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Memories from year of service

January 5, 2006 2:16 am


Jason McIntosh and other Peace Corps volunteers worked with villagers in the Tienshen Mountains of Kazakhstan. They taught cheese-making classes and provided equipment. 0105Kazakhstan.jpg



Jason McIntosh learned a lot about Kazakhstan when he was there with the Peace Corps.

He met some of the many ethnic groups in the country that once was part of the Soviet Union. He felt the bone-chilling cold. He used his skills in public relations to help school groups publish journals and get new chalkboards and computers.

But what the Spotsylvania County man describes most vividly about his time in the Central Asian nation is the food.

McIntosh consumed the meat of dogs, the fermented milk of mares and the boiled heads of sheep.

On trips through the countryside, he saw as many herds of horses as of sheep, because both animals are raised for food.

"Horse turned out to be good," he said. "It's better than beef, sadly."

The 38-year-old can't say the same about sheep's head, a delicacy served with lots of symbolism.

For instance, if the honored guest is expected to listen to the villagers, he or she gets a slice of ear. Those who will be shown something special during the visit get a piece of eyeball.

A similar principle applies to those who end up with the brain or tongue, and McIntosh got to sample all of the parts.

He tasted other foods prepared by people whose ancestors lived in nomadic tribes and never wasted any part of a slaughtered animal. He consumed lots of cabbage and sour cream, as well as cognac and vodka, and came to love a dish of ground lamb and potatoes seasoned with so much lard it glistened.

"It's good," he said. "It's all good."

McIntosh appreciated the diversity, both on the menu and among the people who call Kazakhstan home.

Maybe that's because it took him so long to get there.

McIntosh, who works as communications director for a small public-relations firm in Maryland, dreamed about joining the Peace Corps for as long as he can remember. But after high school and college, between work and involvement with the Republican Party, the right time never came along.

Plus, his family needed him.

McIntosh, who is single and has a home near Lake Anna, has always been the uncle who took care of nieces and nephews. He also gave financial help after one brother died of brain tumors and another suffered the same.

"Kids need shoes, so you have to work," he said.

He never forgot his dream of living in a foreign country and experiencing another culture.

He signed up for the Peace Corps as a thirtysomething, and wound up in a republic with more than 100 different nationalities. That includes ethnic Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans and Koreans.

Volunteers like McIntosh are uncommon but not unheard of, said Nathan Arnold, a Peace Corps spokesman in Washington.

Currently, about 9 percent of volunteers are in their 30s. Most are about a decade younger.

The Peace Corps is looking to recruit more Americans "outside the college set" as its mission changes, Arnold said.

These days, those who go to developing countries focus on technology and business development as much as food and education.

McIntosh delved into all those areas. He helped write grants for school equipment, and he taught language lessons. He showed groups how to arrange business conferences and publish educational journals.

McIntosh left after 13 months because of his parents' failing health. Most volunteers stay twice that long, but McIntosh still believes he made a difference.

Those he met certainly had an impact on him.

For most of his visit, McIntosh stayed with a Korean mother and her two daughters. They all spoke Russian, the official language since the days of Soviet domination.

There's a movement to change street and city names back to the national language of Kazakh, and McIntosh learned a few Kazakh greetings as well.

The person who got the best language lesson was his host, Elena Kim.

"She ended up speaking much better English than I did Russian," he said.

The Kim apartment was in the small city of Taldykorgan in the eastern part of the country, near the border with China.

It had most modern conveniences, but the electricity went off whenever the wind blew or it rained.

McIntosh also visited some mountainous areas of the country, where the cold wind tore through the four or five layers of clothing he wore.

"In was so cold in January and February, the birds froze in the trees," he said. "In the morning, if it thawed at all, they'd drop at your feet."

Most farmers in one remote region had plenty of milk, but they didn't make much money from selling it because other villagers had cows as well.

McIntosh and other volunteers showed them how to make cheese "and get more bang for their buck," he said.

One older woman told McIntosh, "It may not work, but you give us hope."

McIntosh came home with lots of hopes as well. He'd like to visit Kazakhstan again, and he's planning to bring Kim and her daughter here for a visit.

He'll have to save about $4,000, but he'll do it to help those in Kazakhstan the same way he would relatives in Spotsylvania.

"I now have an American family and a Kazakh family," he said.

To reach CATHY DYSON: 540/374-5425

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