Adapting to life a world away

Oak Creek man finds cultural differences as Peace Corps volunteer

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— When Peter "Mike" Yurich hears people grumbling about water restrictions, he has to laugh.

In Armenia, where he was living two weeks ago, there also was a water crisis. As a result, his apartment received water for one hour every other day.

"The problem was that you didn't know what hour it was going to be on," he said. "When it did come, you filled your bathtub and pots so that you would have water for later."

He wondered what an American would do if faced with those kind of watering restrictions.

"Well, they wouldn't know how to bucket flush a toilet," Yurich said. "Those are the kinds of things you learn when you leave the country."

Yurich has been back in Oak Creek now for almost two weeks. He is living in the house not far from Town Hall where he was born and raised.

However, no matter how far away he travels, Yurich always returns to the starting point.

The question these days is, will this be the last time?

Yurich went to Armenia as a Peace Corps volunteer.

At 67, he has lived in Liberia, the Philippines, Kiribati (in the South Pacific near Fiji), Namibia, Lesotho and most recently Armenia, all as a member of the Peace Corps.

He usually works as an English teacher or as a teacher trainer.

In Armenia, he taught English at a university.

Yurich joined the Peace Corps for the first time in 1988.

He was divorced and his children were grown. He was a fifth-grade teacher at South Routt Elementary in Yampa and needed a change.

He had lived abroad before in 1958 as a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Germany. He met his wife there and brought her back to Oak Creek.

But that was 30 years ago.

When he sent in his application he didn't know where they would send him, and when he read his assignment Liberia he still had no idea.

He didn't know he was stepping over a threshold of addictive world exploration.

Liberia was established by freed slaves and was modeled after America, he said. They say the same pledge of allegiance, except they leave out the phrase "under God."

"I love Africa. I want to go back," he said.

In all, Yurich spent seven years on the continent.

Though Africa has stuck in his heart, Armenia is the freshest on his mind.

"It was much different than the other assignments," he said. Armenia is 10 years into their independence from Russia. Under Communism, everything was taken care of by the government.

After the Soviets left, there was no money and no infrastructure.

"People were carrying water up five flights of stairs," he said. "They had to go back to the old days where they grew food in their gardens and burned wood for heat."

Yurich lived in a small industrial town called Martuni on the shore of Lake Seven.

"The thing I didn't know before I went there was that Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its national religion in 300 A.D.," he said.

"There are some fantastic churches and monasteries."

Tourists have yet to discover Armenia, he said, but they will.

Yurich taught his students to look around and try to think of the things tourists will want to see. He wanted them to prepare for the inevitable so they could make a living.

Yurich is already back at the Oak Creek Public Library sorting historical photos, but he has yet to fully readjust to life back in America.

"It's still a shock," he said. "I came straight home from Yeravan (the Armenian capital). Places like Wal-Mart are mind boggling to me now. What do people do with all that stuff?"

Yurich contrasted the American shopping experience to the Armenian one.

"You buy your meat in a butcher shop," he said. "After they kill the animal of the day a pig or a lamb the cut the head off and put it outside the shop."

Meat is purchased by the kilo.

"They whack the amount you want off with an ax, meantime taking a shot of vodka. In the entire time I was there I didn't hear of anyone getting sick from the meat.

"Then I come home to this E. coli beef recall."

For the past decade and a half, Yurich has returned to Oak Creek from abroad, and after three months, he would get bored and call the Peace Corps office to ask where he could go next.

"People always ask me why I don't get a salaried job with Peace Corps or with an aid organization instead of going as a volunteer. I don't want to do that. I'm sold on the way Peace Corps makes you live with the people," he said.

"It's good for me and it's good for the people to see a different kind of American than they see in the movies."

When he returned this time, Yurich's children made him promise he would stay home this time and not make the usual call to disappear.

He is searching around for a way to feel at home and ignore the itch so he can keep his word.

"Unfortunately, I am not going to do Peace Corps again," he said. "Well not right now."

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