Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Kyrgyzstan Update: Arslanbob & American Nationalism

Just a quick note. I am back from the bob. Arslanbob was fantastic. I travelled there with Greg Human and Brian Kiger last weekend. Waterfalls, wild turkeys, rivers, mountains, villages, crazy taxi drivers and frisbee. I hope to post some photos later this week. Speaking of Greg--I just wanted to send a shout out to the Humans (thanks for reading).

Busy days ahead at the American Center. Next discussion club is on American Nationalism--the students choose the topic each week. There is a decent article at the Foreign Policy website that I asked the students to read in preparation for our discussion. Last week's discussion on American Foreign policy really impressed me. I was simply a facilitator; ensuring that everyone got a chance to speak and keeping them focused on the topic. A poli-sci professor from Cleveland University popped in about half-way through and I think he was as impressed as me with the level of sophistication that these students were speaking at (in english mind you).

Well, that's the brief update. Hope to put a less rushed post together soon.

Larry Tweed

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Osh, Kyrgyzstan: New Job

After three weeks of unemployment as a Peace Corps Volunteer (boy, I never thought I’d say that), I found an exciting new job that will allow me to remain in Osh. The job is with Osh State University’s fledgling American Center. Opened in December of 2004, The American Center was set-up to function as a stepping stone towards creating an American Studies Department.

I will assist with project design, implementation and resource procurement. Additionally, I will teach a course/debate club on American Culture. I look forward to working with university students in this capacity and I believe that many of the skills I gained while working at the Human Rights & Democracy Center will transfer to this new position.

I already sense that I will be kept busy at my new job. On Friday, June 24th, I will facilitate a culture club on foreign policy. This week's topic of "foreign policy" was selected by the students and the culture club will be a weekly event. In addition to facilitating the culture club, I have been asked to assist with a two day seminar on grant writing (the first week of July) and a three day seminar on “Academic Writing” (the second week of July)...I am beginning to realize that talking and teaching about these activities is very different than engaging in them...I look forward to the new challenge...Wish me luck.

Larry Tweed

Friday, June 17, 2005

Kyrgyzstan: Burying The Modern World

Outings into the Kyrgyz countryside provide mini-adventures into the past. But the chapters of Kyrgyzstan’s recent history read more like vignettes after the apocalypse than epic tales of nomadic clans warring for land. Although the curtain never fully closed on the genetic memory of the Kyrgyz during last century’s Sovietization, the re-emergence of their own culture plays out on an eerie stage—as if the props from the previous play were only partially removed and the set director for the new show decided to work around them.

Relics of the modern world anachronistically litter Kyrgyzstan’s landscape. Shepherds bring their sheep to pasture under power lines that have long ceased to illuminate their homes. A driver training course cracks like drying mud, submitting pavement to the encroaching field. Foundations of buildings no more than fifty years old whisper out of the ground—crumbling ghost towns of a lost civilization.

Last Sunday, while hiking, I gazed down on a valley from the top of a stone dotted hillside and counted the geometric traces of more than a hundred homes. Walls and roofs erased, all that remained were the concrete outlines of a village once inhabited by hundreds. As cattle and goats grazed below and turkeys gobbled on a distant knoll I could not help but wonder what happened to those who once populated these fertile river lands.

I followed the winding river down stream, passing by silent hydroelectric stations that once hummed with the ionic charge of electric life. These mechanical Ophelias laid dead in the water, tragic, neglected machines abandoned in broken promise. On my side of the bank, I watched as four Kyrgyz men, knee high in white water, stretched a net across fifteen feet of river (about half the river’s width). Upstream, a fifth man armed with a tree branch thrashed his way toward his comrades, occasionally slipping and floating in the rush of the water. They lifted the net…Empty…and repeated this over and over, once catching the comrade-thrasher in their web. They laughed at this folly and I smiled and waved walked on.

On the way back to the only bus stop in the emerging village, I passed by a skeletal five-story apartment complex. The frame of the building was defined by lines of beige-grey concrete contrasted by windowless boxes of dark, interior space. Monumental in comparison to the tiny homes built beyond the reach of its dead shadow, this unrefined, multi-layered mass of concrete lay atop the ground—a prominent coffin left unburied after the death of communism.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Eyes of a Beggar Child

They look up at you, two pools of brown painted on white globes socketed into a taut, dusty face. You can fall into those eyes and follow them to the end, but I rarely do. I quicken my pace and listen to the little feet shuffle as they try to keep up. For a moment, we compete for the same air and my own eyes tighten and fix on some imaginary point in front of me. In the seconds that our paths cross, my heart beats faster, I hear the pounding in my ears and I feel my ribs clench like fists around my lungs.

Guilt. Like most emotions, the physical manifestation of guilt plays itself out on the body of the one it inflicts. Some people try to buy their way out of this emotion, doling out money in hopes that those eyes don’t haunt their dreams. I have tried this, only to be swarmed by more children than bills in my wallet. There is no easy answer, no easy way out. “Experts” tell me not to give them money. “If you feel you must do something, buy them bread.” They say. I have not done this yet, but entertain the idea like a fantasy…The Newspapers will read: “American Philanthropist Feeds Every Child” or “Foreigner Solves Problem of World Hunger.”


A deeper examination of the guilt I feel reveals my self-reflection on why I avoid the eyes of a beggar child. A simple homonym of truth: Human eyes…humanize. When I avoid their gaze by focusing on some point in front me, I reduce these children to something “other” than what they are. They become ghosts; unseen, unreal and inhuman. Their solicitous and woeful pleas are the floating, warbled “Wooooos” of apparitions. Their lithe, small frames become transparent and my physical reaction—the palpitating heart and shortness of breath—is similar to that of the lay-awake-child whose sheets are drawn up to his nose because he hears the haunted spirits hunting for him.

I, too, am afraid—afraid to face a reality more horrifying than a ghost tale. I walk this earth, love and laugh and dream, ignorant and unaware of the suffering of “others”. But my fear runs deeper than merely confronting my ignorance of an “other” world. I have felt this fear before, perhaps most poignantly in Munich, Germany, when I encountered a child with a chilling deformity.

It was at a place called “The Tent”, a backpackers haven where young adults from around the world convened to sleep-off their travel wearied souls. Nothing more than a circus tent guised as a youth hostel, “The Tent” is where I witnessed the walking corpse of a seven year old child, the skin around his bald head pulled tight against his skull. Two vertical slits substituted for his nose and the child’s entire lower jaw and chin were missing. This left his upper teeth jutting out over his body like one of Wright’s cantilevered homes teetering precariously over the edge of a cliff. But there was no beauty to the architecture of this boy.

He walked among us, one hand clinging to the fingers of his guardian (a man I later discovered brought him from Pakistan to Germany for reconstructive surgery)—his gaunt face, gawking at the healthy, white-skinned, wiry youth who stared back at him like he was a freak. He was there only one night, but his after-presence remained in the air like the contrails of a jet against a cerulean sky.

“I don’t want to sound mean, but I am glad that little kid is gone.” I remember one girl saying as a dozen others nodded in agreement. I remained quiet, feeling an unknown shame wash over me like mud. I wrote about it in my journal that night:

“That child’s deformed face reminded all of us of who we were; young, healthy kids prosperous enough to be traveling for leisure—trying to find “our selves”, instead of a new face. He plagued our camp and stole our innocent fun and we loathed him for reminding us that others were suffering. All of us were afraid of a little boy and ashamed of our fear.”

I wish I had written something different. I wish I had been brave enough to approach the boy, but I wasn’t. I have been haunted by the image of that child for a long time. What frightens me is how easy it is to fear an “other”—to turn people into phantoms of reality and to see through them by pretending they are not there. The image of that boy’s face was powerful. He could not be ignored and that scared everyone at The Tent.

Perhaps if I can just bring myself to look into the eyes of a beggar child—those human eyes—my fear will dissipate. Perhaps it will dissolve into the air like the ghosts of my youth and a child will remain.

Larry Tweed

Monday, June 06, 2005

Cowboy, Horse and Puppy: There was actually a baby sheep in the puppy-sack too.

Preparing Shashlik (think shisk kabob) with this master chef. He removed every single piece that I put on and re-skewered them properly. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out the difference in our techniques.

Host Mom and Me: May 22nd. 2005

Host Mom & Sister: Restaurant in Kant, Kyrgyzstan.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Home and the Dead

May 21st, 2005: Ivanovka (Northern Kyrgyzstan). It is interesting to think about what we call home. I finally made it back to Ivanovka, where I spent my first three months in Kyrgyzstan and discovered that this is my home. The town has not changed much over the last one hundred and sixty odd days. The facades of a few buildings have been resurfaced, but my home is the same. I had forgotten the lazy cud-chewing cows that meander down the streets and the rosy-cheeked children who are so anxious to shout out a “hello meester.”

I spent the day catching-up with Mama and Yulia. We talked about wills and property and family values, marriage and children and buying houses. We talked about work and our health, politics and NGOs. We talked about the weather and grapes, wine and roses, cactuses and the dead and dying.

Yulia cooked Plov and Valya (Mama) presented me with a small bottle of spirits which we sipped over dinner. At seven-o-clock, Mama told me about her teacher friend whose husband had died earlier in the day. She asked me if I would come along to pay my respects to this widow who had been married for forty-nine years (November would have been their 50th anniversary). I said of course and we set out upon the streets.

It was evening and darkness was settling-in. The few working street lights buzzed and flickered lending extra life to our street born shadows. Nearly everyone who passed us greeted us with a courteous, “Zdrasvootsya” (respectful “hello”) and Valya asked Yulia (my sister) if she knew who they were. “Nyet, ya nee znaiyu” (no, I don’t know). They chalked it up to presence of a foreigner and we walked on.

When we arrived at the gate to the house of the dead, we stood silent, waiting to be noticed by relatives dining at a table outside. They rose when they saw us and invited through and asked us to dine with them. Mama explained that we had just eaten and that we had come to pay our respects. A tiny silver haired, wizened-faced, Russian woman stood up from the table and greeted us. She took my hand and squeezed it, gazing up into my eyes and I felt her heavy sadness as she sighed and led me to the entrance of her home.

I don’t know what I expected…perhaps I thought we were going to sit down and drink tea with an old woman newly widowed. What would we talk about?

We climbed the stairs of her porch and passed through the threshold, leaving the living outside to face the dead within. The room had been cleared; rugs had been rolled, table chairs moved outside, pictures and photographs stored-away.

The only thing that remained in the room was the body of the dead, dressed in his finest suit, framed by the walls of his coffin that lay a little above waist height. I froze and the widow released my hand as she walked around the coffin to look upon her husbands face. She had loved him, I could see that. I stayed put near the door feeling a little awkward in the intimate space that surrounded the body of a man I had never seen alive. I stood in one place and clasped my hands and lowered my head trying to find a respectful repose. Mama and Yulia passed by me and took up space beside the widow. The widow was talking to the body. Her voice was calm and almost lilting. She whispered in his ear and smiled, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. They had been married for 49 years.

I remained at the foot of the coffin and stared into the large nostrils of a man who was breathing hours before. I hoped he had lived a happy life. I hoped he had loved his children and his wife.