Jeans, boots, knife, tape-measure, pencil, belt, long-johns, shirt, jacket, and wool-socks, all replace my dress clothes and winter coat as I transition from teacher to construction worker. I’m trying not to think much about being back. I thought about it twice while working. Once I almost tipped off a scaffold plank carrying blocks, and the other time I started to get queasy while cutting through a block with a partner saw. Although it could have been from the paint fumes coming off the metal bucket we were blowtorching to keep water warm.
It is weird to be back. Less than a month ago I was walking home from school in a -25 C blizzard, marveling at the fact that although on the surface my life seemed to suck stupendously, I was happy. As Russian worked it’s way deeper and deeper into my brain, I started to better understand and appreciate the world around me. A single phone call on Wednesday afternoon changed my life. The only thing I remember from the four-minute script that my Country Director read to me was the “Peace Corps has decided to suspend it’s program in Kazakhstan,” and “You’ll receive an email tomorrow with more information.”
I was in denial. I immediately decided that when my counterpart found out, I would tell her that I’d stay on in Sergeevka on my own. I figured that I could pay my way until June when school ended. The email I received the following day instructed me to be in Almaty by the next Wednesday, which meant that I needed to leave on the Monday night train. It was Thursday night. I only had three full days left in Sergeevka to pack and say goodbye. Those three days were heartbreaking and difficult, and I managed to make them weirder for myself by not fully aknowledging that it was my last goodbye. I capped off the last night by doing a three-hour public banya and beer with the military teacher, and the birch whipping-broiling-overextended-event at least saved me from thinking about leaving.
Then I was off, first on a bus to the city, then on a train to Almaty. Kazakhstan went out of its way to make our last trip interesting by having train police come into our wagon, take all of the volunteer’s passports, and threaten to put us in jail for drinking beer that was purchased on the train. Fortunately I hadn’t been drinking and negotiated us out of the situation by way of heartfelt apologies and bullshit. We were cracked out when we pulled up in Almaty at 5 am, and then basically short-circuited when we walked into the hotel that Peace Corps put us up in. I walked into the five-star Rahat Palace, looked up into the glittering skylight ten floors above me, and then I mentally transitioned into a place of thoughtlessness decadence.
We had a pool, sauna, hot tub, gym, and three meals a day of gourmet buffet-style food. I had a room to myself with a king-sized bed. Every day there was a morning session where staff passed out forms and information, and a late afternoon session with more of the same. Between these two sessions we were broken into small-group sessions covering everything from counseling to thirty-second elevator speeches. I skipped every one of them in favor of hot tubs, napping, and working out. There were some volunteers who complained about living out of a hotel, but I would have been cool spending another five months. It was a wild week and by the time they kicked us out on Monday morning I wasn’t sure how I was still standing.
Then I went to Nepal..