When a country (such as Uzbekistan) asks Peace Corps for help, they specify the kind of help they want. Most of PCVs that I met, taught English, a few did business (I posted a web page for some business PCVs who work with a travel agency if you are interested in planning a trip to Uzbekistan). The eighth PCV class who just sold their souls (i.e. just swore in) when I was there, had some health care workers.
At site, I went to the university where Christine taught English. The university made an impression upon me because, one it was empty and two it did not have any toilets.
The university was devoid of students, because during the fall students are required to pick cotton in the fields (to say the least that blew me away).
Way back when, the Soviet leadership decreed that Uzbekistan was to be a cotton producer. Large collective farms were built for the express purpose of growing cotton (they can be seen all over the country). The cotton fields were irrigated by diverting water from the two major rivers that flowed into the Aral Sea. To increase cotton yields, pesticides were dumped on the fields. To say the least, short sighted planning took its toll on the environment and the people.
Most students (some as young as 13) are required to live on communal farms (during cotton) where they have to supply their own food and beddings. I was told students are paid eight Uzbek Som per kg of cotton (talk about earning the big bucks). Most everyone including, teachers, bankers and other professionals are also required to pick cotton, but they do not have to pick cotton every day (lucky them). Talking to the students I found out games are played to boost the supposed yield of cotton they pick (for instance they wet down cotton, and throw rocks into the baskets).
All sorts of jokes are made about cotton. But when I asked (on more than one occasion) if there were any jokes about the current leaders of their country, the conversation usually ended there for a while.
On the evening news, people learn how cotton production is going in each region of the country. The news of cotton production is watched by all with great anticipation because when the years cotton quota is fulfilled, students can go back to school. To reinforce the importance of cotton, Clips otherwise known as music videos are shown extolling the virtues of cotton. The government propaganda seems to work because one girl told me, We pick cotton to help our country. I also heard that some Uzbek students are under the impression that niggers still pick cotton in the States. Wow, is the only thing I could say to the whole concept of cotton. Hey anyone know if it is possible to mail bollweevils?
The current leadership seems to follow the cotton policies instituted by the Soviets. From my point of view, current cotton policies are not beneficial to the environment or the people. If the leadership was smart, they would realize finished high quality cotton products bring in more hard currency than selling raw cotton as a commodity on the open market (in general the long term price trend for raw cotton is down). If the leadership was really creative, they would market cotton tours to rich fat westerners, seeking to loose weight.
In the 80s, Ronald Reagans foreign policy centered on containing evil empire. We in the west were told that we should be concerned about the nuclear arms possessed by the Soviets. With twenty twenty hind sight, I say we should have bombed the Soviet with toilets! Throwing toilets over the wall would have been cheaper than developing technology for the star wars defense initiative, and the toilets would have improved sanitary conditions for individuals behind the former iron curtain.
In the former Soviet Union, Communist officials were preoccupied with building up their political power and protecting their little fiefdoms. Resources, that could have been used to build toilets were diverted to man institutions (such as the military, KGB, local police, etc.) and build items for the military industrial complex.
In Uzbekistan tourists on organized tours and staying in hotels will never experience the joy (or fear) of using a pit. Since I was on PCV home stay tour, I had the opportunity of living like the locals. So one night I happened to consume just a bit too much cheap vodka, (a decent bottle of vodka which I brought home was less than a dollar, but that is not what I was drinking in country), then I tried Nos which is this really shitty chewing tobacco. Basically with that combo, I yakked my guts out, just after staggering out of a cafe.
Crawling into bed, I had the sobering realization that if I had to relieve my self before morning, I would have to drag my butt out of bed, stagger outside past a really big dog (that barely tolerated my presence), through a muddy yard to a pit (that I did not want to fall into) so I could spew out both ends.
As perverse as it may sound, PCVs in Uzbekistan seem to bond by telling their worst experiences with the pits. A common theme of PCVs toilet stories include, having to wipe their asses with smooth rocks, dirt clods, leaves, pages torn out from books, etc. and recanting in vivid detail how various pits looked and smelled. The weird thing is, I actually enjoyed listening to various toilet tales.
As a visitor to Uzbekistan, other than toilet stories, gossip and the inevitable vodka binges, there really is not much to entertain ones self. Thankfully I have learned to bring a pocket sized, short wave radio and some reading material to keep me entertained while on holiday.
At site one of Christines colleagues (a teacher) was in a hospital for kidney stones. So one afternoon it was decided that a visit to the hospital was in order. Having nothing better to do, I tagged along with Christine, Sam (another PCV) and one of the locals who also taught English.
My brief glimpse of Soviet style socialized medical care, was eye opening to say the least. Basically when we arrived at the hospital, we were told that we were not allowed in because visiting was not allowed. The truth was Foreigners were not allowed into the wards (which I peeked into). The ward from what I could see was a big room, with more broken light fixtures than working ones. In the ward were a number of beds and patients in them.
Since we were not allowed in, Christines colleague had to walk down a few floors to the court yard so we could visit. Over listening to the conservation, I learned that patients had to provide their own food, beddings and medicine (talk about no frills medical care). In addition when Christines colleague had to make a phone call, she had to leave the hospital grounds and find someone in the area with a private phone willing to let her use it.
Other insights as to how bad the medical situation is, came from two doctors who work for Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders. Over dinner they mentioned that tuberculosis is pretty common in some parts of Uzbekistan. They worked in a TB clinic in Muynoq (a city formally on the edge of the Aral Sea) using a drug regiment known as DOTS to hopefully contain the disease. I also had a chance to talk to an Uzbek doctor, who mentioned that sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise, in part because of ignorance of how STD are spread.
One last medical insight before I continue with my trip highlights. If you wander around various parts of Uzbekistan you will notice that people, (in the markets, in the transportation centers, etc.) do not wear prescription glasses. The lack of glasses in the general population did not bother me until one day when I hired a Damas (a Korean made mini-van) to drive over some mountains and through the desert. During the whole journey, the Damas driver hunched over the steering wheel looking down at the road, it seems he had the eye sight of Mr. Magoo.
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