That decision comes with a bonus. You can click on The River Journal online version and read Betsy's story along with all the other latest news and columns.
Also, if you have questions or comments about the story below, please post them, and I'll encourage Betsy to respond in today's slightdetour comments section, so do check back.
by Marianne Love
for The River Journal
With University of Idaho graduation weeks away in March, 2005, Sandpoint’s Betsy Dalessio was seeking a post-college experience of exploring the world and fulfilling some long-held humanitarian goals. After researching the Peace Corps, she signed on, hoping to use her Spanish minor in a Central American country. Upon learning her assigned destination, Betsy could hardly pronounce the country’s name, let alone use its language: Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country bordering China and known for its proud nomadic culture, became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Its 5 million residents live in an area about the size of South Dakota. Kyrgyzstan is known for its breath-taking mountains, its predominantly Muslim religion and the world’s largest walnut forest.
During her 15-month stay in various venues as an English teacher, she encountered expected hardships associated with the “toughest job you’ll ever love.” One particularly irritating nuisance of sexual harassment seemed to follow her wherever she went, eventually prompting Betsy to cut short her planned two-year Peace Corps stay.
Nonetheless, the 2001 Sandpoint High graduate and U of I journalism major feels the experience of teaching and offering her students, especially young women, hopes for a better future set her well on her way to making a positive difference in the world. Now looking toward an advanced education degree, Betsy is back in Sandpoint, working as a substitute teacher.
She’s the daughter of LPO Alternative High School principal Rick Dalessio and District Magistrate Judge Barbara Buchanan. Betsy is also one of my former English students. When I heard of her recent adventure, I figured she had a story to tell. Indeed, she did:
Why Peace Corps? I had never been overseas, and the Peace Corps seemed like a good way to help people, to travel and experience more. I also was tired of college life. I felt like I was wasting something that I could be offering to people in need.
How does the Peace Corps prepare its recruits for overseas duty? I went to a three-day training with 67 other volunteers in Philadelphia before I left. We basically learned different ways to deal with homesickness, stress and other situations we might encounter.
After that, we were sent on our way. I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello’ in Kyrgyz yet. We spent a week at a former Soviet hotel in the capital, Bishkek, where we met our language and cross-cultural advisors.
The overall group is broken down into groups of eight, and every four volunteers had their own instructor. This instructor was a host country national and was in charge of teaching us language, cultural sensitivity and traditions for about 11 weeks. During this time we lived with host families in small villages outside the capital city. We studied at least six hours a day, six days a week.
After the intensive cultural submersion, we had to pass a language test. Next, we were sworn in as official volunteers at a ceremony with the U.S. Ambassador and sent on our own into villages throughout the country.
Did you have contact with other Americans during your stay? Within our group of 67, there were six married couples. Surprisingly, we all had cell phones which kept us in contact. It’s funny, the country doesn’t have power most of the time, running water or plumbing, but they have cell phones. I was within an hour of another volunteer, and within the region I lived in, there were 13 other Americans.
Describe your major culture shocks? Women are expected to marry young. Most women are bride-kidnapped. If you are not married by 22 or 23, you are shamed by older, respected members of your community and family.
Girls weren’t given a chance to live their lives or to go to school. Only the more privileged families could afford to send their daughters to college in the city . . . . Most women married and became a ‘kelen,’ a girl who marries and basically becomes a slave to her husband’s family. She moves into their compound, must cover her head at all times, never wear pants and immediately begin to have children.
She runs the entire household, cooks, cleans and cares for the children. Males live with their parents forever. Females are expected to marry and move out. . . . I lived with a family that didn’t have a kelen, but the mother was constantly pushing her oldest son to marry and bring one home to take care of them.
What difficulties did you face? I had a hard time dealing with the drinking problems and unemployment. No one seemed to work. Men were always gathered in small circles drinking vodka. Vodka was prevalent everywhere. No matter where you turned, people were drinking. The time of the day didn’t matter. Age didn’t matter.
They don’t have pets. Dogs and cats run wild. No one ever lets animals in houses. Animals were abused and mistreated. There are no diapers. Moms just try to anticipate their children and change their pants a lot.
How about the schools? School was another tough shock. The students hardly showed up and showed no motivation to learn. Boys rarely came to class, and that was okay with the staff. There was no electricity in the school where I worked. Mice ran wild in my classroom. Teachers drank during lunch. No one seemed to care about the kids actually getting an education. You could bribe the teachers with a sheep or money to change your grade.
Driving was risking my life. I couldn't drive, but riding in a taxi was life-threatening, almost every time. There is no right or left side of the road. No speed limits. No police. No lines on the roads. No driving laws. No driving age limits. It was madness. I don't know how many times we went off the road into a field to avoid a herd of sheep. Sheep were everywhere.
If you had to describe Kyrgyzstan to the world in a short summary, what would you say? Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic that declared independence in 1992. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has tried to become independent and economically stable. A revolution in 2004 turned the government upside down, and the country is still repairing damage. It is located below Kazakhstan and borders China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan is known for its beautiful mountains and the second-biggest salt water lake in the world, ‘Lake Issicule,’ which means ‘hot’ lake.
Describe the customs. People entertain themselves by guesting. Guesting is a huge part of the Kyrgyz culture. Usually I found myself guesting twice a week. Guesting usually consists of a three-course meal, lots of bread, vodka and dancing. Most people are trained in traditional dancing, which is beautiful and fun to watch. People also play soccer, the most popular sport in the country.
What foods did you like? Which turned your stomach, if any? I ate only bread, rice and eggs. People of Kyrgyzstan eat sheep meat, horse meat and lots of fat. I was constantly sick. I would find myself in a squat outhouse throwing up because someone offered me a sheep eyeball.
I never got used to the food. Usually I could order eggs but we had to watch those too. Sanitation was not practiced. I was constantly ill, as was every other volunteer. I did enjoy a rice dish from Uzbekistan called plov.
How did Kyrgyzs respond to you? I was treated like a celebrity most of the time. Absolutely everyone stared at us all the time. Most people pointed. Even in my local village after a year, I still was the talk of the town. I couldn’t walk down the street without someone yelling something like, ‘America’ or ‘Jennifer Lopez,’ or ‘I love you.’
Because of American status, people automatically think that you are rich. Everyone begged for money. Some families sent their children to my apartment door to ask me for money. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers always upped their prices when we came around. No one ever believed that the Peace Corps actually had us on a local budget, comparable to what host county nationals lived on.
I made a lot of friends in my community, mostly older girls in my 11th grade classes. I would meet with them and make pizza and talk about life in America. They loved it, and so did I. In the summer we would go swimming in the reservoir and eat ice cream at the park. I really miss the friends I made there. I spent a lot of time guesting with girls’ families. It was the best part of my service.
What classes were you teaching? I taught English as a second language to 9,10,11, and 5th grades. I also had an adult English language group that met at a cafe one night a week, and I privately tutored five or six young girls after school.
Describe the facilities. The schools were left from the Russian days. They were brick buildings, usually two to three stories with small classrooms. There was no electricity in my school, no water and no heat.
Other schools in richer parts of the country had computers and power, but I was not fortunate enough to have resources. I relied on two grammar books from the States and a chalkboard. I made a lot of posters and decorations for my classroom walls, but they mostly were stolen.
When it rained, we had an inch of water on the floor and had to sit on the desks. At the end of the day, the kids (the girls) had to scrub each classroom and the school windows.
The bathroom was a brick outhouse with four squat holes in a row outside, away from the school. In warmer weather the kids would wash their hands in a stream nearby, or with snow in the winter.
How open to learning were your students? What seemed to be their strengths and weaknesses in their education? Most kids were not open to education. They seemed to think that their lives were set, that they couldn’t change their futures, and that was the hardest part of being there.
They would look at me and say, ‘This isn’t important, I am going to live with my parents and work in the bean fields the rest of my life anyway.’ The motivated ones were few and far between, but they were there. They were the ones going to summer camp, and getting private tutoring after school every day.
Students generally excelled in Russian language and math. I noticed that a lot of the girls really did well in math. Unfortunately, everything is taught in a dictator style, the old Soviet way. I don’t know if the education they were receiving would hold up around the world.
How difficult was mastering the language? It was hard to master the language. I can’t say I ever did. I passed my test and became a volunteer, but I could have studied more. I just didn’t want to waste all of my time studying. I learned enough to get by and more, and then I stopped studying and started interacting. That was more helpful.
It is a tough language to learn: different alphabet, and most of the words are very similiar to other words. The word for ‘house’ and the word for ‘cow’ sounded exactly the same. I never knew if I was asking ‘Where’s the house?’ or ‘Where’s the cow?’
What do you think you accomplished in meeting your humanitarian goals? I got a start in doing something that I really want to do. I broke the ice. Made that first trip around the world, lived it and then came home for a break for a while. I will go back overseas. I just need a year to breathe, and then I want to do it again somewhere else.
What was your greatest satisfaction? Working with the 4th grade at a school in the city for a month. I taught five or six classes a day. The kids were extremely eager to learn English. They ran to class every day, they brought me apples and gifts, they studied English words at night, and came back to tell me what they remembered the next day. They were so eager and willing to learn English. I had so much fun, struggling through lessons in broken Kyrgyz and with their broken English. I loved teaching them
Tell me more about the sexual harassment experiences with a few specifics and with what happened when you complained?
I love the sun and the beach. In my first community, I had a reservior that I would hike out to everyday. One day, a Russian man followed me and proceeded to take his clothes off and sit on my beach towel. I immediately ran away, looking for other people to help me. He followed me the entire five-mile hike back to my house, where he then stood outside my gate for hours.
I reported it to the Peace Corps safety and security officer, who sent a Russian militia officer to my house. Unfortunately, I don’t speak any Russian. I spoke Kyrgyz. I had to find a translator just to file a police report. It was a tough situation.
I also was being sexually harassed by some students in the 9th grade. I found it absolutely impossible to teach them, and after a few months of no changes, I reported the issue to the Peace Corps. My school did nothing to help me with the boys, only told me that ‘boys would be boys’ and that I was too young.
I was immediately yanked from the school and my house and brought into a small city about an hour away. I got a job at a local private school, but due to a lack of funds, the school shut down, and I was out of a job. After three weeks, the Peace Corps had not found me a new job. I now lived on my own, instead of with a host family, in an apartment in an unsafe part of the city.
I was scared all the time. My door got kicked in one night. Money was stolen from my room. Men followed me home at night and beat on the door. I didn’t have a job, and was waiting on my program manager to find me one. I couldn’t ride in a taxi without fearing that the driver might take off for the mountains. I had to give up. I couldn’t live in the city, without a family for support. I chose to come home instead of remaining in country until June.
What challenges did your decision to come home present to you? It was really hard to give up and leave the other volunteers behind. I sat in my apartment and made lists of reasons to stay and reasons to go, and I was just feeling too defeated. Sometimes I regret not sticking it out, but I was starting to be depressed and miserable, so I know I made the right choice.
I felt like I was letting my fellow volunteers down. They all were going through the same culture shocks and difficulties as I was, but not the harrassment. I was a magnet. I could be walking down the street with six girls, and the men would pick me out and follow. That was strange. Unwanted attention is the worst.
How did this experience affect you or change you?
I am an extremely materialistic person. I have clothes, a nice car, money and pretty much everything I ever wanted. I got over there, and people have nothing. No families have cars. Girls have one or two outfits. They have to get married after high school. They have basically no rights.
I came home with a new outlook on life. I learned to appreciate absolutely everything so much more: family, friends, everything I have. I know what it’s like to live in an apartment with nothing: no amenities, no water, no bathroom. It’s hard. It’s miserable, but you become such a stronger person.
They say the Peace Corps is the ‘toughest job you’ll ever love,’ and it’s true. At times I absolutely hated what I was doing, and at times I thought I was the luckiest person in the world to get a chance to experience something like this. It was amazing.
What were some positive highlights of your time spent there?
I helped to organize an English summer camp for about 60 junior high and high school students. We raised money from back home and put on a week-long day camp. The camp was awesome, we brought students together from all over the region and taught them about sanitation, hygiene, health and other important issues that their country is lacking. The kids loved it. It was by far one of the best things I did there.
I also had a girls’ club twice a week, where high school girls came to my house to talk about anything they wanted. They opened up to me about things that were forbidden to talk about in their culture. They asked me so many questions about life in America.
Once we got past language barriers, I really felt like I was helping them. I tried to show them ways that they could go to places like America. I tutored them in English and helped one girl become a finalist for a scholarship program to study in America for a year. That was really rewarding.
Would you ever want to go back? I was really close with one volunteer’s host family. I would love to go back and bring them gifts and see how the kids are growing up. One boy, Edu, was speaking amazing English when I left. He is going to come to America in a year, and I can’t wait to see how his English has come along.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to go back. I would like to see other parts of the world. I spent enough time there to completely absorb the culture, realize that I wouldn’t be able to change things, and move on. But I know that I made an impact on some of my students, and that’s why I went there.
Describe your last day in the country and your trip home (the route and how long it took). My flight left at three in the morning. I flew out to Istanbul with two other girls headed home.
We spent the day walking around the capital city, having final medical exams and tests and buying last-minute souveiners. We wandered around the city for hours. We tried to spend every last bit of kyrgyz currency we had, and enjoyed ourselves. We bought CDs of Kyrgyz music, ate Kyrgyz food and then sat in a hotel room and talked about what it would be like to be back home.
We flew out at 3 a.m. and arrived in Istanbul the next day. We parted ways there. I headed to Chicago; one, to Washington, D.C, and the other, to New York.
That next flight was a killer. Sixteen hours, then customs and then another two more flights ‘til home. By the time I got through customs, (which wasn’t too bad because I have a government passport), I missed my next flight and had to take a later scheduled one. It ended up being about 48 hours of flying and airport time.
Who met you when you arrived back in the United States? What was it like to be back in your home country? My mom was waiting in Seattle, and we flew into Spokane together. It was wonderful to be back home, but I was pretty concerned with completely having to rebuild a life and find a job. And then of course my luggage was lost, which I had paid extra for, since I had so much stuff.
What other world traveling have you done, and where would you like to go?
I got to see a few places while I was over there, but mostly just the surrounding countries. I lived on the border of Kazakhstan, and in the winter that was the only route into the city. The mountain pass closed, and I had to leave the country and then come back in order to travel. That was pretty intense.
I got detained for eight hours at the Kazakhstan border my first time travelling alone and was pretty scared. I ended up paying $100 American to have a private taxi take me the seven hours into the city after being robbed on the bus, once I got released. It turned out my passport and visas were good only at certain border crossings, and because I didn’t speak Kazak or Russian, I didn’t understand.
A bus took me to a secondary border, but people were touching me and watching me and my luggage, and I had to get off. That was a pretty scary day. I got into the city at 9 that evening, on New Year’s weekend, and checked into the Hyatt with friends to celebrate.
What skills or experiences will help you as you move on in your life? I feel like I can pretty much adapt to any situation that I am facing. I had to deal with so many ups and downs in Kyrgyzstan. I really had to learn patience and acceptance. Otherwise, I might have gone insane.
What are your short-term and long term goals? Short term? I am just having fun, spending time with friends and trying to adjust to the working world. I am applying to grad schools for the fall and hopefully will get a teaching degree soon, or a Master’s in non-profit management.
Long term? I want to work for the Bill Gates Foundation. I tried to apply all ready, but you have to have a Master’s Degree even to be an assistant! I would love to work in non-profit management and get to travel the world, helping people at the same time. I like teaching English as a second language and will work toward certification in that as well. I love teaching, especially middle school age and kindergarten.
What advice and/or information would you share with others others who are considering joining the Peace Corps? While the Peace Corps is an amazing organization, it is tough. You do feel a bit controlled and limited in what you can do, but they take care of you. You have health care and security and a lot of people to help you. I recommend it completely; you just have to be prepared. It’s not the same program that JFK started back in the ‘60s.
Anything else you care to add about the experience? I really did enjoy it and what I learned from it, despite all the hard times. I made lifelong friends and got to know myself and what I my capabilities.
Quick Facts about Kyrgyzstan, compiled for the CIA World Fact Book
Kyrgyzstan: A Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions, Kyrgyzstan was annexed by Russia in 1864; it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Nationwide demonstrations in the spring of 2005 resulted in the ouster of President Askar AKAYEV, who had run the country since 1990. Subsequent presidential elections in July 2005 were won overwhelmingly by former prime minister Kurmanbek BAKIYEV.
Current concerns include: privatization of state-owned enterprises, expansion of democracy and political freedoms, reduction of corruption, improving interethnic relations, and combating terrorism.
Location: Central Asia, west of China, slightly smaller than South Dakota, border countries: China 858 km, Kazakhstan 1,051 km, Tajikistan 870 km, Uzbekistan 1,099 km, (landlocked)
Climate: dry continental to polar in high Tien Shan; subtropical in southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone
Terrain: peaks of Tien Shan and associated valleys and basins encompass entire nation
lowest point: Kara-Daryya (Karadar'ya) 132 m
highest point: Jengish Chokusu (Pik Pobedy) 7,439 m
Resources: abundant hydropower; significant deposits of gold and rare earth metals; locally exploitable coal, oil, and natural gas; other deposits of nepheline, mercury, bismuth, lead, and zinc
Land use: arable land: 6.55%
permanent crops: 0.28%
note: Kyrgyzstan has the world's largest natural growth walnut forest (2005)
Environmental concerns: water pollution; many people get their water directly from contaminated streams and wells; as a result, water-borne diseases are prevalent; increasing soil salinity from faulty irrigation practices
Geography note: landlocked; entirely mountainous, dominated by the Tien Shan range; many tall peaks, glaciers, and high-altitude lakes
Population: 5,213,898 (July 2006 est.)
Ethnic groups: Kyrgyz 64.9%, Uzbek 13.8%, Russian 12.5%, Dungan 1.1%, Ukrainian 1%, Uygur 1%, other 5.7% (1999 census)
Religions: Muslim 75%, Russian Orthodox 20%, other 5%
Languages: Kyrgyz (official), Russian (official
Literacy: definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 98.7%
female: 98.1% (1999 est.)
7 provinces (oblastlar, singular - oblasty) and 1 city* (shaar); Batken Oblasty, Bishkek Shaary*, Chuy Oblasty (Bishkek), Jalal-Abad Oblasty, Naryn Oblasty, Osh Oblasty, Talas Oblasty, Ysyk-Kol Oblasty (Karakol)
Independence: 31 August 1991 (from Soviet Union)
Economic overview: Kyrgyzstan is a poor, mountainous country with a predominantly agricultural economy. Cotton, tobacco, wool, and meat are the main agricultural products, although only tobacco and cotton are exported in any quantity.
Industrial exports include gold, mercury, uranium, natural gas, and electricity. Kyrgyzstan has been progressive in carrying out market reforms, such as an improved regulatory system and land reform.
Kyrgyzstan was the first CIS country to be accepted into the World Trade Organization. Much of the government's stock in enterprises has been sold.
Drops in production had been severe after the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, but by mid-1995, production began to recover and exports began to increase. Kyrgyzstan has distinguished itself by adopting relatively liberal economic policies.
The drop in output at the Kumtor gold mine sparked a 0.5% decline in GDP in 2002, but GDP growth bounced back in 2003-05. The government has made steady strides in controlling its substantial fiscal deficit and reduced the deficit to 1% of GDP in 2005.
The government and international financial institutions have been engaged in a comprehensive medium-term poverty reduction and economic growth strategy, and in 2005 agreed to pursue much-needed tax reform.
Progress fighting corruption, further restructuring of domestic industry, and success in attracting foreign investment are keys to future growth.
general assessment: development of telecommunications infrastructure is slow; fixed line penetration remains low and concentrated in Bishkek
domestic: two wireless telephony service providers, but penetration remains low
international: country code - 996; connections with other CIS countries by landline or microwave radio relay and with other countries by leased connections with Moscow international gateway switch and by satellite; satellite earth stations - 1 Intersputnik and 1 Intelsat; connected internationally by the Trans-Asia-Europe (TAE) fiber-optic line