then leaving class only to be the continued center of attention. I have found that I need the evenings to rest in the comfort of my home in order to maintain the energy and enthusiasm to keep up with the children I teach. Though it makes me wonder, how do my fellow teachers keep up with the responsibilities of their lives? This struck me today as my Counterpart, Kushtar, tells me story after story of her family’s struggles.

Kushtar is subject to a Kyrgyz tradition, which dictates how the parents of a family will be taken care of in their older age. The wife of the youngest son in a family is known as the “Kalen”. A woman who becomes a Kalen is responsible for moving into her husband’s parent’s home upon marriage and becoming the main caretaker of the entire family. Some women, especially those who have kind parents-in-law, enjoy the tradition and the family closeness it promises. Others, who may have demanding and harsh inherited parents, will end up detesting their role and live in an endless abyss of unhappiness. Thankfully, Kushtar thoroughly enjoys her husband’s family and is happy to serve them. Though this fortunate reality does not make her role lighter than other Kalens.

Kushtar’s day starts very early each morning and often does not end until after midnight. She will make food for her family in the morning and get her young sons ready for school. She is always at school before 8am ready with new ideas, questions, and topics to discuss with me, which she thought of the night before. Her English is incredible- especially for a young teacher living in the village. She is constantly reading, looking up words in her dictionary, and asking me questions to improve her English. She and I teach classes and clubs together every weekday, and spend numerous hours lesson planning, in meetings, or simply talking about life in the school’s “Canteen” (I’ve tried to change the name to the Cafeteria in an attempt to reduce the wartime Army barrack-esque nature calling it the “Canteen” evokes). In the late afternoon (and sometimes not until early evening) Kushtar returns home to clean her home, help her sons and niece (whom lives with her) with their homework, and organize whatever family events are unfolding that day.

Kushtar cooks dinner for her family every night without fail. In the states cooking could range from a 2-minute hot pocket to a 2-hour cook fest. In Kyrgyzstan, women do not have the option of “the easy way out” when it comes to preparing food. Cooking is always a strenuous endeavor, as almost everything has to be made from scratch. After cooking, eating with the family, and cleaning everything from the meal, Kushtar will often work on her lesson planning or brainstorming new activities we can do with the children. I asked her before if she has much time to relax and her response was “Relax? I am confused. Do you mean sleep?” Thus my question was answered.

Despite her heavy home responsibilities, work expectations, and ups and downs of everyday village life, Kushtar maintains an extremely positive and upbeat attitude. She is part of the minority of Kyrgyz women who flash big, teeth-y smiles when they greet someone rather than the simple eye blink greeting most Kyrgyz women employ. She’s an impressive teacher and her students adore her.

I have yet to meet a woman in the village who would be caught dead with her feet up. In fact, I doubt they exist. Or if they do exist, I think they may have to wait until their old age in order to lounge. That said I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of “rest” is a product of culture. I’m from a culture that says, “You’ve had a long day. You deserve to rest and watch your favorite T.V. show with a glass of wine in hand.” And Kushtar is from a culture that says to women, “You’ve accomplished much today. It has been a long day. What else is new?” I’m learning that this idea of “rest” is not only a product of culture, but also a learned luxury. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with rest (in fact, I’m a big fan of the concept), I’m simply realizing that my personal thoughts on the matter differ drastically from the culture I’m emerged in on a daily basis.

Monday, October 1, 2012

just keep swimming.

                                                    Baby on a Marshrutka. 9.24.12.

Yesterday, while enjoying the last few hours of a last minute escape to the city, I received a call informing me that school in the village was cancelled for the week due to "potato harvest". As it is now Monday and my students are aiding their families in picking potatoes thus leaving yours truly with no work for the day, I feel inclined to do some other productive activities. Now that the ever laborious cleaning and laundry are completed, this blog is the result of said notion. My apologies if this entry lacks direction as it concurrently also lacks inspiration.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what Peace Corps likes to call "The Fishbowl Effect". As volunteers, we were warned at pre-country departure orientation, in-country pre-service training, and possibly even in the initial interview about this fishbowl concept. Most prominent in villages, The Fishbowl Effect can be described as a volunteer becoming like a fish in a fishbowl to villagers- the subject of conversation, curiosity, interest, gossip, gawking, intrigue, and constant requests for "things"- just to name a few. There is no way to prepare for this reality, as one cannot understand what is it like until experience takes place.

My conclusion regarding this fishbowl idea is that it ends up putting a whole heck of a lot of responsibility on the volunteer. In the states, I could go to the grocery store and be completely anonymous- I'd most likely never met any of my fellow shoppers before nor would I likely see them again. In my village, I venture out to the magazine (store) and I am stopped by people on the street (many of whom I've never met) asking where I am going. At the store, I'm asked what I am buying and why I need such things. The following day at school, I'm approached by a fellow teacher telling me that she heard I bought bread at the large magazine, but it is much better and more fresh at the Asel's store on the main road.

Forget anonymity because, in the village, whether I like it or not, I'm apparently a person of extreme interest. I never thought that I would mourn the loss of anonymity- I mean, don't we spend our lives longing to be known? Whether by our family, friends, or a significant other? In America, I'd grown accustomed to this idea that I could hand pick what I wanted people to know about me, what I wanted people who knew me to view me as, and even what I spent my paychecks on. The thought of anyone, unless they were stalking me, to take interest in what I bought at the grocery store was a ridiculous thought. When I wanted to talk about things with others, those things became known, and what I didn't care to talk about stayed tucked away. Now, in the colony known as my village, it's widely the topic of conversation and incredibly interesting when I go for a run, walk to my sitemate's home, or when my boyfriend comes for a visit.

The people in my community don't find it rude to ask about the details of my life because, in their upbringing in the village, very little managed to remain private and the prospect of a question possibly seeming rude never occurred to them. Privacy- yet another intriguing idea. I doubt that my Eje has spent more than maybe an hour in alone time in her life. Constantly surrounded by immediate family, extended relatives, friends, neighbors, or whomever- the Kyrgyz would likely be confused if I brought up the concept of alone time. My host family finds it perplexing that I can spend hours in my room by myself, if I were to broach the idea that I indeed need this time, they'd just as soon assume me to be crazy. Oh the glory of cultural differences!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bon appétit!

                                          Fried bread. Mmmmmmmm.

It’s lunchtime in the village. I sit, elbows resting on the plastic tablecloth, hunched over my ceramic bowl-like cup of steaming tea at the L-shape benched table. My 4-year-old host sister, Bermet, stands on the bench to reach across the table for a piece of bread. I watch as she uses a spoon to scoop butter from a small plate by the spoonful and spreads over the petite piece of bread. It would have been reasonable for her to stop after the first spoonful of butter, however, when it comes to grease, sugar, and butter- the Kyrgyz cuisine is anything but reasonable. She continued until the plate, once full with butter, was emptied onto her single bread piece and then she promptly devoured the gooey light yellow substance in heaping mouthfuls. I couldn’t help but laugh at her. “Emne?” What? She looked at me confused.

Kyrgyz people argue that our bodies need three “food groups” to stay healthy and function well: tea (known here as chai), sugar, and meat. People think it’s odd that I do not add sugar to my tea and especially odd that I do not enjoy eating a lot of meat. “But a doctor told me that our bodies need meat in order to be healthy” one English teacher told me over an afternoon “chai eech” at our school. A discussion with the older Kyrgyz woman about the countless food products aside from meat that contain the same (and in some cases more) amount of protein found in meat would have been pointless. In this case, culture trumps science for the vast majority of Kyrgyz people.

In the novel, “This is Not Civilization”, based off one Kyrgyzstan Peace Corps Volunteer’s experience in the country, the Kyrgyz cuisine is not so surprisingly mentioned. “She appeared carrying a new mutton dish each night: mutton dumplings called manti, a mutton and turnip stew called lagman, the mutton kebabs called shashlyk- and what Anarbek claimed was a special delicacy, known as “refrigerator jelly”: a wobbling glob of congealed fat from the previous day’s mutton.” Although this account was of a volunteer who served nearly 20 years ago, not much has changed in the realm of food for this gradually modernizing country.

My favorite Kyrgyz dish is actually derived from a traditional Russian dish- Plov. Maybe because it reminds me of Chinese fried rice or possibly because it strokes my life-long obsession with any dish involving rice. Whatever the reason, I’m always relieved to see the rice dish adorning the chai eech table. With only a few simple ingredients, Plov is considered a rather easy meal to prepare among Kyrgyz women. Rice is cooked in an overwhelming amount of oil and sliced carrots and onions are added. Most Plov dishes are made with the Kyrgyz favorite- mutton, though I prefer the dish with chicken.

How to make Plov:

3 Tbsp oil (though most KG recipes use more)
½ kg beef or mutton, cubed (or chicken)
1 large onion, sliced
½ kg carrots, julienne-sliced
4 cups water
3 garlic cloves, whole (optional)
½ kg rice, cleaned and soaked for 30 minutes

Heat oil in kazan or deep skillet over medium high heat. Add meat and sauté until browned, about 10 minutes. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 8 minutes. Add carrots to mixture and sauté 15 more minutes. Add water and rice; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer partially covered for about 30 minutes. Add garlic (optional). Simmer until rice is just tender, about 15 more minutes.

Tamaginez tatuu bolsen! (Bon appétit!)

Friday, September 7, 2012

Pics from First Bell Ceremony :)

 With my 8-year-old sharp lookin' brother, Begsat.

 With my Counterpart English Teacher, Kushtar.

 With English teachers (from the left) Gulsara, Jumagul, Dinara, myself, Kushtar, and my sitemate, Aly.

 With my 14-year-old sister, Altynai.

With a physical education teacher and Dinara, the head of the English department.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Ding, ding, ding!"

I close the final pages of Maya Angelou’s “The Heart of a Woman”, and I am inspired. The wind looms loudly among the trees and a chain on a metal gate just outside clanks violently in a demanding rhythm. I close the book on my bed and, as it sits on top of my blue and yellow busy floral bedspread, I gaze at my hands as they rest on top of the book. My hands are young and, at the moment, look as though they might belong to a teenaged schoolgirl. The chipping red nail polish splotched across my unkempt fingernails desperately needs to be removed before I lose a certain amount of respect among the impressively dressed, neat, and clean Kyrgyz teachers at school. Respect… this term has been brought to my attention increasingly in the past several days in ways that cause me to ponder it’s weight in this culture, which I currently call home.

In Kyrgyz culture, a person’s age is the ultimate determining factor in terms of respect. A person’s age will determine how they are to be called, their place at the table, which parts of an animal they will eat at a Toi (party), whether they sit or stand on a Marshrutka, and the list goes on. What I have recently discovered is the abrupt reality that age, regardless of experience, determines much in the work place as well. In my case, this means that age determines the picking order of the teachers at school. Of course, because I am a volunteer and a guest, I am treated differently from my fellow young teachers (who are all older than I with more practical teaching experience) and I am honored, listened to, and respected. This interesting reality with which I have bumped shoulders will be a steady companion, I’m sure, throughout the next 2 years.

As the wind continues to race through the trees outside my protective window, I think back to this past Saturday’s “First Bell Ceremony” which took place at my school. Nearly 1,500 students along with over 100 teachers collected in the school’s courtyard, dressed to the nines, anticipating the coming school year. Multicolored banners were strung above the concrete yard and the students collected in a three-sided square awaiting the beginning of the ceremony. A long table stretched the length of the fourth side of the square and placed neatly on it were pinkish purple iridescent vases bustling with roses and greenery. At the table were seated some of the older teachers, the director of the school, the mayor, and other school administration.

“Amanda, you will speak, won’t you?” My counterpart, Kushtar, asks me expectantly. I had been warned that I would be asked to speak and, though I hadn’t prepared an official speech, I politely obliged. “Of course I will speak. Will you help me to translate?” I asked Kushtar, knowing what her answer would be. “Yes, yes, no problem.” After some hushed questions to some fellow helpful teachers on the pronunciation of Kyrgyz introductory phrases and congratulations, a microphone was thrust in my direction. I barely made it through “Salamatsizdarbuh” before a few girls approached me with roses. These students knew what it meant to have a volunteer, they were grateful and an obvious appreciation of my presence preceded me. I said a few words on the importance of attaining knowledge and even used a cheesy line like “this school year marks a new journey on the road of knowledge for all of you” which I’m sure did not translate into Kyrgyz. Five of the youngest students walked the inside perimeter of the populated square with a bell in tow. "Ding, ding, ding!" Was the sound that resonated from the bell and the crowd clapped and cheered. The school year had begun with the simple dinging of a bell. Like the flurry with which it had begun, the ceremony ended and the students dispersed to their first lessons.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

my Kyrgyz family.

My Kyrgyz family :) missing some members... Included are (from the left) Chynara Eje, Bermet, Altynai (yep, she's flashing a "peace" sign...) , myself, and Begsat.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

a day at the lake: Kyrgyz style.

I see my counterpart*, Kushtar, walking towards me on the main road of Barskoon with a sack full of sweet iced tea (the Kyrgyz version of iced tea is so sweet it tastes as if someone melted a popsicle into a plastic bottle and called it tea...) and another sack containing 2 melons. “Ahhh Amanda, I’m sorry for making you walk! My family is coming in the shrut now.” I laugh and exclaim “Kushtar! I don’t mind walking! Let me help you with those melons.”

Kushtar’s husband, Kumar, is one of the few marshrutka drivers in charge of ferrying people on the route from Barskoon to Karakol city and vice versa. For those of you who are wondering what a marshrutka is, allow me to explain. Imagine a tall van/bus equipped with a few rows of seats and some metal bars hanging from the ceiling from which people can hold on for dear life. Marshrutka rides tend to be packed, hot, uncomfortable, and cheap to boot, which is why most people prefer to ride the marshrutka versus the taxi, the more expensive option. In proper marshrutka etiquite, seats must be made available for older Kyrgyz people, women who are pregnant, and women with small children.
The bright yellow shrut approaches us on the main road and I can see Kumar flashing a big smile and waving us over. “Oh!” Kushtar begins, “My family does not want you to think that we all live together in one house! They are worried you will think this. Many people come to visit to take a rest and go to lake. Not everyone live with me.” I nod in understanding and we continue on and go aboard the marshrutka to find Kushtar’s large, bustling family equipped with great smiles to meet me.

We take the bumpy road down to a private, serene stretch of beach on the lake. Parking the shrut near the sand, we claim our territory for the day. Immediately upon arrival, the women jump out of the shrut and begin setting up camp- laying out tooshuks, setting up a grill, and digging holes for the melons and the drinks in shallow water to keep them cool. The children quickly strip their clothes and run full speed for the water. I take a seat near Kushtar’s parents in law, the elderly Kyrgyz of our bunch.

We sit for hours- talking, eating, laughing, and sporadically wading in the water to cool off from the blazing sun. Kumar is manning the grill and providing a steady stream of “shashlik” (pieces of marinated chicken grilled on skewers- much like the American model of a “shish kabob”) with pieces of onion and bread. Kushtar occasionally makes rounds with the melons- cutting off pieces of melon and handing them out to everyone. Kushtar’s father in law takes a swig from a bottle of vodka and them shoves it in my direction, motioning for me to take a drink. “No, thank you.” I tell him in Kyrgyz, but he persists. “Just a little bit…?” He says, using his fingers to squeeze the air in the universal sign for “little”. “No, no no.” I tell him again, chuckling a little at his persistent attempt to get me to drink with him.

When Kyrgyz people go to the beach, they tend to use up every bit of warm sunlight available to them. This means staying at the beach until the winds grows cool enough to cause them to replace layers once shed in a prompt dash for the glistening water before them. The small children begin crying, knowing that a departure from their beloved beach is soon to come.

I sit out of the last round of shashlik, feeling as though my stomach was full enough to last 2 or 3 days at the least. Kushtar comes around with a bag of candies and cookies signaling the children over so they may dip their hands into the sugar filled bag of goodies. I take one chocolate covered cookie and Kushtar swiftly hands me 2 more, true to pure Kyrgyz form.

Filing onto the marshrutka, we bid goodbye to our small escape from village life on the shore on the lake. We take the bumpy road back into Barskoon and I exchange kisses on the cheek with the women as I say goodbye, disembark the bright yellow marshrutka, and open my gate leading into my home as the last drops of sunlight escape behind the mountains.

*All Peace Corps Volunteers in The Kyrgyz Republic have a counterpart- a host country partner with whom you work and will act as a community facilitator, a cultural guide, and at times, if necessary, a translator. In my case, my counterpart is a fellow English teacher. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

a project fulfilled.

I approach the entrance of the school to find a group of Baikes squatting and chatting next to a smaller , bright yellow semi truck. They stare at me as I walk up to the courtyard, probably wondering if I am with the group of Americans coming from the Transit Center. "Salamatsizdarbuh!" I exclaim to them. Surprised, some of the men respond with quiet "Salamachuluk" and return to their boisterous conversation. The American volunteer is a well known concept in my community, as my site mate and I are the 5th and 6th volunteers to live and work in Barskoon village. Most people in the village are excited to meet us, grateful to communicate with us in their native Kyrgyz tongue, and hopeful for the potential projects we will pursue.

Walking into the school I find several Kyrgyz women in their longer dresses, sandals, and head wraps working tireless to clean the entrance and hallways of the school in order to impress the Americans soon to be arriving at the school. One woman mops the floor while another is dusting windowsills and yet another is moving a table and some chairs to a storage room. I travel up the stairs to the third floor of the older children's wing to the newly created "English Resource Center". I enter the room to find stacks of fresh, newly printed textbooks, workbooks, crisp bookshelves, and a new computer. The 14 English teachers crowded around the books, speaking in brisk Kyrgyz, greet me with beaming smiles and extend a copy of one of the textbooks for me to review. Here it was, the fruits of Joanna (the previous Barskoon volunteer) and her counterpart, Dinara Eje's hard work. They had written a project to the Transit Center at Manas Airport to fund an English Resource Center for the English Department at the school in Barskoon. After a long wait, the project was approved and now the contractor had delivered the things from the grant. The men from the Transit Center would arrive any minute to conduct the "Dedication Ceremony" for the English Resource Center.

Crowded in the room which now housed all of the new teaching materials, the Director of the school addressed a room full of teachers, staff members, community members, and the 8 men from the Transit Center. Exuding gratefulness and pride, the Director made a promise to the Americans who funded the project. The promise was that the teachers would use the materials to their full potential and these materials would certainly be a great help for the students to increase their English language knowledge. A rewarding project with a sustainable plan for implementation... Yep, this is why I joined the Peace Corps. I knew that the materials would not only help the students' English skills, but would increase the teaching abilities of the English teachers- affecting generations of Kyrgyz students who would fill the seats at the school in years to come. Much to look forward to here!

Friday, August 10, 2012

taxi taxi!

        (photo taken on taxi ride between Bishkek and Barskoon village- mountainside KG pride!)

I approach the bustling aftovosal (bus station) squinty-eyed from the bright sunshine reflecting from the numerous parked cars. I look to my left at my trusty Bishkek taxi driver who smirks and then promptly swings his door open. He knows what is coming. Before I can even get out of the taxi, drivers approach me from all sides. "Taxi, taxi!!!" "Kochkor? Kochkor???" "Cholpon-Ata?!" It's hard to keep a straight face and not look like a surprised tourist... especially with a backpacker's backpack that makes me stick out like a soar thumb. It's overwhelming yet ultimately the typical scene at the aftovosal. The drivers are running around trying to snag riders to fill up their cars so that they can just hit the road already.

They begin to get more aggressive and start grabbing for my pack. I look at the group and simply say "No, Barskoon. I'm going to Barskoon.. Near Karakol. Are any of you going there?" That cleared at least half of them out of the mob. One driver said "Okay" and grabbed my bag and led me to his car. We arrived at his empty car, which right away sent the signal that I could be waiting for a while for other riders. After an hour of waiting and getting moved around 3 times, I finally ended up with a driver who lived in Barskoon. Thank goodness.

I ride off with Jemir Baike, who is telling me that we are picking up the others just outside of town. We arrive at a "neighborhood" on the outskirts of town and pull up to a small concrete house. A very young mother and her 3 children are waiting for us. She explains that they are going to Barskoon to "have a rest" near the lake and will stay with her sister. After Jemir breaks down a bike and some ride-able children's toys, we hit the road for our nearly 5 hour journey. The Eje explains to me how her husband works with volunteers in Bishkek she wishes that a volunteer would live with them because she would like to learn some English. Jemir chimes in and says he has known past volunteers in Barskoon, asking me if I knew the volunteers from 5 and even 10 years ago. Not wanting to disappoint him, I tell him no, that I was only a young teenager when some of them were serving.

Jemir tells me all about his 3 children, all of whom live in Bishkek and either attend university or live and work in the city. He tells me that he comes to Bishkek as often as he can to visit his children. He also tells me that he loves my name- "Amanda. Amaaaaaandaaaaaa. Beautiful name", he says in Kyrgyz. Every chance he gets, he uses my name for the remainder of the taxi ride.

We attempt an ongoing conversation for as long as my Kyrgyz conversational skills would allow before Jemir turns up the music and one of the boys in the backseat sings along with the Kyrgyz song on the radio. After several stops and several miles of travel, Jemir asks me if I'd like to stop for a swim. Thinking he's joking, I laugh at him, only to find that he is indeed serious. In my mind, we were on a schedule- I mean it should only take about 4.5 hours to get to Barskoon, right? Pushing my American "tight schedule" mindset out, I tell him I'd stop but I probably wouldn't get in. The Eje in the backseat wouldn't have it, though, so onward to Barskoon we went.

After arriving in Barskoon, I realized I'd made some new friends on my journey. We all exchanged phone numbers and hugs as we were dropped off. The avenues in which we can meet new people and hear their stories are endless... if we're open to the journey. Here's to many more taxi rides and new friends to come!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

a peek at Democracy Camp, etc.

There was a thunderstorm on the first night of Democracy Camp!

                            The campers reading about the democratic process.

                           Team blue brainstorming about creating their own democratic nation.

                      The campers present their fictitious democratic nations to the rest of the camp.

I had the pleasure of meeting the U.S. Ambassador to The Kyrgyz Republic at the Swearing-in ceremony. Ambassador Spratlen just happens to be a fellow Northwest girl! :)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jade The Blade.

                                          (wheat field, Barskoon village, Kyrgyzstan)

"May I practice my English with you? Please?" A young, tall, Russian girl approaches me confident and beaming with excitement. Even though she was one of the campers, she looked mature, maybe a few years younger than I. But I knew that sometimes, looks could be deceiving... "Absolutely! What's your name? How old are you?" I asked, glad to be speaking a language I felt comfortable with. "I'm Tanya! I am 14 years old." (or, "Jade The Blade", as she would later choose as her camp name) "No way!" I thought to myself and apparently also said out loud... "You look and seem much older than 14...." I replied honestly. "Yes, people tell me this all of the time. I think it is because I am tall." She spoke her English with such ease and free of mistakes... this was something I'd not yet experienced in Kyrgyzstan and especially not with someone as young as my new friend. "Well maybe so, but you're speaking English so well as well! This is very unusual for people your age, my dear.." "Oh yes, thank you very much! I study English a lot because I want to go to university in America. Maybe not at Harvard, but I would like to go to state university. Is this correct to say? A state university?" My young friend was blowing me away. Most 14 year old American teenagers have barely started thinking about which university they will attend (unless their parents have already decided for them ;).

Meeting my friend Jade The Blade was my introduction to the high school aged campers at a "Democracy Camp" put on by an American organization known as "IFES". Around 50 bright, talented, free thinking high schoolers were selected (based on submitted written essays) to participate in the 10 day Democracy Camp. I had the privilege of working with IFES and these young, promising individuals for one week. Soon after meeting Jade, I met many other 'youngins with incredibly impressive English speaking skills. Campers spent their morning in "lessons" regarding democracy and the democratic process. This information is invaluable to the campers for several reasons, one of those being that Kyrgyzstan is a democratic parliamentary republic, and it's important for the youth to be aware of how the government in the country works. Corruption exists, and the campers recognize this unfortunate fact, but they believe in progression towards a promising future for this country they call home. Several of the kids aspire to be politicians and even international diplomats. To say that I was impressed with these youth would be an understatement. We ended our work at the camp by teaching the kids the Cha Cha Slide... nothing like a 'lil nugget of silly American culture for the kids to remember us by ;)

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until my next post to put up some pictures of the Democracy Camp. I'm in the city for a few days before I head back to Barskoon (a.k.a. "home") and later next week start a youth critical thinking and leadership camp with some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Jakshe Colingez! (Stay well!)

Monday, July 16, 2012

a surprise inside.

Lets remember back to a time of Cracker Jack boxes... a simpler time. Honestly, I didn't even like Cracker Jacks all that much but the surprise inside was always worth it! I remember when my brothers and I were addicted to playing with Pogs- and behold! Pogs were the surprise in the Cracker Jacks. Priceless.

My experience with my Eje has resembled a Cracker Jack surprise for me. This strong woman, in her late 30's, raising 2 sons while her husband is driving a truck half the time. She has a tough shell- something I can tell even though we don't speak the same native tongue. She loves to laugh and has many friends who visit her- I can tell she is adored by many people. She's not overly affectionate, which is a common characteristic of Kyrgyz women whose lives are overloaded with household responsibilities. Though, each time I've been sick, she's nursed me back to health in the comfort of my room. Although once I'm healthy again, the tough shell is back on with her fast speaking Kyrgyz. I wondered if my Eje really liked me, or if she sometimes looked at me as a burden- someone she could barely communicate with and who got sick a lot. Last night my question was answered.

I'm plastered up against the inside of the small taxi with 3 Kyrgyz women to the right of me sandwiched in the back seat. "Amanda, tura?" I looked to my side and noticed a 20 year old Kyrgyz girl I'd met my first day in the village. "Oh, hi!"I felt bad for not recognizing her but quickly forgot as I had to think fast and put my newly learned Kyrgyz skills to work. We began talking and before long, I noticed the astonished stares from the 2 other Ejes that this white girl was speaking Kyrgyz. Of course, one of the Ejes invited me to Chai Eech at her house. We drank tea, ate watermelon, and fresh bread with honey. When I left, she gave me an grocery bag full of raspberries. You couldn't have slapped the permagrin from my face. A Chai Eech get-to-know-you conversation with a family whom I didn't know conducted entirely in Kyrgyz... I felt as though I'd graduated.

While on this high, I head home to find the 20 year old Kyrgyz girl from the taxi and my Eje drinking tea. I set the raspberries down and tell them to "je!" (eat!). My Eje asked me who gave them to me with a slightly offended look on her face. Still struggling with Kyrgyz names, I told her I'd already forgotten the names. She said just as long as they knew that I was her "kuhz" (girl/daughter), then she'd eat the raspberries with me. There it was! I'd found my Eje's soft side- she was territorial over me. With only 2 days with them left, I ran to my room and grabbed the gifts I had for her and her family. A shot glass with an American flag (they love the vodka here), some Oregon jam, a book of postcards from Portland, and a nice bottle of wine I'd bought in Bishkek. She immediately opened the jam and started feeding some to my baby brother- success! My Eje then grabbed my hand and said she never wanted me to forget her. She took one of her rings off her finger and put it on mine. Both our eyes got teary and we embraced for our first hug. I'd found the sweet surprise inside my Eje- and she did a good job of hiding it!

A terrible picture, but a picture nonetheless. Here are some of the members of my current host family: My baby brother, Aidoniz, My 14 year old cousin, Nortelik, and myself.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


A thunderstorm booms just outside a small corner of the world I call my room. Turning the lights on would only interrupt the natural show of luminosity unfolding before my eyes. What an incredibly powerful show of might, a thunderstorm.  Many people are easily frightened by this illustration of booming sounds and light. However, thunderstorms always cause me to think. I remember back to the most incredible thunderstorm I’ve witnessed to date. I happened to be on a plane flying down the east coast, over the Atlantic Ocean to the Dominican Republic. I watched below me as the blanket of clouds lit up in swift sparks of lightening striking one strand after another in a rapid armed battle on the ocean. I imagine this is what a nighttime battle looks like. Flashes of light as the opposing sides open fire on each other. So there I had it, the clouds at war over the ocean, with only the beams of lightening to use as ammunition. For over an hour, I gazed wondrously at the most astonishing natural light show known to man.

It is late Saturday night in Peervomaiskey, a small village in rural Kyrgyzstan, which I temporarily call home. The baby boy (whom I refer to as “tamposhka” meaning “cute, chubby baby”) wails in the room next door, I assume from the booming of the thunder. The faint sound of Kyrgyz pop music drones down the hall from the kitchen where Erbol, the 9-year-old boy and his 13-year-old cousin are almost certainly playing a game of chess. My Kyrgyz family, including the children, typically stay up late, often past midnight. The overwhelming majority of Kyrgyz families do not eat their last meal of the day until somewhere between the hours of 9pm and 1am.

My Eje (honorable term referring to women older then yourself, also meaning “older sister”) is attempting to distract the sweet Tamposhka from his tears by singing to him a sweet Kyrgyz song which I can only assume is a lullaby. In Kyrgyzstan, the women are allowed 3 years of maternity leave after they give birth. In a conversation about professions with my Eje, she informed me that she is a Russian language teacher meanwhile explaining the “3 years off” standard to me. After which, she asked me how long women in the states are allowed for maternity leave. She was astounded when she heard my response. She thought I must’ve been pronouncing my words incorrectly (which routinely happens…) or I was confusing the words for “year” and “month”. When I assured her I indeed was not, she simply gasped and shook her head.

The concept of “family” is so incredibly important in this culture. In fact, the family card trumps all others. During introductions, Kyrgyz people are more likely to ask about your family even before inquiring about your profession. I was slightly shocked (in proper pretentious American fashion) when my host family inquired about my parent’s ages in our initial, introductory conversation. This concept of age is an entirely customary inquiry in Kyrgyzstan for one very important reason: respect. In Kyrgyz culture, respect is determined by age, and age is a factor of upmost importance in well, all settings. I made the mistake only once of referring to my Eje by her first name alone before my language teacher corrected me. “Amanda, you should always refer to people older than yourself as “Eje” or “Baike”. These are terms of respect. Please only call her “Ainura Eje”.” Note taken.

I realize I promised pictures of my host family in my previous post… I must report that I have yet to capture some. I’m working on it! Stay tuned! 


Monday, June 4, 2012

Chai Eech!

Chai Eech! One of the most common, if not THE most commonly used phrase in Kyrgyzstan. These people love their tea. Chai Eech or “drink tea” is the term used for exactly that, drinking tea, or eating food, spending time with friends at your home, visiting friends at their home, and the list goes on and on. A neighbor may stop you on the street for Chai Eech or a friend may invite you over for late night Chai Eech on any given night. This collectivist culture’s focus is not hard to miss. The Kyrgyz absolutely love spending time around other people. It’s a beautiful concept that we Americans often drop the ball on. We value our space, alone time, and independence greatly- often to a fault for some. I have yet to meet someone in Kyrgyzstan who lives on their own!

There is so much more I could say about my time in Kyrgyzstan thus far… the struggles with language(s), the hospitality of the local host families, the excitable children playing in the streets, packed Marshrutka rides, the incredible “banya” (a.k.a. sauna + bucket bath), the breathtaking mountains, fried nan (bread), changing my name for children because the beginning is a dirty word in Kyrgyz (ha!), a hill conquering hike, Janul the café lady, my wonderful freckle faced 7 year old ini (little brother), and so much more! Often, I have to remind myself I’ve only been in Kyrgyzstan just under a month… it already feels like several months!

Stay tuned, pictures of the host family to come!

Friday, May 18, 2012

7 hours.

7 hours.  The first of three flights to Kyrgyzstan. You never know whom you’ll be seated next to on a flight. The lengthy international flights are especially interesting for this reason of seating... A chance meeting, a random allocation of travelers, yet often, something as simple as a seating assignment can easily be an intriguing discovery.

“Ouch!” Exclaimed the young, attractive, brown haired girl in the window seat directly to my right. She squeezed her index finger, which had been cut by the sharp edge of the foil covering her hot plate chicken, rice, and vegetables. “Oh no…” was all I could muster in sympathy for her small wound. “This foil just cut my finger! Can you believe that?” I could now make out her lovely accent among her well-spoken English. “No! That is terrible… would you like me to ask her for a band aid?” I motion to the flight attendant who had just handed the hot plates to us. “No. The open air will help it heal much quicker.” She was absolutely right. “You know, I couldn’t help but notice the papers you were reading were in Cyrillic…” I confess to her. I had studied the Cyrillic Alphabet a little in preparation for learning the Kyrgyz and Russian languages. “Russian. They are in Russian. The papers are my thesis for my master’s program in the Ukraine and I’m defending it on Monday morning.” Impressive, and as it turned out, this was the first of many impressive facets I learned about my soon to be friend.

Born and raised in Ukraine, fluent in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, Nastia (as she prefers over her given name of Anastasia) and I began what would be a nearly 6 hour long conversation that lasted the remainder of our “short” flight. We shared our diverse experiences from our lives thus far. Though, all I really wanted was to hear more of Nastia’s incredibly remarkable journey. Finishing high school and beginning college at the young age of 16, she balanced between 10-15 subjects a semester while taking English classes in addition to her university schooling. In her English classes, Nastia had an American English Teacher who would, a few short years later, become her husband. However, the story of this young couple’s relationship did not come without incredible hardship. A beautiful, romantic story of love crossing borders, language barriers, and the red tape of endless embassies… Nastia and her husband are now together and both successfully thriving in higher education in the U.S. A master’s degree in engineering, with specific interest in renewable energy, Nastia is now pursuing her second bachelor’s degree in physics while her husband works his way through law school.

A passion for education and academics, her wonderful family in Ukraine, her sweet husband, and a shared passion for adorable baby animals, Nastia and I found that we had quite a bit more in common than we might have originally thought. More accomplished than I at the young age of 22, Nastia’s maturity far surpasses her age in years.

My fortunate meeting with lovely Nastia brought me to the realization of a crucial message... This is what life is all about. Chance meetings with people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, passions, and pursuits. Learning from each other, listening to each other, respecting one another, and the mutual sharing of experiences- so much of our world problems could be solved by these simple discoveries. Listening to and respecting each other… what a simple idea. Hoping for many more “chance meetings” over these next 2+ years.  :)

Monday, May 7, 2012

home: (noun) a place of residence or refuge.

I've had the privilege of spending the past nearly 2 months with my family at home in the Northwest. I can't think of a better way to prepare for a grand adventure than basking in my roots. Whether you call it The City of Bridges, Stumptown, The Rose City, or the new cultural hipster phenomenon referred to as "Portlandia", Portland is my home and houses some of the best people I know. From visits from best friends, BBQs in the backyard, game nights, new memories with family, trips to the coast, to a lovely graduation causing one family to nearly burst with pride- my time at home has reminded me, as it always does, how truly blessed I am.

A glimpse of my time at home:

See you later, America!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Assignment Accepted.

I tiredly stumble in the front door after a long day of work to find my roommates sitting on the couch. "Did either of you check the mail yet..?" I ask expectantly. "No.. But there was a package left for you on the doorstep." My heart started beating faster. Why the racing? I've known the package was coming. The Peace Corps had notified me days earlier that an "Invitation Package" had been mailed to me. But still, this pre-knowledge didn't halt the racing. The surreal, raw, pending reality had hit.. and it had a name, a job detail, and a time frame.

Like any learned student of the information age, I immediately pull out my laptop to google The Kyrgyz Republic. I spend the next few hours crouched on the floor of my large walk-in closet reading all of the materials provided by The Peace Corps on this Central Asian country as well as scouring the nearly endless depths of the Internet. I spend the following week researching and more importantly thoughtfully and prayerfully considering my upcoming decision.

Confirmation came in many forms. The "many" part was easily my greatest confirmation. The subject line of the acceptance email to The Peace Corps read: "Accept Verification for The Kyrgyz Republic", and went on to detail "I, Amanda Lawson, am accepting my invitation to serve as a Secondary Education Teacher Peace Corps Volunteer in The Kyrgyz Republic, departing May 10, 2012..."

This blog has a few purposes. First, it's an easy way to share my experiences along this journey, both joyful and challenging, with my friends and family back here in the US. Second, I'd hope that at times, this blog would serve as a voice and an advocate for the Kyrgyz people- their triumphs (whether small or large) and struggles. Lastly, this blog serves as a timeless documentation of a period of time in my life. So that maybe one day I can get a "hey mom, that's pretty cool" out of at least one of my kids ;)

See below a 'lil geography lesson :)