I haven’t written for a couple of weeks. I admit I’ve been reeling from the “attacks” of my Writers Group colleagues on the poorly developed dialogue in my manuscript, Peaces of You. I am taking their advice and trying something easier while I improve on the basics of fiction writing. For most writers, the easier way is to share our own experiences. I’m trying that. Here’s the first installment of memories of my Peace Corps experience:
The Kazakh woman was walking sideways, trying to use the overhang of the dipalidated shop roofs as protection from the downpour. Then she waved at me. I’d been told by my Peace Corps supervisor that my new host family would pick me up near the Almaty headquarters, but I didn’t see a parked vehicle.
This was a little disconcerting, coming alone to meet a stranger in this strange land, but it couldn’t turn out worse than my first experience with a local family. I was moved from that home because the father made lewd gestures when no one else was at home while trying to follow me into my bedroom. This lady had an inviting smile, and her hair with its henna color—the exclusive hair dye used by local women—was neatly combed. She looks just a few years older than me, which would put her in her early fifties. I could see loaves of unwrapped bread sticking out of the shopping bag she carries. I took the bread as a sign that she’s friendly and harmless.
“Hallow, Djoic! I’m Saulye. I have no car so I bring you to my home. My English not good. Do you speak Russian?”
“Very little…nimnoga.” It’s a good thing I didn’t forget my Russian-English dictionary because it was immediately clear that understanding each other would take considerable effort. She tried to keep her umbrella over my head while we walked the several blocks to a building with chunks of cement missing from the front steps and exterior walls that hadn’t seen a paintbrush in a very long time. Yet when I entered Saulye’s sparse apartment, I felt rather at ease, and even more so when I saw my duffle bags in the tiny room that had been a storage area and would now be my bedroom. That meant a Peace Corps staff person had been here earlier to deliver all my earthly belongings, well at least all that I could stuff into the two bags I was allowed to bring from America.
A pretty young woman, Saulye’s daughter, Anel, was waiting for us in their kitchen. The samovar held hot water for our tea, and home-made jam was already spooned into little dishes. Tea came first, I could get unpacked later.
As we sipped our tea at a small, heavily marred table in a cluttered but clean kitchen, Anel introduced herself. “I am happy to meet you. It is good you stay with Mother. I am on holiday from university in St. Petersburg one week only. Do you have children?”
“Yes, I have a daughter about your age and a son. Since they’ve been on their own for a while, I didn’t realize I would miss them so much! My first grandchild was born just before I came to Kazakhstan. If I had known I would have a grandchild before I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I wouldn’t be here now.”
The confused looks on the faces of Saulye and Anel told me I’d better pull out my dictionary and try some Russian words. Pointing to the words was easiest because my ability to pronounce Russian letters had improved little in my first six weeks of language lessons. (Peace Corps has no prerequisite for the country’s language and since we were the first group placed in Kazakhstan, they hadn’t decided whether we would learn Kazakh or Russian until we came.) Neither Saulye nor Anel had ever talked with a native English speaker before me so their education in English had gone the way of seed planted on rocky ground.
After we negotiated our communication process, I learned that Saulye also has a son, but her son has serious health issues. During most of his youth, he had lived with his dad in Semipalatinsk, a former Soviet nuclear test site in Eastern Kazakhstan. Now he needs hospital treatment, presumably for radiation poisoning, but he won’t be admitted until he has medicine.
“Djoic, every day I call my druga [friends], ask for help. They want give, but tenge niet. Maybe Peace Corps help me?”
I said I would try to find out who to ask.
The next day I went with Saulye and her daughter to the main Almaty bazaar to buy food, though we were not limited to food. Almost every type of product sold in Walmart is displayed, but without packaging and the choices in each category are limited to one or two items. I nearly became a vegetarian that day because all the meat was unwrapped on tables with the head of an animal in full view, indicating the kind of meat for sale. Horse meat was second in popularity to sheep, although I never saw horse heads.
Saulye was successful in hawking a half-pack of loose cigarettes, three or four candy bars, and two bras (new) she had brought to sell at the bazaar, earning a few tenge that went into the collection for medicine. I couldn’t contribute much to the fund because volunteers are given a living allowance only slightly higher than the amount locals live on. The living allowance, housing, and interpreters for those of us in the business group, was our full payment for two years of service.
Oh, I forgot to mention free condoms and, most importantly, free medical care—something that is priceless in a country where the hospitals’ inventories of drugs are smaller than what most American families store in their bathrooms. I thought about how I’d feel if my son, Mark, was that sick and he was denied hospital care. I would have liked to ask my friends at home to help Saulye, but we were warned that getting mail from the States is unreliable, especially when a package contains anything of value.
That was confirmed for me a few months later when I caught the sponsor of our Small Business Development Center with some Christmas wrapping—with address still legible—the only remains of a package sent by my family. I found it on a shelf in his office when I delivered a wedding gift from my Peace Corps partner and me. We had been invited to his son’s wedding and shortly after the extravagant affair, we heard rumors that our sponsor was penniless (or I should say, tenge-less).
I was not in much better condition than him, financially, while living in Kazakhstan. The only way I could find to help Saulye was to be her friend and to offer my empathy as one mother to another. It’s funny how language and cultural barriers dissolve when souls connect. As the lucky one, I had to admit that if my ancestors’ decisions about homeland had been different, this pain could have been mine. But, then, was I really the lucky one just because at home I had access to more material resources?