Retiring to see the world with Peace Corps

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Lowell and Laurie Peterson don't exactly know where they're going.

They don't really know what they'll do when they get there. They don't know where they'll live or what they'll eat. They don't know if they'll have electricity.

Right now, they pretty much know one thing: Uzbekistan.

It was probably the last place the Cape Girardeau retired couple thought of when they signed up for the Peace Corps, mainly because neither had heard of the country.

But sure enough, upon consulting a world map, there it is between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, home to some 24.7 million people and, very soon, the Petersons.

It all started with Laurie's idea to charter a boat and sail around the world after she retired from her job with state employment services and Lowell retired from U.S. Bank last spring. But Lowell didn't care for the idea of staring at so much water for so many months.

So, one day last February, the Petersons found themselves standing in line at Southeast Missouri State University with a group of college students in their early 20s, waiting to meet with a Peace Corps representative.

"This was a way to give something back. We have a pretty good life here in the U.S.," Lowell said. "And it was a chance to see the world."

The sign-up process was rigorous: lengthy paperwork, lengthy medical assessments. Three weeks ago, while vacationing in Minnesota, they received a message that listed their departure date as Jan. 15 -- about three months earlier than they'd anticipated -- and their destination as Uzbekistan -- a country they knew nothing about.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Peace Corps withdrew all workers from Uzbekistan and only recently returned to the country. The Petersons could have passed on going to Uzbekistan, but doing so may have meant months of waiting for another opportunity. They're not too worried about security, though they would not have agreed to any assignments in places such as Iran or Northern Africa.

Since then, listening to Russian language CDs and checking the weather in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital city, have become part of their daily routine.

They're scrambling to find homes for their pet, find a renter for their house on Route W and figure out a way to pay their taxes from halfway around the world.

In January, they'll fly to the east coast of the United States for a two-day training session. Then they'll fly to Tashkent, a city of around 3 million people.

They'll spend three months training in Tashkent and living with a host family. The proceeding 24 months are a blank canvas. They might get to stay in Tashkent, they might move on to a rural area.

They will work, maybe in economic development or perhaps something completely different. They could live in a hut or a high-rise apartment.

They have learned a little about the culture of Uzbekistan, which is mostly Muslim and a former republic of the Soviet Union. Laurie has been told to wear long skirts. Making eye contact during conversation is taboo.

The couple will be allowed two suitcases each to pack two years' worth of clothing as well as gifts for people they meet during their stay.

They'll live on an income similar to the national average in Uzbekistan -- the equivalent of $30.

The trip has plenty of downfalls. They'll miss the high school graduation of one grandchild, and the June birth of another. Laurie worries about the health of her 86-year-old mother.

Most of their belongings will go into storage in a spare room inside their house.

"This whole process is about being able to let go of stuff," Laurie said. "If you dwell on it too much, you'll just get immobilized."

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