This past week has been an emotional roller coaster and a whirl wind of events. I am barely sleeping, and passing through the days wishing time could just slow down. Peace Corps Kazakhstan programs were suspended on Wednesday November 16th, 2011. I was sitting in a concert hall being a judge for 17 different schools who had 5th graders memorize and recite poems in English. As I was laughing at their poems that they didn’t understand, but were delivering very nicely I happened to glance at my phone and see six missed calls from my regional manager. I was alarmed, and ran out into the hall to call her back. The judges were deliberating on who would win the poetry contest and I knew I had about a minute before I had to present awards. My regional manager picked up and in a panicked tone asked if I was in a place where no one could see my face. At this point I was very alarmed as to where this phone call was going. She read me three paragraphs and said not to ask questions. The paragraphs said as of today Peace Corps Kazakhstan is going to be suspended etc etc. All volunteers are to say their good byes and close down their sites. We are to not talk to anyone until after our schools have been informed. She said that we would get more information in the coming days about getting to Almaty where we will go through Close of Service procedures. I was in absolute shock. I tried to ask questions and she would not answer any. She had to call the rest of the volunteers and read them the same paragraph. I was shaking and felt like I was going to be sick. I had to go back into the concert hall, smile, pass out awards, and act like nothing was wrong. The second I finished handing out the awards I got my coat and walked into the street where I started shaking and freaking out. I called my mom at two am in America to tell her the news. I went home to my village and could not function that night. I was sitting having tea with my host mom and decided I had to tell her. I have lived with her for the past 10 months and I owe her that much to tell her before she gets a call from Peace Corps. She started crying and couldn’t believe it either.
The next day at school I was sitting in the teachers room, I had only slept a few hours the night before and my host mother came in to say that Peace Corps called. All volunteers are leaving and I needed to be in Almaty in five days (including 2 days on the train just to get down there). My heart sank, this was not a dream. I started crying and was surrounded by teachers who were all crying and hugging me. No one could believe it. News travelled fast and everyone came up to me and was so upset. My students found out shortly after. That was the hardest part. I was sitting in my 6th grade class and all of the girls were bawling their eyes out. I was taking turns hugging them while they were crying on my shoulder. They all then had me sign their English dictionaries so they could always remember me. They said they want to take me around my village the next day so I can take pictures and always remember it. They said they would come in early (they study in the second shift) during the first shift. I agreed, but did not think this would happen.
The next day I arrived at school with two duffles of clothes, shoes, slippers (basically everything I owned) and passed it out to teachers and students. They all wanted an object to remember me by. As I was thinking, ok, I can go home now and start packing I saw my 30 6th graders peak around the corner and come running at me. They were ready to take me around the village. It was heart wrenching. They all actually came in early and took me around Bishkul. We took pictures in front of the school, in front of birch trees, fir trees, the local government building, the culture house, and in our town square. Every time we were walking to the next location I had students hanging all on me three students deep in every direction and actually fighting over who got to stand closest to me. They did rotations. They then all walked me home to my house and continued on their way to attend lessons.
The next day I was supposed to be packing, but instead I had students coming to my house to bring me going away presents and drink tea. Their going away presents included lots of enormous stuffed animals and magnets, easily packable. The best part of it all was sitting in my kitchen drinking tea with groups of different students and talking about good memories from summer camp or what they want to do in the future. I, also, really did not want to pack because this just didn’t seem real so the distractions were welcomed.
Monday, quickly, came around and I showed up to school on my last day in Bishkul. The entire school gathered in the auditorium and had a scripted concert to say their good byes to me. There were kind words from a selection of students in different grades, there was dancing (I was called on to dance the national dance in the middle of students while everyone videotaped it on their camera phones), I was serenaded by all of the male teachers in different songs they had learned in English, and I was presented with many different Kazakhstani gifts. In this culture you must be tough and strong and not cry and I was doing my best to hold back tears as I saw students crying. After the concert we had one last photo shoot and then headed to the teachers room where all the teachers laid out a spread of food. They did toasts to me in Russian to say good bye. One particular toast that stuck in my mind was from the big, tough military Russian teacher who told me the second I step on American soil I must give my parents a big thumbs up for raising someone like me. The teachers said they don’t want any other Peace Corps volunteer in the future, only me, and when I have kids, my kids. I strangely walked away from school, dombra in hand, and entered my house for the last time. I had my last dinner, my last cup of tea,and headed to the train station. My Counterpart Zada, young teachers I had befriended, Russian host sister Ludmilla, and host mother all gathered on the tracks near my wagon. We said our good byes and embraced in a big hug, their fur coats overtaking me as they began to cry and pushed me on the wagon to get my journey going. I looked out the window and waved good bye to my home for the last year. I didn’t know how to feel as I got on the 26 hour train ride leaving my village and my friends in Siberia.
All Peace Corps Volunteers had a Close of Service conference in Almaty for five days to tie up all of our loose ends and close out documents. We had sessions on re-entry, re-adjustment, and reverse culture shock upon entering America. I can’t believe I am going back to America. I can’t believe my Peace Corps service is over and I can’t believe how much has happened and changed in the past 15 months in Kazakhstan. I will never forget Kazakhstan and all of the generous people I met. I will never forget my students, because they are the ones that made every day so special. They are the ones that made it worthwhile to get out of bed when it was still dark out, put on as many layers as possible and my floor length down coat, to trek through ice and snow to school just so I could give them high fives, teach some English, and get to know them. I will always remember my host mother and how we would drink tea and chat every evening, about how we would work in the garden together and how every time I wanted to share part of my culture with her by cooking she would take over and tell me I was doing something wrong. I will always remember the many nights my host sister Ludmila and I talked about what we want to do with our futures and how we envision each others’ lives to pan out. Bishkul was a great little Siberian village and it will have seemingly endless impacts on me for the rest of my life.