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Rich and Poor

Kyrgyz Republic

I learned to drink a shot of vodka without wincing.

I learned to clean and prepare sheep intestines.

I learned what communism really is, and that it's not what I thought.

I learned to milk a cow.

I learned to build a fire in my stove that would warm my house all night long and into the morning; to chop wood and carry my own buckets of water without complaint.

I learned to make homemade jam.

I learned to live with a bath once every two weeks.

I learned that "it tastes just like chicken" truly does apply to exotic foods, even sheep eyeball.

I learned to speak Kyrgyz.

I learned to cook an entire meal on a single electric burner.

I learned that horse meat isn't nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, it's the most delicious meat I've ever tasted.

I learned to be an English teacher.

I learned to bite my tongue in the face of frustration or offense by my elders.

When I tell people I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, a democratic republic in the former Soviet Union, their first question is usually "Kyrga what?" followed by inquiries about why I decided to embark on such an adventure, what it was like, and what I learned from the experience.

What did I learn? It would take all the pages of the newspaper to answer that question.

When people hear where I lived - in a little village at the foot of the most beautiful mountains my eyes have ever seen, where everyone I knew had a TV, yet only two or three people in the entire village had running water, and I was lucky to bathe once a week in the summer and twice a month in the winter because the poorest people in the village didn't get to bathe for months - they look intrigued, shocked and ashamed.

"Well, it really makes you appreciate what we have here in America, doesn't it?" is the usual response.

"Yes, it does," I always reply. But not in the way they think.

Yes, I like running water and daily baths. I like color television and telephone that always work. I like the Internet, e-mail and grocery stores. I like electricity that never runs out. I like central heat and air conditioning. I like fast food.

But I appreciate my freedoms as a woman that I have in the United States.

I appreciate knowing that my newspaper and TV news comes from the reporters' mouths and not the government's.

I appreciate that I can say what I want, when I want and how I want.

I appreciate the opportunity to choose the man I want to marry rather than a stranger or my father choosing for me.

Besides, carrying buckets of water only makes your arms stronger.

Different, yet the same

People are the same everywhere. My mother was right.

It's the way in which people live and what they value in their lives that makes them different.

I spent many a day discovering these differences on my village bus, the size of an American "short" school bus, during the 30-minute ride to the nearest city. (Except in the cases in which the bus broke down or ran out of gas, when the ride could take as long as three hours.)

The bus swayed and rattled as it tried to make it down the dirt roads and through the village. Every few minutes it would stop and pick up five or six more people who would somehow find a few inches to squeeze into on the already overcrowded bus. Inevitably they would all have bags of bread, fruit or potatoes (and sometimes live animals) that they were taking to the market to sell or trade. The men would jump out and help the new passenger with their bags and boxes and everyone inside would rearrange their things to make room.

As for grandmothers, they never stand.

If a young man doesn't get up quickly enough to give his seat to his elder, he can be sure that a nearby grandmother will scold him as she would her own grandson; and he would quickly obey her, as he would his own grandmother.

But that rarely happens. The boys know. The men know. The grandmothers know how everyone is expected to behave.

A woman or man with a child needn't worry. If there isn't a seat for them they simply hand their child to an older woman who is already sitting. The grandmother instinctively reaches for the child and coddles it as if it were of her own womb.

Even I spent many a bus ride on the lap of a strange woman, her arms wrapped around my waist to ensure that I wouldn't slide to the floor should we hit a bump. And when she discovered that I was an American, living in her village, speaking her native tongue when most foreigners visiting this former Soviet republic speak only Russian, I was immediately a gleam in her eye, and within seconds the entire bus knew of my presence.

Then she and several other women would inevitably invite me to their homes for dinner with the hope that I would take a liking to one of their sons.

That has never happened to me in the United States.

On each bus ride from my village, the conversation with the other passengers would always take the form of a question/answer session about the United States vs. Kyrgyzstan.

"Which is better?" they would ask. "Do you like it here? Do you miss America? America is much better, isn't it."

I always smiled and answered: "Yes, I love your country. Kyrgyzstan has the most beautiful mountains, the friendliest, most- hospitable people and the best vodka of any country I've ever visited."

They would nod knowingly and laugh.

"Yes, I miss my family and friends in America," I would add. "And no, everything isn't better in America."

They would again laugh, but this time shaking their heads and playfully calling me a liar in response to my last statement.

This is when, in my broken Kyrgyz, I would attempt to explain that at my modest home in Kyrgyzstan I didn't have running water, a TV, a car or most of the things I had when I lived in the United States, yet I was extremely happy.

"But when I return to America I will only be truly happy if I have everything I had here in Kyrgyzstan," I would say.

Learning from life

What did I learn in the Peace Corps?

I learned that there is a place in this world where people have a democracy but none of its benefits.

Where children respect their teachers, their parents and their neighbors, not for reward but because it is the norm.

Where people learn about the United States from movies and assume that all Americans are rich and carry guns.

Where family members and friends take care of one another selflessly; helping your brother or sister isn't a choice and doesn't require recognition.

Where neighbors are still expected to watch after each others' children, to praise them and scold them.

A place where not everyone has enough to eat, poor children miss school because they have no shoes and the few people with money buy themselves the best, highest-paying jobs.

Where tradition speaks louder than personal opinion and a man can steal a woman right off the street and call her his wife.

A place where I learned patience; where I learned that I was strong; where I learned tolerance in the most basic way.

A place where I learned what kind of mother, wife, neighbor and woman I want to be.

Expectations and realizations

Now people in the United States ask me if I miss Kyrgyzstan.

Yes, I miss Kyrgyzstan. As a Peace Corps volunteer, you expect to go to another country where life is harder, poorer, where people need your help.

Sure most people there are poor, but those who I now call my friends are so rich in character that I never noticed how poor they really were.

Leslie Wakulich (Kyrgyz Republic)

This article was originally published in the Tulsa World on Monday, March 27, 2000. By Leslie Wakulich

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