Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Kennedy, the Peace Corps, and a woman who was there

      For work this week, I wrote about the Dallas Morning News and their JFK50 project, telling the story of Kennedy's assassination from the city where it took place and the journalists who covered it. 
     And in my reporting, I learned about Mary Woodward.
     Her notes, and the notes of other reporters, photographers and staff, are now collected in a book, "JFK Assassination: The Reporters' Notes." One of them was Woodward. The night before, she writes, she made sure to give herself a manicure.
     "I knew the president wouldn’t see my hands reaching out from the crowd, but somehow I couldn’t bear the thought of going to cheer the president looking less than my best," her notes read from a June 5 piece.
     Woodward wrote this month about what happened next for the Morning News. 
    "That particular Friday was Nov. 22, 1963, and on my 'extended' lunch break, while standing with three friends in front of the Texas School Book Depository, I witnessed (as the fifth-closest witness, according to an official source) the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy."
     Woodward rushed back to the newsroom and wrote, what she called, the story of her life. And then, about one year later, she quit and joined the Peace Corps. 
     “I didn’t want my life to be over before I got the chance to do some of the things I never got to do,” said Pillsworth, 73, in a September 28th story about where the reporters who covered that day are now. “I’d had a very sheltered life, and it just made such an effect on me in coming to grips with the reality on life.”
     Pillsworth went to Brazil, met her husband, a fellow volunteer, and she continued being a journalist, starting a community newspaper, the story reports. 
     As the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination approaches, you can find a lot of great memories from people who were alive that day, including this piece from Peace Corps Worldwide's John Coyne, who was in service in Ethiopia. Coyne's also collecting and telling memories from other volunteers here, and he writes about Kennedy and the start of the Peace Corps here.
     That day in Dallas, writes Woodward, now Mary Woodward Pillsworth, she stayed to help translate for Spanish-speaking reporters.
     "On my way to their home the next morning," she writes, "I took the dress I had worn that Friday to the cleaners. Strangely, I never picked it up."

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Talking with Madeline in Kyrgyzstan

Photo by Madeline Stoddard, Kyrgyzstan

by Kristen Hare, Guyana, 2000-2002
     Madeline Stoddard starts a recent blog post with the above photo, and this: "My six-month mark passed with little fanfare, many shots of vodka, and a reminder that my time here is moving much more quickly than I could have imagined."
     During the start of the government shutdown, I shared Madeline's blog and her thoughts about the experience from a Peace Corps Volunteer's point of view. And I snooped around. In that snooping, I discovered some vivid writing, stunning photos and a video that took me into a yurt. After sharing one of her pieces a few weeks ago, I asked Madeline if she'd talk with me about her experience. She's the first volunteer featured here who is still in country. Via e-mail we talked about the role technology is playing in her experience, why she joined, and where she thinks she might be when this all ends. All the photos here, by the way, are hers.

KH: You have had a ton of adventures already, from working for the president's reelection campaign to working as an admissions officer in Cairo to interning with the State Department in Syria. Why did you join the Peace Corps?

MS: I’ve talked a lot about my reasons for joining the Peace Corps – from the professional opportunities it provides, the desire for adventure that lives within, I think, all people, even my naive idea that I might that I might still become a princess – but what it really comes down to is this: this is a way that I can serve my country. I have been incredibly lucky to have been given so many opportunities in my life, and this a way that I can not only give back, but also explore my interests in community development, empowerment, and engagement.
     I am a big believer in the idea that those who truly love their country will work hard to improve it, and my hope is by empowering and developing countries in my service, I will be better equipped to do so when I return to the States. Peace Corps is my way to do that, and it is incredible to think about joining this legacy of over 50 years of individuals dedicated to their idea of service. Peace Corps is an amazing opportunity; no other organization offers an experience with so much support and training and investment in their volunteers, but also allowing your two years to be incredibly individual, so much about your community and your understanding of what progress means for your site and yourself. It is a challenge to be the best version of yourself, but also to find new pieces of yourself along the way. That’s why I joined – to be challenged and to serve my country in a way that makes sense with who I am as an individual. 

KH: How have your experiences in Kyrgyzstan compared with the other places you've traveled and lived?

MS: Obviously, every place is different – you see inescapable similarities and glaring differences everywhere. Not just the physical structures that exist, but the person you are when you see them. Like reading really good books, each place is experienced through some moment in your life where different things resonate, different things come to the forefront that you might not have even noticed as a young kid wandering around Northern India or a college student getting lost in Cairo’s markets. It’s part of what I love about traveling and living abroad, and I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to do so through the Peace Corps.
     I think the starkest difference for my life in Kyrgyzstan is a control over the language, which despite my many attempts, never got to this level living anywhere else. And although I speak Russian and not Kyrgyz, I find myself able to connect more as a member of the community, although my foreign Americanness always seems to shine through in my interactions with others.
     Kyrgyzstan is beautiful and almost ahistorical – not that it lacks a history, but that it actively tries to live within this history of what used to be true here while struggling to become this modern, technological society. There is this inherent contradiction in things like the education system – an incredibly well-preserved monument to Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet roots and frustratingly resistant to change – that asks donors (and volunteers) for new computers and technology, but does not know how to teach their students, or their teachers, to use them. (In fact, most volunteers describe immaculate technology rooms in their schools that are padlocked and unused, except as bragging rights against other schools in their community or region.) There is this huge rift between urban Kyrgyzstan and rural Kyrgyzstan, which is true in other places that I have lived, but I had never experienced it as intimately as I do here. You can drive through the country and see these crumbling edifices of Soviet rule – Lenin statues with their hands stretched forth, long barracks provided for now-defunct shoe leather and car part factories – which is something I have never seen before, all this infrastructure crumbling or held together with (in some cases literal) duct tape. There is the city center, and there is everything else, and village life here exists in a way that we don’t ever see in the US.
     There are all these great contradictions in Kyrgyzstan, to the point that they are humorous and often endearing. Kyrgyzstan is incredibly beautiful – 80% of this country is some form of mountain, and the people here build their lives around hospitality towards others, despite the harshness of the climate and the vodka. In part, the contrasts that the country provides make that beauty and hospitality more transformative, more breathtaking. I can walk home and be surprised by the view of mountain ranges shining between buildings (but only if the smog clears for the day), or stumble upon unique pieces of history masked by new construction sites and 24-hour cafés. It’s all just a subtle reminder to keep looking and challenging yourself to see something new each time. 

KH: Your blog has all these wonderful pieces of your life there, from gorgeous portraits to essays and videos, but also your own social commentary on what's happening back home, such as the shutdown or the Trayvon Martin case, and issues you're discovering in Kyrgyzstan, such as bride kidnapping. Do people in your community have access to the internet, and do you know if they ever read what you're writing? One of the interesting things that's happened over time is we're seeing much more into the lives of volunteers through their own blogs, and I've wondered if their communities are tuned in to them.

MS: I think Peace Corps service has changed drastically with the level of internet penetration in the communities in which the majority of volunteers serve. We have this level of connection with home and the things going on there that is unprecedented, and offers so many opportunities to understand our service in context of something bigger. I am interested in policy, public service, and communities – so I can reflect on my ideas about all of those things as I experience them here and understand them from home. Whenever I am writing, I try to keep in mind what I would want to be reading, and I never wanted to have it be this daily rundown of “I did this, and then I did this and it was sooo interesting.” My generation has kind of been pegged with this oversharing obnoxiousness that I am always uncomfortable with (but admittedly sometimes play into) and I wanted to talk more about my experience holistically. Articulating that experience in context – of being an American abroad, about serving my country, learning about myself and this new community every day, and being able to communicate what I learn to open up Kyrgyzstan to the rest of the world – is as much a tool for me to make sense of my service as it is for updating people on what my life is like here.
     Often, I don’t feel like I have anything really interesting to write about. There is this trap that exists when you talk about living abroad to someone back home. For the most part, your life here is just as mundane as anywhere – you get up, you drink a cup of coffee with breakfast, you go to work, you go to the market, you drink beer with your friends, you walk in your city’s parks, you think about bills or what is happening in the news or what you will make for dinner tomorrow – so much of it seems commonplace. You can sometimes slip out of it and forget you live somewhere entirely different. Except, perhaps, when you take a marshrutka (a local mini-bus) to work and have to share your seat with a sheep. It’s moments like that you realize, right – maybe I do have something to talk about.
     Because I live in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, there is a pretty high level of internet access. It’s all relatively new; smartphones, internet clubs, and free wifi in cafés have grown exponentially in the past couple of years. Outside of Bishkek, I think that is less true – the villages and farther-flung oblasts are still newcomers to the internet party. I don’t know how much of our blogs as volunteers get out to Kyrgyz people, although I know Peace Corps host country staff regularly reads them. I think an equally large issue, beyond internet penetration in Kyrgyzstan, is the level of English language knowledge. Learning English is a big thing here, both as a marker of social status and an investment in economic opportunity, but is fairly limited and only really a hallmark of post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan. And, as with most Post-Soviet Central Asia, there is a push to reduce Russian influence, including language. The internet, egalitarian and magical as it may be, is not really set-up for Kyrgyz speakers. So many of the resources on the internet are predominantly in English, not to mention almost every volunteer’s blog being exclusively in English, I’m not sure how much of it is read and absorbed by our communities. I think it’s definitely an interesting conversation to have, and a question that I plan to ask other volunteers. And maybe, over the next two years of my service, that will change dramatically. We’ll see.
     What has been really interesting is insight into other volunteer’s experiences, both in Kyrgyzstan and in the 76 other countries where Peace Corps serves. It’s another opportunity to put my service in context, and offers new perspectives on challenges I am facing here. I’ve even been working on developing a potential project based on a project launched by Peace Corps volunteers in Nicaragua, sharing their project on a blog and being able to email them and ask a questions about it. I think if it were even 10 years ago, this type of conversation would be close to impossible, and it all comes down to being able to share our experiences and build this sense of online community as we are building community at site. It is exciting to think about the opportunities that that will provide for future volunteers.    

KH: So you're still there, and you're actually the first volunteer I've gotten to work with for Hard Corps who's currently in service. When do you come home, and what's next for you when that happens?

MS: My service won’t end until Summer of 2015, but I’ve already hit the six-month mark, and that date seems to be looming much closer than I thought it would be at this point. I think the biggest hallmark of Peace Corps service is time on your own to think – about your experience, about what it means to be a part of this organization and this community, and how to build the next steps of your life on your two years of service. I feel like its an ever-present conversation that goes on somewhere in my mind, “what’s next?” And the honest answer is, I’m not entirely sure. Everything depends on the opportunities that emerge over the next few years, and whether I am brave enough to take them or if they make sense at the time. I like being challenged and discovering new things, which sometimes leads to me doing a lot of different things, or moving around a lot. My two years living in Kyrgyzstan will be the longest I have lived in any one place since I started university in 2006, and, in all honesty, was one of my biggest concerns about committing to service.
     I have looked at going back to school, most likely for a program that continues to allow me to investigate ways to engage communities with the policy process. I’ve also looked at careers with USAID, with the State Department, and other multinational organizations, as well as considered working with another political campaign. I’m most interested in the intersection of public engagement and policy development and implementation, so any chance I could build a career around that would be an incredible opportunity. But if, in the meantime, someone offered me a chance to travel more, take pictures, try new things, and write about it – I most certainly would not turn them down.

KH: It's probably hard to say, since you're still in the middle of this experience, but what are the things you'll take away with you after this -- moments, changes in who you are or how you see things, even physical things. What are you bringing back here?

MS: It is so early to think about bringing things back, but I imagine it will be a hefty balance of personal and professional. I hope to explore new approaches to problem solving, a pretty consistent part of my service, as well as practical experience from the work that I am doing. I also expect that the way I communicate ideas will be affected, not just in a new language, but in a different ways, with different audiences, and through different mediums. I hope to come back with enough stories to annoy friends and family with for the foreseeable future that all start with, “Well, when I was in the Peace Corps…”
     I think some things are unavoidable to bring back, like a newfound respect for showers and effective use of turn signals and the glory that is hot sauce, but also being able to put your experience in context and perspective to what you want to do next – whether that is business or journalism or public service or teaching. There is this big misconception about Peace Corps service, I think, that volunteers are out there building schools and taking care of adorable, foreign-looking children in rural clinics – and while that might certainly be true in some volunteers’ experiences – but so much about being a volunteer is empowering others with new skills and new ideas to take on the challenges in their own communities and building partnerships to make those changes sustainable. That is the kind of approach to problems I want to have – how do we get others to recognize and realize their potential? How can I encourage individuals or groups with similar interests to work together to create something better?
     And, of course, the relationships I am building here I hope can transcend the distance of going home. I want to be able to talk to my host family as my host brothers grow up and get married and have kids. I want to be able to witness my fellow volunteers doing great things, which I am certain they will. I want to know that my time mattered here, that I have learned something valuable, and that I have left something more significant and tangible than memories behind. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Last day of teaching...

Guyana, by Kristen Hare

by Kristen Hare, Guyana, 2000-2002
... and a student comes up to me and says the following:
"Miss, Mommy says if you could please marry Daddy and take him back to America with you?"
I gently told her no in about 17 different ways.
Still, she seemed surprised.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The two-year summer

Guyana, by Kristen Hare

by Kristen Hare, Guyana, 2000-2002

     It’s Sunday. It’s hot. My fan blows directly on me. The sun hangs heavy in the sky today. There is no promise of rain. I woke at 5:30 and fought with sleep again until 8. I swept and made some toast. I went to market. I waited for my mom’s Sunday call. I made lunch. Took a nap. At five, I will go on a walk. Come home. Shower. Watch the news. Cook dinner. Go to bed. It’s Sunday.
     Each day passes here with eerie regularity. I work, take care of myself, sleep and eat. It’s slow. It’s hot. I do not notice the time passing.
     This is life without seasons, one steamy day into the next, one smear of sweat that stretches through days, then weeks, then months.
     I’ll probably be the only one to celebrate American Thanksgiving on Guyana’s Essequibo Coast and plan to dine on duck curry. A local night club recently advertised a “Thanksgiving Feast and Grand Dance,” with stuffed turkey and sweet and sour chicken. I am tempted.
     The minibus drivers have begun playing reggae Christmas songs already, and it’s too early, I protest in my head on each ride. It doesn’t feel like November. It’s not nearly winter. It’s just hot.
     So far, this has been the longest summer of my life.
     I have forgotten what seasons feel like, forgotten how they measure time. A friend who works for the American Embassy told me of the Barney Halloween video her mother-in-law sent for Kelly, a 3-year-old. Barney crooned about the colors of the leaves in autumn, and when the video finished, Kelly turned to her father and said, “Daddy, can you buy me some autumn?”
     Unlike that little girl, I’ve lived through seasons all my life. Until I came here. Now, the differences are slight. Are mangos in season? Is it time to harvest the endless fields of rice? Will rain fall soon?
     Here, life is sweat, work, eat, rinse and repeat.
     Here, I have postcard sunsets, cool, rainy nights, and a breeze that is sometimes benevolent enough to circle my house. The day is framed by the open, wide sky, and tiny frogs sing lover’s songs to each other all night. 
     It’s all making me forget that there’s any time but summer, and any place in the world for me but here.
     On a walk last Sunday, I wandered onto a dusty road that was being paved, newly covered with a white, powdery sand. It hurt my eyes for a moment, glowing brightly ahead for half a mile. 
     “Miss,” my walking partner and young student asked, “is this what winter looks like?”
     I nodded. I tried to explain snow days, snow boots and snow angels. I nearly plopped down on that road to flap and flutter in the white dust. My student chattered on, musing about a season and a chill she’d probably never feel. 
     For a second, I stopped and looked back at the faux snow.
     Then, sighing with some feeling that hoovers between content and discontent, I trudged back home, sweating all the way. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Road to Toktogul

Kyrgyzstan, photo by Madeline Stoddart

by Madeline Stoddart, Kyrgyzstan
     The road to Toktogul begins hot and flat out of Chui, and then suddenly you begin to climb. First through the green and purple folds of mountains around the silverwhite seam of the Kara-Balta river. The edges of the mountains are rough-hemmed by the closeness of the clouds that begin to collect in droplets on the windows.
     As you weave back and forth between the mountains and clouds, you reach an apex and begin a steep and curvy descent. And suddenly, the sun breaks on the west side of the mountains, and you can see the brilliance of Kyrgyzstan for miles and miles.
     Our driver, Talai-Baike, would click his lighter and fill the car with the crisp, sharp smell of freshly-lit tobacco, holding cigarettes between the gap of his teeth and sparkling gold molars, letting the smoke be pulled from through the open window, blooming indistinguishable from the clouds crowning the mountains.
     Occasionally, he would call back in Kyrgyz, asking questions and telling jokes to Max, our only Kyrgyz-speaking travel companion. Would we stop for kymyz, the traditional fermented mare’s milk that was served in yurts lining the road? Where did we work? Why had we come to Kyrgyzstan? Would Max play a song on the mandolin that bounced around on top of the luggage in the back?
Our car became a moving concert, songs spilled out in English, Russian Kyrgyz. Talai-Baike insisted on stopping for kymyz, bartering Max’s singing for free bowls of the sour, slightly carbonated, slightly alcoholic drink.
     The insides of yurts are all primary colors, dark and full of the smell of Kyrgyz mountains. Everything is slowed down inside of them, as if they prescribed to Kundera’s idea of slowness and memory. Max tuned his mandolin, Sara and I sipped kymyz, and Talai-Baike convinced our host that simple songs could pay for our drinks and our time in her yurt. And then, the music.
     As we climbed back into the car from the roadside yurt, among laughter and astonishment that yes, this is what our lives look like when we are surrounded by the mountains of this country, Max said, “This is the best taxi."
     Talai-Baike answered, “No,” thoughtfully shaking his head. “It’s the people in the car.”
     After following the fork south, you see Toktogul breaking on through the hills, all cornfields and mountains and clouds. The deep blue of the lake, hiding Old Toktogul in its depths, amplifies the mountains that surround the city, isolating itself from both the hot south of Jalal-Abad and the desolate north of Talas.
     Even through car window’s and the steep, poorly-paved curves, you can tell that Toktogul is beholden to this magical sort of light that filters through the birches lining Lenin Street or casts the surface of the lake in sparkling, blue gemstones.
     It’s the crashing of a million moments and colors together, and it hits you on the road to Toktogul.

This essay originally ran on Madeline's blog and was used here with her permission. Check out her blog for more of her stories, photography and videos

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The shutdown...

Going to pause this week from storytelling to share some links out there explaining how the government shutdown impacts the Peace Corps.

-- The National Peace Corps Association is doing a great job covering this, and they shared this piece from 2011, looking at how that then-looming shutdown would impact volunteers.

-- Unofficial Peace Corps Handbook also shared this posting from Peace Corps Facebook page: "Apologies, but we will not be posting updates or responding to comments during the government shutdown. All overseas Peace Corps operations are continuing without interruption to ensure the ongoing health, safety and security of Volunteers and the protection of property."

-- Here's Peace Corps' actual plan in case of a government shutdown.

-- And CNN shares this full chart of who's impacted, with a quote saying that Peace Corps abroad is generally OK, but staff in this country are furloughed. 

-- Finally, one volunteer in Kyrgyzstan breaks down what it's like to be in service and watching all this from the sidelines here: "For the Peace Corps, that means hundreds of potential recruits who will have to wait longer for their process to continue, contributing to a higher drop-out rate of potential volunteers. New trainees will have to wait longer to begin their service. It means suspending new training for volunteers and staff that will make programs more effective or transitioning to evaluations-based development interventions. It means trying to explain over a chai break at my office why one of the most influential governments in the world can’t even keep its doors open."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This picture makes me happy

Guyana, photo by Katie Watkins

     Guyana was fun in so many ways because it's an English-speaking country, but so much still gets lost in cultural translations. I think this photo from Katie Watkins proves that.
     When I lived in Guyana, "Thong Song" came out. Guyanese don't pronounce the "th" sound, so I'd often hear people walking around singing "tong, ta-tong, tong, tong." Gave that ridiculous song a whole new level of joy for me. Thanks for sharing, Katie!