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America's Diplomats

Peace Corps volunteers back from Central Asia say they were able to dispel myths about the U.S.

November 28, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the Peace Corps volunteers got word they were being assigned to Central Asia, their response was predictable: Run to a map and find it. Until the poverty-stricken and landlocked region found itself pulled into world events, it was as much a mystery to the volunteers who would move there as it was to most other Americans.

Though there were no Peace Corps workers in Afghanistan, hundreds were working shoulder to shoulder with the people of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan until Sept. 11. Then came the attacks and, days later, their hurried evacuation to the United States.

In less extraordinary times, their experiences might be fodder only for reminiscences with friends and fat photo albums. But the world's attention has shifted, and suddenly their experiences shed light on day-to-day life in a region that Americans know little about.

The region north of Afghanistan, the volunteers say, is a place where horses and cars share the roads, where the roles of men and women are sharply defined, where opportunities to celebrate are quickly seized--and Americans were made welcome.

Allison Joe, 25, lived with a family of six in a small Turkmenistan village about three hours from the Afghan border. Her job in the village was translating English-language medical materials into Turkmen, which she now speaks fluently.

Her host family constantly plied her with teas and treats and was always hauling her off to weddings and other people's homes as a sort of show and tell.

"At first they were very smothering," said Joe, who is now living with her parents in La Canada. "I was, like, 'Hey, I'm an independent person. No, I don't need you to walk me to the toilet. No, I'm not hungry. I ate five minutes ago!'"

Though Westerners of any sort were a novelty, Joe, the first Peace Corps volunteer stationed in her village, said Americans are practically celebrities. Even when she dressed in traditional Turkmen garb--long dresses with embroidered collars--she was greeted at all times of day and night by curious Turkmen calling out, "Good morning, American!"

The people of Turkmenistan eke out their livings picking cotton and rarely travel far from their villages, Joe said, so "it's real exciting for them to talk [with guests] about something other than what's for dinner or how many chickens they have."

The Peace Corps operates at the invitation of foreign governments, and there are no workers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran--and haven't been for years. But, at various times throughout the last decade, some 1,400 Peace Corps volunteers have served in the region, including the 311 who were evacuated in September from countries north of Afghanistan. There are still 104 volunteers in Kazakhstan.

The volunteers were under strict orders to not cross into Afghanistan at the risk of having their assignments terminated. But fully cognizant of the danger, few wanted to go anyway.

They were busy in their host communities, translating educational materials and teaching English. And learning from the families with whom they lived a different way of life--one in which the pace was much slower, adversity was routine, material goods were scarce but hospitality plentiful.

Five Central Asian countries--Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan--were under Soviet control from 1924 until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and they declared their independence.

Though predominantly Muslim, religion is practiced more in custom and culture than in worship. In Turkmenistan, Joe said, most of the people she knew did not spend much time in prayer. "There wasn't a mosque close to us," she said. "They didn't know the five pillars of Islam. They ate a lot of pork and drank a lot of vodka."

Leslie Wakulich, 27, lived with a family in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan from 1999 to 2000. In the southern part of the country, closer to Afghanistan, she said, people were more devout and dressed more conservatively. But where she lived, "they weren't very strict in their religion." Like many American Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, they celebrated the main Muslim holidays and took part in various Islamic traditions, but that was pretty much it.

Wakulich said her family would often tease, "Yeah, we're Muslim, but we smoke and we drink."

Actually, Wakulich said, "They drank a lot." Vodka is still the drink of choice in these former Soviet republics, which are now fledgling democracies struggling to find a financial foothold in the absence of a socialist economy that provided for all its citizens. Many have seen their living conditions worsen and say their quality of life was better under the Soviet system.

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