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.

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