Friday, November 6, 2009

Midgets and Mongolia

In my city, the Peace Corps volunteers are mostly older people. I think this is mostly because many of the young people teach English in schools or work with youth. In our city, we have no English teaching Peace Corps volunteers and more businesses in which those with business experience volunteer.

So when I traveled around Azerbaijan this summer and spent time with more young volunteers, I had a bit of culture shock. I already knew that I am the least traveled of my group of 60 volunteers. Most have been all over the world, even the young ones. Before coming to Azerbaijan, I had been in two foreign countries—Mexico and Canada. As I met some of the volunteers who have been here for two years and got reacquainted with my group, I kept hearing things like—

* When I backpacked through Mongolia
* When I lived in Prague
* You need to avoid the (blank) food in Cambodia, but it’s okay in Laos
* My relative and her husband (he is 90) went to Antarctica last year
* When I get out of the Peace Corps, I am going to bike from Alaska to South America

I started to understand that the adventure demographic is very prevalent in the Peace Corps. One of my fellow volunteers told me after it was clear that I had adjusted to the Peace Corps that he earlier had a bet going that I would be the first dropout out in training. He thought I would not adjust after having traveled so little. Others appear startled by my lack of travel experiences.

But when I was in another region of Azerbaijan this summer, with a crazy taxi driver and three other volunteers, I realized that I may be the only plain vanilla person that I know here.

We were in a very hot region and were helping a volunteer by working for a week at her children’s camp. She felt that there was not enough for kids to do in the summer in her region, so she had planned a camp from 10-2 each day for four weeks. After camp, we decided to go to up to a nearby mountain town to cool off—a volunteer who lives there was going to meet us and we planned to hike.

We told the taxi driver we wanted to look at the scenery on the way up, but apparently he never heard of the leisurely landscape tour. He took off tearing around the mountain roads. While we were careening up the slopes, the others talked about their travel experiences, while I periodically interceded with the taxi driver to slow down.

During the ride, I heard about all of the interesting and (to me) exotic places these young people had worked, lived and traveled. When it came to my turn, the taxi driver suddenly pulled over and we noticed that a group of people were peering carefully over the edge of a cliff.

He hustled over, had a brief conversation and came back to tell us that a BMW had gone over the side and 3 people were dead. (There are normally no guard rails, but I have seen a makeshift—looking guard rail along some roads. It is a pipe about two feet off the ground that looks pretty flimsy. I commented one time about it with a companion and found that these are gas lines running to the country. So I guess as you would begin plunging off an embankment, your vehicle would possibly blow up on the way down) I thought this tragedy would make him slow down, but it appeared to energize him even more.

I mumbled my story of having visited Mexico and Canada, while everyone soberly contemplated this pathetic travel history. They then asked me about my job. I am afraid that they also thought that 32 years in banking did not sound too interesting either. This is when one of the young women told me about her unconventional life.

Her parents were circus performers and her grandparents founded the circus after meeting a large troupe of talented midgets (little people, I discovered, is the current correct term) in Europe. The midgets even helped raise her and sometimes walked her to school. She is a very talented, creative young woman who began doing the administrative work of the circus when she was about 13.

This volunteer and half of the volunteers in Azerbaijan recently left, having finished their 27 month commitment. Some will attend grad school or have other education plans, a few will go back to their previous jobs, a few are retired, a couple have found jobs in Baku (our capital city) some want to travel to different places, but most will look for a job in the US.

I wonder what it is like to have a conventional job after the excitement of their lives so far. Maybe they won’t have conventional jobs. The founder of the organization that I volunteer for in Azerbaijan joined the Peace Corps in 1962 and founded this micro-credit organization in 1984. It is now in 21 countries and has served over 1 million families.

I don’t have the same desire to travel the world and sightsee. This experience has changed me so that when I visit a country, I want to be more than a tourist., I also would like to visit more places in the United States. That alone could keep me busy for a long time.

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