Monday, December 22, 2008

The New Year

The New Year holiday is a big deal in Turkmenistan. It is celebrated
much like Christmas in America. At the bazaar, lots of New Year
booths pop up out of nowhere selling ornaments, masks, cards, and
decorations. School ends on December 30th and a two-week holiday
break begins (I will still be holding my clubs, though). Families buy
a "yolka" (tree) and decorate it with so many garlands and ornaments
that you can barely see that it is supposed to be a tree. On December
31st families and friends gather and exchange presents, cook a big
meal and celebrate together. "Ded moroz" (father frost) comes door to
door and gives presents to children after they recite poems or sing
songs for him. For the past 10 years Jennet has been the "ded moroz"
for my town and the children would always wonder why father frost had
a woman's voice. This year though, she has decided that she is going
to retire the "ded moroz" costume and pass the job onto someone else.
In the evening, before mid-night, the vodka comes out, various animal
masks are put on and dancing commences. I don't know where the mask
tradition came from, but wait until I send you the pictures!! A huge
spread of food is laid out on a long tablecloth—salads, fruit, cheese
and meat, soup, palow (Turkmen national rice dish), bread, tea, soda
and vodka. My host-family has requested, take a guess, chocolate chip
cookies. I am going to get a bit more courageous and will try another
pumpkin pie and an apple pie as well. I will be thinking of you all
as I bring in the New Year with my huge Turkmen family and friends,
wearing a plastic animal mask and dancing to American pop music in

My New Years Resolutions for the Year of the Cow:
1.) Learn Turkmen (continue with Russian)
2.) Learn how to make bread in the Turkmen tamdyr
3.) Keep running
4.) Make friends
5.) Be patient with myself and others
6.) Be the best teacher I can be
7.) Keep writing letters
8.) Save enough money for an airplane ticket to Taiwan
9.) Stop being a man carrot (erkek kashir)
10.) Don't fall into my toilet (or drop anything in)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Surviving Peace Corps Adolescence 101

I would say that pre-service training (PST) could be compared to going
through adolescence. Similar to the first days of high school, you
enter PST with a wide knowledge base but the teachers (meaning Peace
Corps) are asking you to start thinking in a new way, so everything
that you already know has to be reassessed. Of course entering high
school I had experience writing papers, but my teachers wanted me to
find my own voice and to take the leap and do something different.
Arriving in T-stan, I had already taught English as a Foreign Language
in other countries, but now Peace Corps is asking me to think first
and foremost about community integration and sustainability, two
things that I hadn't prioritized before. So, I am in the situation of
having to reassess how I approach my job and my community interaction
here. Again, similar to navigating the fishbowl that is high school
social life, you arrive thinking that you have a good idea who you are
and then you realize that you are going to have to really stick to
your guns so as not to forget what makes you an individual. For me,
high school was all about accepting who I was and finding people who
would appreciate my quirky and complex personality. In T-stan
training, I was struggling with how to define myself in a culture and
community so foreign to me. I know who I am, but trying to navigate
the culture and find my niche is a more complicated matter. Similar
to the clash between parental authority and teenagers, Peace Corps
trainees struggle with the loss of independence in a host-family.
During adolescence, a teenager has a love-hate relationship with their
parents as they want to break free, but the parents want to continue
their parental responsibility of protecting their child. When a Peace
Corps trainee is dropped into a host-family, our preconceived idea of
independence is left at the doorstep. I have become a daughter all
over again and my American idea of independence for a 20-something
year old doesn't fit as easily with Turkmen culture. Just as
adolescence is that last push to prepare you for life on your own, PST
was our 10-week adolescence with the aim of preparing us for our
permanent sites. When the classes, the homework and the group drama
get too much, the end seems like the next best thing to wearing pants.
But then when you are actually out on your own and you realize that
you are in completely over your head, you want to run "home" and enjoy
a second Peace Corps adolescence although you were so "over it" the
first time around.

I have been at site for two weeks. It seems like much longer. During
training I was always busy, always tired and always trying to find
time to sit down for a minute and relax. Now, for the time being, I
have too much time on my hands. I know that once things fall into
place, and I have a work schedule determined, my day will be less of a

During the first week of being here, I had one working day that
consisted of my counterpart and I going into Turkmenabat to try to
register me with the local migration office. It was a total failure
and we left the office, along with all the other T-17 Lebap
volunteers, with no registration stamp and a list of seven additional
documents we needed. As of this afternoon, my counterpart has me
registered in all appropriate offices so that everyone knows where I
am. Task number one accomplished. On Tuesday of last week, Gurban
Bayram began, the 3-day holiday that I wrote about in my last blog
posting. I walked out Tuesday morning, eyes still puffy, mind still
fuzzy from sleep, right into my eldest host-brother slaughtering a
sheep in my back yard. Holding the head back and giving the neck one
final cut, he looked up at me and said, "Good morning," with a big
smile. My host-family was very busy with cleaning, cooking, preparing
the meat and I was a little unsure where I could help. In Ahal, they
have an endearing term for a woman who isn't domestic- "erkek kashir"-
man carrot. I was, and still am, a man carrot. To try to break free
of my man carrot-ness, I helped with the dishes, which was my job back
in Bolshevik and I decided to fall back on a hidden American talent I
carry around with me…chocolate chip cookies. I would bring one plate
out to my host-family and by the time the next batch was out, the
plate was empty. I brought cookies to my counterpart and to the
director. I am preparing to make a double batch again today by
request. My attempt to simply find something to do with myself has
since then attracted much attention and I am sure that the entirety of
Garashsyzlyk will soon have the chocolate chip cookie recipe that the
"new" American brought. Apart from my cookies, my first week at site
was laid back and uneventful. Some evenings I would walk around town
with Jennet, Rahat and Baygul, babbling away in our
Russian/Turkmen/English polyglot mess, drop in at the stores in the
center and run into lots of students and acquaintances who were also
wandering around on the holiday evenings. The street lamps were
adorned in lights for New Years, small groups of people were bustling
around, wrapped up against the cold and in some way, it reminded me of
home during the holidays.

During this past week, I have been trying to coordinate a schedule so
that I can begin teaching. I didn't expect it to be this difficult,
but with most things here, I need to practice great patience. Things
are falling into place and I have been assigned my own classroom and
will soon being advertising for my 8th and 9th grade English clubs. I
have also spoken with the P.E. teacher about organizing a girls'
volleyball club. The teachers at my school are very eager to work
with me, but because there are 10 of them, it is not possible to go to
each of their classes on a regular basis. I am planning on holding
teachers' clubs and doing most of my team-teaching with 2-3 select
teachers. The director has also expressed interest in me spending one
day a week at the neighboring Russian school. It is technically a
Turkmen school now, but the students and teachers all know Russian
fluently and their English program in only a few years old. I know I
am the type of person to over-work and I am being very careful to take
small steps and not overwhelm myself. In the past two weeks I feel
that I have been unproductive in my American sense of the word, but I
know that is indeed incorrect because I have spent a good deal of time
visiting classrooms, observing lessons, trying to get to know the
teachers, introducing myself, sitting in the cafeteria with teachers
and talking in Russian and Turkmen (more like trying to understand
Turkmen), and drinking lots of cups of tea. People are beginning to
know me and teachers who I have not formally met know my name. One
teacher even knew my sisters name, that is how much people talk about
me. I am trying to keep my goals realistic, be patient with myself
and remember that I am not alone in this endeavour. Our country
director wrote to us in a letter, "I know that there will be days when
you feel frustrated and lonely as you try to accomplish things in your
communities and as you adjust culturally to a system very different
from your own. So, during these times I wish to encourage you to keep
in mind that we are not here to change the Turkmen government, but to
help the people of Turkmenistan. For those times, in the words of
Reinhold Niebuhr,

I wish you…
…the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace."

I think this advice is good for everyone to hear as we get ready to
being a new year, with new opportunities and challenges. I always
find it hardest to come to peace with the things that I cannot change,
and in the new-year, part of my resolution is to embrace differences
and challenges as they come (for they are sure to come). To all of my
family, friends and loved ones, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

Monday, December 1, 2008

A lesson in Turkmen (and then some)

1.) Koynek
This word is used to refer to traditional women's dresses and to men's
dress-shirts. I am using it here in reference to the first. In most
kichi obalar (small villages) you will see women wearing nothing but
koyneks on the street, in the house, daytime and nighttime. Most
koyneks are adorned with yaka, or embroidery. There are house koyneks
and toy koyneks. House koyneks are loose fitting for housework and
are made of cotton with less ornate yaka. Toy koyneks are often made
of more expensive fabric like silk or velvet and will include
extremely ornate yaka designs across the chest and sometimes all the
way down the front. To have a koynek made, you will need to find a
tikinchi, or a dressmaker and a woman who does yaka. It seems like
everyone's sister, mother and sister-in-law is a tikinchi, so it is
never a problem to track one down. The women make the yaka by hand
sometimes or with a machine that resembles a sewing machine yet moves
from side to side as the needle stitches. You can tell a lot from a
woman's yaka. The designs are different in each welayat, there are
traditional necklines for dresses and more contemporary designs, and
wealth can be seen in the amount of detail and size because the price
corresponds directly to the time needed to make it. The most ornate dress that a woman has in her lifetime is her wedding dress. In Ahal, the bride's dress weighs
up to 30 kilos depending on the amount of silver and gold sewn onto
it. She wears this for a month except for when sleeping and goes around to guest with all the women in her village, accompanied by a member of her husband's family at all times. When a woman has a new dress made, everyone will say "gutly bolsun" or "Congratulations." Tikinchis often have their own idea of what your dress should look like and the design process for my koyneks has been a true act of diplomacy.

2.) Chai
"Anya, chai iyjekmi?" 10 minutes later. "Anya, chai iyjekmi?" "Annie,
will you drink some tea?" Chai drinking here is so much more than
sitting down over a cup of tea. Here, chai drinking is a way of making
friends, getting to know someone, gaining their trust, socializing,
offering your hospitality, procrastinating…chai drinking is also
sometimes considered working and being productive. The chai is
steeped and then you can pour one cup and pour it back in the teapot.
Pour a second cup and pour it back in the teapot. Pour a third cup
and pour it back in the teapot. Three is a special number in Islam,
and many things are done 3 or 7 times. After the third cup is poured
back in, you can drink. Turkmen have a huge sweet tooth and chai is
always accompanied by candies wafflies (or wafer cookies) and other
sweets. My grandmother can finish two teapots by herself and doesn't
understand that I can only handle two or three cups. She has spent
the last eighty years building up her chai drinking stamina! Turkmen
culture is very indirect and people will not be totally forward with
you about what they want, this is part of the reason why business and
professional matters are often discussed over tea; the conversation
can flow between work and personal conversation with more ease. To be
friends, you must drink tea. It's a rule in Turkmen culture. By
sitting down for chai with someone, you are showing them that you have
time for them and that you want to get to know them and their family.
There is a personal relationship that can only be developed over chai.
American culture teaches us that we have to be busy to be productive,
but Turkmen culture is the opposite; even chai can be seen as
productive—maybe you are cultivating a valuable friendship that you
might not have had if you didn't accept that one cup of chai.

3.) Nesip Bolsa!
This saying is similar to "Inshallah," or "God Willing." Literally,
it means "if you have the chance." In Turkmenistan, if Allah wills
something to happen, it will happen. When praying, protection and
good fortune are asked for and Allah will listen and decide when is
the right time for things to take place. Turkmen say "nesip bolsa"
often and will tack it onto the end of many sentences as a last
thought. "My son will return from the army next month, nesip bolsa."
This reference to Allah takes form in many other greetings as well.
TaƱry yalkasyn is Thank you in Turkmen but can be literally broken
down as "Allah blesses you." And the response to this is
Bileyalkasyn, or "We both will be blessed." In Turkmenistan there is
toy (wedding) season in the fall but the season for Huday yoly never
stops. Our teacher first described a Huday yoly as a prayer party,
which is the basic idea. Huday yoly means "path to Allah" and a
family will honor their ancestors or a recently deceased family member
by throwing a Huday yoly. Everyone in the village is invited, a sheep
or cow is killed in honor and the local mullahs are invited to lead
the prayer. The animal's soul is a sacrifice to Allah so that he does
not take the life of anyone else in the family. When you are invited
to a Huday yoly, you say Kabul Bolsun to the family which means "I
wish Allah accepts your sacrifice." Because they have sacrificed a
soul to Allah, by saying this you also ask Allah to take notice of the
Huday yoly. One can say Huday yoly when you give a gift to another
person, and by saying this you are giving a gift to Allah. In
response to the gift, the receiver must say Kabul Bolsun so that Allah
sees that this gift was given in His name. Before I understood what
all these greetings meant, I had no idea of the importance that these
words hold in this culture. All of these phrases have Allah in them,
but none of them explicitly say Allah. Coming up in December, we will
celebrate Gurban Bayramy—three days of sacrifices, visiting all your
family and friends, praying and dedicating this time to wiping away
sins and asking for protection. Again, there will be much Huday yoly
and Kabul Bolsun to be said and I hope that Allah does protect my
family and friends here who have such strong faith.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Running with rocks

After returning to Bolshevik after my site visit, I decided to start
running in the mornings. I had been hesitant to run because I worried
about what my community would think of me for doing something so
"strange." I had been really struggling trying to balance my stress
without much exercise. I could fit in the occasional yoga session in
my room, but they would usually be interrupted by my host mom poking
her head in my room mid-downward dog pose, and me struggling to try to
explain why I was in pants and practically upside down—kind of
awkward. I decided that exercising was one thing that I couldn't give
up and the only way I wouldn't double my weight with all the carbs and
oil that I eat. My morning run begins with me sneaking out the door
at 6:45am in my skirt, long-underwear, polar fleece, hat, gloves and
running shoes, trying not to wake my host-family who sleeps right next
to the front door. Once outside, I pick up two good size rocks, one
in each hand, to be used on any mean Turkmen dogs that might run after
me. I don't agree with animal abuse, but since the kids here kick and
pelt the dogs with rocks, that is the only thing that they react to.
I figure I can do some weight lifting while running and hope I never
have to use them because I am bad at aiming! I try to stay off the
main road since I get too much unwanted attention from the men driving
to work. I run up past my town's mosque right around the call to
prayer. The sun is beginning to come up then, and I have been able to
see some beautiful early morning skies that have made me stop in my
tracks. I haven't had to use my rocks yet since I have found most of
the dogs to be asleep at this time. There are a few people making
their way to the mosque for morning prayer, but few people are out and
I can run pretty much unnoticed. I run in a skirt, and although
uncomfortable, it was my compromise to be able to exercise. I know
other volunteers run in pants, but that attracts even more unwanted
attention and I am trying to fly under the radar as much as possible.
I turn back home in time to make it across my road before the herds of
goats and camels make their way to the fields. Running on the roads
after them isn't pretty for me or my running shoes! I got the advice
from one PCV to decide on 5 things that you absolutely can't give up
under any circumstance. These things might change, but she said to
hold onto them, because they will help you not give up too much of who
you are. Of course we have to integrate and adjust to new customs and
way of life, but there is the Peace Corps guilt when we think that we
have to be completely self-less. As PCVs we do give a lot of
ourselves day-to-day but this experience is forcing us to think about
who we are as individuals and about the things that are really
indispensible to us. For me, although it sounds shallow, running is
one of my 5 things. I know that it keeps me sane and it will get me
through some of the bad days when I don't have the patience or
diplomatic disposition that I need. For now, running with rocks in
hand in the early hours of the morning on the dirt roads of Bolshevik,
Turkmenistan is an excellent start to my day.

There are no camels in Lebap

With less than two weeks of training to go, I am already looking
forward to moving to Lebap. When I visited Lebap I realized that thus
far my entire perspective on Turkmenistan has been from the Ahal
Welayat point of view. There are 5 Welayats in Turkmenistan and Ahal
Welayat is the most conservative. Ashgabat is relatively liberal
because there is a mix of ethnic Russians and ethnic Turkmen, but the
Ahal villages are as conservative and traditional as you can find in
Turkmenistan. I had only heard about the differences between Welayats
from the PCVs, but when I arrived in Lebap I experienced culture shock
all over again (in the same country). People's behavior, mannerisms,
speech, dress and traditions are different than Ahal.

When I met my host mother and sisters, they were so warm and welcoming
with big hugs and kisses on both cheeks. As it turns out, I have an
18 year-old host-sister, not a brother. Her name is Rahat and since
that is a boy's name in Ahal, they assumed she was a boy. I was
really excited to have another sister. Bibinar, the 24 year-old
sister is currently living at the house as well but will soon be
moving to Turkmenabat to work. Everyone smiled when I met them
(except for the KNB officer, but I will get to him later) and treated
me as family after that first introduction. Although there are still
gender divisions and separation in Lebap, they are much more lenient
and vary according to family. When I went to visit with my
host-mother's family, her father stood up and shook my hand which took
me by surprise since men and women seldom touch in Ahal. In Lebap
they speak a different type of Turkmen with a completely different
accent, so I felt unprepared with the Ahal Turkmen that I have been
trained in. My host family speaks Turkmen, Russian and Uzbek. At
home they speak mostly Russian and Uzbek but at my workplace I will be
using Turkmen and Russian. So, I think that I will be learning all
three and speak a weird tri-lingual mix by the time I leave. It was
difficult because one word was Turkmen and the next was a Russian word
with a Turkmen suffix. I was trying to hang in there, but I will
definitely be taking advantage of the money that Peace Corps gives us
for language tutors. At work the female teachers wear professional
clothes such as Turkmen dresses and western suits. At the "World
Bazaar" I saw lots of nice, winter fabric that could be tailored into
a fashionable suit that I could wear to work. My sister has already
introduced me to my new "tikinchi," or dressmaker. She is from
Kazakhstan and has an impressive portfolio with all her clothing
designs. I think she will be able to make me something fabulous!

While I was in Garashsyzlyk, I got to experience my first Lebap
wedding. The night before the wedding all the girls went to the
tikinchi's house to give their new dresses a final fitting. My koynek
was definitely the most conservative and modest out of all of them.
My host sister's was black, transparent velvet fabric with a plunging
neckline and gold trimming. Her friend's was a tight fitting, red
dress with sequin-studded neckline. These were dresses that they had
designed and that clearly fitted their personalities and personal
taste. In Ahal, a woman's choice of embroidery might express her
personal style, but the dresses don't vary by much. In Lebap the
dresses ranged from spaghetti strap dresses to more traditional
Turkmen koyneks. The bride wore a white, shiny dress that made her
look like a wedding cake with too much frosting. Her hair was done up
in a fashionable style with at least a can of hair spray used. In
Ahal, the bride wears a head covering, traditional koynek and keeps
her mouth covered during the entire ceremony. For thirty days after
the wedding, she wears a heavy outfit that includes an intricate
process to get into and out of, and it jingles as she takes tiny steps
from house to house making visits. In Lebap, the couple got up to
dance and their friends toasted them with long elaborate speeches and
shots of vodka. All the while, the belly dancer moved among the
audience and pulled people to the dance floor. The dancing still
included the hand swirling and moving counter clockwise in a circle,
but the girls shimmied their shoulders and swayed their hips with this
elaborate finger snapping trick. I was having troubles in the
purple-suede stilettos my host sister had loaned me but I think I held
my own okay. Weddings seem to be the ultimate window into Turkmen
culture. There are so many cultural, tribal and ethnic aspects that
are exposed at an event like this one.

During my visit I spent two days at School #1. I mostly wanted to say
hello to people and to introduce myself to as many people as I could.
My introductions always went the same way, "Hello, how are you? Are
you a teacher here? What do you teach? Oh, that's great. I am the
new English teacher. I will be coming in December. I am 23. No, I
am not married. No, I don't have children. Yes, I can understand you
and no, I (still) don't have children." (Over and over again) Because
marriage here is so important for women, that is always the first
question that I get. I am the perfect age to marry, and I had several
teachers say that they want to make me their daughter-in-law. I think
they were joking. Also, many people assume that I don't have a family
because I am here by myself. Since Turkmen live with their extended
families for their entire lives, they have a hard time understanding
how I could come this far from my family. I usually explain that it
is difficult for me to be this far away from my family and friends,
but that I talk to them on the telephone and we write letters. They
are usually satisfied with this answer. School #1 is huge with over
1200 students. Classes are held just in the mornings and there are
over 100 teachers. I will be taking over the old Ruhnama room and I
was told that I would be getting some of the new desks that just
arrived. I met my counterpart, Mehriban the morning that I arrived.
During college, she had a PCV working at her teacher's institute and
she still uses the communicative methods that the PCV taught them.
She told me that some of the games and activities she uses are out of
date and that he is very excited to learn new methods. I was really
relieved to have an enthusiastic counterpart who immediately expressed
interest in working with me. She teaches grades 4 through 9 and we
will be co-teaching most of her classes. Apart from these classes, I
will hold clubs and other activities at the school.

During our pre-orientation in Philadelphia, we were warned that we
would all probably be assigned a "keeper" by the local police office
and KNB, or secret police. Turkmen law mandates that the police know
the whereabouts of all foreigners at all times. Since there are not
many foreigners in Turkmenistan, this is actually possible. And since
there are no foreigners in our villages, we are it. I arrived in
Garashsyzlyk at 8am and by 10:30am the KNB was calling my house. How
they found out that I had arrived beats me. I didn't have to talk to
them because I was napping, but they asked my host-father who I was
and why I was there. This made me a little uneasy because after this
I felt like I was being watched. Because we were only visiting, the
Peace Corps had not registered us in our etraps yet and they had not
been notified of our arrival. Nevertheless, they knew that I was
there! My sister assured me that this was normal and that this was
simply the Turkmen system. Along with a suspicion of foreigners,
Turkmenistan also inherited the Soviet system of filling out a form
for everything. In Russia we spent a good part of a semester learning
how to properly fill out all types of forms and what grammar to use on
each. This knowledge will again be put to test here. The school
director immediately asked for my information, and he filled out a
form with my passport information, birthday, name and surname. When I
come in December I will need a photograph, a copy of my passport and a
copy of my college diploma. Giving all this information to my
employer is so foreign to me and made me question his motives, but he
showed me the huge file that he has with all of the teacher's
information. Again, this is the system here. Everyone has your
passport number, name and birthday. Oh, and of course they asked me
if I am married. On Monday night when five girls came over to do
make-up and hair for the wedding, we were interrupted by the arrival
of a police officer who "wanted to get to know me" as my host-father
said. It was comical how awkward the officer looked amongst six girls
running around with curling irons, hair dryers and make-up waving
about. I sat down with him and my host-father in the living-room and
I showed him my Peace Corps ID which has a letter from the president
in Turkmen about Peace Corps. The officer did not know what Peace
Corps was or that I would be working at the school. He asked my
parents' names and where I was born. I really don't know why they
need this information or what use it is, but I was cooperative and
gave it to them. Mom, Dad, the Turkmen police now have your names
too…sorry! He talked to me for no more than 10 minutes and then left
in his little police car as quickly as he came. I know that he got
the orders from someone to come to my house and I apologize that my
life is really not that interesting. In the past there were problems
with PCVs working for the CIA and there is still a huge suspicion that
we are spies. But I hope that after a while they see that my life is
a routine between school, family and friends and that I am not up to
anything suspicious. Maybe to make his job more interesting, I can
invite him to chai. You know what they say about three cups of tea?
By the third cup you are family.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where to next?

Above: Traditional Turkmen Bridal Dress

Above: Bolshevik Training Group

Above: My 8th grade English Club students

Yesterday I found out where I will be going for my permanent site! I
am headed to Le Bap Welayat in the North-Eastern part of the country.
The capital of the Welayat is Turkmenabat and my etrap (or county) is
located just outside of the city. I am in Garashsyzlyk etrap and I am
in the etrap center, Garashsyzlyk town. My town is about 10,000
people and is close to the Uzbek border. I am about 20 minutes by car
from Turkmenabat. Le Bap Welayat is supposedly the most liberal out
of all 5 Welayats, and because the canal that supplies the rest of the
country with water begins and runs through Le Bap, it is greener than
other areas of the country. This also means that we will have plenty
of vegetable and fruits! I have been assured that I will be able to
use my Russian at my site and definitely in the city of Turkmenabat.
Along with my Russian, I will be able to continue my study of Turkmen.
I am glad that I specified that I wanted a Turkmen-Russian site
because other placements are strictly Russian speaking and I didn't
want that. They have good cell phone reception where I will be going
so I should be getting a cell phone very soon. I will be teaching at
School #1 which is a multi-level secondary school. I don't know much
about my school now, but I will see it on Saturday. I will be living
with a host-family in Garashsyzlyk. I will have a host-mom, host-dad,
24 year old host-sister, 22 year old host-brother who works in Turkey,
and 18 year old host-brother.

Today we had the first day of the counterpart conference. My
counterpart, a teacher at the school could not attend because she has
a little baby, but my methodologist came in her place. Each TEFL
volunteer has a methodologist in their etrap who is responsible for
training the teachers and for organizing teacher's conferences and
workshops. As we integrate into our communities, our methodologist
become vital resources for us to reach out to more teachers in our
etraps. My methodologist, Parahat, is very friendly, eager and
approachable. We spoke all in Russian together and she was ecstatic
that we could communicate so well. She said that for the past few
years they had been asking Peace Corps for a motivated and out-going
volunteer. And they finally got me! Today I was asking her what I
should bring with me when I go to visit for the next 5 days and she
said that I can wear my koynek on the first day to meet the director
and my counterpart and then when I start work on Monday, I can wear
something more comfortable like pants…pants!!! I didn't ask for
somewhere more liberal than Ahal Welayat where I am now, but wearing
pants every once in a while will be a nice luxury for me since I live
in jeans at home. I think that my methodologist is going to be direct
with me and give me feed-back when I need it. I don't see her as
someone that would be completely indirect with me, like many Turkmens,
in-order to save face. Indirectness is part of Turkmen culture but
when we were watching this skit about cultural differences, she turned
to me and said, "we won't have that problem because we can, and will,
talk to each other."

I will be in Le Bap until Wednesday, November 12th. We are traveling
as a group to Turkmenabat by train. There are 10 T-17 volunteers
going to Le Bap Welayat. I have Bobbie Jo, another T-17 just ten
minutes from my site in the neighboring etrap. In Turkmenabat, there
are 3 more volunteers. We arrive Saturday morning and I will be going
to my school with my methodologist to meet all the necessary people
and officials. My host-mom is the lunch lady at the cafeteria, so I
will meet her there too (I hope I won't be eating cafeteria food at
home). On Sunday I will probably go into Turkmenabat and meet the
other T-17s and the T-16s for a city tour. On Monday and Tuesday I
will go to the school again and begin my observation of the teachers
and my integration into the workplace.
On Wednesday we also heard about the outcome of the presidential
election, and although I am really excited about Obama being elected,
finding out my permanent site was of more immediate importance to me
at this point. At least for the next two years, my life is going to
be far removed from America, but I hope that the international image
of America improves because that will directly affect me as I travel
in regions of the world where American stereotypes and Hollywood image
precede me. I constantly get questioned about why I am here and if
there is no work in America. The Beverly Hills lifestyle is how
people think that I live in America. If they could see rural Idaho I
think that Turkmen might be surprised at how much it resembles the
countryside in Turkmenistan (okay, minus the camels). I have to work
very hard to try to get them to believe that I don't have unimaginable
amounts of money at home and that my father is a carpenter and that my
friends don't all drive Mercedes. I know that I do some things funny
because that is how I am used to doing them, but I hope that I can
show my community that I am just human like them; although we are from
such drastically different countries, we can be friends, even family
and learn about each other with mutual respect.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Today I have been in Turkmenistan for one month and I am half way
through my Pre-Service Training! Happy (belated) Halloween! We had a
big Halloween celebration with our kids at the school during our day
camp that we held last week. It was two days of Halloween themed
activities. I did a scavenger hunt with the kids where they had to
find clues that spelled out a Halloween word (spider, witch, skeleton
etc). I taught them directional and location words (forward,
backward, above, below etc) and asked them questions as we went along.
I had my teacher help me write the directions in Turkmen, but the
kids were always surprised to learn that we were actually getting up
from our seats and going outside. This kind of hands-on learning
rarely takes place here, and is not always seen as educational. Along
with my scavenger hunt, we had a Bingo station, build a skeleton
station (learning parts of the body), macaroni necklaces station and a
costumes station. Gary, another Peace Corps Trainee at my site, spent
so much time making 10 costumes for the kids. We had a butterfly, a
pirate, a cook, an Indian, a singer etc. He mostly used cardboard and
paper to cut out and create hats and accessories. The kids learned
how to say "I am a _____" and how to say "Trick or Treat" and then
they went around to the other classrooms and trick or treated. They
would knock on our door and yell "trick or treat" with bags
outstretched just like they were American kids going around the
neighborhood. I had all the kids write their names on leaves and we
created a Halloween tree poster that is hanging in the hallway of our
school. I spent two long evenings drawing out a scary tree on a 6x5
foot piece of paper with all kinds of Halloween things tucked into the
branches and I wrote the date and "Halloween Tree" on the bottom as a
final touch except that I misspelled tree. Yeah, I misspelled tree. I
added an "n" onto the end of tree. So, we had a "Halloween Treen"
that I eventually corrected so as not to give my students my poor
English skills. The camp (including my "treen") was a big success and
all of our host-siblings who attended couldn't stop talking about it.

This weekend I went to Ashgabat with my host family to celebrate
Independence Day. I showered and wore my new koynek, a dark purple
with Turkmen embroidery down the front! We visited the land of
happiness, or the Turkmen Disneyland. Surrounded by tall, white
marble apartment complexes (that are going up all over the city),
T-stan Disneyland is a place of pure wonder! It was fascinating for
me to finally be able to observe a large amount of Turkmens outside of
my village. Bolshevik is very small, conservative and filled with
ethnic Turkmens. In Ashgabat, the population is more diverse. You
have ethnic Russians and ethnic Turkmens living side-by-side,
following different cultural norms and religions, and speaking
different languages. You have my host mother who speaks Turkmen and
wears a Turkmen koynek with her hair wrapped up in a yalyk walking
next to an ethnic Russian speaking Russian and wearing a form fitting,
neon, spandex mini skirt with mid-drift top. When we were riding the
bumper cars, this man got into a fight with the ticket lady because he
didn't want to pay two tickets for the ride. The man was ethnic
Turkmen and the ticket lady was ethnic Russian. He was yelling at her
in Turkmen, but she couldn't understand so he had to switch over and
stumble through it in Russian, which he obviously didn't know as well.
So much of what I heard about Turkmenistan before I left was blatant
stereotypes and blanket statements. This example of the fight at the
bumper cars could have easily taken place in many places in the US
with a miscommunication in English and Spanish. The stereotypes about
T-stan make it seem simple when the opposite is true. This country is
so complex and its culture so layered…even in a theme park! My
host-dad bought us all a cotton candy and an ice cream and we went on
the shortest roller coaster I have ever been on. It was so short that
they let you go around twice before you had to get off. In my koynek,
nobody gave me a second look and it was nice to have that anonymity
since in Bolshevik I constantly have children following me and
chirping "hello" "hello" "hello" over and over again. It was
endearing at first, but now I just smile and reply with "what's up"
and "how's it going." I always greet the adults I encounter with real
greetings since I think they are more suspicious of me than the
children. I have met so many people already in my community and
everyone has taking to calling me "Anya" since they can't say my name.
I didn't tell them to say this, but it is funny that they are calling
me the same name that I was called in Russia.

The children finished their week-long school break on Thursday and I
finally got to work with my counterpart to prepare some lessons. Up
until this point, I had been observing several teachers' classes and
doing 4 hours a day of Turkmen language. My counterpart is the 4th
and 5th grade English teacher at my school. She was a Russian teacher
until the government changed the school system a few years ago and
mandated that English be taught in all schools, and she suddenly found
herself having to teach a language she didn't really know. I can only
imagine her frustration and I think this explains her lack of
enthusiasm when she is teaching. On Friday I taught two full lessons
to her 4th grade classes. The government requires the teachers to
teach out of the government made books, which are riddled with
mistakes and lacking any kind of comprehensive outline. The topics
are way over the children's heads and the teachers have few creative
options with the material they are given. She showed me the lesson in
the book and I chose to do my own activities instead of reading the
text to the students like she does. I am faced with the challenge of
how to make this situation sustainable, when I suspect that she
doesn't want to spend time on the educational "fun" activities that I
introduce. My ultimate goal is to give her some new ideas for her
class, but that also requires her to be receptive to these. I know I
will continually face this problem, and that this is why sustainable
development can be so difficult at times.

The ultimate highlight of my week was Wednesday when I held my clubs.
Megan and I started a girls volleyball club. We had 17 girls show up
and we taught them how to pass and set properly. We had watched them
play volleyball before and they chaos we witnessed prompted us to
start this club. With mostly demonstrations and showing the girls the
wrong way (and saying "no" in Turkmen after that demo) and the right
way (and saying "yes" after this one), we made a surprising amount of
progress in 45 minutes. When we had the girls scrimmage at the end,
they were passing the ball upon receiving a serve and saw that what we
had taught them actually worked. We taught them high fives and by the
end we were high fiving each girl on our team after every point we
won. Next we will bring out the spandex short shorts…just kidding!
Yes, it is true that you can't move quite as much in a koynek but I
will work with what I have got. After our volleyball club, I had my
8th grade English club. It was our first meeting and I was feeling
out their language ability and interests. I also taught them new ways
of answering the question "how are you" because I am so tired of
hearing "I am fine, thank you. How are you?" chanted again and again
in monotone. I told them that when I ask them "How are you?" they
have to use the new vocabulary! I was encouraged by the student's
eagerness to learn and enthusiasm for the language. I am planning on
holding a weekly lesson at my training site and I will try to increase
that once I get to my permanent site.

I find out on Wednesday, November 5th where I will be going for my
permanent site, and then on Thursday I will go visit for three days.
At least I can express myself to some extent now, and I am saying full
sentences in past, present and future with more consistency every day!

Today our entire group went to the underground lake that is located
about 30 minutes from Gokdepe. I left my house with a skirt over my
rolled up jeans and stripped my skirt off the minute I got into the
Peace Corps van. They told us we could wear jeans, and it did feel
soooo good! It has been ages since I went a month without wearing
jeans (or pants for that matter…probably never in my life for that
one). The underground lake was a highlight of Turkmenistan thus far.
You went down several really steep staircases for a long ways and it
got hotter and hotter and darker and darker as you went down. The
lake was sulfur water and the it was nice and warm. We swam all the
way to the back where it was pitch dark and two of the volunteers had
brought their head lamps and we did some bouldering on the cave walls.
It was pretty amazing. Who has done that? Bouldered in an
underground cave/lake in Turkmenistan? We spent a good hour swimming
around in the lake, jumping off this one rock, bouldering and
marveling at how weird this experience really is! It was a good day
but after taking a shower yesterday, I stunk of rotten eggs thanks to
the sulfur. So, I took another shower. I filled 8 buckets out of the
well, handed them to my host dad who was on the roof, dumped them in
the tank, lit the gas fire, waited 15 minutes and tada…shower! How
completely normal this whole routine has so quickly become.

As I was walking home the other day I had this moment when I realized
for the first time why I am here. I believe that things happen for a
reason. I can tell you why I joined the Peace Corps, but I couldn't
have told you before I came why I ended up here. It isn't any one
thing, or any mix of many things, but it is just a sense of place and
a feeling of belonging. A countless amount of things are still so
foreign and unexpected to me, but I had this one moment of honestly
knowing that I am in the place that I am supposed to be in. I guess
that this realization gave me some peace of mind as I head into my
second-half of training.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

I'm finally here!

Salam Everyone!

I have my first chance to write you an email since I arrived inTurkmenistan. We got in at 4am on October 1st after over 35 hours oftraveling. We had a long stopover in Istanbul and were able to getout of the airport for several hours and walk around the city. I hadbeen to Istanbul before, but I love the city and was happy to be thereagain. I was so exhausted though and desperately needed the Turkishcoffee to just keep moving. On our flight to Ashgabat it was our groupof 44 volunteers admist a plane full of Turkmen nationals with enoughplastic bags to stock a Walmart checkout line for weeks filled withTurkish good ready to bring home. I just wanted to fall asleep on the3 hour flight, but the lady next to me kept poking me in the shoulderwith her finger to keep me awake so as not to miss the dinner service. Dinner at 1am. I didn't want to eat, but every time I tried to closemy eyes I would get the predictable stab in my arm to jerk me awake.I know that she was just trying to help me, but all I really wanted todo was sleep. In Ashgabat, we were met by a big greeting crew of PCVs(Peace Corps Volunteers). They were holding signs with our names onthem and I was so overcome by emotions that I didn't know whether tocry or smile or laugh, so I just let out this weird sound that didn'treally succumb to anything. I felt foolish, but this PCV said, "itsokay, my reaction was the same." For the first 4 nights we stayed ina hotel in central Ashgabat, but since we weren't allowed to walkaround at all by ourselves, we really had no sense of place (we werewaiting to get our passports back). We had full days of languagetraining and safety/health information. We even had a whole sessionabout alcohol and about how to get out of drinking it since this is abig alcohol culture. This session was more for the men because as awoman, I am not expected to drink and it is culturally inappropriatefor me to go buy alcohol myself. On our last day in Ashgabat, welearned about where our training sites will be.My training site is called Bolshevik, or Goekdepe Village. It is 50kmfrom Ashgabat, to the northwest. It is tiny, tiny and there reallyisn't much here. Goekdepe town is 10km from us on the main road toAshgabat and there is another group there. The post office is inGoekdepe and all the bigger shops. My village is in the middle of thedesert with sand dunes on all sides. There is nothing out there butsand and dead plants. The road running straight through town and pastthe school is paved but the rest of the streets are dirt and sand.The sand is so fine that when the Volgas and Ladas (soviet cars) zoompast, they leave you in a cloud of dust that permeates everything.Turkmens always keep their shoes shined and I have no idea how they doit. They must walk differently than us so as to not stir up the dirt. I really don't know. There are a few little stores that sellpotatoes, rice, flour and lentils in big bags and some tomatoes andonions, candy, soda and soap. There is one store that has ice creamand water without gas. My house is one block off of the main road andit is a little, white, stucco building. There is a garage to theright of the house and the goats and chickens are in a pen behindthat. In the back of the house is a greenhouse with cucumbers and tothe side of the greenhouse is the toilet. The toilet is on a narrowcement path that is missing several pieces from all places. To makeit worse, the path is bordered by all kinds of rusted metal pieces andwood with nails sticking out. I can just see myself tripping orstumbling off the path onto one of these things! So far so goodthough. The toilet is outhouse style with a rectangular hole with twobricks on either side. I am thankful for the bricks because thatmakes it less likely that I will fall in or stick a foot down there.My house has a kitchen, a TV/living room and 4 bedrooms/guest rooms.These bedrooms have no furniture really and the family just pulls outmats to sleep on. My back is feeling it a bit after a few nights, butit could also be from sitting on the floor all the time. I think myback gets tired from always having to support my body when I amsitting in some awkward position, trying not to look so awkward in myskirt. It is amazing how Turkmen women can move around effortlesslyin their dresses without showing an inch of skin and I am constantlyhaving it ride up or flip up when I change positions. They make somany things look effortless, that I have no idea how toaccomplish—like getting water from the well…haven't even tried it yetbecause I am scared I will drop the bucket in there!My host family is wonderful. I have a father, mother, grandmother, 2younger brothers and a younger sister. We have a dog that seems moreapathetic about me compared to all the other scary dogs that I runaway from. We have two cats who's life goals are to make it insidethe house to try to get some food and I just saw a hedgehog scurryaway when I went to the toilet (at least I think it was a hedgehog).My father is a teacher at the elementary school and he speaks Russian. My mother works at home and is really, really nice to me. Mygrandmother is 81 and is the cutest thing ever. My younger brother,Yklym goes to school in Ashgabat at the Turkmen/Turkish school so heis only home one day a week. He speaks excellent English because allof his classes are taught only in English. My other brother, Geldishis 11 and came by himself to pick me up from Ashgabat. He is reallyeager to learn English and has all but stolen my Turkmen/Englishdictionary for himself. My little sister, Solten is 8 years old andhas the most responsibility out of any of the children. I think shewas assigned as my keeper and even escorted me to the toilet at first(I finally looked up how to say "I can do this myself" to save me alot of embarrassment). She helps her mom cook, clean, takes care ofher grandmother and runs any chores that need to be done. She has the poise and maturity of someone twice her age. It amazes me. I amreally happy with my family and am happy that I was assigned to livewith them! My village is relatively conservative and I quickly realized that Iwould need a "koynik," or Turkmen dress. I tried to convey this to myhost mother on the second day and she must have understood because sheasked her 22 year old sister to come yesterday to make me a dress.She was really sweet and wanted to see my makeup and to compare our"beauty rituals." Since I don't really have one, I didn't have much to share, let alone in Turkmen, but she seemed impressed by my makeup,which is a first. It was really funny because at first she asked me if I had a "koynik" and I said no, so she pulled me into the nextr oom, strips off her "koynik" and tells me to put it on. Ok. She is maybe 5'2'' and 95 pounds, but I will give it a shot. So I strip downand try to put on the koynik but get stuck around the shoulder areaand can't move. Picture this. Me, half-way stuck into a koynik,yelling help in Turkmen as I try to wiggle out of it, in the mean timelosing all of my dignity and self-respect. The wiggling didn't workand she eventually had to pull me out of it. But, 24 hours later Ihave a "koynik" of my own. Minus some other adjustments that need tobe done, it is awesome. My host parents picked out the fabric and itis a dark blue, fern/wavy/floral patter. It is all the rage. I willtry to send a picture next time. On Thursday we will have our first full day at the school where wewill be teaching. We each have a counterpart with whom we willco-teach during training. We have 4 hours of language every day,technical training (teaching) and then entertaining the flock ofchildren that has gathered outside of my house when I return home. Iam so busy during the day that I don't have much time to think aboutmy isolation, but I am trying to be patient with myself and with mylanguage skills. Knowing Russian has definitely helped, but I amtrying not to rely on it. I know that speaking Turkmen is really theonly way to fully integrate into our community. Even in 4 days with my family, I have noticed quite a big difference in my communication skills—sink or swim is my philosophy and I am doing a really bad doggie paddle right now but staying on the surface.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Turkmenistan 101

I thought that a few websites with information on Turkmenistan might be helpful for those who know little about the country. And lets be honest, that is most everyone! There is lots of information out there that focuses on the past president's cult of personality, but there is still little that highlights the progress and improvements that have been made since 2006. This is due in part to the fact that few people visit Turkmenistan, and write about the unique country, and because it still remains isolated from the rest of the world. Turkmenistan has a long and tumultuous history, with strong tribal pride and deep traditions. The name, Turkmenistan is derived from Persian, meaning "Land of the Turkmen." The capital, Ashgabat, also derived from Persian, translates as "The City of Love." During medieval times, the city Merv (today known as Mary) was one of the great cities of the Islamic World and an important part of the Silk Road. From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the Turkmen people formed a distinct ethnolinguistic group, and as they migrated toward the modern day Iranian border region, tribal Turkmen society further established cultural traditions that would create the basis of the Turkmen national consciousness that can still be seen today. During The Great Game between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia, they were met with enduring resistance by the proud Turkmen. By 1894 however, Russia had gained control of Turkmenistan and incorporated it into their empire. The October Revolution of 1917 officially made the area known as the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic. The tribal Turkmen were encouraged to become secular, adopt a more European lifestyle and saw their alphabet changed from the traditional Arabic script to Latin and finally Cyrillic (it has been changed back to Latin in recent years). Despite the pressure to conform to this new way of life, the Turkmen people refused to abandon their previous nomadic ways and their religion, Islam. The Turkmen people tried to preserve the Turkmen identity in the midst of the Soviet Union and communism in the area was not fully embraced until as late as 1948.

In 1991, Turkmenistan declared independence from the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Leader, Sapamurat Niyazov, remained in power as Turkmenistan's leader after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He called himself, Turkmenbashi, or "leader of the Turkmen people," and he wrote a book telling a revised, "nationalistic" version of Turkmen history and culture, to be made mandatory reading in schools, and he cultivated an extravagant cult of personality. Statues, busts and billboards of him were erected throughout the country, and months and days of the week were re-named after his family members. He tightly controlled the media and outlawed the teaching of foreign languages in schools. In 1999 he became president for life and his power only increased. Niyazov unexpectedly died in 2006 and was succeeded by Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, personal dentist and former deputy prime minister. Although Berdymukhamedov has pledged to follow the ways of Niyazov, he has instituted several reforms since inauguration. He has restored pensions to over 100,000 elderly citizens, released political prisoners jailed by Niyazov, reintroduced foreign languages into the school curriculum and extended the required number of years a Turkmen student must stay in school. There have been changes, things are progressing, but sometimes at a pace that us Americans might find frustrating. I have heard that Turkmens are happy with their government, and of course the government in no way really defines who the Turkmens are as a people. Turkmenistan has been labeled the "North Korea of Central Asia" by Lonely Planet and voted "The worst place to live" by the Economist in 2004, but I have to stay optimistic because this is going to be my home for the next 2 years. From what I have heard from T-16 volunteers has been nothing but positive and fascinating. And really, since when has the Peace Corps been known for being easy, huh? I think that after 27 months in country, we should be the ones writing the Turkmenistan section of every travel book out there!!!

So, after that history/culture tangent (I hope I don't do that so much in the classroom), here are some websites to check out for further information:

BBC Website Country Profile:

Website about Peace Corps Turkmenistan:

A website by a Belgian freelance photojournalist on Turkmenistan with video and commentary on Ashgabat:

Listen to a Turkmen dittie or watch a video clip from this website:

Friends of Turkmenistan is an NPCA afficiated
organization made up primarily of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers:

The Turkmenistan Project: