"Some said it was utter hell, hopeless and despairing. Others said they couldn't imagine a more beautiful, welcoming culture. Indeed, we see both sides here."
—Hans Ibold, Former Express reporter and Peace Corps volunteer
When two former Idaho Mountain Express reporters first got to know each other over a cup of coffee at Java on Fourth, they probably couldn't have guessed one of them would be pulling the other out of a sewer pipe in East Asia five years later.
But for former reporters Hans Ibold and Amy Spindler, the last six years have been chock full of twists and turns, and Spindler's fall through an open manhole on a back street in Kyrgyzstan was just another twist in a journey that has spanned two states and two continents.
Their Peace Corps jobs teaching English to Kyrgyz children is only the most recent chapter of a novel still being penned.
For the unlikely pair who hailed from opposite sides of the U.S., Ketchum was the synergy for their relationship, and it was the place where they consummated their commitment to each other in a wedding atop Bald Mountain.
And though Kyrgystan is thousands of miles and a world away, both former locals have the Wood River Valley on their minds. What's next for the intrepid world travelers?
"Dinner at the Ketchum Grill," Spindler said.
"A beer at Grumpy's sounds good to me," Ibold added.
Were it not for the newspaper, the two drifters might never have met, and the story that has threaded Ketchum, Los Angeles and East Asia might never have started.
"I was sitting at a recently vacated but still messy desk at the Mountain Express, where I was beginning my first newspaper job after just earning my masters in journalism," Ibold, a 34-year-old Pennsylvania native, said. "Questions whirled in my head: How can I report on a P&Z meeting when I only just learned what those letters stand for? Why is the sports editor at the next desk over hammering his keyboard so hard? Should I hit my keys that hard, too?
"What good was that masters degree? Can my editor, who is sitting behind me, see that what I have typed is only a letter to my parents? Who is the woman who sat here before me, and why would she leave her desk cluttered with used notepads and so many half-used lipsticks?"
He was soon to get answers to some of those questions. He picked up the telephone and called Spindler to inquire and return the half-used cosmetics.
"When Hans asked to meet, I envisioned a retired journalist who planned on living out his twilight years writing and relaxing in Ketchum," said Spindler, a 29-year-old from Oregon. "I reluctantly agreed to give him the scoop on some of the characters I'd gotten to know over the past year. When I walked into the newsroom I was really surprised to see a handsome young man sitting at what I still considered my desk.
"Our 15-minute meeting lasted two hours. I was so smitten. I offered to go with him to a Bellevue Planning and Zoning meeting—which aren't always the most exciting."
And now a cup of coffee and a Bellevue P&Z meeting have turned into a marriage and 28-month stint in a former Soviet country in East Asia.
The couple is living in a remote Kyrgyz village called Myrza-Ake, which is 90 miles and 14 hours away from the nearest town. It's nestled deep in the mountains near the Uzbekistan border.
"It's absolutely stunning," Spindler said. "We live without running water and sporadic electricity. Most of what we eat comes from our garden. Life here is incredibly challenging."
Many meals revolve around mutton, and sheep are regularly slaughtered.
"Whenever I open our host family's fridge, there is usually a severed sheep head in there, just sitting out, facing me," Ibold said. "Sheep meat and fat (all parts) are staples here, and I don't think I'll ever get used to the flavor or odious smell."
For entertainment, they travel to the big city of Bishkek and buy pirated DVDs for $5 and watch them on laptop computers. The summers are really hot. The winters are really cold. They enjoy about three hours of electricity each day.
But the Peace Corps mission is what their odyssey is really all about, and they both said the work is challenging and rewarding.
"When we started calling around to find out about the place, we heard conflicting stories," Ibold said. "Some said it was utter hell, hopeless and despairing. Others said they couldn't imagine a more beautiful, welcoming culture. Indeed, we see both sides here."
Spindler elaborated about their work.
"My classroom has only a chalkboard and no electricity," she said, adding that she and Ibold have become fluent in the Kyrgyz language. "Despite the lack of resources, I have eager students who are so excited to come to class every day. Of course, I use my classroom to talk about issues facing young Kyrgyz people, like AIDS, human trafficking and bride stealing."
Spindler said they try to help the community assess their needs and find solutions, but very few resources are at their disposal.
"We are currently working with our community to build a public bathhouse," Spindler said. "Tired of always being laughed at when we ran, we held a 3-kilometer race to raise awareness that running can be fun (not funny), and it's good for you."
They both stressed the importance of the Peace Corps mission—promoting cultural understanding and sharing skills—in the current global environment.
"The Peace Corps slogan says, 'It's the toughest job you'll ever love.' I'm thinking more along the lines that 'It's the toughest job you'll be glad you did someday,'" Ibold said. "Teaching English and facilitating projects here is hard because progress is so slow. We're never sure we're doing anything positive or anything with lasting impact."
Much of their time is spent looking for resources to channel into their village.
"Schools, for example, have so little to work with: no electricity, no post-Soviet books or teaching materials, no training for teachers," Ibold said. "My latest project is to raise money for a first-aid station in the village center.
"Alas, a consequence of the Iraq war that you might not hear about is that aid for struggling 'friendly' Muslim countries like Kyrgyzstan is shifting to operations in Iraq and to 'angry' Muslim countries. So, it's harder and harder for us to get grant money."
When the time comes for Ibold and Spindler to return to the U.S., their departure will likely be bittersweet. For Spindler's twin, Stephanie Spindler, who teaches at Wood River High School, the moment probably won't come soon enough.
"I'm so proud of them for giving up the great life that they had and going over there," she said. "I miss them tremendously. I think about Amy every single day. I can't wait for them to come home."
But in this small article, there is a tale yet unfinished.
Ibold tells it best.
"Two months after arriving, Amy and I were walking to a taxi at night. Amy was trailing a few paces behind me. I turned to say something to her and, suddenly, she vanished. Then I saw it: the exposed manhole.
"Manhole covers get stolen and sold across the border in China for scrap metal. Amy fell into the circle of darkness without a sound except for the whoosh of her windbreaker. She dropped about 7 feet and would've gone further had she not caught her feet on some cables. Some Kyrgyz men rushed over and two of us pulled her out by the hood of her jacket. She was a little dazed and reeked of sewage, but she was not badly hurt.
"Later than night, the Peace Corps doctor tried to assuage our fears by saying that Amy would probably only get a little diarrhea from the sewage.