Once we got our medical clearance, the pace quickened. Here’s another deleted scene from our Pre-departure days.
The phone call telling me I had cleared the final medical hurdle came in February 2004 while I was visiting my grandchildren in Ohio. Woody’s call came a few weeks later.
By mid-April we’d gotten the call from the Placement Office: we were going to Kazakhstan, departure in early June. Peace Corps gave us ten days to accept the offer; we took two.
I sent out a mass email to my Contact List: “What do you know about Kazakhstan?” I asked about 125 people. Twenty-five responded with short notes that they’d been there recently, hiking (or knew someone who had). One of Woody’s colleagues, Judy Kuster, sent us the email of her brother-in-law who, with his wife, had retired to Almaty! What luck. I wrote them right away.
We took Merlin, our resuced greyhound, and Molly, our stray Philadelphia street cat, to their respective foster homes in Maryland. We had about five weeks until departure.
In the remaining few weeks we made a feverish dash to learn what we could about a country that neither of us had heard of before. As part of the former Soviet Union, Kazakhstan had been embedded in that area of the world I had known for most of my life as Russia. Then, with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Kazakhstan had melded with five former Soviet states into what the collective the US press called the “Stans.”
Now I was to learn what a distinct and independent country the largest one of them was.
Of initial help was a small booklet, The Peace Corps Welcomes You to Kazakhstan, which we received in the mail. In it and the half dozen web sites it directed us to, we learned that Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, half the size of the United States.
We read that depending upon where we’d eventually be placed within the country, we could expect very hot summers (as in 40 degrees, C) with mild winters or very cold winters (-40 degrees F) with mild summers. How to pack became the new challenge.
The section on “Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior” included, “In Kazakhstan, ‘People take pride in dressing well.’” I hit the clothing catalogues and had a grand time after reading, “Professional dress, especially in a business setting, is more formal than in Silicon Valley in the United States.”
From what I was reading, I’d never know the majority of people in this country of 12 million were Muslim. Kazakh women, I read, “Are very fashion conscious. . . . Women usually wear skirts with shirts or sweaters or dresses.”
I hadn’t worn a dress in years, and took special notice of this sentence: “Be advised that most schools do not approve of women wearing pants in the classroom.”
But all was not smooth those last two weeks. While Molly had found a great home (though she’d now be an indoor cat), Merlin didn’t fare as well. After three weeks in his new home, it had become clear to all that the alpha dog already there was not going to accept Merlin.
We scrambled to find another foster home. Someone willing to take a purebred greyhound, a former racer and registered champion, a canine of such majestic dignity that we never could take him anywhere without people stopping to tell us how magnificent he was. “Yes, thank you,” we’d always say. But we already knew.
Who wouldn’t want to foster such a magnificent creature?
My family, for one. My mom couldn’t take on the added responsibility for such a long time, and I knew that. And my sons now had babies and adult dogs and we didn’t want a repeat of the last foster home.
Then a former graduate student of Woody’s back in Philadelphia and his wife stepped up. He’d heard of our situation through that grapevine that graduate students have and contacted Woody, offering to take Merlin.
I said good-bye and Woody drove him up.
A week later I called the couple. I wanted to thank them. I knew they’d love him; everyone did; and I knew he’d fit in fine. There was no alpha dog in this home. I just wanted to hear it myself.
Instead, I learned there’d been a grave misunderstanding. The couple, the wife really, would take him only if they could keep him permanently.
In the world of rescued greyhounds, that meant a legal signing over of ownership, more than I’d bargained for back when I’d first agreed to go. Certainly more than I was prepared to decide so suddenly. I needed time. I recall handing the phone to Woody, saying, “I can’t talk to them any longer.”
Heartbroken, I cried for two days. I considered staying home. I lashed out in anger at this naive young woman who had told me she knew better what my dog needed. I sobbed and I wailed, but I never doubted Merlin would have a good home if I could just let him go.
And, though they did eventually return him to us when we got home, I left for Peace Corps with mixed feelings.
Again, I simply stepped forward rather than turn around.
How about you? Have the big moves in your life gone smoothly? Or (more likely) were there last minute snafus you hadn’t seen coming? How did you handle them?
Interested in reading At Home on the Kazakh Steppe? I hope so.
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Want to read more? I’m over on Kathy Pooler blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey, this whole week with a post called (serendipitously) Letting Go. Come on over and join the conversation.