Sometimes, I feel like I didn't really join the Peace Corps. I have a cell phone, hot running water, and weekly access to the internet. I certainly don't feel very hardcore. Other countries have nicknamed Eastern Europe and Central Asia the "Posh Corps." Many volunteers in Kazakhstan claim disappointment over the widespread availability of modern conveniences here, and a few even ET(Early Terminate, or quit and go home) because of it. I think the official name for this is "African Hut Syndrome." We join the Peace Corps with the romantic notion of living in an African hut, washing our clothes in the river and walking along a dirt path to work. Then we get here, and we're faced with a Soviet block apartment building, an old-but-still-functioning washing machine, and a bus to get to work.
All this leaves you feeling like everything isn't as hard as you thought, and maybe even hoped, it would be. If I don't have to cart water from the well, am I really entitled to call myself a Peace Corps volunteer? If I can go to the bathroom in a flush toilet, is my life being transformed by my experiences here? I joined the PC to be challenged, but I have a gas stove in the kitchen and running water in the sink. Where's the challenge in that? Of course, I know that my work will still be hard, and that learning the language and culture will still stretch me way beyond my comfort zone, but somehow those don't carry the same bragging rights as going outside to the squat toilet when it's 40 below.
I had a choice, when I moved to my permanent site, between living in a house without indoor conveniences or in an apartment with them. I chose the apartment, because I really liked the family who lived there. But it was a very difficult choice. The house fit all my romantic notions about Kazakhstan: an outdoor kitchen for the summertime, a rundown banya building, and a woodburning stove inside. It had cute gingerbread trim and a view of the lake. It would be much more "Peace Corps" to live there. In the back of my mind, I remembered what I learned during pre-service training: that, after the first time, washing clothes by hand isn't romantic, it's time-consuming and boring. Squat toilets aren't worth bragging about, they're just smelly and cold. If you don't have running water, just taking a spit bath involves hauling the water, heating it on the stove, taking it out to the freezing cold banya building, and then cleaning it all up afterward. Doing any basic chore takes 10 times as long as it does in America. I remembered how hard it all was, and yet I still wanted it. Why? The bragging rights? The feeling of having accomplished something really hard? The cultural understanding? Some indefinable desire that, somehow, all of this hardship would make me a stronger person?
Not everyone here struggles with this. Some of the volunteers complain about the lack of conveniences, that you have to bucket bathe or that the internet is really slow. And I start to wonder where this dissatisfaction comes from. Part of me thinks to myself, "What's your problem? You did join the Peace Corps after all." I start to sound like a babushka, lamenting the entitlement that my generation feels. Maybe it's the fact that these things are available to some people, so that when we don't have them we feel their lack. Maybe it would be better if the internet wasn't in Kazakhstan at all, if no one had a cell phone, if everyone had to haul water from a well. But then again, maybe my generation is so used to these things, that we simply can't live without them. It's not like in the old days, when the Peace Corps simply dropped volunteers off at the end of the road with a map, a name of a contact, and a donkey. Now we're babied through pre-service training, where they try to meet our every need and answer our every question, and when they don't we complain about it. Because even those of us who are lamenting our lack of an African hut are also disappointed when the power goes out and we can't get on the internet this week.
I have to conclude, for the sake of my personal sense of growth and accomplishment, that the Peace Corps isn't about going back in time to the bronze age. It's about meeting another culture where it is right now. And right now, Kazakhstan has cell phones and half-automatic washing machines and unreliable electricity. This is how Kazakhstanis live. And since I came here to learn about Kazakhstanis, not some people group I'd imagined but that doesn't exist, then my life also includes a cell phone and a half-automatic washing machine and electricity that goes out when you try to get on the internet. And, according to my earlier musings, that faulty electricity should be making me a stronger person.