Joining the Peace Corps – an FAQ for Interested Parties

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Since returning from the Peace Corps, I’ve frequently received e-mails from friends or friends-of-friends who are considering joining. They ask some great questions, and I thought the answers might be of use to the general public.

If you want my opinion in 2 sentences: the Peace Corps was an incredible experience, and I would really encourage someone to do it if that person were able to be truly self-starting in a challenging environment with very little guidance. It’s not for everyone, but they call it the “toughest job you’ll ever love,” and that’s really true if you make the most out of it.

Of course, the following is all “officially unofficial,” and consists of my own opinion alone. You will find some real opinions about both the good and bad things to consider before joining, and also some special “tips” on how to increase your chances of the regional placement you want. If you read nothing else, skip to the very last question at the end, which I argue is the most important one to answer to see if Peace Corps is something that would be a good fit for you.

If you have other questions not answered here, please feel free to post in the Comments section and I will do my best to answer in a timely manner. Also check out http://www.peacecorpswiki.org, a great resource for all things PC.

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How long is the Peace Corps commitment? 

Peace Corps service is uniformly 27 months. 3 months of that is training, followed by a full two years of service. While it is certainly an incredibly significant and indeed intimidating time commitment, most volunteers grow to understand why two years is really necessary. For many, the first year is largely concerned with adjusting, learning the local language, and getting to know your community. The second year is when people feel more integrated and confident, and their projects (accomplished together with local partners) really start to take off.

There has been some debate about the PC time commitment in popular news…particularly Nick Kristof’s blog post and the following response in the New Yorker by an actual Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV). I tend to agree with the latter.

Also, yes you can stay past the two years of service. There is an option to extend for a third year, and many of those volunteers do so in the capacity of a “PCV Leader.” They split their time between their job at site, and helping PC train and mentor new volunteers, conduct new site visits, etc. Also, if you want to become a “career PCV” you can sign up for more than one tour and do them back-to-back!

If I don’t like it, can I come back?

Obviously, no one will hold you against your will. Plenty of PCVs “Early Terminate” (ET) for whatever reason, and some don’t even make it past staging (your US-based departure meeting), or the 3 months of Pre-Service Training in country. That is fine and normal, though obviously in an ideal world people would have some foresight about their ability to carry out the commitment, to avoid wasting taxpayer money to begin with. Each country’s ET rates are publicly available, though I would advise against making any real judgments about what that will mean for you. Some volunteers also get medically evacuated, or entire regions or an entire country will be evacuated for safety reasons. This is obviously rare. You’ll find that if you can get through the dark days (and there certainly will be some), your two years of service will pass faster than you’d like, and be forever looked upon as one of the most fulfilling times of your life.

Do you get paid to be a Peace Corps Volunteer?

The definition of a volunteer is someone who offers a service without remuneration, but fear not…Peace Corps doesn’t expect you to have to empty your savings account to get to and live in a country for 27 months. The US Government (and taxpayers) kindly provides you with a round-trip plane ticket and a local-level living stipend to cover food and accommodation. While the sum is very modest and does not leave much room for luxuries, this fact actually makes a world of difference to the Peace Corps experience. Having a local salary makes it easier for you to really integrate into the community you’re working with (taking public transport instead of cabs, shopping at bazaars, etc.), and often placements are not in cities at all but small, rural villages where both costs and standards of living are quite low. The monthly stipend you receive will depend on not only your country, but also your site placement. It is adjusted for cost of living and reviewed regularly.

After volunteers return from Peace Corps, they receive a Readjustment Allowance of $275 per month of service (the 3 months of training do not count). All told, it comes to about $6000 after taxes if you serve the full two years. The allowance is not a “salary,” but is meant to help you get back on your feet after so much time spent abroad, as you reintegrate back to life in the US and possibly the US work force.

Can I pick which country I go to?

You do not get a say in what country you go to, though you do get preferences. One tip with regards to regional placement is to express your preference in a very diplomatic way, phrasing it so that it’s clear you think your skills would be best matched to that community. For example, I spoke Russian, which very few entering volunteers do, and there are a lot of Russian-speaking PC countries so it made sense to not let that skill go to waste. However, they do not look favorably upon people who give ultimatums (“I will only go to SE Asia and nowhere else”) because that is not in line with the spirit of service and being sent to where they decide you are most needed. So you can express the preference, but you really should prepare yourself to be sent anywhere and realize that each placement will be uniquely interesting and challenging in its own way. They also might not be anything like what you envision — many of the volunteers I served with lived in Soviet-architecture urban cities where their students’ phones were nicer than theirs, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their work cut out for them.

The “insider info” is that you should time your leave dates carefully if you really do prefer a certain country/region. PC is notoriously bad at making logical placements (plenty of people with no language experience in a region whereas others with lots of language experience get sent elsewhere, etc.). The real thing that seems to motivate placements in the huge bureaucratic application/nomination process is timing. Therefore, if you give them a projected departure date that coincides with a certain area and they need to siphon people into that slot as soon as possible in order to have a full class, you will get sent there. The departure date schedule you want to look at is here: http://www.peacecorpswiki.org/Timeline. For example, looking at this timeline you can easily see that if you wanted to go to the Middle East, your only two options would be in March (Morocco) or October (Jordan). If you said you were available by/want to leave by June/July, you wouldn’t get either of those placements.

Can I pick which sector I work in?

Regarding substantive placement type, typical liberal arts majors are very likely to be sent to teach English unless you make a very strong case for why you should be put in another sector. Work with NGOs or student projects might qualify you more for community or youth development, while an economics/business degree might qualify you for business development. Since health is more of a niche arena, most people placed in it would probably have previous experience/education or strong interest. Overall, English teachers outnumber all of the other types of PCVs, sometimes by a lot (depending on country). Within education, you could also be placed in primary, middle, high school, university or teacher training. All of those are very different but if you have no experience teaching you might just be assigned to whatever has the most need in your particular country. Keep in mind that even English teachers have pretty flexible schedules in the PC for the most part, and a lot of spare time to do community work, side projects, write grants for their schools or local NGOs, etc.

During the application process, you will be allowed to state your preference for both region and sector, and the strength of those preferences. Use this opportunity to make the best case for yourself given your experiences and qualifications, both in essays and with your interviewer.

I hear the Peace Corps is getting more selective. How should I build my resume?

I honestly wouldn’t worry too much about resume-building. They accept plenty of people right out of college whose only “work” experience is school activities. They ask you to list absolutely all of your hobbies and skills, including volunteer work, previous student positions, and language/travel, and consider all of that to be relevant to the app. They say it’s getting “more competitive” and that only “25%” of applicants get accepted. Really this number simply reflects the large amount of attrition during the bureaucratic process that takes on average 1-2 years (in other words, many people find other opportunities before PC comes through, or drop out of the process for whatever reason). It also reflects people who do not pass the medical stage, which I will tell you right now is pretty trying/expensive. You need a full examination and lots of forms filled out about any preexisting conditions (including allergies, asthma, etc.) and if you haven’t had your wisdom teeth removed they might make you do that as well. The bottom line is that most people who can stick through the extremely bureaucratic process, wait long enough, and say the right things during their interview will get in, regardless of experience. The only things you really need are US citizenship and a Bachelor’s degree. I personally do not think this is a good thing because they sacrifice standards for and quality of volunteers in favor of big number pushes, particularly after Congress increased the PC budget and they started adding volunteers to different countries. You will find PCVs to be largely representative of your average American college graduate, without any kind of “cream of the crop” filter like there is for TFA or other similar programs.

Will I receive health care in the Peace Corps? What are some of the health risks?

Peace Corps in-country health care is some of the best you will have in your life. It is free, comprehensive, includes full coverage of pretty much anything you could have (including visual/dental), a full medical kit that you take with you to site, and 24-hour in-country doctors (called Peace Corps Medical Officers, or PCMOs) to answer your concerns by phone. If something should happen to you at your site that requires medical attention, PC will either arrange for a local doctor to see you, or provide transportation for you to come to the main country office to see your PCMO. If it is serious and cannot be resolved in country, they will “Med-Evac” you to a nearby country with proper facilities, on the PC dime.

After Peace Corps, you have the option of signing on to “After Corps” health care at your own expense. They will give you brochures about the various plans at your Close of Service conference.

As for health risks, you should know that traveling comes hand in hand with some risky health situations. If you are in a tropical area you certainly may be exposed to unfamiliar diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, etc. Sanitation conditions and infrastructure deteriorate so many volunteers experience stomach issues at some point or another. PC will give you ways to treat/filter your own water, which you should use rigorously to avoid giardia. Again, PC health care is great in country so you will be well-taken care of if something should befall you, and these things should not affect you in the long-term. If for some reason they do and you incur a long-term ailment as a result of your service, your post-PC medical expenses will be covered by the USG.

 

What about safety?

Peace Corps has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for safety concerns of volunteers, including a high rate of rape and sexual assault. I obviously have followed this quite closely since our program in Kazakhstan was evacuated for related reasons (preceded by safety-related evacuations/suspensions of PC programs in NigerMali and Honduras).

Overall, all I can say is that the Peace Corps does take the safety of its volunteers seriously, but you will also be alone at your site with nary an administrative or PC-related officer in sight for the vast majority of your service. There is really not much they can do for you besides provide preventative training on how to be aware and use common sense, and of course provide health and evacuation-related services in the aftermath of an incident. If you do feel your safety is at risk for whatever reason, call your Safety & Security Officer (every post has one) they will take appropriate measures, up to evacuation. I encourage volunteers to put pepper spray on your packing lists (particularly females), keep a “go-bag” in case of emergencies, and just in general to use common sense. PC also tells you over and over again that alcohol is a big fueler of safety-related incidents, yet nearly every group of young PCVs has volunteers that abuse it during their service. Don’t be that person.

What about criticisms of the PC, such as use of technology or development methods not appropriate to local customs, PCVs returning as “economic hitmen” to utilize their experience for mercenary purposes, etc.?

The criticisms you can read about PC as a development agency I’m sure are legitimate, but could really be applied to all development agencies. Whenever you have outsiders trying to create change in a developing country you run the risk of non-compliance with cultural norms, insensitivity, misused technological advancement and other such issues. Check out the blog Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like…it’s a comical and pretty disillusioned satire on the state of expats in development. That being said, as I said before I think PC is a far more “grassroots” experience that lends itself better to truly understanding the culture and working within it instead of outside of it, compared to the Foreign Service, UN, World Bank or big INGOs who often employ foreign expat staff that get paid a lot of money, have maids/drivers and live in a bubble. Even though it’s hard to live on a local PC salary sometimes, it truly does make a huge difference because you are fully integrated into the community you’re working with, and often that community is not in the capital city but instead in a small and isolated village. You may very well be the only foreigner who lives there. So really, whether or not those problems end up occurring will be entirely up to you and not up to Peace Corps as an institution.

PCVs returning to their countries of service to be “economic hitmen” is not really a real trend. I’m sure it’s been known to happen once in awhile, but that would certainly be the exception and not the rule. Most RPCVs who come back from service stay connected to their countries but do not necessarily go back for work. They spend their time in normal state-side jobs or grad school and continue representing their country of service through Peace Corps’ “third goal,” which is bringing knowledge of the country to Americans (who often know nothing about it). Of course, you do have a disproportionate number of RPCVs going into jobs like development or government work (particularly the Foreign Service), and it is a great jumping off point for that if you are interested. It gives you instant “field credibility” that is invaluable if you want to continue working abroad.

If you could give one piece of advice to me (a prospective Peace Corps applicant), what would it be?

The #1 thing I would like to tell people about the experience before they join: The job and experience in every way is very self-initiated and self-controlled. You need an incredible amount of proactivity, personal responsibility and motivation to control your own schedule and make the experience into what YOU want it to be. Think of PC as just a credible agency to get you started with some training and a regular stipend (however small) to live off of. The rest is completely up to you. It is not “likely” that your site placement will go wrong or that your local counterparts will misunderstand you or that you will have culture shock or that you might feel bored/misused/unclear of what your role is at any given time — these things are practically a given. So your job is to work through that by being super proactive, creating and following through on plans of your own (which obviously will be constantly changing as you collect new information about your community), not blaming PC for intrinsic problems that occur everywhere in developing countries or expect them to solve your issues with some silver bullet, and hunkering down and learning the local language to help you navigate and be effective. I cannot tell you how many PCVs I met who were unable to do these things for whatever reason and ended up having an (at best) unproductive or (at worst) miserable experience.

So the #1 thing I would ask yourself is: Can I govern my own time and responsibilities in a difficult setting? Do I need “hand-holding” or rely on administrative support (which by the way in PC, like in any government agency, is often inefficient/bureaucratic/totally illogical) in order to be productive? If so, then the Peace Corps is probably not for you. But one of the best things it teaches its volunteers (those who actually end up doing their job, in any case) is how to be a self-starter and shape things based on your own will and ability. As hard as that is, it is also incredibly rewarding to look back on your two+ years and be able to say that you accomplished many things together with your community through no dictation from above or any kind of real “boss” telling you what indicators to fulfill or what schedule to keep.

Posted in advice, Peace Corps, volunteerism | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Savvy Traveling – Burma/Myanmar

Burma/Myanmar has made Top 10 travel lists for 2012 because of the recent opening of what was one of the world’s most reclusive regimes. The largest country in Southeast Asia, even its name causes confusion among potential travelers. Known historically as Burma, the new political regime re-dubbed the country Myanmar in a spat of changes to all monikers evoking the revolutionary sentiments that gripped the global political stage. Aung San Suu Kyi, also known as “The Lady,” is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burma’s most recognized political figure both at home and abroad. Her father (General Aung San) was a political hero and after many years raising a family in Britain, she was called home to lead the new political revolution to free Burma and guide it into a new era of growth and democracy. However, she was put under house arrest by the government for nearly two decades, which ended only in the last few years. Since then, she has provided new encouragement to tourists as Burma opens its doors both literally and metaphorically to foreign visitors and ideas.

That woefully inept summary leads me to the real point of this post, which is to assist travelers who wish to travel to Burma/Myanmar. The country still lacks many modern amenities such as ATMs, online booking systems, and reliable telecommunications or internet. The sea of conflicting (mis)information available online makes travel planning intimidating, as do the constantly changing rules and regulations that make older postings obsolete. For the slew of travelers who will undoubtedly want to plan their trips in the near future, I want to offer thorough and up-to-date advice as of the time of writing (July 2012).

Visa
Even tourist visas are highly controlled by the Myanmar government, and all applications now have a mandatory “work history” section. At the risk of never being able to enter the country again, it behooves me to tell you that I flat-out lied about my work history on the application form to the embassy in Bangkok, and nothing came of it. I left everything out about my NGO and US government-related work, and listed an age-old position as a library assistant in college. I also said I was currently a student (this part is at least soon-to-be true!). Anything you list that is remotely close to journalism, TV, communications, etc. puts you at risk for auto-rejection.

It seems, however, that they ask you for verifying documentation in many Myanmar embassies and consulates around Asia (not sure about the one in Washington DC). My friend in Phnom Penh was asked for her business card and a letter from her employer. The application at all of these embassies/consulates also takes several days and is more expensive. However, we met travelers who successfully received their visas in Seoul, Beijing, Kunming, Kuala Lumpur, etc. Ostensibly they were not in “problematic” professions, however.

By far the most common and convenient route is to get your visa in and fly out of Bangkok. Air tickets from Bangkok to Yangon are also dirt cheap on Air Asia (ours were $100 RT), which increases the incentive. The entire visa process is also cheaper – less than $30 USD for normal processing or about $40 USD for a rush one-day option, as opposed to the >$100 charged at some other embassies. You can pursue the one-day rush option only if you show a booked air ticket departing within 24 hours (though if it’s 48 or 72 hours, they might still allow you to do it if you plead/pay the extra fee). The total fee for the rush visa is 1280 Thai bhat, or $41. It is extremely easy – go in to queue in the line before the embassy opens at 9 am, turn in all your documents, and come back for pick-up between 3:30 and 4:30 pm on the same day. They are closed on the weekends however as well as Thai and Burmese holidays.

Directions to get to the Myanmar embassy from the Bangkok BTS Station:

The embassy is located at 132 Sathorn Nua Road. Take the BTS train to Surasak station, and go to exit #3. Turn right after you go down the stairs and walk down Sathorn Rd., a wide street (traffic goes in two directions with a divide down the middle). After about 200 meters, you should see St. Louis hospital marked in clear lettering on your right, across the street. Turn left down that intersection and you will see the embassy (marked on a plain gray wall).

Myanmar Embassy, Bangkok

[Photo source, though beware the text is outdated!]

Further notes about the visa: you must turn in the application form (front is basic info, back is mandatory work history section), two passport pictures (one paper clipped and one glued), a COPY of your current passport ID page, and of course the passport itself. You can take photos, copy your passport and obtain glue/paper clips and application forms at a lovely little copy place right down the street from the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. As you walk down the street away from the main road, you will see a yellow sign that says “PASSPORT COPIES,” pointing to the right. Turn right down the alley and the copy place will come up shortly on your right. Passport copies cost 5 Thai bhat (less than 20 cents), and the app forms/glue/clips/advice are all complimentary. These guys deserve some kind of medal.

Visa on arrival in the Yangon airport was recently made available for business visas only. The relaxed regulations do NOT apply to tourist visas; you will still need to get your visa in advance.

Currency

One of the most inconvenient things about travel to Burma is the limitation on currency exchange and money acquisition/usage. My sister and I met more than a couple travelers on our trip who had their less-than-pristine bills either changed for a much lesser rate, or downright rejected by the extremely stringent money changers in the country. For some of them, it really ruined their entire trip as they were stuck without cash. Here are the rules and a few debunked myths to keep you afloat:

  1. Bring brand new, pristine US dollars from after the year 2000. The bills may NOT have any folds, tears, or marks. Even the tiniest spot or bend will land you a lower exchange rate, and older or visibly used bills will be flat-out rejected. We cut out pieces of cardboard to put our money between, and I advise keeping those in waterproof envelopes in case of rain. We were told not to bring bills starting with the serial code “CB.” We also heard rumors not to bring 2006 bills, which proved impossible because that was all we could find in both NYC and Beijing, but it ended up being a myth. You may also bring Euro to use/exchange, but I advise against it (some tourist fee rates were quoted as “5 USD OR Euro,” so you would lose money paying in Euro!).
  2. If you are coming from Bangkok, you may exchange your USD bills for pristine bills at no charge from the SuperRich money exchange unit not far from the Myanmar embassy, at 491/5-7 Silom Plaza Building, Silom Road. It is a great and very reliable money exchanger colored in bright orange, and their USD to Thai bhat rate is also excellent. Tell them you are going to Myanmar, and they will know what you need.
  3. Myanmar currency is the kyat (pronounced “jat”), and the highest rate we got as of July 2012 was 878 kyat to 1 USD. The rate is closer to 850 for lower denominations (50, 20, 10 or 5 USD bills), and those too must be pristine. You can get a decent rate (~850) at the airport in Yangon, or you can pay for a taxi from the airport in USD ($5-$6 for the whole taxi, bargain your way down!) and have them take you to Summit Parkview Hotel in the center. There we found a high rate of 870 kyat per 1 USD, but more importantly it is a reliable exchange venue with absolutely no shenanigans. The best rate we found in country however was at the government bank at Inle Lake in Nyaung Shwe (878 kyat per 1 USD), so if you need to exchange more kyat you always can do so later on in your trip.
  4. There are no ATMs available in country that will allow you to withdraw from a foreign bankcard and only a few big hotels in Yangon take credit card at an extremely high surcharge, so you must bring everything you need for your trip with you in cash. This is obviously not ideal as a traveler, but it is some reassurance that petty theft is uncommon in Burma because of the locals’ strict adherence to Buddhism. Still, anything is possible and it is highly advised to split up and hide your bills, and/or use a money belt.
  5. DO NOT use street/black market money changers. Always go to an official bank, or a big international hotel in Yangon such as the one recommended above. Street changers may offer you too-good-to-be-true rates of 900+ kyat on the dollar, only to use “hand magic” while counting out your bills. We met one traveler who discovered too late that he’d actually been given 500 kyat on his dollar at a shady street exchange. We met another traveler who was swindled with a 10-15% exchange fee from her hotel in Yangon. Beware, and re-count all your bills in front of them before you leave!
  6. You will want mostly 100 dollar bills, as they will bring you the best rate. However, contrary to what I often read, you will ALSO want to bring pristine bills in lower denominations, particularly 10s, 5s and 1s. This comes in very handy for negotiating a taxi from the airport, and for all tourist entrance tickets, which generally cost $10 or $5 and can only be paid in USD, not kyat. If you can’t find pristine lower bills or come with only 100s as we did, you can have the Yangon airport exchange your pristine 100 for pristine bills of lower denominations (at no charge).
  7. Contrary to popular belief, over the course of your trip, you may pay for lodging in either USD or kyat, and the best rates are generally in kyat. You should bargain even for hostel rates! Flights MUST be paid for in USD. Everything else (transportation, food, tours or guides, souvenirs) are best negotiated and paid for in kyat, though everyone will also take USD. I will cover information on costs in the next section.
  8. At the end of your trip, be aware of the rules in exchanging leftover kyat. If you exchanged currency at a hotel or anywhere other than an official bank on your trip, you will NOT be able to change your kyat back to dollars at the Yangon airport. They require an official receipt of the original exchange (USD to kyat) that you can only obtain either at the airport itself or a government bank. We saw travelers who were vexed at this situation and ended up stuck with leftover kyat. However if you either obtain an official bank receipt to show the airport exchange, or leave time to go back to the hotel to exchange before you head out to the airport, you will be fine.

Costs

Even more so than for other destinations, knowing true costs of travel is imperative for trips to Burma because you have to bring all your cash with you in advance. Definitely budget a few hundred extra for emergencies, since there is no real way to get money once you’re in country. That being said, below is a list of costs for the savvy budget traveler. We routinely met people on our trip that paid double, triple or 10 times these costs because they didn’t bargain. Tourism is on the rise in Burma and the locals are also savvying up to price gouging, so shop around for the best deal!

Accommodation, Bagan: $12/double room, $8 10/single at local hostel
Accommodation, Inle Lake: $14/double room, $8-10/single at local hostel
Accommodation, Mandalay: $15-20/double room
Full-day bicycle tour guide in Bagan (shared among however many people): $5-10/day
Full-day boat on Inle Lake (shared among up to 6 people): 12,000 kyat (~$14)
Bottled water: 250-300 kyat (tourist prices are 400-500, bargain!)
Street food: 200 kyat for any number of street foods at all the stalls in Central Yangon/elsewhere in the country. This includes a packet of green mangoes, a coconut pancake, a samosa, a bag of spicy vermicelli rounds, etc. Whole, large fruits will be more expensive (1000 kyat for a pomelo).

[Burmese street food: Indian-inspired chickpea curries with samosa; long spring rolls; purple maize; sweet taro-banana stew; small vermicelli rounds; coconut pancakes; fried prawns; goat cheese…]
Restaurant food: 1500 kyat for a fried rice/noodle or vegetarian entrÈe, 2000-3000 kyat for meat/fish dishes, 800-1000 kyat for delicious fruit smoothies/lassis
One-way taxi in Yangon from airport to city: $5-$6 USD, though they’ll quote you at least $10
One-way taxi from Nyaung U town to Nyaung U (Bagan) airport: 4000 kyat by taxi, 3000 kyat by horse cart. May be as much 2x from New/Old Bagan to the airport, since it’s further.
One-way taxi from Heho airport to Nyaung Shwe/Inle Lake: 25,000 kyat. It’s run by the mafia so apparently it really isn’t negotiable. Bunch into groups of 4-5 travelers to share costs!
One-way flights Yangon-Mandalay, Yangon-Bagan, Yangon-Inle: ~$100-110 if you book in Yangon
One-way flight Mandalay-Bagan: $45-50
One-way flight Inle-Bagan: $70-80
One-way bus Yangon-Mandalay: $11-12
One-way bus Mandalay-Bagan: ~$15
One-way bus Inle-Yangon: $17-18
Souvenirs: $5-10/piece for lower-quality lacquerware items at the Bagan temples; more like $20+/piece from the high-end lacquerware workshops, but the quality difference is palpable. ~$5 for sand paintings at the Bagan temples. ~$5 for a beautiful, small-sized hand-painted umbrella (Bagan and Inle, but they’re prettier in Bagan!), $8-15 for larger umbrellas that are waterproof. Books with pictures of Burma run $40-50 easily, and even the crazy photo-copied ones are $8+. Bargain everywhere, rates are better in kyat!

[Burmese crafts: hand-painted umbrellas; books with temple artwork sketches; 15-layer lacquerware that takes months to make, buried in the ground to dry]

[See costs in a nicer spreadsheet form, here]

Traveling in Burma is quite budget-friendly if you are aware of price gouging and can bargain, though accommodation actually costs many times more than the $1-5 backpacker and youth hostels in Thailand/Cambodia. As two people traveling and sharing a room, we spent a total of $700 for both of us ($350 each) for our entire 10-day trip – internal accommodation, flights/busses, food, tours, local transport and souvenirs. We changed $375 USD into kyat and spent the rest in USD, and ended up with the perfect amount of kyat. Our RT tickets from Bangkok on Air Asia cost $100 per person booked about a month in advance.

Booking Internal Flights, Accommodation and Tours
Another tricky thing about traveling to Burma is that you basically cannot book anything from outside the country. The airlines are all government-run and do not have online booking. The hotels and hostels are not listed on any of the normal sites. When I was trying to plan our trip, it was unnerving to leave not knowing where we were going to stay — we joked that if worse came to worst we would temple-squat everywhere!

Turns out there was nothing to fear, and northern-hemisphere summer is actually low tourist season in Burma. We liked it because despite some rainy monsoon nights in Yangon, overall it was a bit cooler than usual (which is still quite hot) and plenty dry in Mandalay/Bagan. If you show up to any hotel or hostel without booking in advance, they are always able to find you a bed. Don’t know how true this will be in a year though, when the tourist industry will in all likelihood blow up!

In the end, all you really need is a name to tell the taxi driver when you show up to a new place. With that in mind, here are my recommendations to get you through:

Mandalay – Royal Guesthouse. Cheap rooms, central location. We stayed at Nylon Hotel down the street which was alright, but a double room was $20/night instead of $15 and the staff wasn’t too friendly. We ended up renting two motorbikes to take us around Mandalay all day, which was fantastic. We paid them $9 for both of us, and they took us to all the major sites – U Pain Bridge, the Mandalay Palace, all the major surrounding temples, and finally sunset up on Mandalay Hill. Saved us a lot of time – we ended up leaving the next day to Bagan because we felt we’d seen a lot.

Bagan – We stayed at Shwe Nadi Guesthouse in the Nyaung U area. I would tentatively recommend it; rooms are pretty clean and even come with air con for as little as $8/night. Bargain because we paid $12 for a shared room with no bathroom attached, but saw better rooms with private baths running for less. Warning however: do not use the bike guide who lives at Shwe Nadi. He was pushy, awkward and at times creepy/inappropriate, and ended up trying to gouge prices on all the tourists who stayed there. If you avoid the scamming though, it’s a fine place to stay at a convenient location (~15-20 minute bike from the temples in Old Bagan, and a short taxi/horse cart ride to the airport). Water is cheaper purchased across the street, and don’t let them charge you more than 25,000 kyat for a shared round-trip taxi-truck to Mt. Popa for a nice day trip (as many as 6-8 people can fit, so share with other guests!).

Inle Lake – I recommend Teakwood Inn, as quite a few backpackers were there and it had a nice central location close to the market. We stayed at Gypsy Inn and I can’t say I recommend it. It was infested with ants, so much so that it was infamous for it among locals. We also shared our room with a loud, chirping gecko that we named Bob. 😛 Go to Smiling Moon Restaurant on the main street of Nyaung Shwe both to eat and to book boat tours, treks and bus tickets. The woman there is very nice and knowledgeable and she will give you a better rate than the hotels: 12,000 kyat for a shared all-day boat, 8,000 kyat for a shared all-day trek guide, and 14,000 kyat for a bus ticket to Yangon. She can also help you arrange tuk-tuk transport to the market, where you can catch a pick-up truck taxi to the bus station.

Can’t recommend lodging in Yangon since we stayed with acquaintances/Couchsurfed, but I can highly recommend CS if you can find a host! 🙂

As for internal flights, Vega Air Ticket Center in downtown Yangon (Bogyoke Aung San Road) is as good a place as any to get your tickets. There are agents in Bangkok close to the Myanmar embassy as well if you want to book there in advance and pay in Thai bhat, but their rates will be a good $30 USD higher. Flights are short within the country and the airlines are actually quite fine. They provide refreshments and even sometimes meals for short flights, as well as blankets – more than I can say for Air Asia! Most of the backpackers we met were bussing instead, but it can be tiring since the roads are not great, the busses can be freezing/sweltering, and the locals tend to be sick on the busses because they are not used to the lurching for whatever reason. If you take an Air-con bus that runs along the main highway (Yangon-Mandalay, Inle-Yangon), be absolutely sure to dress warmly or bring extra layers. You will freeze otherwise and have a very unpleasant, sleepless night!

What to Read

(Full disclosure: sponsored Amazon links:)

Here are some books to get you going on your trip. While I’ve included the standard Lonely Planet, I highly recommend To Myanmar With Love — a travel guide that is more in-depth, written by actual locals and residents, and will take you more off the beaten trail.

Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) (Country Travel Guide)
The “Backpacker’s Bible” to Myanmar; you will see nearly every tourist toting it around. Be warned though that the most recent 2010 edition already contains outdated information/prices! Better to print out this blog post as a supplement.

To Myanmar with Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur (To Asia with Love)
More in-depth travel guide to take you off the beaten trail on your Burmese adventure.

Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
An educated traveler’s one-stop must-read on Myanmar’s history, culture and political situation

Letters from Burma
Aung San Suu Kyi’s famous letters depicting the struggles and triumphs of her native land.

Where To Go
Travel to Burma is quite regimented by the government, and most tourists stick to the “Big 4”: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. While it does feel a bit like you’re being herded around on a set tourist route, all four destinations are plenty interesting and you can easily spend a few weeks covering them all. Tourists are allowed to go to some other destinations that are more off the beaten trail, like stops along the Irrawaddy River or to Bago, a couple hours north of Yangon. However, some areas of the country (for example in the north, where there were recent riots) are completely off-limits and you’d be ill-advised to try to show up there. Your passport number will be taken at every single hotel you stay at and every bus, plane or train ticket you book. I personally wondered about taking a peek at the new capital Naypyidaw, which is of course an artificial urban sprawl set up by the current regime and supposedly doesn’t contain much to see. Not a single tourist we met had ventured there.

Yangon

Mandalay

Inle Lake

Bagan Panoramic

I won’t actually spend much time enumerating where you should go and what you should do at each site while you’re in Burma. There’s always Lonely Planet for that – or even better, do what we did and show up without any guide book at all and ask the locals what to see. There is a lot beyond the LP backpacker’s bible, and sometimes all it takes is some meandering and spontaneous exploration to find it. And if you want to really get off the beaten trail, all it takes is a day trip by bike or trekking outside of the main tourist areas to reach some pretty untouched villages.

I will give a couple of unsponsored shout-outs though, to those looking for delectable local food and good souvenirs:

Micky Mouse Restaurant
No. 15, University Avenue Road (Say hi to The Lady when you pass her house!), near Kokine Junction
Despite the ridiculous misspelled name and stolen Disney logo, this is undoubtedly some of the best local food Myanmar has to offer. A full meal with one entree per person shared family style + drink will run you ~$5. Try the pepper chicken or the sweet and spicy fish served with dried cherries. It’s always full of locals and I have not seen it in any guides – thanks to Karen and Marek, our Yangon hosts for introducing us to this place!

The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant
Old Bagan, North of Ananda Temple
This famous place caters to tourists but has a delicious array of entrees including coconut milk vegetarian curry, and the best lassis you’ve ever had. Try the standard mango, or the stunning purple dragonfruit.

[Sweets and fruits: tamarind candy and palm sugar; mango/dragonfruit lassis; Myanmar tea with condensed milk; strange spiny fruits; green mango flowers; pomelos; Burmese rice wine; durian & taro ice cream at Nylon Ice Cream Shop in Mandalay; Yangon bakery]

Shwe Sar Traditional Umbrella Shop
U Aung Soe+Daw Kyi Kyi Win, YarKinnthar Hotel Road
On the main strip not far from restaurant road in Bagan, you will find this stunning hand-painted umbrella shop. At the risk of divulging my secret special souvenir purchase, I didn’t see anything like these umbrellas even at the umbrella-making shops at Inle Lake. Pick yourself up a small one for $5 or large for $8-15 (bargain!).

I hope this is useful for all those prospective travelers to Burma/Myanmar! It is a beautiful, fascinating and fast-changing country, and worth the bureaucracy and headache it takes to get there (which I hopefully was able to alleviate a little bit!). I highly recommend a visit in the near future to catch the country at the cusp of what is bound to be rapid growth and change to both Burma and its tourism industry. Please feel free to post updates, corrections, suggestions and additions in the comments section. If you have additional questions, I can also try my best to respond there. Safe and happy travels!

Posted in advice, sights, travel, vacation | 13 Comments

жакшы калиңез

In Kyrgyz, there are two ways to say goodbye: жакшы калиңез (“stay well”) if you are the one departing, and жакшы бариңез (“have a good journey”) if you are the one remaining. I recently said what I hope is only a temporary жакшы калиңез to Central Asia. Looking back over this blog, it has been an amazing collection of all of the stories — mostly work-related but inevitably also personal and cultural — that have transpired and been not-so-meticulously recorded over the last three years. I realize that this blog is not updated enough to attract too much regular readership among people who know me, but I think it can still serve as an ad-hoc resource for people interested in the region who stumble upon it…and as institutional memory for me, personally. I would love to go back and fill in some of the gaps for readers who may want to travel, work or volunteer in Central Asia, and continue to build some understanding of a rather recondite area so many consider “off the map.” Moving forward, when time permits I would like to occasionally offer some musings on Central Asia and development that may either take the form of retroactive reminiscing/travel tips from my days in the field, or tie in more academic themes from my upcoming courses in graduate school.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to my colleagues and friends in Osh and Bishkek, who helped me through a very scary medical evacuation (moral of the story: you can get random rickettsial infections through breathing dust, even in an icy winter landscape. Crazy!). After bouncing around some pretty terrible hospitals in Osh and Bishkek and almost a month of hospitalization subsequently, all seems well now. Travel health insurance always seems like a pain and a waste of money, until something actually happens to you…so I recommend everyone get it, no exceptions.

To all my wonderful colleagues at Aga Khan, thank you for making me feel at home in our office/mansion, planning field trips together to Alai and Naryn, holding many chai parties in our Osh kitchen and bearing with my enthusiasm about reporting trainings. Thank you to Team Osh (Prad, Mike, Carolyn, Maggie, Matt, Ryan, Becky, Sarah, Emily, Gulmira, Kunduz, my lovely landlady), Team Bishkek (Seth, Azeem, Dustin, Kim, Dan, Meerim, Chinara,  Elgiza, Tolkun, Mavluda) and a special shout-out to Aaron in Almaty, for visiting me in the crazy mouse-ridden hospital, delivering food, helping me pack up my apartment, hosting me on visits, getting my earthly belongings on their long journey home to the U.S., and generally providing moral support and being great friends.  И конечно друзьям, моим волонтерам и второй семьи в Казахстане: всегда по вам всем скучаю бесконечно. Miss you all, and I’m sure we will meet again soon.

[Kyrgyzstan: memories montage]

[Kazakhstan: back to visit my lovely Dostar volunteers!]

Posted in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, language, local friends, work | 3 Comments

wheels and wings

Transportation log the past 2 weeks:
1 hour, plane, Osh-Bishkek (+2 hours in taxis to/from airports)
5 hours, taxi, Bishkek-Naryn
1 hour, helicopter, Naryn-Bishkek (+3.5 hours in taxis to/from landing pads…thus saving us all of 40 minutes for a cool $4k. Thanks for the joyride, AKDN!)
16 hours, bus, Bishkek-Shymkent (was supposed to be 8 hours but the bus broke down twice, not to mention maintained sweltering banya-like heat and supersonic-volumed Russian soap operas the entire way, including through the breakdowns from 3 am – 8 am)
hour, two taxis, Shymkent (one ran out of gas on the way, the other got me from the edge of town to where I was staying)
14 hours, train, Shymkent-Almaty (decided not to risk the bus on the way back, and wanted to see a couple friends for an hour or two in the city)
4 hours, taxi, Almaty-Bishkek (taxi passengers were one ethnically Kyrgyz girl who spoke Russian/Kazakh/English, two Chinese nationals who were ethnically Kazakh and spoke Kazakh and [weird] Chinese, and one ethnic Chinese who is nationally American and spoke Russian/Chinese/English 😛 We all found at least one common language to communicate in)
1 hour, plane, Bishkek-Osh (+2 hours in taxis to/from airports)
Grand Total: 50.5 hours, 5 cities, 5 modes of transportation. Will try to stay put for awhile before the next bout of trainings and workshops in March.
[breathtaking view of northern Kyrgyzstan, from expensive helicopter 😮 ]
Posted in adventure, Almaty, insanity, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, language, Osh, Shymkent, travel | Leave a comment

my new home

I realize it has been forever since I’ve blogged. I have no real excuses besides the eternal one of my blog being blocked here…I can get around it with a little ingenuity, but I’ve just gotten overwhelmed at the thought of introducing you all to an entirely new country, atmosphere, job, and cast of supporting characters. I know though, it needs to happen. Today’s post will be a quick rundown of the country and city in which I live, including some interesting (to me) political background and some photos to keep you from snoozing through the history lessons! Expect much more about what I’m actually doing — and maybe a couple of horrendously belated flashbacks into my transition here — to be addressed in future posts. My new year’s resolution is to return to the blogosphere!

Kyrgyzstan

Upon learning that I decided to come here after my Peace Corps service in Kazakhstan, my mom bemoaned my choice of progressively more and more difficult-to-pronounce countries. Kyrgyzstan, besides being a great Scrabble country (if you’re playing Proper Nouns:), is Kazakhstan’s small, mountainous southern neighbor.

Some similarities between Kazakhstan (KZ) and Kyrgyzstan (KG):

  • Beshbarmak is still the national dish (large, hand-made sheet noodles topped with horse meat, oil and onions). They argue over who really first came up with this caloric, nomadic delicacy. Foods in both countries – including the ever-popular ethnic minority dishes of the Uzbeks, Uighurs and Koreans – are essentially the same. And by the way, these ethnic minorities and others (Tajiks, Tatars, Russians to name a few more) also inhabit both countries.

[Sheep’s head – a delicacy reserved for the honored guest in both KZ and KG]

  • Russian is still a recognized state language and widely utilized for business, with the national language dominating government use. Kyrgyz and Kazakh are very similar (Turkic languages) and mutually understandable, with some vowel and consonant morphations.
  • Post-Soviet but Muslim. Both countries have the same strange collision of Lenin statues and calls to prayer.

[The pointing Lenin statue in Osh, Kyrgyz Republic]

  • Both countries have a bit of a north-south cultural divide, though I would say this is played out more strongly in Kyrgyzstan (ironically, since Kazakhstan is dominated in the north by Russia and ethnic Russians).

Some differences:

  • Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains. This geography affects every element of society, as the country has many more impoverished and inaccessible areas. My organization, which I’ll get to in a future post, happens to work specifically with these often isolated mountain communities.

[aerial view of the southern mountains. look how far back they extend to the horizon!]

  • Kyrgyzstan is the poorest of the 4 post-Soviet ‘stans’ while Kazakhstan is the richest (Kazakhstan – 129,757 mil USD; Uzbekistan – 37,724 mil USD; Tajikistan – 5,578 mil USD; Kyrgyzstan – 4,444 mil USD).
  • Kyrgyzstan has had a history of revolutions and changes in power (the Tulip Revolution in 2005, followed by the most recent revolution in 2010), whereas Kazakhstan has had only one President since independence. People will certainly debate which model is better — Kyrgyzstan is often lifted by the West as a bastion of democracy, whereas by the other Central Asian states it is often looked upon as the rogue and unstable regional sore spot.
  • Kyrgyzstan has a history of widespread ethnic violence. Though Kazakhstan has now proved itself capable of state-led violence in recent days, this is different than the citizen-on-citizen ethnic fighting that happened recently in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where I now live. Which brings me to…

Osh

Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the northern hub where most expats conglomerate (and only 3 hours driving distance from Almaty, the southern hub of Kazakhstan, where expats conglomerate:P). As you may have guessed, as I did not live in Almaty while in KZ, I also do not live in Bishkek. 🙂 I’ve stuck to my affinity of southern “criminal towns” (by local reputation!) and currently reside in Osh, the southern hub of Kyrgyzstan, which is significantly different in culture and history. First of all, Osh is in the Ferghana Valley, a nonsensical cluster with various countries jutting into one another that has remained a hotbed of violence. The crazy borders you see below are a remnant of purposefully problematic border delineations during the Stalinist era that were meant to diffuse revolt from any one ethnicity against Moscow…and the conflicts continue to this day.

In June of 2010, following an April revolution that ousted former President Bakiev and put a provisional government in its place (led by the first woman to become President of a Central Asian country…Rosa Otunbaeva), an outbreak of ethnic violence broke out in Osh between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. 400+ people died and 400,000+ more were rendered homeless refugees as houses were burned down throughout the city. For anyone who wishes to read a full account of what is now known simply as “the June events,” the first place to go is the Kyrgyzstan International Commission report and subsequent response by the Kyrgyz Government. Both sides do a lot of finger-pointing at each other but reading both gives you an idea of the sensitive debate and interpretation of what has happened through different lenses. Western accounts emphasize that pogroms were conducted against Uzbeks and that they have been disproportionately prosecuted in the judiciary aftermath of the violence. The city’s rebuilding of destroyed homes has also been greatly criticized, as many of those homes formerly belonging to Uzbeks are being redistributed to Kyrgyz. However, the government (along with several ethnic Kyrgyz I have spoken to here) often claims that these accounts do not sufficiently take into account the victims on both sides, entrenching rifts and ignoring intermarried couples or the people who risked their lives to save and protect members of other ethnicities.

[burnt down stalls at the Osh bazaar are back in operation]

[an artistic depiction at a gallery opening in Osh. the words “Uzbek,” “Kyrgyz” and “SOS” are written amidst the flames]

As a place to live, Osh is definitely deeply affected by the tragedy of the June events. First of all, people are very paranoid and few people really venture out at night. I certainly do not feel that safe here even though the people who really perpetrated the violence last year have in all likelihood fled (along with many of the families they victimized). I have heard ethnic stereotypes that certainly show more fear than the ones I would hear in KZ. Infrastructure is rather poor and the street lights are constantly flickering in and out, roads are dangerously icy and filled with gaping, uncovered potholes, and various parts of town will periodically not have heat/water/electricity/gas at any given time. A relatively large expat community lives here though, due to the international presence after the violence. I see people from a host of acronyms both in and out of work: the UNDP/UNHCR/UNICEF/UNWomen, USAID (whose Office of Transitional Initiatives is run through IRG, a private contractor), ACTED (French NGO), ICRC (Intl Committee of the Red Cross), DRC (Danish Refugee Council), International Alert (conflict resolution), EFCA (Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia), Aga Khan MSDSP KG (that’s us), and a couple microfinance outfits. The most reliable places to run into people are the expat grocery store with imported cheeses, or the two or three restaurants that serve edible food for the exorbitant price of $7 an entree (I happen to live right next to one such joint). At the risk of sounding too StuffExpatAidWorkersLike, I spend most days cooking myself or for a couple friends using local produce at our wonderfully chaotic bazaar. I still love my weekly basketball game with a bunch of local guys, and am trying to start volunteering Saturdays at an English center doing youth development work, though my travel schedule makes locking down times quite difficult. Also one of the more bizarre communities I have come across is the Chinese diaspora here in Osh, who trade at Kara-Suu, supposedly the largest market of Chinese goods in Central Asia. Going there is like entering a wormhole and coming out at a magical place of shrimp, mushrooms, huo guo and KTV karaoke! 🙂 I now know where to get my fix of authentic Chinese spices, which is a very appreciated perk.

Overall, I really enjoy Osh. It is definitely a recovering city but its heart is still there, and I think will reveal itself more and more as the weather thaws. But for now, even the treacherous ice is beautiful sometimes.

[Osh through summer, fall and winter]

Posted in food, Kyrgyzstan, language, nature, Osh, sights | Leave a comment

A Eulogy to Peace Corps Kazakhstan

I finished my service in Peace Corps Kazakhstan in August 2011 (the posts you have seen since then have all been retroactive), and moved to Kyrgyzstan to work with a development organization. As in KZ, Blogspot and WordPress are still blocked here in KG, some say because KyrgzTelecom services are provided in part by KazakhTelecom, but I’m not sure. What I want to write about today was important enough for me to go through the hassle of finding a proxy server. I suppose it is appropriate that this is my first post written in the voice of a non-PCV (that is, a Returned PCV).

Yesterday, I wrote the following message about the decision to close Peace Corps Kazakhstan (here in Russian) on Facebook and it was re-posted virally, copied onto a blog post by an oblast-mate I served with who is still there, and then (perhaps inadvertently) quoted in a Eurasianet article as well as by the news portal’s Central Asia editor on his Twitter:

The Peace Corps will be leaving Kazakhstan next week — all volunteers evacuated and staff disbanded. This serious decision was made largely due to growing safety issues, including terrorism and what has apparently become the highest sexual assault/rape level among PC countries worldwide.
KZ is an amazing country with powerful resources and an expressed desire for increased access to global exchange… in skills, knowledge and culture. I know that for the 19 years it existed, PC contributed greatly to these goals, however imperfectly, through the individual relationships built between volunteers and their communities. I am confident that without us, the amazing local people we have worked with will continue to instigate change where it is needed in their country. I’m not a PCV anymore, so I can say this unabashed to everyone I know in KZ: stand up for your voice, for gender equality, for fairness and rule of law, for freedom against bigotry, nationalism, discrimination, xenophobia, sexism, violence and corruption. Do not believe that the injustices you see are perpetually beyond your control. All around the world, including in the U.S. today, normal citizens are refusing the status quo and voicing the need for change, contributing to it in ways that seem small but are ultimately large. Become a peer educator, a tutor, a mentor, an advocate…become your own volunteer in your own community. I always believed that на самом деле change in Kazakhstan is coming from within, in a gradual and peaceful manner.

Thank you to every PCV who sought to share their curiosity, open-mindedness, democratic values and professional skills, and for every person in Kazakhstan who welcomed us and taught us so many things we would never have learned at home.

By now there has been a lot of speculation on why the “suspension” is taking place, whether it’s a permanent closure, and what this means for volunteers. I want to say first and foremost that I do not feel Kazakhstan is a more dangerous place to live than most, and that as the official report states, its level of development is indeed impressive among the Central Asian states and PC countries in general. I think the reasons for the closure, including safety/security reasons, should  be treated with gravity but also not taken as scaremongering. While there were good reasons for PC KZ to decide to terminate its program, they are not good reasons to think that Kazakhstan is a terrible or backwards place with no security for visitors or volunteers.  I will take this opportunity to give an outline of the situation that led to the decision (complete with cited news sources), as well as finally provide some of my personal opinions and reflections on my time in Kazakhstan in light of this news, without the censorship and rules that being a serving PCV previously imposed. Consider it, in its own way, a long-suppressed insider expose of all the issues, but with a decidedly hopeful conclusion.

Terrorism

This Eurasia.net article gives an excellent overview of the terrorist situation in Kazakhstan, which went from absolutely nonexistent to fraught with a series of amateur, botched attacks against state buildings beginning last May. To summarize, Kazakhstan was viewed as the one bastion of safety in Central Asia — a comforting exception to Westerners who cringe at hearing “-stan.” Then came a suicide bombing in western Aktobe this past May, a car explosion in Astana the following week, two October explosions in western Atyrau, and finally a police officer shooting followed by a suicide bomber that killed 8 people in southern Taraz (the first and only, but very tragic, incident to kill anyone other than the terrorists themselves). The first two incidents, which occurred while I was still in the country, were (upon my own survey of local friends and acquaintances) kept  hushed and featured only casually in local news as incidents related to “organized crime.” First time I’d ever heard of a gangster trying to avoid law enforcement by blowing himself up, but ok…

The radical group Jund al-Khilafah, a band originating at the Afghan-Pakistan border) has claimed responsibility for at least Atyrau and Taraz, but these terrorists seem pretty woefully inept. The Aktobe bombing resulted in no deaths other than the bomber’s, and in the Atyrau case one of the four identified perpetrators apparently died from having set off one of the bombs on accident. The group says that the attacks are in response to a new October law imposing religious restrictions, the purpose of which, ironically, is to combat extremism.

In conclusion, all of these attacks, while foreboding for Kazakhstan and certainly eye-opening for a public just beginning to wake up to the threat of terror within their borders, have been directed against the state and not at Americans in any way. I do not think they make Kazakhstan a dangerous place to live in with regards to terrorism, by any means. Although, the fact that the Taraz explosion happened one block from the apartment of two PCVs, and occurred during Peace Corps DC’s evaluation visit to KZ, certainly couldn’t have helped PC KZ’s cause.

Sexual Assault

There have been 5 sexual assaults or rapes this year within Peace Corps Kazakhstan, which indeed ranks it first worldwide among PC countries for such incidents. In a time of growing sensitivity towards the issue (i.e. the debilitating 20/20 special and NYTimes article on PC’s previously incompetent and immoral responses to sexual assault cases, and the subsequent Congressional Hearing and finally installation of new policies, including hiring a Victim’s Advocate), DC thankfully paid special attention to the rash of cases. But it is very difficult to figure out what anyone in PC staff could do, that they are not already doing, to prevent these incidents. The way in which staff addresses incidents once they happen though is of course of utmost importance, and I will get to that shortly.

I don’t think anyone expected, upon signing up for Peace Corps in Kazakhstan, that it of all places was going to have the highest rate of volunteer rape and sexual assault worldwide (if you were a girl who signed up for PC KZ last year, you had a roughly 8.3% chance of being raped). I will refrain from naming the myriad countries on other continents that I would have slated to receive this truly mortifying honor, because I’m sure those stereotypes are equally misguided. At my PC Close of Service conference in June, I sat with several of my fellow female volunteers on two beds in the dingy but familiar hotel room at our PC conference “sanitorium” and sobbed. We cried out of anger, out of fear, out of sadness, at the injustice of losing one of our own group members to a rape “MedEvac” just two months before we were all supposed to finish. It was supposed to be a time of celebration, but as I went back to site I found myself clutching my pepper spray (which, by the way, I highly recommend every female volunteer) in fits of paranoia. News of the incidents that happened after I left continued to shock and appall me — two sexual assaults in the South just hours from where I used to live,  and another rape again only weeks ago, just in time to contribute to the perfect storm of PC DC’s visit this month and ultimate decision to pull out of KZ.

The situations varied, and I’m sure none of them were things that have not happened before in the U.S. or anywhere else…but the overall effect still weighs down the hearts of those of us who lived in and loved Kazakhstan for two years and know that this is something that our local friends and coworkers are as shocked and disgusted by as we are. Of course, cultural and environmental elements undoubtedly contribute to the risk — gender imbalance and discrimination were the hardest things I had to deal with daily in KZ (I wrote a post about it early on in my service, when I had just moved to the capital of South Kazakhstan oblast, ostensibly the most conservative region in the country). Alcoholism and domestic violence are sadly widespread. I witnessed a bride-napping two months into my Pre-Service Training in country (none of us could write about it due to PC’s veiled censorship on blogs — only write about happy things! Let this post be some catharsis for those two years), and helped advocate for a gang rape victim with my NGO mid-way into my service, when her 3 rapists were set free after having bought off the village judge.

I can give a piece-meal and one-sided view on Peace Corps’ reaction to the incidents, without going into a lot of detail about the incidents themselves. In one of the incidents, PC reacted as soon as possible, sending someone to find the volunteer and keep her safe, then providing transport to PC KZ headquarters the next day (one issue: in KZ, everything is very far. The furthest volunteers are 48 hours by train from HQ…and we never fly). In another incident, PC apparently put the volunteer on an alcohol contract because she had had a few beers before the assault occurred. This strikes me as completely inappropriate and meriting of a letter to the Victim’s Advocate (who was apparently contacted but disturbingly and uselessly, could not get the decision reversed)/Congress/whomever, as a volunteer should categorically never, ever be punished in any way for being the victim of an incident (a philosophy PC KZ was unbelievably bad at embracing while I was a volunteer, though my plethora of examples of this are unrelated to sexual assault. But I could write a book about this topic alone). In a third incident, PC let the volunteer return to her site to prosecute, at her own request…though I personally was very worried at the possibility of retribution, given that when people in the community know where you live and you have put their son/family member/etc. in jail, they can threaten you to make you drop charges (this is what happened in the aforementioned case my organization worked on, in which the victim was in fact kidnapped and raped again after charges were filed, as an intimidation tactic to drop the case).

At least two of the five sexual assault incidents occurred in taxis. The risk is pronounced — get in a car, get driven to somewhere where you have nowhere to run and no help in sight, get beaten until you can’t fight back. Cabs are one risk that is truly more pronounced here than at home — in Kazakhstan, often the only way to get from one place to another is in a “gypsy cab,” sometimes shared without your consent by other passengers as regular drivers pick up strangers on their way from one destination to another to make a little extra gas money. To you, this may all sound insanely dangerous — to us KZ PCVs, it was one of our primary modes of transport. Late at night especially (“late” being after 8 pm in the winter), when marshrutkas (little public min-vans) and busses stop running, it’s gypsy cab to the rescue. Most drivers are male, and many of them drive drunk. It is often hard to tell in the 3 seconds that you open the door and bargain for a price, who is really intoxicated. By the time you’re in, it’s often hard to get back out. I once passed a driver in Almaty nursing his beer at the wheel. And, one of my most memorable completely drunk drivers was the illicit married boyfriend of my first director in the non-existent organization I was first placed with when I moved to Shymkent…so essentially, a known acquaintance that my boss had solicited to drive us home from work on a Tuesday night. She didn’t apologize for the incident and pretended like it didn’t happen. Needless to say, my stay at that “NGO” was short-lived).

Also, the “blame the victim” mentality is unfortunately not nearly as taboo here as in the West. If you would like to see something really depressing and can read Russian or are willing to Google translate, here is the KZ domestic news article about the Karaganda oblast rape this month. Of course there were the wonderfully indignant comments defending the PCVs right to trust someone in her house to not rape her, but by my comment count it’s 7 to 4 critical comments-supportive comments, with one of the 4 being an acquaintance of the PCV. Some of the more joyous $0.02 include: “Why a criminal case?! The fact that the party continued, and even at the house of the American girl, means that she was ready for the logical ending to the night…” or “Raped? Why invite drunk men home? Why? With only one goal…” “Guy, who was accused of rape! Counter that she raped you, in your helpless state (an aggravating circumstance for her…)” or “Hey you America, with us in Kazakhstan it’s after all like this: if she lay down alongside, she gave it up.” Finally, perhaps my favorite: “Peace Corps Volunteers are trainees of the CIA. This is a known fact. In a couple of years, she will be a member of the CIA or NSA. I would not be surprised if the rapist turned out to be someone in a public office associated with state secrets.” Which brings me to:

Government Pressure/Thinking PCVs are Spies

My amazing friend Alex, a current PCV and documentary filmmaker in western Aktobe (same site of the first terrorist act this year), wrote an insightful post on being accused of spying in a front-page edition of the October 20th Aktobe Times. Of course, the logic itself seems ludicrous — PC is in KZ (as indeed, in every country it works) at the invitation of the President/government itself, our presence is visible and broadcasted, and we are explicitly not allowed to engage in anything remotely political. From the minute we arrived to staging in Washington DC, we were put under what I like to call the “PC PR veil”….do not talk about politics, religion, or other issues that may be viewed as propagandizing or sensitive in any way. Do NOT start a revolution (one girl in our group actually got in a public fight with our Country Desk Officer as it was apparently her mission in PC to do just this…and got sent home our first day in-country. Why they even let her get on the plane is beyond me).

The paranoia in communications, it turns out, is pretty justified. For the months, even years, leading up to this decision to close, PC KZ had been having myriad problems with government suspicion and push-back. In Akmola oblast (region/province), home to the grand capital of Astana, the teacher counterparts of the newest group of PCVs were forbidden by the oblast Ministry of Education to come down to Almaty to attend Peace Corps’ “mandatory” counterpart conference. The volunteers went up to their new sites to work with counterparts who ostensibly were not informed of their duties, and to schools who received negative pressure from the Ministry for the fact that they even accepted volunteers. Several northern oblasts had been riddled with negative articles from various local media sources in the past years, deriding PCVs as unqualified to teach, or as poor influences on Kazakhstanian youth. But this trend is not really “recent,” if by recent you mean in the last year or so.

Here is an embassy cable, now public and on the glorious intra-webs, on the framing and jailing of a PCV in East Kazakhstan in 2009, right before my group arrived to KZ. This poor guy unwittingly followed a local “friend” for a tour of a mine that his town was famous for, and was left there holding a mysterious bag that had been handed to him, with authorities “coincidentally” waiting to catch him red-handed. The bag actually contained explosives, and he was sentenced to two years in a Kazakhstan prison (not a place you want to be). While the case is no longer sensitive because he is safely back home, it was solved internally and kept under tight wraps when it happened so as to avoid a public diplomatic fallout that would jeopardize his release. I find the last section of the cable the most fascinating, as it states that the US Ambassador had a meeting with Nazarbayev about the PCV, and that in the end the KZ President “sided” with his liberal advisors in letting the PCV go free, instead of with the Committee for National Security (KGB successors), who were in all likelihood responsible for the framing. Which helps explain why we can be here at the invitation of the President, but still fall victim to other forces that would seek to discredit us. Another preceding cable on the same topic mentions that a KZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs official admits “there are ‘some in the government’ who want to know how long [PC’s official agreement with the government] is valid for, and how Kazakhstan can terminate it.”

By the by, this case is very personally relevant for me, because it is actually the whole reason I was sent to Southern Kazakhstan in the first place — I was originally placed in East Kazakhstan, in the very same oblast capital in which this PCV was tried, as part of a plan (unbeknownst to me) to help restore PC’s reputation in the area. At the very last minute, literally a week before I was supposed to leave to my site, I was told that the NGO originally planned for me received threats from the government on what would happen to them if they took in an American volunteer. The placement was dropped, and PC did not have a reliable back-up…so I went to an unchecked organization in South Kazakhstan that ended up not being a real org (it had no office, no staff, no materials, no projects, and one aforementioned “director” who registered it under her name to win government tenders. When asked where all the projects were that she listed on her application for a PCV, she stated simply “well, we will start them once you win us money!” Sadly, such orgs are not all that uncommon in the NGO landscape in KZ). It ended up being the best thing that could have happened though, because I was able to proactively find and start my partnership with what I think was undoubtedly one of the best NGOs in the country, and ended up having a wonderful, rewarding and productive service…but you never heard the struggles in the beginning of it all, because I never was able to write about it here.

More recently, a PCV I served with had personal digital information taken from him and re-posted on a KZ internet site in an unfair light. Community members and then Peace Corps found out, and it was enough of a security and potential PR issue that he left his service early. And it wasn’t just him; such tactics have been used to target local NGO leaders, as well, including even cell phone hacking and manipulation of mundane pictures through re-posting with demeaning captions.

Hope for the Future

Word on the street is that PC KZ is “suspending” its program, which has been done before (e.g. Georgia in August 2008 during the violence, less than a year after which the program was re-opened). So does that mean it will open again? Given all of the reasons above, I highly doubt it. The backlash of not “phasing out” the program and leaving quietly, like in Estonia or other countries who “grew out” of Peace Corps in terms of development levels but still looked fondly on the program, will likely be significant. Volunteers in Kyrgyzstan were shot at and had their buildings burned last year, and still the program stay put (and apparently is still going strong, though now limited to 3 northern oblasts of the country). Many view this as a strange juxtaposition, but I hope the above serves to shed some light on the unique issues PC KZ was facing. The KZ news article about the withdrawal has already garnered significant commentary, most of it again negative, ranging from ridiculous (“the Americans were responsible for the terrorist attacks”) to true and terrible (“Their government did not rape but killed one of our citizens in their country.”).

I am certainly sad the program is ending, and it is hard to talk about the ramifications of the decisions with all of my local friends and coworkers, who are certainly upset about it and have really become my second family over the last two years. Though the institutional problems were rather enormous (beginning with, I always say, lack of any kind of volunteer quality control and a practically barrier-less process of recruiting that promotes quantity over quality), our KZ office staff was nevertheless wonderful and fought through thick and thin to support what was a very challenging program in an exceedingly large and geographically dispersed country. To those members of our local staff who have been there since the program started (expatriate staff have to abide by Peace Corps’ 5-year in-and-out employment rule), thank you so much for your dedication to the mission of PC in your country and for helping thousands of volunteers gain an experience that undoubtedly changed everyone one of us forever.

Overall, I am hopeful and whole-heartedly believe what I wrote in my original post. Kazakhstan has more than enough talented, motivated and progressive young people to make progress on the three goals of Peace Corps (helping countries meet their need for trained workers, bringing American culture to local people, and educating America about foreign cultures), even without PCVs in the country. If I were the US Embassy Public Diplomacy Department (and I have already told them this), I would invest all of our money into exchange programs. Exchange programs like FLEX (high school), UGRAD (university) and MUSKIE (grad school) create many alumni who are both patriotic citizens of their country, excellent ambassadors of their experiences in American culture and education, and initiators of positive change and reform in their communities. Let’s not forget that the exchange is still alive in this direction, even if it has been discontinued in the other.

And to the young people I worked with in my two years as a PCV: you are the pride and joy an future of your country. It all lies with you, both the opportunity and the responsibility at this brink, in which the political future is uncertain (Nazarbayev just dissolved parliament and called emergency elections), and society is also rapidly changing (for example, Kazakhstan just reached 6.7 million internet users, an astounding 41% of the population, compared with 200,000 users in 2001). Every young man we educated about human rights, gender equality and sexual health through our work at the Youth Volunteer Leadership Center “Dostar” is a young man who I am convinced will grow up to have healthy attitudes towards women and never engage in the kind of actions above that have so traumatized us. Every time we stand up for our rights or educate another person about theirs, we help make our countries better, safer and more prosperous to live in.

The conclusions of this post are rather parallel to the conclusions of my service. Though things were difficult and the challenges of every day life for those close to me were often overwhelming, it was still one of the happiest, most rewarding periods of my life. Challenges make us stronger, more appreciative of our blessings, and give us skills and resolve that we never knew we had. I believe that Kazakhstan too will come out of its transition stronger, thanks to the talent and dedication of the change makers that already exist within it.

Posted in culture shock, gender, insanity, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, local friends, NGO Development, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Moment, random, sexual violence, Shymkent, youth development | 20 Comments

Family visit to KZ

07.13.11 (very backlogged)

Finally, after two whole years of service in Kazakhstan, my family came to visit me!  This was actually great because they got to meet all of the people who have become so close and important to me over the last two years, and getting together with everyone also made a good closing to my service complete with celebration, reminiscing and retelling various adventures.

This will be a rather long account of the places we went, things we saw and quality time with people here who are close to me.  If you are interested in travels around Kazakhstan, feel free to read through.  And if you are ever planning on visiting or having someone visit you, please skip right to the end for the cautionary tale of how to not get turned away at the airport on your way out. 😉  But more on that later.

Almaty

After a very early morning arrival to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s old capital and largest city. I picked up Dad and Jo from the airport with a fast-approaching thunderstorm on the horizon.  We slept a couple hours and woke up too soon after to hit the Green Bazaar in the middle of the storm, where Jo commented that it was like a bazaar in China only nicer and more orderly.  All of the fruits and veggies were nicely displayed and the sections were quite well-organized, though our feet were eventually completely soaked due to insufficient drainage systems.  We photographed the (in)famous horse meat section, with a nice bowl of raw sheep brains waiting next door.

We also had a lovely dinner in Almaty with some of my great friends there, fittingly at a family-style Chinese restaurant.  Very glad that my family got to meet Kunai, Aselya, Zau, Ajar, Janet, Aaron, and (eventually also) Jeffrey and Aida…but more on that little adventure at the end. 😉

Issyk

Our first trip was out to Issyk, for dad and Jo to meet my famous [host granny, whom I lived with for 3 months at Pre-Service Training], at long last.  In accordance with everything I had told them, she prepared a lavish lunch on top of a huge picnic for us, and we spent the entire day eating.  After warming up with lovely tea, plov and apple cake, we packed off in our friend Alma’s car and headed off to the gorgeous Lake Issyk.

Of course, the thunderstorm was still a-brewing, which made for a pretty unique lake experience.  Right as we pulled up, a ceiling of white clouds rolled right into the lake with us.  We literally watched them descend upon our car, wisps of cloud circling and descending onto the lake, covering it almost completely (below: cloud-covered lake!).  Then of course right as we had laid out our picnic, it started raining and we moved to the car to eat, yet again.  But granny was well prepared and had brought extra rain coats, and Dad was more than happy to be the only tourists at the lake and get to breathe the fresh air and see such a lovely natural landscape (below: dad in the clouds).  And of course, everyone was touched by Alma and granny’s hospitality and what had become our own funny little family over the last two years of my regular visits after I moved from Issyk.  Granny (and by extension, Alma and her son Damir) were the best host family anyone could ever ask for!

Astana 

After heading back into Almaty, we took a flight up to Astana (yes, you didn’t think I was going to put my poor family through 48 hours of train rides, did you?! Though that would have been more true to Peace Corps form).  Vitalik flew up to his old hometown to show us around, and he met us at the airport.  Of course, first thing Joanna did was carefully examine all of his tattoos. 😉

Our visit was perfectly scheduled in time to catch both the 4th of July events at the US embassy with other Peace Corps Volunteers and Foreign Service Officers, take a trip to Borovoe, and come back in time for Astana Day (read: President Nazarbayev’s birthday…of course) on the 7th.  While in Astana we stayed with a very welcoming and generous host from the Foreign Service who himself had been a PCV in Kazakhstan (so many of them seem to end up back here).

The 4th of July events were a blast, and I performed my second embassy 4th of July celebration national anthem (first was while I was a Public Diplomacy intern in Estonia), apparently to the surprise of many fellow PCVs who had no idea that I could sing 😛  My sister also caused quite some confusion as no one could figure out who the tall blonde Asian girl was, but I was glad Dad and Jo got the opportunity to meet so many PCVs and some members of our staff and embassy all in one place.

After we came back from Borovoe (below), we caught Astana Day, which is on July 7th, or President Nazarbayev’s birthday.  Astana is really his pet project and the day was filled with pro-city propaganda at its finest.  We got free VIP entrance to this spectacular circus show (1st collage: us in front of the circus…even more UFO-looking than the others around the post-Soviet world.  2nd collage: the show) with performers from all around the post-Soviet space + Mongolia, I think solely because it was City Day and Joanna and I were dressed up and looked important. 😉  We also got to take two tours I had missed on my [first trip to Astana]: a tour of the indoor beach at the top of the alien-yurt-shaped Khan Shatyry entertainment complex, and a tour of the Pyramid of Peace, an ode to the world’s religions with indoor greenhouses and crazy painted doves on the glass panes.

 

Borovoe

Many people in Kazakhstan brag of the beauty of Borovoe, one of the country’s national parks and only forested areas a few hours outside of Astana.  Borovoe consists of a medium-sized lake with surrounding greenery, a sight for sore eyes after miles of steppe leading up to it.  We went up with V and some of his childhood best friends in Astana, staying in little log cabins and eating tasty smoked fish on the beach.

Many of Borovoe’s “sights” are rather funny – among them we saw a 2-foot-tall “waterfall” (i.e. bump in a little stream), a stone-constructed “throne” of Ablai-Han (an old Kazakh hero), and a “shell” that was actually a large man-made hunk of metal painted white.  Little Soviet-era tourist busses nevertheless bustled people around the lake to these various oddities.  The most pleasant part was taking a paddle-boat out onto the water and simply enjoying the lovely forest, lake and fresh air.

 

Shymkent

Finally, my dad and sister made it to the highlight destination – my site!  Shymkent was at its summer best, and though Joanna got a bout of food poisoning (standard rite of passage for the south, really) we were up and about the next day.  They saw Abai park, rode the ferris wheel, photographed at my favorite giant tulip fountain, visited Spartak, ate at Madlen’s and Kokserai…all the important Shymkent stuff. 🙂  But most importantly, at long last they met all of my wonderful coworkers, friends and volunteers that have been my second family for the last two years.

My director Kuralay organized a lavish banquet dinner and invited our entire organization.  They gave Joanna a gorgeous pair of silver Kazakh earrings, and daddy a traditional robe and hat!  By far the best gifts ever.  They even had something to bring home for mom – a certificate of appreciation for raising me so well.  Yes, I’m serious. 😉

 

Mountain Trip

I wanted to show dad and Jo the “real South Kazakhstan,” especially after the extravagant gaudiness of Astana and the lovely gentrified streets of Almaty.  Shymkent is real enough, but it is still the oblast capital and its urban sprawl doesn’t reveal the rural lifestyle an hour or two out of its borders.  So Vitalik and Murik helped out, and took us on a private excursion to Kaz-Kuu, a lovely hillocked valley where some of his relatives own a farm and horses.

Now I will never forget this horse ride. Joanna used to love horseback riding when my parents took her out to inner Mongolia, so she was a pro.  And Vitalik grew up in Kazakhstan, so enough said.  I had no idea what riding an unbridled, galloping horse actually felt like!  For those who have not done it, it apparently involves clenching onto nothing but a tiny jutting knob of leather on the saddle in front of you while your entire body is being bucked around in a half-standing position on nominally existent stirrups that you have no possible hope of hanging onto with both feet. I flashbacked to my childhood fantasies of “riding like the wind” ala Pocahontas, hair streaming in the wind…now I have no idea how anyone, animated or not, looked so elegant and composed on such a thrashing beast.  My horse loved to bend down to eat, yanking the rope out of my inexperienced hands.  It also would jolt off as soon as either Jo or Vitalik’s horses increased speed, which resulted in me wildly pleading for everyone else to slow down while they just laughed at me.  Eventually, I gave my ornery horse back to Murik and rode the rest of the way on the back of Vitalik’s, after instructing him to not break into so much as a trot under any circumstances.  😉  And by the way, horses are big – getting off involves quite a leap, and I don’t want to know what falling off feels like!

Part of the real village experience was of course getting Dad and Jo to try koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, and kurt, a hardened, chalky, incredibly salty ball of milk-based something or other, squished together by the hands of old ladies and hardened under the steppe sun.  You drink the latter with beer, chipping at it with your teeth (a seemingly unending process).  Joanna was of course traumatized by these national delicacies (see the photos below), but dad, in true (Central) Asian form, took to both quite nicely!

Of course, the end of the trip had a nice surprise for me – though the day didn’t seem particularly hot, it was a Shymkent summer sun after all and I ended up getting some kind of sun sickness/heat stroke for the first time in my life.  That evening I felt very tired and strange, went to bed sickly and woke up in the middle of the night absolutely freezing.  I was shivering and my teeth were chattering, though it must have been 80 degrees minimum in my apartment.  I bundled myself in a long-retired winter blanket, put on my one remaining long-sleeved shirt that I had left unpacked, and went back to sleep.  I woke up later sweaty and feverish and wondering why in the world I was covered in so much stuff…definitely the strangest feeling in a long time, but no real harm done.  Moral: wear hats out in the sun, especially if horseback riding is stressful for you! 😉

 

Sairam

I managed to take Dad and Jo to see a village very close to my heart – Sairam, a historically Uzbek village with a lovely mosque and small mausoleum.  It is also home to some of my best Model UN club participants and Aaron and I would go out there regularly to conduct sessions.  Dad and Joanna got to meet Ulugbek, a wonderful English teacher at the Sairam school, and Dilrabo, one of my brightest young MUN leaders from the village.  We all had a dinner of delicious Uzbek plov together in the typical copious portions.

 

All in all, мы везде успели is all I can say!  We ended up seeing the highlights of the country and my service in 10 short days.  However, before the story ends, there is of course the fiasco of my poor family’s trip out…which I will tell here as a cautionary tale.

When foreigners enter Kazakhstan, they give you a tiny white slip of paper with some indiscernable random Russian on it.  It’s not stapled to your passport, it’s not addressed or noted in any way, and no one tells you what it’s for or that you have to keep it.  The deal is that you cannot leave the country without this slip of paper, as it is your immigration «registration» in the country. if you spend over a certain amount of time in Kazakhstan (something short like a week), you have to RE-register with the immigration police and get this tiny slip of paper re-stamped at a local office.  Insanity.

Needless to say, my father lost the slips of paper because he is the person who also loses his glasses when they are on his head.  This would have been okay, had I been around the city and able to come back and sort things out – but after dropping everyone off in the morning with some 6 hours to spare til their flight, I had gotten in a taxi to drive to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – yes, a different country – for a business trip.  When I got the panicked call from Jo on a random airport lady’s borrowed cell phone, I was already nearly at the border.  I had no idea what to do, so I called Peace Corps Security.  And I am very grateful for the fact that they went above and beyond the call of duty to save my poor stranded dad and sister, who speak not a word of Russian and didn’t know how to properly bribe the crappy Air Astana officials when they tried to extort $100 from them (apparently they had no cash and my sister volunteered to go to the ATM, but they refused to let them out for fear of reprisal).

What ensued was a tragically insane comedy of errors in which I start losing phone access through the mountains and go on Kyrgyzstan roaming with my Kazakhstan cell phone, my sister is frantically trying to sort out everything by herself because she doesn’t trust my father with anything, they have no phones so I am calling random airport numbers trying to reach them, I call everyone I know who might be able to help in Almaty and even Ulugbek, who thankfully works part-time at Air Astana (very handy and actually, the Shymkent office is very nice)…and simultaneously every two seconds PC security is calling me to find updates on the situation.

Eventually my dad and sister are taken in by my wonderful friend Jeff and then assisted to an apartment the next day by my other wonderful friend Aida.  I owe these guys so much for hosting my lovely family when I was far away and felt so helpless and worried! Crazy Air Astana then told my family they could get on a flight in three days after they had re-registered, but thankfully 1) my father miraculously found the papers, in his document pouch (this was worth it though just for the hilariously tragi-comic email I got from my sister afterwards), and 2) Ulugbek came to the rescue and got them a free flight a day earlier. So thank you to PC, Jeff, Aida and Ulugbek for saving the day.  My family got an adventure in Almaty, a country-wide email was sent to PCVs reminding everyone with visiting family to keep their random immigration slips (we don’t need them since we are registered by PC, so none of us knew!), and Joanna really grew up and took charge, which I was very proud of her for.

Well, the fam actually ended up getting a very accurate insight on my life as a PCV – crazy and unexpected challenges can come up at a momen’ts notice, but when you have stalwart rocks of support you can count on to help you through it, it turns out to be quite a good story and you are better off afterwards for having survived it.  🙂

Posted in random | 1 Comment