If you left my home town of Sturgis, SD going due East (or West) and continued until you reached the exact opposite side of the planet you would find yourself pretty darn close to where I’ve been living in Kyrgyzstan. A lot of the landscape might remind you of the Black Hills or the grasslands. Kyrgyzstan is almost EXACTLY the same size as South Dakota (South Dakota: 77,184 mi2 and Kyrgyzstan: 77,182 mi2). Much of the historical, nomadic Kyrgyz culture including yurts and horsemanship bare a pretty striking resemblance to that of the Prairie Indians. (Some people even think that it was the Kyrgyz who were the first to cross the Bering Strait and settle in North America.)
There are a lot of interesting parallels between the state I’m from and the country I’m in and, once again proving how small the world is, I’ve been fortunate to get to know two people here whose histories are connected to South Dakota.
Sultanat Saparbekova is an assistant project manager for the sustainable community development program (one of the three programs along with Health and TEFL) who grew up Naryn – the most sparsely populated oblast in Kyrgyzstan. She hunted me down when she found out there was a South Dakotan in the group because she spent a year studying at a high school in Aberdeen, SD (of all places) back when she was in school. We had a good chat about the crazy East River snow storms that she says, luckily for me, are unlike anything that happens in Kyrgyzstan. We also talked about how no one from Kyrgyzstan knows where South Dakota is or vice versa (except for those graciously following a certain blog that is). When I’ve been in Spanish speaking countries, describing Mount Rushmore is usually the best I can do to give an idea of where I’m from, but I haven’t had much luck with that here so I’ve been going with, “okshosh Texas” (“It’s like Texas”). Not entirely accurate, but there’s only so much I can do given my language skills and the states that people are familiar with. At least it’s more accurate than “okshosh California.”
The other person, I mentioned in passing before, is actually the director of the entire Peace Corps program for Kyrgyzstan. Tammi Harris grew up in Sioux Falls before serving in the Peace Corps in Sri Lanka and spent two decades working in the foreign development sector and disaster relief before coming back to the Peace Corps. She’s lived all over the place which is pretty cool.
As much as it feels like where I’m from and where I’m at are on different planets sometimes, it’s nice to be reminded that that’s not really the case. The distance between South Dakota and Kyrgyzstan might be far in miles, but they’re both full of pretty similar people going about their lives in pretty similar ways.