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.

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