The airline representative tossed my duffel bag crammed full of funky felt slippers and Kalpaks — traditional Kyrgyz hats — onto the conveyor belt. Early for my flight, I found a seat near my departure gate with a view of the tarmac. I glanced at my watch — it was just before 8 a.m. I knew Alymbek, the security inspector for Mercy Corps/Kompanion’s office in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was greeting staff with that same giant smile he gave me every morning I passed him on my way into the office.
Every day across the globe, heartfelt goodbyes are exchanged between foreign and local humanitarian staff. Employment contracts begin and end. Grants are awarded and spent. Programs are implemented and completed. And, in this case, interns come and go. According to the statistic around the world, 95 percent of Mercy Corps team members are nationals of the countries in which they work. Belonging to the other five percent I realize friendships formed with local staff, although inherently transitory, are an invaluable reward of fieldwork.
Friends in the field are often defined by the sum of very simple moments. A genuine smile, like Alymbek’s daily greeting, can make all the difference when working in remote locations under stressful conditions. Even a spontaneous trip to the rural reaches of a country to monitor a program or survey beneficiaries can be a catalyst for making an unexpected friend. I enjoyed the name-dropping by Mercy Corps staff members who referenced their enduring friendships they have with expatriate staff, some dating back to 1994, when Mercy Corps opened its first office in Kyrgyzstan.
The plane climbed above snow-capped peaks as I watched massive mountain ranges slip beneath the cloud cover. Thoughts of friends and family had me anticipating their amusement and interest in the souvenirs and anecdotes I’ve collected from this fascinating region of Central Asia. Surely some will ask what I miss most about my time in the field. Recalling cherished moments and loud laughter traded with local staff members, I will reply without hesitation — my friends.