It was only my third day in Kazakhstan, but it was an important one. It was the day volunteers were taken home by our host families, the people we would live with during our three months of training in villages around the city of Almaty. A nervous energy filled the air as we packed and repacked our belongings, trying unsuccessfully to find a place for the water distiller and medical kits given to us by the Peace Corps. We all dressed in our Sunday best, whispering and gossiping like nervous girls about to go on their first date.
Only, we had more to fear than bad movies, stale popcorn, and sloppy kisses.
Most of the families arrived together, sharing rides in vans and cars whenever possible. Waiting on the steps of the sanatorium, I looked at every person, every family, wondering which one would come and get me. One by one I watched my friends get located by their host families and taken away, but I still hadn’t been found.
For that eternity of waiting, not being picked up was almost as frightening as being picked up. Like being last-picked for the kickball team in gym, only instead of playing a game I was to be whisked away by people I didn’t know speaking a language that I couldn’t understand.
At last I saw them, my new host father and sister, being led up by one of the staff members. The man was about my height and somewhat plump. He had a pale complexion and round, European eyes; had I not been in Kazakhstan, I would have thought him German.
“Good afternoon,” I said in Russian, holding out my hand which he shook with a firm grip. “My name is Amber.”
“My name is Sergei,” he smiled. Some of the tension in my shoulders dissipated. No one could smile like that and be a bad person, right? “This is my daughter, Anastasia.”
A thin wisp of a girl with long brown hair looked up with a shy smile. It was difficult for me to guess her age. She was so small and skinny that I thought pre-teen, but the mature look in her eyes said otherwise.
“Hello,” she said in English.
And with that, Sergei grabbed my luggage and we started walking to his red Volkswagen van.
There were about ten other people huddling around the vehicle, pushing in luggage and cramming into the three rows of seats. My host father was a driver, and had agreed to give four other families a lift. I rode shotgun.
I’m not ashamed to admit the complete overwhelming sense of fear that I felt as I rode away in that big red van, wondering if I was going to live with serial killers or if I would be sold into slavery or if they would just steal my things and leave me on the side of the road to die. I didn’t know how to contact anyone; I couldn’t use the phone and didn’t know any numbers to call even if I did. I had no idea where I was or where I was going.
If I did manage to escape from whatever terror my mind was imagining, I had no language skills to ask someone for help. Saying my name and good afternoon had exhausted my vocabulary. Literally, the overweight smiling man driving the red van could do anything with me that he wanted, and I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.
At that moment I could feel the shattering of an illusion that had deceived me for the entirety of my life. Growing up, I believed that my parents had control of everything, that they would keep me safe. As a teenager, I had taken that control for myself and was the master of my life and destiny. Nothing happened to me that I didn’t plan or couldn’t influence in some way. I was the boss of my life and I knew it.
Really, I had never had control; I only thought that I did. At any time a drunk driver could have killed me, a serial killer could have targeted me, lightning could have struck me, any of a thousand things could have happened that were 100 percent out of my sphere of control. This was not an easy realization, and I fought it as long as I could. I had to have control, didn’t I? Wasn’t that what I had been taught?
When that car drove away from the sanatorium, I could no longer buy into that illusion. Neither did the Peace Corps. Oh, they took steps to try and have as much control as possible. But if my new host father decided to shoot me and bury me in the backyard to fertilize the strawberries, neither me nor the Peace Corps would have been able to stop him. That was truly a scary thought and one I have never forgotten.
My future was in their hands entirely; I would just have to trust them.
I glanced over at Sergei from time to time as we rode away from the sanatorium, and his expression was serious, his eyes focused ahead, though the volunteers and their host families in the back seats kept up a steady stream of conversation.
The road wound down and around the foothills of the mountain, dirt for the most part but fading into pavement as we descended. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the mountains and the lush viridian grass that carpeted the slope, speckled here and there with blossoms and tall, majestic trees. The sky was a little clearer that day, and snow-capped peaks were visible in the distance.
The hum of conversation in the van was comforting in that it made the silence in the front seat less awkward. I attempted a conversation.
“Where’s your mom?” I asked the daughter whose name I couldn’t pronounce. She sat on a consol between Sergei and me; it didn’t look comfortable. Still, she had said something in English so I was hopeful.
Her eyes were wide as she looked at me and shook her head, moving perceptibly closer to her father.
Brows furrowing, I struggled to remember what I had read in the Learn Russian in 60 Minutes lesson I had brought with me from home. Finally it came.
“Mom?” I asked in broken Russian. “Where?”
“Она дома, дома,” Sergei answered.
My incomprehension must have been clear because my host sister made a similar face to the one I had a moment ago as I struggled with my memory. “Home,” she said. “Doma.”
“Doma?” I repeated. “Does that mean home?”
She smiled and nodded. I sighed, repeating the word several times in order to stick it in my mind. This was a useful word; one I would most likely need.
My host father looked at me, then pointed at the mountains. “Gorey,” he stated, smiling.
The snow in his hair was reminiscent of the mountain peaks. I smiled back – a lopsided, confused, but hopeful smile – and nodded.
“Gorey,” he repeated, gesturing again.
Oh, I thought. He’s telling me the name of the mountains. I liked this game. “Gorey?” I said, pointing at the mountains.
A big, satisfied grin exploded across his face, like a parent when a young child accomplishes something surprising. “Gorey, Gorey,” he chuckled.
Equally exultant, I turned to a volunteer behind me. “They call these the Gorey mountains,” I explained, feeling like a genius. About a month later, I would learn that the Russian word “Горы” literally meant mountains in English and wasn’t the name of the chain of mountains as I had thought. It wasn’t one of my brighter moments.
When we entered the village proper and began dropping off volunteers at different houses, I tried to keep track of where I was and where everyone was in relation to me, but it quickly became apparent that this was an impossible feat. Every road to me looked like the one I had ridden on before – dirt and gravel streets lined by a canal and full of mud-brick houses trimmed in blue. There were a few paved roads, but not enough to help me get a grasp on any real landmark.
Mostly there was dust and pot holes.
As silence slowly settled over the van with each decrease in passengers, I became likewise increasingly nervous. I was certain that I couldn’t find my way anywhere if my life depended on it, which I was worried it might. The language game had been fun, but it also made more apparent just how dependent I was on the two people sitting next to me. It was an uncomfortable, chest-tightening feeling.
We pulled up to a house – tan and red brick with a blue gate – and Sergei cut the engine.
Squaring my shoulders, I took a deep breath, putting into it the fear and confusion and paranoia I felt. Then I exhaled, opened the van door, and let go of the reins on my life.