Crouched next to the fire, I warm my hands as my Afghan neighbor fans smoke into the heavens. The moon illuminates the mountains, and then the valley swallows the light before it can reach us. Ramadan began last night with the new moon and we’re breaking our first daily fast. The old woman heats oil in the kazan and fries some flattened dough. The sweet, oily smell wafts through the cold air and our neighbor shoos it upward.
“We need to remind our ancestors of everything God gave them while on earth,” she tells me.
Whoa. I’m so far away from home. So far away from everything that’s familiar.
When my husband, Hans, and I volunteered for the Peace Corps, we had only one request: don’t send us to Central Asia, that unknown region of tangled borders and ancient cultures. I envisioned living somewhere warm. Warm with lots of tropical fruit. Instead, Peace Corps sent us to Kyrgyzstan, with its icy, dark winters and endless steppe. Ah well. As every volunteer knows, the demand for flexibility comes up repeatedly during service. It’s key to success and — now that I think about it — to sanity.
Flexibility meant trading in our big city life in coastal Los Angeles for life in a rural village in southern Kyrgyzstan, near the Uzbekistan border. We joked that this would be our honeymoon, because we quickly got married one month before departure. So, flexibility meant exchanging ten days on the beach for two years with limited electricity and no running water. And while we envisioned sharing a small apartment, we lived with a Kyrgyz family. Flexibility meant trading some autonomy for a loving, extended family. And once a vegetarian, I hunted for quail and slept beneath a wolf pelt. All were excellent trades.
Flexibility meant just going with it. One morning, I hopped into a taxi for the 90-minute ride to the nearby city of Jalalabad.
“Assalam aliekum.” I greeted the driver. “I’m on my way to Jalalabad. How are you?” I asked him in Kyrgyz. I loved spending my Saturdays there, where I read emails from family and strolled through the vibrant bazaar, looking for fun ingredients and talking with my favorite vendors.
The driver turned his head. “Are you an American? Speaking Kyrgyz!” He exclaimed. “I’m taking you to meet my mother. You’ll be a guest at my home.”
I could speak Kyrgyz, but not well enough to explain that I needed some time to be alone and dive into my own culture — hopping online to read my favorite blogs and updates from home. How was my sister doing with her triathlon training? What was my mom experimenting with in the kitchen?
I gently declined the invite. And off we went…to his mother’s house. It was a breezy day with a hint of spring. I spent the afternoon chatting with his family and drinking fresh milk in their courtyard. That afternoon, I realized that I was home.
Flexibility could also be heartbreaking. Teaching English class, I asked my students to write down a secret about themselves. Next class, I would read the secrets and we would play guess who.
“For example,” I told my students, “I am an awful singer!” They laughed. Later that night, I read through some the secrets written in rough English. “My sister married, but brother died,” said one. “I didn’t see friends on summer because I was very sick,” said another. And “I suddenly visited with one boy on a bus.” These secrets were sweet and sad. And so personal that I didn’t feel I could read them aloud in class. Yet another lesson lost in translation. But I was earning trust from my students and that seemed more important.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I strived to build community and loved the cultural exchange because that’s a journey that can lead to peace.
Working with Mercy Corps has allowed me to continue this journey. I’ve made three trips to Tajikistan on very different assignments. Central Asia is the only place I want to go these days— the mountains literally take my breath and I’ve been warmly welcomed. “Islam tells us that guests are a gift from God,” my Tajik colleagues tell me. How humbling. And my newfound flexibility has been critical to success. Whether detained at a military checkpoint or dancing for three hours at another wedding, I find myself grateful for the experience.
I love what Eleanor Roosevelt said: “It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.”
I believed. I joined the Peace Corps and work for Mercy Corps because we live in a world where the four richest people control more wealth than 50 developing countries, where one of the most dangerous things a woman can do is become pregnant, and where 2.2 million children die of diarrhea every year. I believe and now I work at change.
But I admit that my motivation isn’t simply altruistic. Living in another country ignites everyday life as I try unfamiliar foods, struggle with a new language or take part in a ritual unknown to me. Fieldwork is incredibly challenging and demands creative thinking. This work makes it impossible to just drift through the day. And let’s face it, Hans and I agree that a honeymoon filled with beaches and juicy mangoes would have been, well, less interesting.