I taught English from 1999-2001 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. That was 12 years ago.
I have a few stories at the top of my head that I could tell, but 12 years is a long time. Most of my anecdotes are buried in the stacks of journals I kept at the time. Those journals are buried somewhere in my house.
Few of these stories would have anything to do with international development. Here’s a little secret: Most Peace Corps Volunteers do relatively little development work – at least with any measurable results.
I suppose I could talk about the English immersion camp I started for kids in my city, or books I procured for an English language resource center. These examples feel banal.
Paul Theroux wrote that good travel writing is about the writer. I am interested in development stories that explore the profound impact that overseas living – whether as a development professional or otherwise – can have on a person.
This point is hard to convey to someone who hasn’t experienced it. This is especially true about the Peace Corps. Try plopping down for two years in a place no one has heard of, where you know no one and don’t speak the language.
It shapes you, sometimes with brute force. It’s humbling and scary, and is the source of some uncomfortable memories. I don’t think I’m ready to dig out my journals and relive these moments.
Do I really want to revisit the time my host father got so drunk that he threatened to kill my host mother with a hatchet?
I had my own apartment later in my service. I could talk about how my neighbor stopped by to say hello one day. Before I knew what was happening, he was shooting up heroin right on my floor.
I lived in a 4-story, Soviet-style concrete building. I heated it in the winter by opening up my gas oven and turning it on.
I got water once a week. I would fill up the tub for the week and start my morning by dunking my head in the water.
These hardships were often coupled with feelings of intense loneliness and isolation. Digging up my journals would force me to relive some dark periods.
And yet, I can’t recall ever feeling so present in so many moments as I did in the Peace Corps. My life felt exceptional and unique, and full of possibilities. The experience is mind-expanding.
This feeling – this awareness – stems from countless moments in Turkmenistan. Each have their own stories, and some might even be about development work!
Perhaps I’ll tell them some day. As soon as I dig up those journals.