The last time I left the country for more than 6 weeks or so was the four-month Pacific Rim Studies excursion I undertook in 2001, including a little personal travel thereafter. As a part of the academic requirements, I read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien to compliment the time we spent in Vietnam. For those who haven’t read it, it encompasses the tangible things American soldiers carried with them on tour during the American excursion into Southeast Asia, like photos and letters from loved ones, but went way beyond to encompass the less tangible emotional baggage they carried due to trauma experienced in combat and the burden it bore as they did or didn’t reintegrate into their communities after coming home. A good read, for sure and one that came to mind in my ever-narrowing examination of my relationship to stuff.
The majority of the final seven weeks before I came to Kyrgyzstan, I was consumed with taking a fearless and searching inventory of my material possessions, which, when you over think everything as I do, naturally becomes an internal process in addition to the agonizing over stuff versus space.
First, there was all that stuff in the 5X12X9 storage unit—that part of my former life in which I occupied a single dwelling of my own. Then there was the amazing amount of stuff I managed to accumulate in the one bedroom that was the core of my universe for the last four years. Then there was the stuff that would go into my two bags for my two years of Peace Corps service. Then, naturally, there’s all the mental and emotional stuff that arises through such a comprehensive packing and purging process.
A month before I left, I slimmed down the things in my storage unit just a little and pre-paid the rent on my unit for the duration of my Peace Corps service. A week before I left, I packed the remaining of my worldly possessions and, in an amazing act of storage Tetris, neatly stacked those items in just about all of the remaining space in my unit. Now I was pretty much down to the two bags I’d be living out of for the next two years. Except that the last 48 hours before my departure, I was still sorting, packing, and filtering as I’d been doing on one level or another for at least the last year. Only now it was getting more frantic. I had all the stuff I wanted, only one of my bags was grossly overweight and the other stuffed so full it could not accommodate any items from the heavy one. But this was it, I had little more time to be deliberating over the value of my stuff. I soon needed to take my two bags to the airport to travel first to join my staging mates in Washington DC, then on a multi-leg journey to the Kyrgyz Republic. Despite my best efforts, I was still up until 1 o’clock in the morning before I was due to fly out, deliberating, sorting, packing, weighing, re-packing, and ultimately pulling several winter items and the duplicate bags of things I had split into both bags and tossing them into a garbage bag with instructions to my roommates to mail it to me in August when I get to my permanent site and closer to the time I might actually need them. Though I’d condensed my life into two bags, they were still overweight and cumbersome. In a state of disbelief, I was ferried to the airport to catch my flight and begin my journey to Peace Corps service. Checking my baggage, I warned that one bag was well overweight and dug out my credit card to pony up the payment—I knew it was 20 pounds over and didn’t figure there’d be much room for negotiation. “Yeah, this is a lot of stuff,” the agent quipped. “It’s my life for the next two years—I’m leaving for Peace Corps service,” I explained. “In that case,” he replied, “I’ll waive your baggage fees.” I would not be so lucky in DC departing for my international itinerary, paying a large tuition in the school of life fee for having too much stuff.
The relentless movement from one place to another got a bit easier once my 115 pounds of checked baggage disappeared on the belt at the check-in desk at Dulles airport in DC, not to be seen again until I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. My carry-on, however, in the race to pack all my stuff, grew in weight and complexity. During the course of this 4-day journey to arrive at my initial training site, I passed through 6 airports, including security at all but the last and a myriad of other queues at each, not to mention all the cars, busses, and airport trams around each transfer point and endless airport hallways & concourses I carried those carry-ons. They comprised multiple criss-crossing straps around my torso, each bearing low-hanging fruit in the shape of a sack of Ghirardelli chocolate for gifting and a few other miscellaneous items, a laptop bag stuffed to capacity, a purse, and a yoga mat. In that four-day period, I must have peeled and re-applied those appendages from my torso a hundred times, often with haste in a hurry to get to a gate or get settled or off a plane quickly, haphazardly finding the nearest space in the overhead bin each piece might fit in and trying to quickly retrieve them and arrange them quickly on my person in a way that narrow airplane aisles reasonably accommodate.
Simply getting to Kyrgyzstan was an arduous adventure and I was exhausted before we even arrived in Istanbul for our five-hour layover. It was in Istanbul that began a series of lost and damaged stuff that stoked the fires of my ongoing relationship to stuff. Joining numerous others of my migrating soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteers where they had collapsed in a large corner of a random departure gate, I grabbed a piece of floor to settle in with some media on my phone and recover from the travel fatigue and rest up for the last leg of the journey. Reaching into my bag to retrieve my battery pack to feed my phone, I had the horrifying realization that it had been left on the seat in the airplane when we transferred in Frankfurt—the first casualty of this transition. This, actually, on the heels of the second zipper on my laptop bag breaking in the hotel the morning we left Washington DC.
Some ten hours later, we finally landed in Bishkek. It was 3 AM local time and 4 days since I had left California. Though a good chunk of my transition to Peace Corps life was complete, it was not over and I’d still have more stuff to deal with. Even for having passed through Istanbul, an unusual number of us lost luggage on that flight, lucky me included. One of my two bags, the expensive, overloaded one, waited for me at the luggage carousel, the other did not arrive. Emerging from baggage claim with my other baggage-less peers, we were greeted, or rather, overwhelmed by a large crowd of current PCVs, cheering our arrival, waving signs, whooping, and hollering. The reception was great, but I was definitely in a headspace that made it hard to enjoy—I wanted my stuff.
Filing reports with the airline, we boarded two coach buses and departed straightaway on a four-hour bus trip to the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan, Lake Issyk-Kul, where most of the country flocks in the summertime for vacation. Since our arrival about doubled the number of PCVs in-country the moment we landed, and 55 Americans arriving in a single group is kind of a big deal, we had a security escort the whole way. We spent our first 4 days or so in a resort at the lake, sort of recovering from jet lag and jumping into the orientation process to our new lives as Peace Corps Trainees. About two days later, everybody’s missing baggage was located and on its way to join us in Issyk-Kul. Everybody, that is, but mine—of the 110 or so checked bags that came with us, only mine disappeared and was still unaccounted for. Now I really wanted my stuff and had already begun mentally inventorying the things I might never see again and trying to embrace life without them. The upshot was that the suitcase I did have was the larger of the two, the one I paid a huge overweight fee for, and the one that contained most of the important stuff—I had clothes and pretty much all of the extraneous supplies I had packed. But in that missing luggage… I was lamenting the loss of all my lighter, more summery (and yoga) clothing, I had no pajamas (substituted with the resort-supplied robe), some of my extraneous braille supplies were gone (including my favorite LCB-gifted slate), the brand new, unused Nikes I bought for running just before coming were in there, my click ruler, the iPhone 4 I packed as a back-up and all my spare cables & USB adapters, my BookSense audio book player, a few hundred dollars in cash… All of this stuff, I mentally prepared to let go forever, searching to internalize another lesson regarding my relationship to stuff. Meanwhile, in Issyk-Kul, Peace Corps began loading us up with more stuff—a phone (Which I don’t use for inaccessibility reasons), handbooks, paperwork, language books, and by the time we reached Kant, a “medical kit” that encompassed an entire piece of luggage of its own—including an ample array of all the things you’d expect, as well as a large water filter, a bolt of mosquito netting, and health & medical handbooks. I didn’t pay close attention to the recommended packing list, however, I am pretty certain there was not a recommendation to pack a big-ass hole in your luggage to accommodate all the stuff Peace Corps throws at you when you arrive in-country.
As we were leaving Issyk-Kul after 4 days of orientation, I was informed that my bag had been located and I would be reunited with my stuff when we arrived in Kant for the host family matching ceremony and dispersal to our training villages. I was thrilled to be reunited with my stuff, but saddened to find the likely cause of delay in its return—the luggage carousel or some other large piece of machinery along the way took a large bite out of the side of the day pack, that, I would find as I unpacked and used my things over time, had damaged some things inside—my laptop fan, an organizing bag I had odds and ends in, a bent plug on a charger. Settling into my small, but private, room at the village of Kraznaya Rechka with the family that would host me for a total of ten weeks during my Pre-Service Training, the zipper on a pencil case I brought promptly broke and I discovered that I somehow left an entire gallon-sized Ziploc bag, mostly containing oral hygiene luxuries in Issyk-Kul, yet another casualty in my world of stuff. It was this missing item, strangely, that caught me at just the wrong moment—still a little exhausted, disoriented, not sleeping on a normal schedule yet, and all the other adjustments that would still take much time—food, climate, cultural norms—that sent me into a state of panic. The wisdom of hindsight makes clear that it was not, of course, just the loss of this one item, but the snowball effect of everything leading up to it and how, on a deeper level, this was not about stuff, but rather, about loss of control. This is more about psychological stuff. Fortunately, there was just enough space in my room to roll out and comfortably use my yoga mat.
I’ve been in Kyrgyzstan for three months now—an officially sworn-in Volunteer for more than a month. I’ve moved in with my permanent host family in Bishkek and live in a tiny room (smaller than the last one)in a small house, two-thirds of which has been under construction for the whole six weeks I have lived here. Construction will be done “in about two weeks,” they have told me since my arrival. In the meantime, three adults and three children (a fourth adult that should be here, but there just isn’t space, will re-join the household when construction is complete) share the three small rooms that comprise the one-third of the house that is currently livable space. There isn’t room enough for me to take but one large step in any direction from the center of my room, but I have little to complain about—I have the largest, most private space in the house, taking up about 25% of the currently livable space. Another 25% is something that passes for a kitchen at the moment, and the other half is the “living room,” also the bedroom of the other two adults and their three children. And with a lock on my door, I can create a clear boundary with the 3- and 5-year-olds. The infant is starting to scoot around and will pick up a proper crawl any day now, so all the more important to be able to lock my door if I want to get any work done at home. And of course, I can secure my stuff. Securing my mental stuff will require more effort—no room here to roll out the yoga mat. Fortunately, my office is a twelve minute walk from my home, a recently and beautifully renovated space in an old, run-down factory building. I have a key and usually have the place to myself. With the moving of a few tables, I have a private yoga oasis on demand. My bedroom is perhaps better thought of as a meditation chamber.
Kyrgyzstan is one of those places where they can fix just about anything and part of Peace Corps life is doing a lot when you only have a little. My laptop bag still carries my laptop, the pencil case stays home not used much but still containing pens & pencils, the bent prong on my BookSense charger was gently pushed back into place and does its job, when the guys were installing the electrical in our home, I finagled a strip of electrical tape to bandage the portion of insulation around the wires that had been damaged and discovered that my laptop fan limps along on two of its three fans (and I have been known to cool it further with my hand-powered fan I bought to combat Bishkek’s searing temperatures—it also, has broken and I improvised a repair with a key ring), and I have already been referred to a good shoe repair place nearby that might just be able to stitch a piece of canvas into the gaping hole on the side of my luggage’s day pack. Managing a family and household in a limited space, enduring the myriad inconveniences of living in a house under construction, especially when the front door and bathroom are on the other side of it from the livable space (no door on the bathroom for about two weeks now, and it is the only source of running water indoors), and no washing machine for the last two weeks (a luxury I am clearly spoiled to have) is annoying to say the least. Fortunately, nothing is permanent; I breathe deeply and do my best to let go of my mental stuff and wait to see what changes bring.