At about 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, as Brian Holler walked down a dirt road in a small village in Turkmenistan, a heavy, rumbling noise made him pause for a second during the long-distance phone conversation he was having with a reporter.
"I'm walking home from a New Year's party," he said, apologetically. "I have a tractor passing me right now. It's towing a cart."
He sounded happy, content.
"I passed on a lot of vodka," he said of skipping toasts at the party. "That's why I ended up leaving early, because I was trying to save some energy for actual New Year's Eve tomorrow night."
More than a year into his 27-month commitment in the former Soviet republic in Central Asia, where he works at a local clinic with kids, teens and pregnant women, Holler said he was excited to take in his first New Year's celebration in the village.
He missed last year's celebration while tied up in the country's capital because of issues with his travel documents.
"I'm really looking forward to spending time with my (host) family and seeing what a real New Year's in Turkmenistan is like," he said, noting it is the biggest holiday of the year for villagers, many of whom get dressed up in costumes for the occasion.
Of course, he'll also miss his family and friends back in Catonsville, he said, many of whom he spoke with Christmas weekend.
The feeling is mutual, said his parents, Don and Deana Holler, and other family members.
"We miss him and hate for him to be away, but he's doing what he wants to do," Deana Holler said. "This is where his heart is."
"I think you're always proud of whatever your children and grandchildren are doing, but what Brian is doing is a little unusual from what most young people do," said Holler's grandmother, Berchie Manley, a former member of the Baltimore County Council. "So you miss them, and wish they were here, but you are proud of what they are doing."
Day to day life
Holler, 27, joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a political science degree, working for a couple years as a patient advocate at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center then earning a master's degree in public health from Tulane University.
His day-to-day life now is spent mostly at the local clinic in his village, where – in line with the local norm – he works six days a week.
He usually does about two hours of counseling with patients first, using his Turkmen language skills.
"There's usually a really long line, so I focus on the older folks who need to get their blood pressures checked, that sort of thing. I do a ton of that," he said.
At 10 a.m. he teaches a basic nutrition and health education class for pregnant women.
At 10:30 a.m. three days a week, he runs a health club for teens, which has drawn a nice crowd in part because of the novelty of having him as the teacher, he said.
"It started off, what would get them to come was that I was doing English lessons, plus I was an American guy, and it was like, 'Who the hell is this weird guy coming in and speaking?'…Many of them had never seen someone from another country before," Holler said.