Mail from Kyrgyzstan: My Life as an Over-50 Peace Corps Volunteer
Michael Licwinko (Kyrgyzstan (2008–10)
$15.99 (paperback), $2.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Catherine Varchaver (PC/HQ 1990–94; Kyrgyzstan APCD 1995–97)
In this journal-like collection of annotated blogs and emails, Michael Licwinko sketches a lucid, patient portrait of life as an older Peace Corps Volunteer posted in a remote corner of Central Asia. Licwinko takes us from 2008 to 2010 and gives us a glimpse into the culture and people of Kyrgyzstan — and some of the satisfying and shadowy sides of the Peace Corps experience.
If you want to take a virtual trip to Kyrgyzstan by reading one man’s observations and stories, this will help you travel Lonely Planet style — on the cheap, with plenty of “local (post-Soviet) color” and details on what to expect. This isn’t about places to visit and cool things to do. This is about local people, their lives, political realities, and how the experience of teaching and, mostly, learning influenced the author’s trajectory as a human being.
The Kyrgyzstan I left 11 years earlier as an APCD offered much of the same blend of wonderful, perplexing, and sometimes vexing experiences that Licwinko conjures in Mail from Kyrgyzstan. I was married then — to an RPCV Zaire (Mike Tidwell, 1985-87) — and five-months pregnant with our son, Sasha, when I boarded my last flight out of Bishkek after two fascinating years, by order of the regional medical officer.
Licwinko’s stories and observations mirror many of the tales I heard from dozens of Volunteers under my watch from the border of Kazakhstan to the desolate rim of Western China, to the exotic edges of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. If you are lucky enough to have visited this Central Asia-meets-Soviet-era world, you know that most Kyrgyz are Muslim, but swill Russian vodka with their mutton dumplings; and serve tea from a samovar even as they tend sheep in mountain meadows.
Licwinko offers his clear-eyed view of the deeper socio-political, economic, medical, and cultural realities of life in the “city” of Talas in the northwest of this small mountainous nation set in the Tian Shan Mountains— also known as the Mountains of Heaven. As readers, we walk in Licwinko’s shoes through a Kyrgyz version of the Peace Corps experience. In the end, the stories he tells as an older Volunteer convey the quintessential nature of the PC experience itself — complete with strange and delicious Kyrgyz and Russian foods, digestive travails, cross-cultural joys and mishaps, and language successes and struggles. Licwinko skips most of the typical Volunteer adventures (and traumas) with alcohol and sex, for reasons he explains.
The author’s delivery is low-key, while his entries deliver plenty of content. Especially through his annotations — commentary added (in italics) throughout — he reflects and clarifies his own entries, often sharing contrasting or parallel experiences from past days in the States or post-Peace Corps as a teacher in China. Just don’t expect chapters and “logical” sequencing of topics. In sharing this edited journal, the author gets away with jumping from topic to topic.
The author’s stated goal is to “edutain” family and friends with a personal account of the joys and woes of teaching English in a beautiful and challenging place, far outside of the usual tourist itineraries. We hear his impressions on daily happenings, updates on his playwriting and radio serial projects, and ruminations on everything from bride kidnappings to “Empty Phrases” to “Catholics in Kyrgyzstan” and “I Just Ate What?” Licwinko succeeds at being informative, alternately straight-forward and wry, and, of course, also frustrated at times with people and events at his site, Peace Corps, and the Kyrgyz government. In February 2009, he notes that:
The president of Kyrgyzstan [Bakiyev] wants to close the military base in Bishkek that the US uses to transport troops and supplies to and from Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government thinks the war there has gone on too long. The president made this announcement after visiting Mr. Medvedev* — I’ll bet anything Putin was in the room, too — to ask for money. . . . See, with a US presence in the area, the Russians can’t get away with the crap they want to do, which is to enlarge their sphere of influence in all of their former republics; this looks like a USSR 2.0.
And, given the political chaos unfolding in the US today, I can’t resist sharing this timely excerpt from January 21, 2009, in which Licwinko comments on home politics from afar:
By the time many of you read this we will officially have a new president. There has to be an optimistic aura enveloping the entire country. As one Volunteer, who’s been away from American since 2005, told me, “For the first time in four years, I don’t have to pretend I’m Canadian.” … The eye of the world undoubtedly will monitor Obama’s first 100 days with more scrutiny than any president in my life time. I believe he’s up to the task, although as my students say, “Time will show.” And just in case you think I’m not doing my job over here, they used to say that. Now they say, “Time will tell.”
Barack Obama has less than a year left in his second term as I write this and it’s pretty incredible that he has accomplished so much in the face of unprecedented obstruction from an opposing party. Hail to the Chief!
Mostly, Licwinko keeps his focus personal — on his life as a teacher and sometimes playwright, and as a colleague, friend, and son. After completing his Peace Corps service amid national turbulence, the author continues on his teaching path to China and then Mexico. Which goes to show that Peace Corps can seduce 50-something souls, like 20-somethings, who don’t mind braving the unknown and inconvenient in pursuit of the meaningful. And then doing it all over again.
* Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012), later named Prime Minister under President Vladimir Putin
Catherine Varchaver is a philanthropy writer and manages high-touch stewardship at World Wildlife Fund in DC. After unearthing a typed transcript of her intrepid grandmother’s memoirs (in 2013), and editing every evening and weekend for more than a year, The Fly Fisher and The River was published by Skyhorse in March 2016.
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