The Peace Corps Central Asia home stay program is a great way to see Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and the Aral Sea), as an added bonus you get cheap vodka, interesting foods and pit toilets.
Since individuals have different perceptions, here is a full text dialog (which I found in November 2000) of some Uzbek students discussing my story of my visit to Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, some parts devolve into razgavor a Russian word that means a heated conversation involving more emotion than substance. FYI I wrote the story for my own enjoyment and that of some of my friends and family who know I have a quirky sense of humor.
Im going to Uzbekistan, I would tell friends and acquaintances.
And nine times out of ten they would say, Why are you going to Pakistan?
I would explain that I was going to bum around in Uzbekistan (not Pakistan) and visit Christine in the Peace Corps.
For more than two thousand years, the only way goods flowed from China to Europe, was along a route, affectionately known as the Silk Road. Along the Silk Road were a confluence of societies that flourished with different languages and traditions. In the 15th century when sea routes became the preferred method of transferring goods from China to Europe, trade diminished along the Silk Road and the Central Asian region became isolated from rest of the world.
In 1924 a few years after the Communist Revolution, the Soviets (advised by their scholars) declared that Uzbekistan was to be a Soviet Republic. The boundaries of the Republic of Uzbekistan were set by the belief that only ethnic Uzbeks lived in the area (yeah right). For the next 70 years, Uzbekistan was essentially exploited by the Soviets. After the wall fell down in 1989, the Soviets no longer could control events in the Soviet Republics, so in 1991 Uzbekistan declared its independence from the Soviet Union.
Situated in Central Asia, Uzbekistan lies between Turkey to the west and China to the east. In terms of size, Uzbekistan is slightly larger than the state of California. In the western part of the country there are deserts (think Death Valley) and to the east are mountains (think Mt. Whitney).
During winter, snows fall in mountains situated in the east. This watershed feeds two major rivers which empty out into the ever shrinking Aral Sea (think of the Salton Sea only much larger) in the west. The two rivers which feed the Aral were tapped by the Soviets to be a source of potable drinking water and provide water to grow crops (principally cotton).
Since harems were invented in this part of the world, it is not too surprising that in traditional Uzbek society, men expect women to be submissive and cater to their every desire (gosh, this is one tradition I could live with). In my travels, I heard of stories of Uzbek men occasionally wacking women to keep them in line (wacking seems to be accepted as somewhat normal). Polygamy of sorts is also accepted, as long as men can financially support the women. I was told beautiful Russian and Uzbek women supposedly swarm over foreigners (sort of like flies on shit) looking for such an arrangement, at the Emir club in Tashkent.
A major Uzbek tradition is the Mehmon. Essentially during a mehmon, Uzbeks feed and display their best face to a visiting guest. A guest is treated like royalty, but the host must slave away and cater to the wishes of the guest. Each party in the mehmon is expected to play their role (to do otherwise is a major insult). The mehmon is a love hate thing with Uzbeks since they feel compelled to show their best face to guests, while at the same time they curse guests behind the scenes for showing up in the first place. The mehmon can best be described, as terrorist hospitality, because once a determined host starts, there is very little you can do to stop them.
Since the Soviets (principally Russians) occupied Uzbek territory, there is a resentment of Russians by Uzbeks. Former privileges enjoyed by Russians (during the height of the Soviet Union) are now being taken away.
From the Communist political system (instituted by the Soviets and followed by current Uzbek leaders) comes belief in centralized planning, suspicion of outsiders, and authoritarian rule.
Under the Communist system, circumventing the system to get goods and services was a way of life (or so I have read). During my visit, I actually witnessed some Uzbeks circumventing the system to get various goods and services.
Unlike the States where individuals can drown in information (from cable TV, the web, news radio, etc.), individuals behind the former iron curtain (including most Uzbeks) are pretty much info deprived.
In order to earn hard currency, the Uzbek government is emphasizing tourism in the rebuilt ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. On Uzbekistan Airways, I was inundated with promotional films extolling the virtues of those ancient cities. I found those theme malls pretty interesting and that is what the Uzbek government wants foreigner tourists to see. But the real draw for me was the opportunity to see what life was like in Uzbekistan.
Independent travel in Uzbekistan is not a simple matter. Through experience, I have discover being Low maintenance and having a perverse sense of humor helps get over the enviable rough spots one encounters while on holiday, and in Uzbekistan those qualities are essential. Aside from an open mind, travel in Uzbekistan requires a visa, which I obtained courtesy of the Peace Corps travel network.
For a long time when I thought of the Peace Corps, I had mental images of tree hugging, granola eating, spaced out pinkos. I guess I had that stereotype, given that the Peace Corps was started in the 60s. In reality I found Peace Corps Volunteers or PCVs to be dedicated individuals who do many thankless jobs, for little financial reward (about $20 a month in Uzbekistan).
Talking to various individuals, they told me some of their reasons for joining peace corps, such as they dreamt of joining ever since childhood (guess they had hippies for parents). Others volunteers cited (their own) selfish reasons for joining, such as wanting to get away from corporate life, or wanting to keep busy after their retirement. Still others said they were not ready to join the corporate rat race, and wanted to contribute to a job or project that was interesting and worthwhile. All of the PCVs I met were highly motivated individuals, yet slightly tweaked (after all who in their right mind, would give up the relative comfort and opportunities afforded bright motivated individuals in the United States, to live in a distant country, work for subsistence pay, under difficult and sometimes hazardous conditions).
The mission of the Peace Corps (I discovered) is to provide community assistance to countries that ask for it. Individual PCVs act as American goodwill ambassadors, since they live with locals and learn about their culture. The role of a PCV is to act as a conduit, exchanging ideas with locals in country, then with friends and family back home in America.
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