A Small Key Opens Big Doors

A Small Key Opens Big Doors

50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Vol. 3, The Heart of Eurasia $18.95
Edited by Jay Chen
October 2011
ISBN 1-609520-03-3   352 pages
add to Cart add to cart
buy this Book on buy on Amazon.com
 
Description
Introduction
Table of Contents
Sample Chapter
About the Author

Description


The Cold War officially ended in 1991 and opened a world of fresh opportunities for the Peace Corps. The fact that PCVs could move seamlessly into a constellation of states that once comprised the USSR is a testament to the flexibility and durability of the organization. All Peace Corps needs is an invitation. Volunteers are always ready to step up, learn a new language, learn some new skills, and then go to work in unfamiliar lands.

Of the 40 stories in A Small Key Opens Big Doors, some reach back to early Peace Corps years in Iran and Turkey. Others engage with the newness of democratic freedoms, drawing back the curtain on old suspicions. Here you’ll see why walking a Thanksgiving carrot cake through a revolution is easy. But following a whole new script for free market, democratic customs? Not so much. And meanwhile, in Mongolia, you’ll learn how to celebrate the Lunar New Year with a shot of fermented horse milk, Cheers!

"These writings provide a record and a testament to the vision of those who created the Peace Corps and those who have made it such a success." —Charles Greer, The Jason and Lucy Greer Foundation for the Arts

Introduction


By Jay Chen

Eastern Europe and Central Asia are not typically places people think of when they hear about the Peace Corps. The mention of the Peace Corps tends to evoke images of young, bright-eyed Americans working in Third World continents like Africa. Those familiar with the history of the Peace Corps know that it was actually Eastern Europe and Central Asia, then under the flag of the Soviet Union, that drove the creation of the Peace Corps. In the midst of the Cold War in 1960, President Kennedy pointed out that in the Soviet republics were “hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, nurses...prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism.” To counter this, the United States needed to train its young men and women, to be “ambassadors of peace,” and to “serve the cause of freedom.” While the Peace Corps was initially unable to pierce the heart of Eurasia because of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Soviet Union three decades later saw Volunteers working side by side with locals in newly independent republics that had been considered a threat to global stability just a few years earlier.

Volunteers who come to serve in the region find a peculiar juxtaposition of Soviet civilization built upon the ancient cultural landscape of Turkestan, which once stretched from Siberia in the north to Iran in the south. Dating back as far as the third millennium B.C., Turkestan covered most of the Silk Road, and was the center of cultural diffusion between the East and the West—over time seeing the influence of the Huns, Chinese, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Tartars, Persians, and finally the Russians. Within this historical landscape, Volunteers across Eastern Europe and Central Asia find people who speak both Russian and their native languages, cookie-cutter concrete Soviet apartment buildings built next to centuries-old mosques, and railway systems lain across the same grasslands where nomadic herders grazed their sheep. Discovering the new and the old in a land once forbidden to Americans, Volunteers find that Eurasia is a land of contradictions and juxtapositions.

Sometimes those juxtapositions follow us back to the United States. As the most recent returned Volunteer of the four editors in this series, the feeling of being an alien in my own country after spending three years abroad in Kazakhstan is still fresh in my memory. With barely a month between my return and the start of law school, I found it impossible to square my former identity as a university English teacher in Kazakhstan with my new identity as a law student in the United States. No longer was I teaching English to 500-plus students and working with fellow faculty members on community projects; instead I found myself spending hours in the library, reading indecipherable legal cases and being thrust into the hyper-competitive madness of a first-year law student’s life. Finding other people who understood the experience of working before law school was already difficult, much less working in a developing country. The stress of transition as well as law school and its arbitrary standards of self-worth often caused me to gloss over the value of the experiences I had in Kazakhstan. Was it worth it, I would ask myself, putting myself three years “behind” by electing to volunteer instead of going directly to law school from under-graduate study like so many of my peers?

Going through the stories in this volume and seeing the struggles and triumphs of fifty years’ worth of Volunteers from the region was therapeutic for me, and it put much of my work in Kazakhstan in context. I am honored to have had the opportunity to edit these stories and reflect upon them. The theme running through this volume is common to all Peace Corps stories: While we may not have saved the world like many of us thought we would, each of us did our best to make it a better place and found local people who shared those beliefs. What little we accomplished in those two to three years may seem miniscule in our overall impact on the direction of the country, but as I learned through these stories, the value and impact of our work often cannot be understood until several years, sometimes decades later.

Today, I still hear from many of my former students and colleagues, as many have gone on to become successful English teachers in Kazakhstan and translators for international firms. Others received grants to pursue higher education abroad. The earnestness with which my students approached me in my last year, when they asked how they could start a Kazakhstani Peace Corps so that they could also do their part for the world, gave me hope that while I may not have made significant lasting change myself, I have at least planted some seeds for such change. I look forward to hearing what they will go on to accomplish.

We Peace Corps Volunteers came to the heart of Eurasia for various reasons—some for patriotism, some for adventure, some for friendship, some for peace. The stories in this volume by no means claim a full understanding of the people or the cultures in the countries that we served, but they do document the effort spent to understand our roles as American volunteers in lands that experienced more political turmoil in a span of a few years than we would ever see in a lifetime. We came to show that American foreign affairs also came through peaceful means, not just military action. We were Kennedy’s “Ambassadors of Peace,” and in that effort, we built relationships and bridged cultural divides with those that we once as a nation considered enemies. After two decades of work in the former Soviet Union and five decades Peace Corps work in total, it turns out that we too, are from a land of contradictions and juxtapositions.


Series Preface

By Jane Albritton

There are some baby ideas that seem to fly in by stork, without incubation between conception and birth. These magical bundles smile and say: “Want me?” And well before the head can weigh the merits of taking in the unsummoned arrival, the heart leaps forward and answers, “Yes!”

The idea for Peace Corps @ 50—the anniversary media project for which this series of books is the centerpiece—arrived on my mental doorstep in just this way in 2007. Four books of stories, divided by regions of the world, written by the Peace Corps Volunteers who have lived and worked there. There was time to solicit the stories, launch the website, and locate editors for each book. By 2011, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps, the books would be released.

The website had no sooner gone live when the stories started rolling in. And now, after four years and with a publisher able to see the promise and value of this project, here we are, ready to share more than 200 stories of our encounters with people and places far from home.

In the beginning, I had no idea what to expect from a call for stories. Now, at the other end of this journey, I have read every story, and I know what makes our big collection such a fitting tribute to the Peace Corps experience.

Peace Corps Volunteers write. We write a lot. Most of us need to, because writing is the only chance we have to say things in our native language. Functioning every day in another language takes work, and it isn’t just about grammar. It’s everything that isn’t taught—like when to say what depending on the context, like the intricate system of body language, and like knowing how to shift your tone depending on the company you are in. These struggles and linguistic mishaps can be frustrating and often provoke laughter, even if people are forgiving and appreciate the effort. It takes a long time to earn a sense of belonging.

And so in our quiet moments—when we slip into a private space away from the worlds where we are guests—we write. And in these moments where we treat ourselves to our own language, thoughts flow freely. We once wrote only journals and letters; today we also text, email, and blog.

Writing helps us work through the frustrations of everyday living in cultures where—at first—we do not know the rules or understand the values. In our own language we write out our loneliness, our fury, our joy, and our revelations. Every volunteer who has ever served writes as a personal exercise in coming to terms with an awakening ignorance. And then we write our way through it, making our new worlds part of ourselves in our own language, in our own words.

The stories in these books are the best contribution we can make to the permanent record of Peace Corps on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. And because a Volunteer’s attempt to ex-plain the experience has always contained the hope that folks at home will “get it,” these stories are also a gift to anyone eager and curious to learn what we learned about living in places that always exceeded what we imagined them to be.

It has been an honor to receive and read these stories. Taken together, they provide a kaleidoscopic view of world cultures—beautiful and strange—that shift and rattle when held up to the light.

I would like to acknowledge personally the more than 200 Return Volunteers who contributed to these four volumes. Without their voices, this project could not have been possible. Additionally, editors Pat and Bernie Alter, Aaron Barlow, and Jay Chen have been tireless in shepherding their stories through the publishing process and in helping me make my way through some vexing terrain along the way. Special thanks to John Coyne whose introduction sets the stage for each volume. Thanks also to Dennis Cordell for his early work on the project.

There are two people critical to the success of this project who were never Peace Corps volunteers, but who instantly grasped the significance of the project: Chris Richardson and Susan Brady.

Chris and his PushIQ team, created a visually lush, technically elegant website that was up and ready to invite contributors to join the project and to herald both the project and the anniversary itself. He took on the creative challenge of designing four distinct covers for the four volumes in this set. His work first invited our contributors and now invites our readers.

Susan Brady brought it all home. It is one thing to collect, edit, and admire four books’ worth of stories; it is another to get them organized, to the typesetter, the printer, and the team of marketers on time and looking good. Susan’s good sense, extensive publishing experience, and belief in the worthiness of this project sealed the publishing deal with Travelers’ Tales/Solas House.

Finally, there are the two others, one at each elbow, who kept me upright when the making of books made me weary. My mother—intrepid traveler and keeper of stories—died four months after the project launched, but she has been kind enough to hang around to see me through. My partner, cultural anthropologist Kate Browne, never let me forget that if Americans are ever going to have an honored place in this world, we need to have some clue about how the rest of it works. “So get with it,” they said. “The 50th anniversary happens only once.”

Table of Contents


Series Preface
JANE ALBRITTON

Foreword
JOHN COYNE

Introduction

Part One
ON OUR WAY...AND BACK AGAIN

September 12th
DARA ROSS
Mongolia

Peace Corps Expectations
DIANA J. LaVIOLETTE
Turkey

Two Years of Days
JULIA WELLER PFITZER
Moldova

A Carrot Cake in a Revolution
CRISTINA T. O’KEEFFE
Ukraine

After Thirty-Seven Years
BARBARA BRYAN
Turkey

Back in the USSR
JOHN P. DEEVER
Ukraine

The Dead Pig
BRIAN FASSETT
Bulgaria

Returning to Macedonia
REGINA LANDOR
Macedonia

Images of Turkey
RICHARD SCHWARTZ
Turkey

Taking Pictures in Central Asia
TOM FLEMING
Uzbekistan

Part Two
WHY ARE WE HERE?

The Other Bulgaria
BRIAN FASSETT
Bulgaria

Mongolia’s First City Park
BENJAMIN BAGGETT
Mongolia

Running
REBECCA BOWMAN
Turkmenistan

An Unexpected Turn
NATALIE BRYANT-RIZZIERI
Armenia

Smokestack Songs
SAMUEL ROBINSON
Kazakhstan

The Motherland
JAMES McHENRY, PH.D.
Iran

The Distance to Doubt: From Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan
YEN LE
Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan

Can We Pass Through Latvia, Please?
PETER L. GESS
Poland

My Picture on a Plate
GEORGE T. PARK
Turkey

Soul Mates
SHERRY MORRIS
Ukraine

Part Three
GETTING THROUGH THE DAYS

Visit to Karkamish
SANDRA LEE ANDERSON
Turkey

Mushroom Hunters
JOËL McCLURG
Romania

The Other Side
ROBERT SHORE
Mongolia

The Eastern Regional
JORDAN M. SCEPANSKI
Turkey

Swearing In
MICHAEL BERG
Armenia

Babushka and Chickens
DONNA BRADEN
Ukraine

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
ROLAND MENDOZA
Mongolia

Trip to Akjakent
MARANEE SANDERS
Iran/Turkey

Champ
ASHLI GOLD
Kazakhstan

A Convergence of Angles
LAWRENCE LAWSON
Ukraine

Thanksgiving in Turkey
JOAN HAMMER GRANT
Turkey

The Fourth of July
BRUCE MCDONALD
Bulgaria

The Art of Losing Things
ROBERT NAGLE
Albania

One Steppe at a Time
CHARLENE PEÑA
Kazakhstan

Homecoming
SUSAN FLEMING HOLM
Turkey

Part Four
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

I Love Lucy Moment
JAY CHEN
Kazakhstan

Boss Visa
JOHN FLYNN
Moldova

Cowards Die a Thousand Deaths
PEGGY HANSON
Turkey

Unarmed Man
ALEXANDER BRIGGS
Kazakhstan

Two Tongues
SHAUN INGALLS
Kyrgyzstan

On the Rails
LISA SWAIM
Ukraine

Stuck
AMBER WEISS-WHITLEY
Kazakhstan

A Camel’s Revenge
BONNIE LANDES PURA
Iran

Caroline
MARK LEWANDOWSKI
Poland

Fiesta!
JEREMY BEER
Kazakhstan

Losing Veronica
JENNIFER MELEANA HEE
Bulgaria

Bakhshesh and the Western Psyche
JOHN KRAUKSOPF
Iran

Part Five
SUSTAINABLE PEACE

The Power of Tradition—The Peril of Exclusion
MARTIN B. TRACY
Turkey

Acknowledgments
About the Editor

Sample chapter


The Dead Pig

by Brian Fassett

Brian discovers the Bulgarian meaning of “pigging out.”

I was going to call this piece, “How pigs caused the demise of the Ottoman Empire,” but I decided that the story I wanted to tell wasn’t really about the Ottoman Empire or its inevitable demise, though a few Bulgarians I know might beg to differ. This story is about the necessary, and maybe even religious, demise of not just one, but thousands of pigs every fall in Bulgaria.

Bulgarians have an almost religious connection with pigs. Many believe that it is the pig that kept their culture alive during the 500 years of Turkish domination. The Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria was ruthless. Soldiers would terrorize the local people, trying to break their spirit. They came into towns, killed the men, raped all the women, and took the children, or at least the boys, to brainwash them and turn them into warriors. Years later, they would send those grown-up boys back to their home-towns with explicit instructions to kill their parents or grandparents or siblings. When the Turks were busy raping and pillaging, as if that wasn’t enough insult and injury, they also made it a practice to leave the Bulgarians with nothing to eat. They would burn their crops and their granaries. They would kill livestock, or take it to feed the hungry troops. But the one thing that the Turks would never touch, as devout Muslims, were the pigs. Since pork, as a food is impure, they left the pigs behind. In doing so, they allowed the Bulgarian culture to survive.

It felt like we took more than a few steps back in time our first autumn in Bulgaria when we went to the village to visit this age-old tradition of killing a pig, and in that act, revisiting the demise of the Ottoman Empire, paying homage to the animal that would feed the family for the entire winter. My wife Kate and I became witness to a medieval experience that could be described as nothing less than a complete cultural difference. We were invited over for na gosti (literally to be guests) for the big annual koleda (pig killing) at Tanya’s house in the village. This was a big deal, as Tanya had promised Kate she would do her nails, we were going to eat lots of Bulgarian food, and we were going to witness a fundamentally important annual event. We were invited for the killing at 9 A.M. sharp, but opted for a delayed arrival of 10 A.M. to reap the benefit of their hard work without having to witness the animal’s death sentence.

Walking through their front gate, I felt like we walked back in time several hundred years. The surroundings were modern, relatively speaking, by Bulgarian standards, but we were in the middle of what was immediately apparent as a very important and timeless ritual. It was obvious that the men and the women had their separate roles, in this place where gender defines a lot more than which bathroom you use and who cleans up after dinner. The men, about seven of them—cousins, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, and sons—were hard at work hovering over the dead pig, each with his own task. Only one man used the torch, and only one man wielded the ax. Another did nothing but the skinning. The women were also hard at work, three generations of this small family, all going in different directions, playing their own part. All the actions were centered on the fact that the family had come together that day to kill, eat, and preserve that pig.

When we laid our eyes on the 300-pound beast, it stopped us in our tracks. It had already been killed, was lying very unnaturally on its back on the cold cement with its thick skin yellowing with death. The passing of time was stiffening its legs with rigor mortis, stretching them skyward. The men looked big and strong compared to the women, but didn’t compare in size with the dead animal at their feet. They were wrestling it around to gain access to both its tail and ears so they could be removed first. These parts were quickly thrown on the hot charcoal grill to serve as sustenance for the rest of the day’s activities. As they walked from side to side, their black rubber boots sloshed through the bloody water at their feet. Noticing that, it made me realize the ground all around us was red with pig blood; even I was standing in it. But not even the blood that had spilled out onto the ground went to waste. The family’s matriarch, Baba Tana, took a broom and dustpan and swept up that bloody water and poured it into the potted plants next to the front door of the house.

So, there we were, staring at this naked 300-pound beast. Its glassy eyes had rolled back in its head, as it was lifted onto a raised wooden platform. Six or seven Bulgarian men were huddling around it, all offering suggestions about what to do next, and who should be the one to do it. They were like a bunch of high school football players preparing for their next big move. But not without taking a break to have some rakiya, the local plum brandy that seems to be the crown jewel lubricant of all important social functions in this country. With some grunting and grumbling, and a swig or two of red wine to dilute the rakiya, things started to happen very quickly.

After the ears and tail disappeared to the grill, the next task at hand was burning all the hair off of this big lifeless blob so they could gain access to (and eat) the skin, and everything that lay beneath it. That immediately filled the air with a thick white smoke, and the unmistakable smell of burning hair and flesh. That smell, once it gets into your nostrils, gets burned into your olfactory library, never to be forgotten. You can almost taste it, and it sits heavy on your clothes until they get scrubbed clean. If anyone has taken a propane torch to pig hair, you know that it doesn’t just burn off quickly and easily. It takes a few passes to get that wiry, course white hair burned down to the skin. But, in doing so, the skin got charred black from the flame that is big enough and hot enough to be used to burn the fields in spring.

The women were working the grill, cooking up the ears and tail, once they had been chopped into little pieces. The women were also answering to the demands of the men, though they were both equally busy, scooping up the last of the coagulating blood off the ground right outside the kitchen door where all of this was taking place. They were preparing the work area, the knives, and the jars that would eventually hold the meat, fat, and bones for storage through the winter and into the next year.

As the obvious foreigners, and self-appointed guests of honor, we took a little break to enjoy a “typical” breakfast on this day of pig killing. This was an important day, and although Kate and I had both, unknowingly, already eaten breakfast once today, we would have to be polite and eat again. We were served bowls of room temperature chicken and rice soup that quickly told our taste buds that the main ingredients were vine-gar and salt. The soup was a unique enough flavor that it was to our advantage to have a drink to wash it down. We needed a chaser. And, as in every Bulgarian social event, there was more than enough of everything. Some fresh, room-temperature orange soda came first, and then we were served coffee and tea, since it was breakfast after all.

If the temperature and taste of vinegar wasn’t enough to encourage Kate to revive her vegetarian eating habits, finding the neck, gizzard and a foot of an old laying hen in her bowl of soup quickly made her decide that I got to finish her portion. We had been invited over specifically for this meal, so Kate wasn’t about to let us leave without cleaning up our plates. So, on top of my two servings of less than appetizing “chicken” soup, we were offered some traditional banitsa—my favorite Bulgarian breakfast food—a filo dough, egg, and cheese pastry. A torturous thing. My favorite food gets served after I had just finished choking down two bowls of vinegar chicken neck soup, which washed down the grilled pig tail that was served before we even set foot in the house. This was the saving grace of the meal. But you can’t just have vinegar chicken soup, orange cola, coffee and banitsa on the day the family kills a pig, you have to have some cabbage salad with it too.

I proceeded to stuff myself with the cabbage salad and banitsa that had been prepared just for us, all the while telling myself the banitsa would be my saving grace, diluting the undoubtedly adverse effect that soup would soon have on my digestive system. We later learned that there is a defined order for this particular breakfast, which, of course we didn’t follow. The soup is first, with the orange soda and cabbage salad, then on to the banitsa. All of this is supposed to be washed down with coffee or tea. But where does the grilled pig ear fit in? Maybe it didn’t count because we had eaten that outside, standing next to and staring at the animal whose ears had just been cut off.

About the time we realized that we could not do any more justice to the “breakfast” that had been served to us, we made our way back outside to check the progress on dispatching the dead pig. The large torch that had been singeing the hair and blackening the skin was actually cooking the skin just enough to loosen it on the fat layer between the skin and the muscle so it could be more easily peeled off. It was almost like peeling an over-ripe peach. But unlike the peach skin, the pigskin was not thrown away. The pig had been propped up on boards, so it was off the ground, with its feet straight up in the air, legs stiff. The smoke and smell of burning flesh still assaulted our noses and burned our eyes; it was apparent something significant was about to happen.

Of course, when you have a dead hairless pig lying on its back on a board with its feet in the air, there are three obvious next steps. One, carve a deep cross into the chest of the pig between the front legs, and fill it with salt. Two, start peeling away the warm, slippery skin in big patches, starting in the pits of the front legs and the flank, all the while eating the first pieces dipped in that salt. Three, cut the legs off at the knee so the pigs feet can be saved for flavoring a soup or some other dish. As the exposed skin was peeled off, it was dipped in the salty cross, rubbed over the gelatinous liquid pooling in the exposed knees, and eaten with great relish.

Watching the way each of the men took turns cutting off that perfect piece of skin, smashing it into the salt laden cross, smearing it across the knee bones, and eating it, I decided just made sense that I should also have some pig skin and rakiya to finish off my “second” breakfast of the day. And, if that wasn’t enough to eat, the ears and tail were ready almost immediately after. These parts had been singed so there was no hair, but everything else was completely intact: skin, fat, cartilage, and a little bit of tailbone. The breakfast of champions. No meat, just skin, fat, and cartilage.

Not to let the party die, there was still a whole pig to dismember, so they brought out a few knives, a hammer, a hatchet, and an ax and went to work, all the while eating salty pig skin and pieces of the ears and tail. With the tools ready and food in their stomachs, the next task at hand was getting the body cavity opened and then getting the head dismantled. With seven sets of skillful hands, the work went quickly. One man set to work skinning the parts of the head that were accessible in preparation for chopping it off with a hatchet. A few other men were busy disemboweling the quickly cooling carcass. There was a large metal tub brought in close so all of the organs could be transferred into it without touching the ground. At the same time, the head—now completely skinned—was first split in half and then taken completely off the animal with three or four very strong and skillful whacks with the hatchet, which looked like it could have been 500 years old.

Having participated in butchering many animals myself, I was particularly interested in the care and attention that were going into the entrails. At home, these were the first things to be discarded, but not here. The kidneys were immediately pulled from the jumbled mess of guts and fat. They were split and sent to the grill for cooking. Next was the liver; after that the bright green, teardrop-shaped gallbladder was skillfully removed. Then the heart was split and sent to the grill, which by this time was full with all the other parts. The only part that was immediately discarded was the gallbladder. The lungs were the next things to be pulled from the mix, carefully separated from everything else and laid into a metal bucket with a lid. The stomach was tied off at both ends and the additional fat that was clinging to it was pulled off, but not discarded. Finally, the intestines were checked over meticulously. By the time all of this was done, there was nothing left in the big metal pan. Though I wasn’t able to get an explanation as to what would happen to everything, it was obvious that there would be virtually no waste.

While one set of hands was working through the entrails, piece by piece, others began cleaning the body cavity and cutting off all the fat and meat that was not closely connected to bone. These parts went to a small stump where another man set to work carefully separating all the meat and fat, though I am not sure why as we had equal portions of each in our lunch two hours later. By this time, I had eaten my fill of grilled ear and tail, and Kate had watched as much as she could stomach of the process. After all, she didn’t want to spoil her appetite for lunch.

It was such an interesting thing seeing these men, squatting down close to the dead pig, talking excitedly, drinking rakiya and dissecting the animal with one hand while eating with the other. There was no second thought given to switching hands from time to time, which I saw more than a couple of them do. Though they each had their own roles, and distinct characteristics, they were all also one. They were all big, brash Bulgarians; each wearing his faded blue communist work clothes. There was more than sixty years age difference between the youngest and the oldest, but their ages didn’t differentiate them any more than their actions did.

They were all wearing the same clothes, they were all focused on the same task, and it forced me to think back to a time in their history when this was an act of survival instead of an act of tradition. A time when saving every part of the animal was a necessity so they could feed themselves and their families, so they wouldn’t starve to death at the hands of the Turks. These men were so close to their ancestors, and it seemed like they were doing it for them, sitting on their haunches, arguing about what part to dismember next, and starting to eat the animal on the spot. They did all of this not because they were hungry or might lose the food to predators, but because it was the way they had always done it. This one dead pig would undoubtedly become food for the whole winter, and would keep the traditions and rituals (that might seem out of place on a cement patio in the middle of the village) alive for another year.

Back inside we went, to continue with our na gosti, literally a time to come and visit. Na gosti has a start time, but never an ending time, being an age-old cultural tradition where a clock is completely irrelevant. Time, relative to a na gosti, is defined by either daylight or darkness and always revolves around food and conversation. And though we had eaten breakfast twice already that day, it was time for our lunch. We began to see more plates of food coming toward us, mocking our full stomachs and our inability to say, “no thank you.” These were heavy with the spoils of the dead pig: chunks of liver, heart, kidney, and meat were being served just two hours after our last meal. These delicacies were meant to be eaten slowly, while enjoying a conversation, some rakiya of course, and some music blaring from the TV that was always on in the background.

The short break between meals gave our hostess enough time to smoke a few cigarettes and prepare the table for an afternoon of sitting and talking. Since we had been in country less than four months, we reviewed some Bulgarian vocabulary so as to not sound less intelligent than that pig out in front of the house. And, though it wasn’t a regular routine of hers, Kate had just enough time to get her fingernails painted by a friend who had made a special trip to do just that.

I allowed myself to get lost in thought, as my language ability wasn’t comparable to Kate’s, and I wanted to reflect on all that we had just observed. I was wondering what stage of dissection the pig was in, and where all the bones would go. Could the gallbladder really be the only thing that didn’t get used? How many quart jars would it take to can 300 pounds worth of pig meat? And how long would you have to cook all of that before it could be canned? Were they going to make soap with the rendered fat like I knew some of the neighbors did? My pig curiosity far outweighed the uneasiness that came from new foods and overfull feeling I had in my stomach. It was also an excuse to get up and move around a little bit before we might be hit with another course of food.

Less than two hours had passed and the pig was gone, the grill was off, and the patio was all cleaned up. The only parts left visible were the two hams hanging from meat hooks off of the grape trellis and a few other random straps of meat. The innards, which were now outards, were spread around in various buckets being soaked in a salt brine solution. The rest of the meat had been boned out and was inside an outbuilding lying on the board in various sized chunks. The fat and bones were nowhere to be found, and the family (men and women still separated) had taken a break to have their lunch, too. The women sat at a small round table on the patio where they had spent all morning cleaning, and the men at a long table in what appeared to be an old restaurant next door. They were enjoying more meat, and of course, rakiya, so they were all smiles, something that is not common here unless someone has just told a joke or they are in the company of close family and friends.

Our third meal of the day was served: some of the fresh pork, which had been cooked with pickled cabbage, and big chunks of fat. We got to sample the prime spoils of the day’s work. And, it was good.

* * *

Brian Fasset served in Bulgaria, B-16, from 2004-06 as a Community and Organizational Development Volunteer. He and his wife Kate served together in Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria. There, he worked with Land Source of Income Foundation, an NGO that provides microcredit loans to Roma (Gypsy) farmers, as well as teaching English. Brian’s favorite English word he learned in Bulgaria is “draggle.” Brian and Kate finished their service as Technical Trainers for the B-20 Volunteers. Back in the U.S., Brian spent three years in microfinance in Portland, Oregon, before becoming a staff development specialist at a local credit union.

About the Author


Jay Chen served as a University English teacher at East Kazakhstan State University in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, from 2005 to 2008 as a member of Kaz-17. Prior to the Peace Corps, Jay received dual degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, in Political Science and Legal Studies. Sometime in his junior year, Jay realized that there was probably much more to life than making money or going on directly to graduate school, and he began to explore the Peace Corps as an option. Coupled with three years of experience tutoring other students in writing, Jay started the year-long application process and was off in a plane to Kazakhstan within a month of his graduation.

During his three years of service, Jay taught university-level English, Academic Reading and Writing, American Culture, and Mandarin Chinese to students training to be foreign language teachers and translators. During this time, Jay introduced his students to the works of J.D. Salinger and George Orwell, established the university’s first English academic writing course, the first English student-run newspaper, and helped the students establish a Student Community Service Corps on campus.

In 2007, Jay extended his service for another year to complete the construction and programming of an Academic Resource Center and Technological Training Facility for the Foreign Languages Department. Jay also worked on women’s development programs in local villages surrounding Ust-Kamenogorsk.

Jay endured -40 degree Siberian winters, developed a taste for horse meat, was tailed by gangsters and government intelligence agents, was charmed by local women and their respective families, and developed a love and respect for the cultures of Central Asia.

Following his service, Jay returned to San Francisco and attended University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where he served as Co-President of the Hastings Public Interest Law Foundation and worked with local non-profit law firms on numerous international human rights legal issues, including applications for asylum and legal status for survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence. In addition to serving on the Pro Bono Committee, Jay encouraged and mentored several other law students to use their skills to contribute to the public interest. He was named the 2009 Sidney Weinstock Public Interest Fellow, as well as recognized as an Outstanding Pro Bono Volunteer by both UC Hastings and the San Francisco Bar Association.

He also spent time in Shanghai, China, working on foreign direct investment and corporate labor matters. In May 2011, Jay received his Juris Doctor from University of California, Hastings, with a concentration in International Law and continues to this day to speak about the work of the Peace Corps as part of the Third Goal. Jay is currently pursuing a career in Washington, D.C. in international development.

SOLAS Awards Banner

Go Around the World

Indie Multi-Stop Trip Planner