You Know You’re in Peace Corps When…

… All you understand from a conversation is when and where to show up, and then when you do show up you find yourself alone on a school bus with students you don’t know heading to a village that you didn’t really hear the name of to maybe see a waterfall (maybe) and you don’t know how you will get home. And then you have a good time so you go back a couple days later only to have an even more interesting experience. Here’s the story:

My counterpart is on vacation for 3 weeks. I had thought I would get a key to my office, but somehow that never happened. It’s not really an issue because the only thing that would happen if I went to my office alone would be that I would have to tell all the women who come in to get information that they should come back when the nurse is back from vacation. Even so, I made an appearance in the hallways most days. One day, a doctor took me into her office and told me to come back at 11:30 on Thursday. She also said something about amazing, big water. That was all I got out of a 5-minute conversation. It was only Monday and I had only been at work for 15 minutes, but the conversation seemed pretty final so I didn’t really go into the office much that week.

The bus stop we waited at
The bus stop we waited at

When I went to her office on Thursday, she quickly ushered me to another office where she passed me off to a women who I had seen before but didn’t really know, and she told me to tell the people (who, I had no idea) ‘Mooramak’. I had her write it down (even though I can barely read cursive Cyrillic). I left the building with this new woman knowing only that we were NOT going to the bus station. We ended up at a school on the edge of town, one I had never seen before. As we approached, the young students were exiting, all dressed up in uniforms and the girls with big white bows in their hair. We walked up to the bus stop at the school and the women yelled ‘Who is going to Orto something something?’ She had to yell 2 or 3 times before a 15 year old (she’s turning 16 in November, I later learned) raised her hand and walked over to us. The woman told her I was now her ‘task’, that I was a volunteer and she could speak English with me. The girl, like many here, has studied English, but was not very comfortable practicing her language, so that left me to practice mine… as broken as my language is, at a school I had never been to, going on an adventure that I knew nothing about.

The school bus we rode to Orto-Tokoy
The school bus we rode to Orto-Tokoy

Not long after I was pawned off on this poor student, the school bus came. I rode on this mini bus for 30 minutes with students looking at me, curious to hear what I was saying to the girl. During the ride I learned that the river we were driving along empties into Kazakhstan, that the village I was heading to had 70 families, and that the girl didn’t like math.

When we arrived, we all filed off the bus and entered the village through a big blue gate, stepping over a low rope. We then turned right and walked across a bridge into the village. The girl grabbed me lightly by the arm – it’s so strange to feel completely dependent upon a 15 year old. I kept thinking, ‘are we going to the waterfall now? How long will it be before I know how I will get home?’ She walked me passed the local health office, which we learned had no one in it. We then walked house to house asking for someone. I had no idea who.

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We finally found who we were looking for in a backyard of one of the homes. It was another woman I recognized from work, but whom I didn’t really know. The student essentially disappeared at this point, I wasn’t able to say thank you. From there, I followed this woman around as she did a little work. She works at the village health center but told me she doesn’t sit in the office because no one will come. Instead she walks house to house taking people’s blood pressure and listening to their complaints about their aches and pains. There was one particular moment I really wished I could’ve taken a picture – an older woman came slowly out of her house and down the road to find this woman I was with. I watched as the older woman sat on a stump between 2 Kyrgyz village homes with massive mountains in the background as she got her blood pressure checked. It was an amazing sight. The rest of the houses we visited consisted of the woman telling the (mostly older) people I was either a journalist or a manager and then me wowing them with 2-3 Kyrgyz phrases, like hello and goodbye. They thought it was hilarious.

At one of the houses, we stopped for lunch. I had three fried eggs… During the lunch the woman I was with gave a baby a vaccine in the butt and then asked me how I had arrived in the village. She laughed out loud when I told her I took the school bus. Then I told her the only thing the lady at the clinic had told me was this ‘Mooramak’ thing that I didn’t know anything about. She said, “Oh yes, that’s me, that’s my name.” I was a bit embarrassed, but the moment quickly passed.

From there, we walked around a bit more…she painted 2 little girls’ nails and gave them candy and other random greetings occurred until of course we stopped for our second lunch of fish, bread, and fruit. The women at this house were very nice and seemed well off. It turns out this was the mayor’s house. He had been running around getting us the right documentation to see the “fountain”/waterfall, whatever it was.

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We all got in his car and he started driving uphill. On the drive he told me that he wanted one of each type of volunteer – an English teacher, a Health educator, and a Business volunteer. Somehow he had met some volunteers before – he knew about the water filters we used. He was a very friendly man and we laughed quite a bit.

After making a quick stop at a guard station (where the mayor had to ask the guard to read his license plate number to him because he didn’t know it – the guy laughed at him), we finally made it to our destination – a large reservoir between Issyk Kul and Kochkor. It was interesting to see, but not what I was expecting.

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The mayor then let me and the woman who had been hosting me all day walk back to town. It was a beautiful walk, as we stopped by the infamous “fountain” – a bunch of water spewing out of huge pipes coming out of the side of a wall. She said in the spring the fountain is much bigger. We then walked back on a tree lined street, picking apples and washing them and eating as we went.

Then the question that had been in my mind all day got answered – how I was going to get home. At the end of the day (after I had helped this woman manually rip a shrub out of the ground in front of the health center since it was blocking the door), we walked to a house next to the blue gate where I had come in. I noticed they kept the rope up to stop cars from leaving the village before they were asked if they had any extra room.

The story does not end here. I had asked some students on the school bus if I could ride my bike from Balykchy to their village. They told me it would take 5 hours. After mapping it out on Google, it was a 13 mile ride out there – about 1.5 hours. Eric and I decided we would make the ride on the coming weekend.

Saturday came and we headed out along the river that I remembered, passed a strange abandoned building, and arrived at the blue gate I had walked through with the students. Since I had been here before, I was pretty confident in walking my bike right under the rope that was blocking the road. I figured it must just be for cars – the ones they want to stop and take extra passengers into town.

I was wrong. An older эже came out of the building and said a bunch of things in Russian to us – of course none of which we understood, other than Nyet. We told her that I had been here only a couple days before, but she insisted we could not pass. I was not in the mood to argue or persuade, so I suggested we eat lunch by the river. Eric tried a few other things to get her to change her decision, but to no avail (suggesting at the end this was a bad village probably didn’t help my case – Eric.)

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A bit deflated (it was still a really nice bike ride, I tried to emphasize), we found a place to eat the lunch we packed. At one point I thought I saw the mayor driving by so we popped our heads up, but no luck. Until another car came by – this one was the mayor! He asked if we had gone up to the fountain and we said that the woman at the gatehouse told us no. He told us to follow him – this was hard because keeping up with a car for a mile on a bike is impossible.

As we pulled back up to the gate we didn’t see him. We prepared for another run-in with the woman. But as we approached, he came around the corner and gave us the paperwork we needed to go up to the reservoir ourselves. He laughed when the older woman told him that Eric had called this village a bad village in his first conversation with her. She laughed too. So lucky. He also laughed when he put our license plate numbers as ‘велосипет (bicycle). And then he reiterated how much he wanted volunteers. I do think this would be a nice site for new volunteers.

IMG_20140920_145836And then we were off. We rode back up the tree lined hill and stopped at the gate to provide our paperwork. The guard hesitated to come out of his guard house – why would we be there on bikes, and typically foreigners are not allowed – what could we possibly want from him? He asked us where we got the official paperwork from and when we dropped the mayor’s name he was surprised. He looked at our IDs and thought about what to do, but since we had the paperwork he let us go in. He did tell us no swimming (the reservoir is at least 600 feet down from the road…we weren’t going to go swimming) and no photography (which we kind of abided by, but we met some other Kyrgyz people up there – who knew our host dad, small world – and they were taking pictures so we got a couple too). We also had a GoPro that we just let run…

We made it up to the reservoir, stopping at the fountain on the way up. Eric thought it was cooler than I did the first time I saw it – I guess my expectations had been higher and I hadn’t made it into this big thing when I described it to him. We took our time at the top and as we began riding around a bit more I realized I had a flat tire…the farthest away from home and I couldn’t ride my bike anymore.

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So we walked back down that tree-lined road (passing through some great mountain biking terrain in the process – Eric was disappointed). We made it back to the little house at the gate and the эже smiled and waved goodbye to us. We walked over to her and explained our problem. She tried to get us to call the mayor but his phone wasn’t working. Luckily, not 2 minutes later a large, empty periwinkle van drove up, heading to Balykchy.

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We put both bikes in the back and took one of the 16 seats inside. We met Кубан (Kuban) and his wife Сонун (Sonoon, which means “awesome”). They drive this marshrutka from Balykchy to Bishkek every day and we happened to catch them as they were leaving for work. They were incredibly nice, fun to talk to, and they took us right to our house. As we pulled up, Кубан said he knew the house – he knows our host dad too! The taxi/marshrutka driver world must be a tight one.

So with that, we made it home. My tire has since been patched and we’ve had other adventures since, but this one was sure memorable!

I’m sure this will be part one of an indefinite number of posts like this. Stay tuned for more examples.

2 Replies to “You Know You’re in Peace Corps When…”

  1. Not sure if I would find that fun or scary! Sounds like you two are getting into the thick of it though!
    Be careful, and Eric, you probably need to let Taylor do all the talking! I know she is much more diplomatic, even with her limited language at this point!

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