Changing the Goals of Peace Corps

27 08 2011

The following text I extracted from a much longer article that I wrote. After spending about 2 hours developing a much bigger argument than the one which is pasted below, I decided that there were too many flaws for publishing. Thus, I’ll share with you part of an idea which I developed:


I would like to see Peace Corps operate completely as a cultural exchange program. There would be just one goal of Peace Corps- cultural exchange and awareness. Volunteers would still need to possess marketable skills, and would still need to work in their communities. After all, learning about a different culture from the grassroots level requires a person to be involved in the workforce. From the operational aspect of Peace Corps, recruitment efforts would be revamped. Volunteers wouldn’t be recruited under the impression that they will be saving the world.. or thinking that local communities are even very excited to have volunteers. My experience in Peace Corps has shown that volunteers make progress in slow increments (though their work is valuable), and volunteers are often confronted with considerable red tape from local authorities.

New volunteers wouldn’t join thinking that their work is to bring aid and help to other countries. Frankly, such an attitude is seen as supercilious by locals. Local people may find it condescending that young American college graduates with very little work experience (the demographic of the average volunteer, myself included) know the proper directions for a community to achieve a developed status. This is the very opposite way in which Peace Corps ought to be viewed.

If Peace Corps indeed changed its mission to a single and sole goal of cultural exchange program, it would likely come under attack for being a useless organization. And naturally, I would disagree with such a claim. Knowledge of the world and understanding of culture is the true path to Peace. We can’t bomb ourselves into a peaceful world. Only education and compassion can bring us there.

Another likely attack for my proposed reform is that volunteers wouldn’t contribute to useful work if work wasn’t a central part of the Peace Corps goal. This, also, is unlikely. Volunteers would still work under the same programs, with the same management structure. They would still need to work, but without international development flaunted as a prime goal of the organization.


Brief Field Update

29 07 2011

I would like to begin with a brief apology for not updating this blog for the last several months. For the last several months, wordpress was censored in Kazakhstan, making it very difficult to publish posts. Apparently, the block has been lifted, as I am now able to access my account freely. On another note, I’m happy to announce that I now have steady internet at my home, meaning that updates from the field should come more regularly again.

I am also celebrating my continuation of blogging with a new blog style. The layout is specifically designed to bring my blog into the realm of 21st century western aesthetics.

This summer has been fantastic. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to travel all around the country to take part in various camps and Peace Corps-related meetings. Most of the volunteers who have been in Kaz previously agree that summertime here is exceptional.

So far this summer, I have managed to travel to Ust-Komenagorsk, Zharkent, Almaty (3 times), Kokshateau, and Astana. Naturally, I have also been to Kostanai a handful of times, since it is the largest city near me, as well as the Oblast center city for my region. The highlight of all of my travels thus far was meeting with my parents in Spain. I was there for about a week and a half last month, and it provided me with a rather startling reminder of what life is like over in the western world. It was a great experience, though I’m not shy in admitting that the first few days were quite the reverse culture shock.

The most significant news from my site right now is that the Kaz-21s (the group of volunteers who arrived just before mine) will be finishing their service in a couple days. One of my sitemates is leaving for America, and this will leave Lisakovsk with two Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s too bad to see our friends taking off. It’s also amazing to think that I’ve been here for a year, and my group will be the next to leave, albeit in one year.

I will be on “vacation” for about one more month, as school resumes on the first day of September. I will be writing more updates in the next month to make up for my lack of entries so far this summer. Stay tuned folks…

My First Three Blog Entries (from July and August 2010)

29 07 2011

About one year ago, I started a blog using blogspot to capture my Peace Corps experiences in a public forum. Shortly after I began blogging on my old account, I learned from other volunteers that blogspot is censored by the Kazakhstani government, and thus it won’t work well as a blog site for me. Thus, not long after arriving in Kazakhstan, I created a new blog- the very blog which you are now reading.

I haven’t been doing a very good job keeping up with this blog lately (for reasons which will be explained in my next entry). Nonetheless, I thought it would be interesting to attach my first two blog entries related to my Peace Corps adventure. They are copied below. Enjoy!

First Post, One Month from Departure, July 16 2010

I’ve been contemplating starting my Peace Corps blog for a while now. I didn’t want to get started too early for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons was that I was unsure whether I actually wanted to join Peace Corps a few weeks ago. I went through some tempestuous emotional swings and life dilemmas. But I seemed to have weathered the storm, and I’m going for sure now.

One month from today, I will be stepping on the plane headed for Washington, D.C. When I get to Washington, I will meet the approximately 80 fellow Kazakhstan volunteers heading over with me. We will be in Washington for two days for a pre-service orientation, and then we’ll be off to the other side of the world. The flight to Kazakhstan has two legs- first to Frankfurt, Germany; then to Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty is the old capital of Kazakhstan before it was moved to Astana. My first three months in Kazakhstan will be spent at a village just outside of Almaty. During this ‘pre-service training’, I will learn to speak another language- probably Russian- as well as other cultural immersion necessities. It will also be a time to learn about how to be a Youth Development Facilitator (my job title).

At the time of writing this blog entry, I am working as a volunteer at an organic garden/retreat center in Ashland, Oregon. It is a beautiful Friday morning. The sun is just beginning to shine through the trees on my trailer as I lounge on my beautifully dilapidated deck. I am playing some Jimmy Smith on the stereo and drinking fresh hot coffee. I can’t help but think that in a few weeks, these amenities will seem luxurious. The joy of waking up every morning to NPR and hot coffee cannot be overstated. This trip to Oregon has made me realize the importance of finding solace in the subtle pleasures of life.

This is my first blog. Facebook account aside, I am anything but an aficionado of online social networking. One thing I am, however, is an overly analytical contemplator. Needless to say, I had to make some promises to myself regarding a new blog before commencing my first post. So I would like to briefly enumerate my goals as a blog newbie. First of all, I am going to be honest. Although this may sound trite and obvious, I believe that honesty is a consistently undervalued virtue. The crux of honesty is not what one says, but rather what one doesn’t say. Leaving out crucial information is just as dishonest as a blatant lie. Thus, I hope to use this blog as a means to convey my actual conditions. I don’t want to merely write about the grandiose revelations which may arise through the Peace Corps experience. I want to write about the real deal- the entire experience. If conditions completely suck, then I want to write about it. With honesty being my first blog-self-promise, the second promise is consistency. I don’t want this to be an ignored blog that loses attention after a few weeks. Regular blog entries are essential to capture my experience in Central Asia.

I would like to conclude this first blog post with an excerpt from one of my favorite authors. Henry Miller, an author best known for his work Tropic of Cancer, is in my opinion greatly misunderstood and undervalued. I just finished reading one of his books titled Air Conditioned Nightmare. Actually, Air Conditioned Nightmare is my least favorite of his books that I’ve read, but it still has its moments. In one of the chapters, Miller eloquently addresses the American poet’s conception of Asia.

“Asia. Just Asia, and the mind trembles. Who can fill the picture of Asia? Marco Polo gives us thousands of details, but they are like a drop in the bucket. No matter what man has accomplished since, no matter what miracles he has wrought, the word Asia floods his memory with a splendor and magnificence unequalled…Our adventurers and explorers lose themselves there, our scholars are confounded there, our evangelists and zealots and bigots are reduced to nullity there, our colonials rot there, are machines look puny and insignificant there, our armies are swallowed up there. Vast, multiform, polygot, seething with unharnessed energy, now stagnant, now alert, ever menacing, ever mysterious, Asia dwarfs the world…”

Leaving the Country in One Week, August 11, 2010

It’s been an interesting summer. For the first two months, I was a WOOFer in Oregon. I arrived back in Colorado almost two weeks ago, spending lots of time with friends and family. Leaving as a Peace Corps volunteer truly is a bitter-sweet endeavour. There are so many interesting and loving people in this country alone, it is sometimes difficult for me to fathom living in Kazakhstan for over two years.

But then again, time is incomprehensible in itself. Two years is arbitrary. I’ve spent the last four years in college living one semester at a time. It’s a great life actually- as though many of my concerns and stresses washed away after a few months and I started all over again. Continual rejuvenation. College life is like a fast-paced river, moving indiscriminately through rocks, pools, and bends. Post-college feels like the river has finally approached the sea, and there are suddenly unlimited directions to turn. Each option and opportunity is beyond conception. Even the human mind trembles in confused obscurity. It is as exciting as it is terrifying.

I have friends from my college class who chose to work in an office. I have friends who joined the military. Friends who are travelling the world in penury. Still others who are unemployed and unmotivated to do much of anything. We all aspire to learn and experience different landscapes. My aspirations are simply different; they are not better nor worse. No normative judgment can encapsulate the human experience. We all contemplate what makes sense to our personal ideologies, and eventually come to realize our realities.

But enough of my analysis. I will be on a flight to leave the state in 5 days, and a flight to leave the country in 7. The future will bring what it will. I am letting go of anticipations and expectations, and accepting whatever comes my way. That’s really the only option I have.

Leaving America Tomorrow, August 17, 2010

I arrived in Washington, DC yesterday, and completed the Peace Corps staging today. It’s actually my first time in Washington. The sights are, put simply, astonishing. My walk between the White House, the Capital, and the Lincoln Memorial was overwhelming in sensation. I tried to take pictures to capture the significance, but no pictorial representation could possibly recreate the experience. For one thing, the distance between structures and memorials in Washington is massive. It took about 20 minutes to walk from one end of the Capital’s front lawn to the other. While walking to the capital building, I was drawing the parallel to my walk in front of the Eiffel Tower a few years back. Both structures have incredible front lawns that span many city blocks; enough distance to allow one’s mind to become lost in perplexity. Walking past the innumerable expansive buildings was reminiscent of the streets of Rome. Overall, being in Washington DC revitalized my appreciation for the United States of America. It is fascinating how physical structures and architectural feats can impact the soul. Architecture really is art- it alters emotions and elates enthusiasm.

Staging is the time when Peace Corps staff speak with all of the volunteers about expectations and so-on/so-fourth. I met all 73 other volunteers in my Kazakhstan group today. It seems like a really eclectic group with an enthusiastic vibe… all good things. Although the staging event was somewhat tedious at times, it is a necessary element of fostering a safe and effective atmosphere for volunteers. This whole staging event reminds me somewhat of Freshman orientation. Peaple from all over share a common aspiration. We’ll be in the same country for over two years. The sociological dynamics are hefty, to put it lightly.

We’re heading off at 5:45PM tomorrow. My first flight is to Frankfurt, Germany; then my second flight is to Almaty, Kazakhstan. We’ll all arrive around midnight in Almaty, which will undoubtedly be an interesting experience.

More updates to come later. I need to get some sleep. It’s been a long day.

Springtime in the Steppe

27 04 2011

It’s spring, and life is good. I just walked out to the steppe with my sitemate (fellow American volunteer in Lisakovsk), and I got a great look of the surrounding land. This might sound like a strange concept- that I went out to the steppe- but to be honest, I rarely step out of the concrete jungle of Lisakovsk to surround myself in this truly magnificent land. The last few months of winter were so cold, the last thing on my agenda was to leave the indoors. Finally… the weather outside is beautiful… and there’s nothing more I’d rather do than see the place I live.

From the apartment where I live, it’s only about a 10 minute walk to get fully out of the city. There are a handful of houses on the outskirts of town as I walk out, all of which were built in the last 10 years. From what I understand, there were no private homes (just shared apartment complexes) during the Soviet years. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the subsequent depression left few people with the money to buy their own houses. But the last 10 years- thanks to oil money and political stability- have brought about a proliferation in private housing throughout Kazakhstan.

The zoning and land utilization in this part of the world is somewhat difficult for Americans to conceptualize. In many American towns and cities, it seems as though building construction fades away. In the centers of towns, of course everything is built up with large structures. But as you drive away from the center, you see suburbs, then country homes, small houses, and finally farm land.

Generally speaking, towns in Northern Kazakhstan are very different. There is a clearly defined border of the town. Inside the border, there are tall apartment buildings and stores. But outside of the border, there is absolutely nothing. It’s just steppe for miles and miles on end. No transition between the city and the steppe.

As my sitemate and I were walking out into the steppe, I immediately smelled a recognizable smell from my pre-service training in South Kazakshtan: Petchka. It’s coal that people use to heat their homes if their homes are not on the central heating systems found in all other apartment complexes. My training site of Issyk was full of petchka-heated-homes, but here in Lisakovsk, there are very few independent houses. The smell of petchka created a light haze over the long horizon and enormous sky. Clouds covered about half of the sky, causing a breathtaking sunset full of color and emotion. For a little while, I felt like I was back in the outskirts of Colorado, hiking out to feel the freeness.

New Apartment!

27 04 2011

Originally written April 4th.

In some ways, being a Peace Corps volunteer is like growing up from childhood to adulthood all over again. When I first arrived into Kazakhstan, I was completely lost and dependent upon people close to me- especially the Peace Corps staff (especially especially my language and technical teachers!). But as the initial weeks turned to months, I became increasingly confident.

In Peace Corps Kazakhstan PST, one of the most exciting events is called “Almaty Entry”. It’s a day when the trainees all head into the city of Almaty from their training villages with their language teachers and fellow trainees. It marks a special ritual because after completing Almaty Entry, trainees are allowed to leave their villages on the weekends, and venture into Almaty on their own. It sort of feels like your parents allowing you to go out into the city with your friends. You don’t feel nearly as restricted as you did in the initial weeks of PST.

Of course, one of the most exciting days of Peace Corps service is “swearing-in day”. It marks the official end of PST, whereby the trainees are sworn in as volunteers. To me, swearing in felt like graduating from high school. I was freed from my training site, and sent to a town far, far away. My permanent site, Lisakovsk, is about 40 hours by train from the Peace Corps headquarters in Almaty.

Perhaps the next step in independence on this strange trip called “Peace Corps” is moving into my own apartment. During PST, I lived with an amazing woman who I called Mamaluba. She was a great host mother for me, and made my experience in Issyk meaningful and sane. When I moved to Lisakovsk, I was required to live with a host family for the first 4 months. Again,  I was extremely fortunate to live with a tremendous family. I had absolutely no major problems, and I forged innumerable relationships through the experience. As an independent-minded American, I felt the need to have my own apartment from the beginning. Interestingly, many locals live with their parents until marriage. For example, most unmarried teachers at the schools where I work live with their mom and/or dad. Seems strange for a working professional in their twenties to still live with their parents, but here it’s not just normal- it’s expected.

My new place is clean, big, and peaceful. It’s the nicest apartment I’ve ever lived in (after graduating high school).  I have all utilities that my friends in America have- hot running water, electricity, and soon internet. I don’t really have television, but to me, that’s a good thing. I just need my collection of books and music to keep my mind in working order.

Naturally, there are drawbacks to living on my own. My amount of language practice will significantly decrease. I will have to wash my own clothes by hand. I will also have to clean the apartment myself. But nonetheless, I feel like a free man again. The tradeoffs are worth the switch. Good things.

Visions of the Past and Present

10 03 2011

In every place that I have ever lived, I have a particular vision that I can instantly imagine of the place. I can reel back to a memory of that particular place when I need a change of scenery or thought. It’s like I have one photo of every place that I ever lived, and I can pull it up to view it whenever I want. But it’s more than a photo. I can feel the surroundings, smell the aroma, and understand the scenery.

My vision of my apartment in college embodies how I spent most of my time there. I’m lying on my bed studying for my classes while listening to NPR. It’s fairly late at night in the middle of winter. I have my lamp next to my bed turned on, plus my fan light turned on just half-way. I don’t like overhead lights to be too bright. There’s a big stack of books on the floor. More reading assigned than my eyes can stay opened for, but I push on nonetheless. I’m thinking about how I have to get up early tomorrow morning to go to work at Student Senate. A hot cup of tea in my hand- mint tea- something that I haven’t managed to find in Kazakhstan over the last 7 months.

My vision of my next home is equally vivid. I lived alone in a trailer in the rural mountains of Southern Oregon after finishing college last year. My image is a pleasant one. It’s the morning, though not too early. Maybe around 9. I’ve got NPR (yes, again) playing inside the trailer, and I’m sitting out on the deck in the morning sunshine. I’m not wearing a shirt, socks, or shoes. No need. It feels better to have the morning summer sunshine nurture the skin directly. I just made a cup of coffee through my cheaply-rigged coffee-making system. But as I’m sitting outside on my deck, taking in the sunshine and looking at the naked mountains in peace, the overpowering smell isn’t the coffee, though it’s evident too. More than anything, it’s the smell of the unpopulated forest in the springtime. I take in a big breath of fresh air. My mind rotates thoughts- teetering between the message of book that I read last night and women of my past.

After my home in Oregon, I settled down in a somewhat different setting. I lived with a host mother near Almaty, Kazakhstan for two and a half months during my pre-service training with Peace Corps. Her name was (and still is) Mama Luba. My vision of Mama Luba’s home takes place at about 8:00 at night. I just had dinner- ploff again- not that that’s a bad thing. It’s actually delicious ploff, it’s just that we’ve had the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the last 48 hours. But man, the tea was hands-down amazing. I don’t know what Mama Luba does with her tea, but it’s some of the best tea in Southern Kazakhstan (I hesitate to say all of Kazakhstan, because my current host mom makes even better tea… hard to imagine) Physically, I’m exhausted. I’m contemplating taking a 20-minute nap before starting with the language homework that Ekaterina Nikoliovna assigned earlier today.  I’m thinking about home. I’m trying not to be so nostalgic, but I can’t help it. I have very little time to relax. I miss my family and friends. I don’t understand why I still spend so much time thinking about my ex-girlfriend, because we broke up before I graduated college. I’m confused in so many ways, and not sure where I belong in the world. But right now, I have a good host family, and an adventurous life. So I accept my current situation as my destiny, and play some Jimmy Cliff to ease my mind.

That’s what my previous home makes me think of.  But let’s fast-forward a bit. Let’s bring ourselves to my present moment. This isn’t a memory- this my actual life right now.  It’s Tuesday, March 8th, 2011, which means that I live with a new host family in Lisakovsk, Kazakstan. I’ve  been living with this family for about 4 months now. I’ll only be living here for another 8 days because soon I will have my own apartment. I’m lying on my bed and typing this blog. John Lee Hooker is playing on my stereo. I feel ease and contentment in my current moment for several reasons. The biggest reason is that it’s warm outside, so I have my window propped open with the breeze pushing against my skin. Perhaps warm isn’t the best word… after all it’s only a couple degrees above freezing… but after a long long long winter in southern Siberia, this is the best weather I’ve had in recent memory. I’m also content because it’s approaching midnight, which means that I’ve finished my duties for “International Women’s Day” as the locals call it. I don’t understand how such a holiday can be international if I’ve never even heard of it until a few weeks ago, but whatever. I spent a ton of money and was pretty stressed out my ambiguous responsibilities as a member of the male camp, so it’s a welcome conclusion to say the least. I’m also happy because I have free time in my life again. Not a ton of free time, but enough to read books for pleasure, go to the gym on a regular basis, and practice yoga when I want to. I hardly had any free time during college or PST, so it’s a great feeling to be able to live my life as a free man again.

And as I’m doing these things and writing this article, I’m wondering what my memory of this home will be. Will my memory be of me lying on my bed with music playing as I contemplate the philosophical question of what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer? Will it be of me drinking beer and vodka with my host mom and her friends while I play the guitar through the early morning? Maybe it will be of me rushing to get ready in the morning, working off of miniscule motivation to get myself to work on time. What will my memory be of this home after I leave? And what will my memory be of Kazakhstan after I leave?


10 03 2011

(Written February 23, 2011)

I’ve been putting off writing a blog entry for a while. I’ve had plenty of thoughts and stories to enter into this blog- that’s for sure- but I’ve felt reluctant to write up an article and publish it here. It’s been a really strange last month. Very challenging.

I hesitate to document my challenges for several reasons. For one thing, I want my blog and my correspondences home to be positive in nature. I don’t want people to think that I’m struggling at site and that it’s been challenging. I don’t want to send a message home that misrepresents the area or people that I’m working around, and I also don’t want to sound negative.

On another note, I don’t like writing anything that proves my challenges because I don’t want to internalize difficulties. I truly believe that the vast majority of what defines people’s lives are the reactions to events, rather than the events themselves. In other words, writing something in a blog, journal, or even just mentioning it in a conversation makes it a more significant issue by its very recognition. If I write about hard times at site, I wonder if I’m making it even more difficult.

But the existence of this blog shows that I’ve decided to be transparent with the challenges that I’ve felt recently. It’s been a long cold winter in North Kazakhstan, and it’s tested me. It’s not just the climate that’s tested me. The Russian language is an indefinite test. I’ve gone through cycles of thinking that I should give up completely with trying to learn the language, then feeling like I’m doing a great job speaking. It’s lonely here too. Homesickness comes and goes. I miss my family and friends for sure, as well as many things about American culture. I think about the opportunity cost associated with being away from America in my early 20s… and love. I’ve also felt my fair share of ups and downs at my work site. I often feel powerless, and like I’m no asset to my work or community. I really don’t work all that much, and the times that I do work seem to have only moderate impact on others around me.

Perhaps this the fault of my own motivation. As previously mentioned, the language and cultural differences leave me feeling powerless from time-to-time. Although I have ideas about what I can do to help the community, I consistently fall back to the reality of my limitations here. I don’t’ speak the language very well, which keeps me from having meaningful interactions with 98% of the community. I don’t understand the culture very well, even though I’ve lived here for 6 months already. I also have trouble recruiting people to help me with projects and ideas that I have. Many people don’t take me seriously or are afraid to trust me. All of these reasons, plus a handful of other reasons, contribute to a feeling of lacked motivation. I sat at my desk for a couple hours today thinking about what else I could do to contribute more to my community… but I keep falling back on the hard reality of my limitations… which impacts my motivation to do more. I really don’t want to be a lazy volunteer.

The truth is that difficult times in Peace Corps come and go. I don’t want anyone reading this blog to think that my recent challenges will be ever-lasting or concrete. While challenges are a central component of being a Peace Corps volunteer, I realize that they are ephemeral I will conquer them. Ultimately, though, I wanted to write an honest blog entry for everyone back home to give you a taste of the harder times here.

The last few weeks have made me fall back to the philosophical questions of the Peace Corps. What is the purpose of the Peace Corps? And my more immediate and intimate question- what does it mean to be a Peace Corps Volunteer? Before joining the Peace Corps, I thoroughly contemplated the first question. But as of recently, I’ve been embarking on the second question more and more, and it’s proven to be quite the enigma. And of course, like most thoughtful questions, there’s no concrete answer to it.


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