Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Kyrgyzstan
From Peace Corps Wiki
During pre-service training, you will receive mail at a post office near the training site (you will be given this address before you depart for overseas). Once you have moved to your assigned site, you will use your residence or workplace as a permanent mailing address. The Peace Corps office cannot accept mail for Volunteers except in extraordinary circumstances.
Mail from the United States usually takes two to four weeks to arrive at Volunteer sites. Advise your family and friends to number their letters so you will be able to tell when a letter has gone astray. Also tell them to include “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
International telephone service is generally available throughout the Kyrgyz Republic, but it is expensive. Calling cards make calling the United States much easier because you can call the AT&T operator in Moscow (095.155.5042) and place the call directly. The time in the Kyrgyz Republic is 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (10 hours during Daylight Savings Time). Phone service within the Kyrgyz Republic is improving, but it can be a difficult experience, depending on factors such as the time of day and weather conditions. The national telephone agency has offices in all major cities and in some smaller towns, but if you are calling from outside Bishkek, it is sometimes difficult to secure a line.
Most Volunteers take advantage of local Internet cafes to make international phone calls. This low-cost way of calling the United States is available in most urban areas throughout the country. Though the connection is not always the best, the service is by far the least expensive way of staying in touch with your family and friends.
There are two cellular companies in the Kyrgyz Republic, and more and more Kyrgyz are using cell phones, especially in the capital. However, coverage is spotty and unpredictable outside Bishkek.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
The Peace Corps office has several computers with Internet access in its resource center that may be used by Volunteers when they are in the office on official business. In addition, Volunteers can access E-mail at Internet cafés in many of the larger towns in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps/Kyrgyz Republic assigns Volunteers to the sites with the greatest need and to schools and organizations that demonstrate potential for making the best use of Volunteers’ skills. Peace Corps/Kyrgyz Republic has a mandatory three-month homestay policy and asks the sponsoring agency to provide the Volunteer with adequate, safe housing, which is paid for by the Peace Corps. The housing varies from site to site and is typically with a family or within a family’s compound.
The housing will have simple basic furniture such as a bed, a table and chairs, a wardrobe or bureau for clothing, and access to a stove and a refrigerator. The Peace Corps will provide you with a water filter or distiller. In addition, because winters in the Kyrgyz Republic are cold and many heating systems are inadequate, the Peace Corps will also provide you with an electric heater. Still, you will probably need long underwear and will definitely need a warm sleeping bag, as electricity is not always reliable.
You need to be very flexible in your housing expectations, as there is no guarantee that there will be an indoor toilet or that running water or electricity will be available continuously at your assigned site.
Living Allowance and Money Management
The Kyrgyz Republic has a cash-based economy. There are now ATM machines in Bishkek, but few opportunities to use credit cards other than buying international plane tickets from a local travel agency or online. The rate of exchange between the dollar and the local currency, the som, has been stable in recent years, with the dollar losing value slightly to the som.
As a Volunteer in the Kyrgyz Republic, you will live at the same economic level as your neighbors and colleagues. You will receive a modest monthly living allowance (deposited in local currency into a bank account you will open at your site) to cover food, utilities, household supplies, hygiene products, clothing, recreation and entertainment, local transportation, telephone calls, reading materials, and other personal expenses. The amount of this allowance may not seem like a lot of money, but you will find yourself earning more than many of your colleagues and supervisors.
You will also receive a $24 monthly vacation allowance and a one-time settling-in allowance in local currency to purchase household items when you move to your permanent site. The settling-in allowance is intended to defray part of the costs of items such as cooking utensils, dishes, towels, and blankets.
Finally, you will be given a quarterly program travel allowance to support regional exchanges with other Volunteers and to travel to Bishkek to visit international organizations or meet with your program manager. This allowance is designed to encourage Volunteers to exchange knowledge, skills, and best practices about their primary and secondary projects with one another.
Food and Diet
People in the Kyrgyz Republic eat a lot of meat and vegetables (e.g., potatoes, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, and onions), with much of the food fried or boiled. There is a wide range of fresh food for sale in markets throughout the republic during the spring, summer, and fall, including meat, vegetables, dried fruits, and nuts. Oranges, bananas, and apples can be found in some parts of the country but are often expensive.
Fruits and vegetables are, of course, seasonal, but it is possible to be a vegetarian in the Kyrgyz Republic. A sufficient variety of food is available to maintain a healthy vegetarian diet, and previous Volunteers have been successful at doing so with a little advance planning. The markets have white, pinto, mung, and red beans; chickpeas and split peas; pasta; rice; and peanuts and other nuts. Cheese, eggs, and milk are available in many, but not all, markets, and potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and onions can be found almost everywhere. Tofu is available in larger towns. The most difficult aspect probably will be the social pressure to eat meat, but with a little patience, most vegetarians have served their two years with few problems.
Because of safety issues, Peace Corps/Kyrgyz Republic prohibits Volunteers from driving or riding on two- or three-wheeled motorized vehicles for any reason. Volunteers are not allowed to own or drive private automobiles or tractors. Road travel between oblasts after dark is prohibited. Road travel after dark within oblasts is strongly discouraged; Violation of these policies may result in the termination of your Volunteer service.
Most Volunteers travel in the country in commercial vans (called marshrutkas), but some choose to pay more and hire long-distance taxis. Although the vans often do not operate on a set schedule, there is regular public transportation between cities. Travel by bus among cities is also available.
Geography and Climate
The Kyrgyz Republic borders Kazakhstan in the north and northwest, Uzbekistan in the southwest, Tajikistan in the south, and China in the southeast. The Tien Shan mountain range covers approximately 95 percent of the country, which is about the size of Nebraska. The mountaintops are perennially covered with snow glaciers.
The Kyrgyz Republic has four seasons, including very cold winters and hot, dry summers. The duration of each season depends on the region of the country. In the mountains, the temperature can drop as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. In the rest of the country, winter is much like winters in the Midwestern United States, but without so much snow. The north is much colder than the south, with normal winter temperatures in the mid-teens to low 20s.
Volunteers are expected to develop relationships with people in their communities and participate in the social activities available at their sites. Outside of Bishkek, there is little formal entertainment (e.g., the opera, theater, cinemas, etc). Therefore, both the Kyrgyz people and Volunteers, especially in small towns and villages, spend much of their leisure time “guesting.” Guesting means being invited to a home for a meal; this could last up to five or six hours, depending on the time of day. As the only American, and often the only foreigner, present in a community, you will often be the guest of honor.
Being a guest in a Kyrgyz home can be simultaneously rewarding and stressful. The local people, whether ethnic Kyrgyz, Uzbek, or Russian, are hospitable, charismatic hosts. This means that you, as the guest, will be constantly encouraged to eat and drink more and more. Although it can be difficult to convey to people you do not know well that you have had enough to eat or drink and that you do not want any more or need to go home, Volunteers find that they are better able to manage such situations as their language skills develop.
Alcohol is prevalent in most social situations in the Kyrgyz Republic and can cause stress for Volunteers. Volunteers may regularly feel pressure to drink heavily when in new social surroundings either with their new Kyrgyz friends or with other Volunteers. The pressure to drink often eases as a Volunteer becomes better known, and many Volunteers abstain from drinking in their sites. Program managers and the safety and security and medical officers help Volunteers develop strategies to manage the pressure of alcohol consumption.
The Peace Corps has policies and strategies that will help Volunteers assess and manage their use of alcohol. Excessive use of alcohol may result in behavior that affects your performance, effectiveness, safety and credibility. Inappropriate behavior resulting from alcohol abuse or the inability to carry out your assignment due to alcohol use is grounds for administrative separation from the Peace Corps. Alcohol use has been a factor in injuries and assaults involving Volunteers in posts throughout the world, including the Kyrgyz Republic. The Kyrgyzstani judicial system considers use of alcohol as an aggravating factor in criminal cases. Individuals with a history or predisposition for alcohol abuse should seriously consider whether the Kyrgyz Republic is an appropriate assignment for you.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
People in the Kyrgyz Republic take pride in their personal appearance and tend to dress up both for social occasions and for daily activities and generally dress more formally than Americans. While most people cannot afford a large wardrobe—it is not unusual to see co-workers wear the same outfit two or three days in a row—wearing clean and ironed cloths is important. To gain the acceptance, respect, and confidence of Kyrgyz colleagues, therefore, it is essential that you dress and conduct yourself professionally. Professional dress is required in the workplace, which means mid-length or long skirts with blouses or dresses for women living in more rural or conservative areas of the country, and pressed chinos or dress slacks with jackets or sweaters for men. Dress shoes or boots are also essential. As it is the custom to take off your shoes before entering someone’s home, Volunteers might wish to bring with them shoes that easily slip on or off rather than ones with laces.
The Peace Corps expects Volunteers to behave in a way that will foster respect in their communities and reflect well on the Peace Corps and the citizens of the United States. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest and must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your hosts. You will receive an orientation on appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, being perceived as well-off, and alcohol abuse are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Some Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Kyrgyz Republic Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in the Kyrgyz Republic. At the same time, you are expected to take ultimate responsibility for your own safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in the Kyrgyz Republic is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and some people you work with may be hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. The Kyrgyz are warm, friendly, and hospitable, and the Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave the Kyrgyz Republic feeling that they have gained much more than they sacrificed during their service. If you are willing to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.