By Brandon Sheaffer
On a Peace Corps tour in Kyrgyzstan
I lived in Mammoth for almost a decade before moving to a country most people knew nothing about.
For two years, I lived in a small village in rural Kyrgyzstan. I was the only American. I was the only white person. I occupied a bedroom inside my host family’s house, and I lived in it like it was my cell. There was no English spoken inside the house, except the words I taught my six-year-old host brother, Joomart.
“Let’s play football!” he’d say, and we’d kick the soccer ball around on the dirt road outside the house with his friends, dodging cow patties and piles of sheep turds. His favorite word was “spoon!” which he’d say with enthusiasm as he grabbed a chai kashik from the silverware drawer and stirred the sugar into his tea.
What I discovered during my 24 months in Darkhan village was that each individual was unimportant and insignificant. It was how the individual served the collective that mattered.
The differences between individualism and collectivism that divide American culture from that of Central Asia are profound, but I found some parallels between Darkhan village and Mammoth Lakes, in the meaning of community.
Darkhan consisted of a number of tribes, extended families that believed in a common purpose, of which each individual had a specific role to achieve. In our community here in the High Sierras, we have our own tribes, which come together to serve a common purpose.
They raise money for Rhiannon’s Kids, and for Disabled Sports Eastern Sierras, and to fund academic and athletic programs that bring kids together. While I was away, there was a tribe that helped Jeremy McGhee ski Bloody Couloir. The sense of community is the same, regardless of where you are in the world. It’s how you serve the community that matters.
In Darkhan village, it took about a year to find what my role was in my tribe. I had been sent to Kyrgyzstan by the Peace Corps to teach English, but my counterparts at my school didn’t really care about having me around unless I was teaching their classes for them, or discussing how to raise money to buy them computers, or how to take them to America.
My neighbors didn’t understand my purpose, either. They didn’t know what I was doing there, by myself, with no family around, in their village.
They peered at me suspiciously from their front gates as I walked by, or from the back seat window of a passing car. Is he a rich American on vacation? Is he a spy??
I walked to and from school, passing boys in shit-kicker boots herding their sheep, who greeted me by saying, “A salaam aleikum.” Children a block away and from all directions would see me and tauntingly call out the only English word they knew: “HELLO!” Men squatting around a vodka bottle on the street in the middle of the day would wave me over so they could interrogate me. Where was I from? America?! Did I speak Russian? Was I going to take a Kyrgyz girl? I was a man living in a fishbowl.
Life had become surreal. The NeverSummer snowboard sitting on the floor of my bedroom was my only connection to my previous life, when I used to hike the Sherwins on full moon nights and speak English. Here, my tribe thought I was weird. I wasn’t fitting in. So they did what made sense to them. They partnered me up with the six-year-old.
Joomart and I became tight. I taught him how to make grilled cheeses, and I used him to practice some new Kyrgyz phrases I’d recently learned. If he didn’t respond, I was saying it wrong, so I’d try again until he answered. We watched one of the Transformers movies together on my laptop, and that was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. Often, whenever the standpipe dried up, we’d go on missions to the river to get water for cooking and for drinking tea.
Some days, we’d walk the animals to the river and talk about life. I was in my early thirties, and he was six, but we spoke Kyrgyz at about the same level, so we were on the same page.
“You think it’ll rain today, Joomart?”
He’d look up and study the sky attentively, and then say “I don’t know,” and then throw a rock at our cow and yell at her to keep moving.
To me, Joomart was like a miniature friend. To him, I was like his pet. We taught each other. I taught him the numbers in English up to fifty, and how to kick a soccer ball left-footed. He taught me how to dig for potatoes and how much hay to give the horses. It was Joomart who came to my room every evening to summon me for dinner. I’d hear running footsteps, my door would fly open, and his head would appear, yelling at me.
“Bakto! Tamak muzdak kaldi!” The food’s getting cold!
In the kitchen, he’d recite the name of every item on the table, and then everything in the room. Our parents would quiz him, and laugh that he knew more English than his older brothers. With Joomart, I had found my role in the tribe.
I see people here in Mammoth finding their roles within their own, albeit recreational, extended families. The couch surfer who relies on the hospitality of friends, and in turn keeps the fridge full of beer. The pot luck dinner parties which bring people together. The dog-sitters. The guy who breaks trail all the way up and then lets his buddy drop in first (deviously, no doubt). The collective outrage and show of encouragement for June Mountain when the Powers That Be decide to close it. The support we give each other when we lose a friend to the mountains, or to illness.
These are the things that remind me that, for all its problems, Mammoth nurtures a tight community, available to anyone, if you can find your role.
Brandon Sheaffer is currently working as a freelance writer and will be heading to Vermont to cover the June Lake Peer Resort Tour for The Sheet next week.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.