Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Story Time: The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Twelve sets of attentive eyes were glued to the book that I held in my hand.  “And then the very hungry caterpillar age through three plums.  But he was still hungry,” I read upside down.  After a few pages they knew that the little caterpillar would be looking at them from the backside of the page after he had eaten through the apple or the four oranges or the five strawberries, but their outbursts of anticipation made it seem like it was the biggest surprise in the world.  When the caterpillar “wasn’t so little anymore” after eating through cakes, sweets and sausages, they giggled and said in Turkmen, “now he’s a fat caterpillar.”  I was translating only a few words, but a full comprehension of one of my favorite children’s books wasn’t my goal.  I wanted my students to enjoy the experience of having a book read to them.

As a child my room was filled with books and by a young age I could already tell any interested party about my favorite books.  I liked books.  I enjoyed getting lost in a book and letting myself be consumed by the story.  My parents always read to me, and when my sister was born I would read to her whether she liked it or not.  I was instilled with a respect for books and with an understanding that books were fun.

My first encounter with a book in Turkmenistan was in the toilet.  I am not talking about a magazine rack with a leisurely selection to be enjoyed while pondering life on the pot.  No, this book had been destroyed.  What had been a Russian novel in a former life currently had half of its pages missing.  The missing pages could be found in the waste bucket, crumpled up after past toilet goers had used them and disposed of them.  This book was my toilet paper.  Looking at the destroyed book I felt an internal dilemma begin on an almost moral level.  I had been brought up to appreciate literature, and here were the remains of Soviet books staring at me while I squatted on the toilet. What kind of culture rips up a book for toilet paper?  My first encounter with a toilet paper book was only the beginning of me trying to comprehend how little most Turkmen value books.

Most houses I have been in have no book shelves or books at all.  There is always a satellite dish and a television.  Most of my students admit to never read more than their school textbooks, if they even bother to read those.  Parents don’t read to their children and there is a lack of books in the Turkmen language.  I remember how much I enjoyed being read to as a child, and it makes me sad to think about all the children in this country who will never be read to.  Those stories gave me creative inspiration.  I got to glimpse into a various worlds.  I was so full of different stories that I intuitively understood that there was always a unique way to look at life.  As a result of growing up in a culture that doesn’t value creative expression and literature, my students have a hard time thinking multilaterally.  They find it difficult to approach something abstractly, without being dictated each step.  I have realized that reading to children begins as a bonding experience between child and parent yet the effects of it continue to influence you for the rest of your life.  I read stories to my students, all of my students, and with out fail they are always more attentive during story time than any other time in class.  If they don’t understand the words, they are fixated on the pictures.  If they understand the story, I can hear them translate it to themselves in whispers as I read.  I walk around the classroom to each desk so that the students can get a close look at the pictures.  Reading can be fun, I hint at them, sometimes subtly and other times not so much.  Sit back and listen to me read.  “Let me tell you the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” I say, and story time begins.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The T-18s Make the News

I know that I am a month behind, but I wanted to see if the T-18s had made the news and because Turkmenistan isn't such a hotspot for news stories, they actually did make national news!



We are now hearing all kinds of rumors about why the T-18s weren't allowed to come and about when the next group will arrive. I am just hoping for the best, but trying to prepare myself to never get a site-mate, and to have to deal with isolation for another year. The T-16s start leaving in two weeks, and Turkmenistan is already beginning to feel emptier as we begin to say goodbyes. I am burying myself in work and running around trying to start a youth development project in my town. No matter if another group comes or if we are the last Peace Corps group in Turkmenistan, I am determined to do all that I can here until my last day of service. The T-16s have told me that time will speed up again after the new year and that the second year goes by even faster than the first. This is hard to believe, but considering that the past year has flown by, I can forsee that the count down until closing of service will speed it all up even more!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pumpkins and hedgehogs

I guess that I should backtrack to Turkmenistan’s Independence Day (Happy 18 years Tstan), which I spent in Ashgabat.  While our apple carrot muffins were baking, the apartment walls shook before we heard the bangs of the fireworks.  We bundled ourselves and went out to the street to watch.  The Turkmen driving by and walking with friends didn’t seem at all interested in the fireworks. As for me, there was a moment when it felt just like the Fourth of July.  My favorite fireworks are the big white kind that explode and then trickle down until they fade.  They remind me of the fairy dust I once had for a Halloween costume.  As I gazed up at the sky, and gasped and applauded at the ones I liked, I felt like I was home.  It is amazing how something familiar can trigger so many memories and make you feel transported elsewhere.  It only lasted a moment, but for that brief instant it was me, fireworks and the feeling of home.

Back in the classroom after my trip to Ashgabat made me remember how unpredictable and hilarious my teaching experience can be.  I was teaching one of my sixth grade classes a Halloween song.  I was singing the song and pointing to the lyrics on the board.  The song went like this: “Halloween is coming soon, coming soon, coming soon.  Halloween is…Oh my god, what is that?”  The last sentence isn’t part of the song, but my reaction to a tiny critter that I saw scurry across the back of the classroom.  One of my students had decided to pack his hedgehog in his backpack and bring him to school.  The student scooped up the hedgehog and plopped him on his desk, where the little animal politely remained for the rest of the class and didn’t attempt to escape again.

Most of my students are familiar with Halloween from seeing it in movies.  They know about pumpkins and scary costumes, but I promised them a Halloween party to show them more of the holiday traditions.  I asked each student to bring a little pumpkin and I had parents come to ask me why their children needed a pumpkin for English club.  We played pin the eyes on the jack o’ lantern and decorated pumpkins.  I taught them about trick or treating and they went around the school to knock on a few doors where I had teachers stationed with candy.  They brought lots of candy, cakes and cookies and I completely underestimated how much junk food 22 young children could devour in a short amount of time.  When all of the little ones were out the door, leaving behind a mess of feathers and crumbs, my older students arrived for their Halloween party. 

I haven’t tried bobbing for apples in over ten years, but I got it in my head that this was a worthwhile American tradition to teach.  Their first attempts at feebly poking at the apples, trying not to get wet, were not successful.  I decided that I should demonstrate, and quickly dunked my head in the water and came up with an apple.  I was soaking wet, dripping all over my floor but my students had got the idea.  In the end each student got at least one apple and we took a photo of all of us triumphantly soaking wet.  Teaching about this American tradition and some others of equal absurdity make me wonder what people would think if that is all they were exposed to of American culture.  A people who catch apples in tubs of water, dress up in weird costumes and demand candy from strangers…really?  Take it all out of context and it starts to sound bizarre; I suspect that is true of many traditions.  Bobbing for apples was definitely something that took my students out of their comfort zone, but in class I often ask them to try to think outside the box and to take risks.  Practicing this odd tradition was another opportunity for them to see that there isn’t only one way of doing things and that acceptance and tolerance are important parts of learning about anything new.  Teaching about my culture is an opportunity to teach my students about a different way of life.  Even if it is silly to them, they are being exposed to a new culture and I believe learning about cultures is invaluable on an individual level and salubrious to the overall development of a country.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How to be a Turkmen bridesmaid

Everything happened so fast. The entire day was hectic and I barely had time to breath. I ushered the bride here and there, lifting up her dress so that she did not fall, trying to be one step ahead of everything, but not understanding half of what was being said. The day started off with a much-needed cup of coffee to get me up and out of the house. I put on my Turkmen housedress and my headscarf and I walked to Jennet’s house where all of the wedding preparations were well underway. Several women from her family and from her fiancé’s family were seated on the floor with huge bowls of vegetables and meat in front of them. They talked to me while chopping and slicing, never glancing down at their hands. The only thing more numerous than vegetables in that room were the flies that swarmed around as the children lightly waved scarves over the bowls to keep them from landing in the food. Jennet and I went to the ‘toy salon,’ an all in one locally run business that organizes everything from wedding dresses to wedding cake and makeup. Through the hairspray haze I could see maybe ten other brides and bridesmaids already in the hair salon. Every bride is told to bring three cans of hairspray, and from the smell of the room it seemed to me like every ounce of hairspray was being used. Jennet had her hair done first in an up-do with a fake ponytail attached to supplement her own hair. She had fake nails put on which left her unable to do anything with her hands, and therefore put me in charge of answering her phone, lifting up her dress, and doing any other action that would involve using her hands. I took a chance and also had my hair done. What started out looking like a beehive ended up as a French twist, kept in place with a bottle of hairspray. Despite feeling like I was wearing a helmet, the hairdo looked good from afar and went well with my dress. I escaped to the dressing room after dodging the makeup artist who insisted that I needed my eyebrows penciled in. A group of women ever so gently slipped on Jennet’s wedding dress and the hairstylist attached her veil. Her fiancé arrived with flowers and so began the daylong photo shoot. They filmed me gingerly laughing while pretending to fix her veil. Then she had to look longingly into the mirror and smile coyly, because Turkmen brides are supposed to be shy, but really nothing about Jennet says timid. The cameraman announced me to be a “super model” and so beautiful that he forever wanted to film me, and he continued to be that creepy though out the day. The cameraman wanted more photos, but Jennet demanded that we go because we were already so late after spending almost four hours in the salon. The bride, groom, bridesmaid and best man traveled in a decorated new model Toyota to the café where the wedding ceremony would take place. The woman from the wedding registration office recited a little speech about “independent and eternally neutral Turkmenistan and the respected president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov declaring” the bride and groom married on October 19, 2009 and they exchanged wedding bands. I got to sign the wedding certificate as Jennet’s witness, and they opened a bottle of champagne and cut the cake to celebrate. It is tradition to drive in a long line of decorated cars to various monuments and parks to take photographs. We drove to the neighboring district to take photographs on the “catamaran” as it was beforehand described to me. The “lake” turned out to be more like a puddle and the “catamaran” broke down while we were on it. The boat captain pushed us back to shore with a piece of wood. It would have all been very funny except for that at the same time the wedding singer canceled without any notice. This left us sitting on the inoperative boat as Jennet furiously dictating to me how to use her cell phone to call another singer to see if they were free to come immediately. I held the phone to her ear as she arranged for the new singer to go straight to her house where the wedding would start in less than an hour. Except for a few of us in the wedding party, nobody noticed that anything went wrong and the singer was setting up the stage as we arrived back at Jennet’s house. The best man and I held a fringed piece of fabric over the bride and groom’s heads as we walked out of the house and onto the street. The bride and groom walked out from under the protective fabric hand in hand to go dance. It was still early and there were only a few people standing on the street. In village and town weddings on the street people come and stand on the side of the road to watch, and go to the center when they want to dance. In less than an hour it felt like the entire town had shown up and was staring at us. The four of us were seated on a little stage decorated with frilly ribbons and gauze. Being the bridesmaid, I had to say my toast first and I struggled to remember my trilingual toast as I started to tear up and get emotional. Jennet had dared me to say a toast in three languages and half way through the Russian portion I started to cry and had to abandon the rest of it. I made Jennet cry too, but we were both wearing waterproof mascara so it was not too serious. When I got to the part about Jennet being my Turkmen sister, I couldn’t hold back the tears and I think the Turkmen are still confused as to why I was crying. Everyone except the bride is supposed to be really happy at the wedding and I broke tradition by crying. Maybe they will blame it on an unknown American wedding tradition. Throughout the evening the music was interrupted by guests making toasts to the couple and presenting gifts. A total of eleven Peace Corps volunteers attended the wedding. As a group we made a big toast to the couple and this time I didn’t cry. We danced with Jennet’s family and found out that her mom can shake it better than Shakira. It was quite the spectacle for my town to have eleven Americans there. Hundreds of students and teachers came and it was by far the most people I have ever seen at a Turkmen wedding. Jennet’s sister handed out the little sachets of two sugars wrapped in lace, which symbolize a sweet life together. Whenever Jennet and her husband, Tolkun, got up to dance people would give them money and wish them prosperity. One of Tolkun’s sisters followed them around with a bag to collect the money. The wedding at Jennet’s house ended with a Turkmen tradition that consists of covering the bride in a large shawl so that her face and arms are covered. The groom is dressed in a Turkmen robe and traditional Muslim hat. The groom’s friends throw him up into the air three times and then he leads the bride into her house to say her goodbyes to her family. Like most Turkmen young women, Jennet has lived with her parents for her entire life and will be leaving her parents’ house forever. The Turkmen verb ‘to get married’ for women literally translates to ‘go out for life.’ It refers to the tradition that the new bride will move into her husband’s parents’ house, and take on the demanding role of a new bride that includes housework, cooking and cleaning. This final moment of the wedding is really emotional for the bride and her family. The couple stands in a room as a group of older women sing and pray for them and a final prayer is said before the daughter leaves the house forever. The veiled bride kisses her parents goodbye and is ushered to the waiting wedding car that will take her to her new home, and to another wedding party that will last long into the night. Two of her sister in laws and I accompanied Jennet to the neighboring district where her husband lives. A smaller, more intimate wedding party was already set up and the singer and dancer were already entertaining when we arrived. At this point we were exhausted and it was beginning to get cold. We had kept ourselves warm dancing, but were now too tired to get up much. We listened to toasts and accepted presents much like the first wedding party. Around eleven thirty I ushered Jennet into the house to prepare her for the wedding night. All of her possessions and new bedding and linens her mother prepared were already set up in their room. We were not allowed to be alone in the room and somebody from each side of the family had to be present at all times, but we finally got a little time to relax and eat something. I opened up the back of Jennet’s dress and took down her hair. We were both so tired, but still giddy because it had all gone so well in the end. I waited with Jennet until it was time for her and her husband to be alone. I had been so preoccupied with the wedding for the past few weeks and all of a sudden I had nothing else I had to do. It was all over. Up until this point I had done everything with Jennet, but now she was living in a different town with a different family—it is going to take some getting used to. This entire wedding experience was a once in a lifetime chance and I was involved in every aspect of the wedding. This was my first time as a bridesmaid and it was possibly the most unique first experience I could have. I was honored to be her bridesmaid and I have already invited her to be one of my bridesmaids in my wedding. Luckily for me, I can have more than one bridesmaid because I couldn’t pick just one of my friends to do the job. I am sure of two things after this wedding—1.) I will definitely have all of my best friends at my wedding and 2.) I will definitely not be wearing fake nails.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Big things and differences in values: Families

What is family for you?

I believe that the answer to this question will vary drastically according to your culture and heritage. Recently I discussed family with my advanced students. We are reading a book about an American family, and while pre-reading it, I realized that the family in the book is very different from what a family consists of in Turkmenistan. I asked my students to do a fifteen-minute creative writing assignment about what family is for them. One student wrote, “Family is such a difficult word to write about because it is the most important thing in our lives.” Family is everything in Turkmenistan. Sons may live with their parents their entire lives, raising a family under the same roof where they grew up. Daughters typically live at home until they marry and then move to their husband’s house and become part of a new family unit there.

My students were shocked to hear that I hadn’t lived at home for longer than a three-month period since I was eighteen. And more importantly, that this was my choice. Many families want their daughters to stay at home rather than to enroll in university because they need help with the domestic work. I told my students that my parents supported my decision to do Peace Corps, but if they hadn’t, I could have defied them and come anyways. Disobeying parents is viewed as a huge loss of face in this culture. There is a huge amount of respect for elders, and rebelling is rarely heard of. A friend of mine got married recently because her parents had decided it was time and quickly arranged a husband for her. She told me that it was her parents’ wish and that she could not confront her parents because then the entire community would gossip about her parents’, especially her father’s, lack of authority in the house.

Another of my students wrote, “I think that family is my mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles. My cousins are also my brothers and sisters.” Typical families in Turkmenistan are very large compared to the average American. My host-father has nine brothers and one sister. Family in Turkmenistan means extended family members and not just the nuclear family. When I speak about my family I will list my mom, dad, sister and my dog. My entire family consists of many more people, but my instinct is to talk only about the family members with whom I lived. When I ask my students about their families, they will attempt to list out every single family member they can remember (and most often they can’t remember all of them because the families are so large). One student wrote, “Family for me are the people I can’t live a day without seeing. If I don’t see my mother for one day, I am very sad.” Turkmen families tend to live in the same community, so they see each other often. My students couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen my mother’s side of the family for seven years, because they are constantly seeing family members float in and out of their houses.

My student, Chynar, wrote that she believes “family is more than just a mother, father, sister or brother. Family can be friends or, I know this may sound silly, animals too. Family is anyone or anything that you love very much.” What Chynar wrote was controversial in our class. Most of my students believed family consisted of only people you were related to. Chynar argued that it was how much you loved someone or something that should deem it family. I mentioned that I considered my friends at college as family because we lived together and were each other’s family when we were all away from home. I also argued that my fellow volunteers here are like family because we are all in this situation together and have to support and help each other so much. More than friends being considered family, it was animals being included that sparked some heated discussion. Animals in Turkmenistan are mostly kept outside and dogs are abused so much that they are either scared of everything that moves or want to bite everything that moves. Some students said they had pets they loved, but thought they were too dirty to be in the house and part of the family. I told my students that my dog is the best listener in the family because she will listen to you forever and snuggle if you pet her. They thought this was funny. But I have seen children kick dogs way more often than pet a dog. All in all, animals are not considered part of the family, or even close to it.

I believe that a distinction in family values is one of the biggest cultural differences between America and Turkmenistan. The family unit in both cultures is important, but defining exactly what family is unveils cultural values that run much deeper than just family. We value individuality, independence and personal success much more than Turkmen. Whereas Turkmen prefer to do things in a group, among family, Americans are more likely to want to distinguish themselves individually. If we fail, then it is our personal responsibility, but in Turkmenistan, if you are a disappointment to the family, then this will reflect poorly on your entire family in the community at large. But I believe that family here is less likely to allow something bad happen to one of their own than in America. The extended family is the social support network in Turkmenistan and if you need something, family will be there for you. I think that many families in America do not help support each other emotionally and financially like Turkmen families.

For me, a traditional Turkmen family meal is the perfect expression of the communal and family centered life-style. Sitting on the floor around a rectangular shaped mat, families will often share food off of the same plate. The entire family will sit down to eat together and the meal will last one or two hours until the teapots runs dry. There are so many families in America who don’t eat together, and this daily act of coming together as a family has been replaced by each individual’s hectic schedule that make family meals too inconvenient. Sometimes I think that American families would benefit from just sitting down together and drinking some tea. We focus so much on our individual pursuits and the fastest way to do things, that the need for a strong family foundation based around communal meals and conversation is more and more being seen as a waste of time. It might be wise to learn a little from Turkmen about family. With stronger families, there are more connected communities and a system of support and assistance when you need it. In Turkmen culture, the beginning of a relationship always starts with a cup of tea. Slow down and drink some tea!

Little things and differences in values

I would have to write a blog post everyday in order to fully describe my life here. And the honest truth is that I don’t have enough time each day to sit in front of my computer and write a recap of my day. This being said, I feel that lots of little things are being left out that I feel just as compelled to share as the big things. Sometimes the subtle details in my day are the most moving and have the biggest impact on my life.

There is one little boy in my sixth form class who is more interested in playing with his ruler than ever learning English. He fidgets and stares out the window until my counterpart yells at him or the other students call him “stupid” and “an animal.” This little guy would be a lost cause for most Turkmen teachers and would sit in the back of the class and never learn a word of English in ten years. When I am teaching, I consider all students equal no matter how the Turkmen teacher would treat them. I call on the students in the back and I immediately stop any snickering when the slower students stutter over new words. We were learning the days of the week and I throw a hack sack that I made to each student to drill them on the new vocabulary. I tell them to pay attention because it might come flying at them at any moment. Once again this particular student was giving all his attention to his ruler when I threw the hack sack at him and it slid onto his ruler in front of him. He looked up at me wide eyed like he was under the impression that nobody could see him. I asked him how to say “birinji gun” and after a brief pause he said “Monday.” Correct. So, he had been listening. I gave him a huge smile and said good job and he grinned back at me. Now, he had put down his ruler and was watching me. We played a memory game after this and he didn’t win. But he got second place and was so excited that he did a little dance in the aisle. This was a brief moment of celebration that I wish could have lasted longer; I was so proud.

My Turkmen tutor got married last month and she informed me ahead of time that she wanted me to make a toast. At Turkmen weddings the music and dancing are periodically interrupted by various family members and friends taking the microphone and making toasts. Ever since going to my first wedding back in training and being forced to say something in front of several hundred Turkmen, I promised myself that I would learn how to say an extraordinary toast that I could repeat at every wedding from there on out. But, I had failed to do this and still resorted to saying my toasts in English because I had yet to memorize anything past “congratulations…”

For Gowher’s wedding I sat down and actually memorized all of the toasts she had taught me six months earlier. At the wedding I was just asking my friend about how I would know when to go up there when the master of ceremonies announced that Gowher’s friend from America would come up to make a toast. Okay, so that is how I know when to toast. The wedding reception was in a large converted movie theater, and as I walked down the stairs to the stage in the front, my hands began to shake I was so nervous. Another English teacher from my school was making a toast after me, and a few of us lined up on the side of the stage. The cameraman stuck his camera 3 feet from my face and the bright light made me sweat even more than I already was from the nerves. I began my toast with the pedestrian line “congratulations on your wedding” but then continued in Turkmen with every congratulation that I still remembered. A few words into my second sentence, the English teacher behind me elbowed me in the ribs and hissed “In English, In English!” Through the entirety of my toast, she didn’t let up. I grabbed her arm and held it at bay so that I could continue until my final congratulation and wish for my friend.

Most people actually want me to toast in English at their weddings because they want me on film as proof that there was an actual real blooded American present, but Gowher had asked me to say it in Turkmen since she is the one who has taught me almost everything I know. The older women in Turkmenistan feel no shame in telling you what to do, and this 60-something year old teacher felt that it was completely acceptable to elbow me until I conceded. For me, this was an intrusion into my personal space and right to say what I want, but just like the babushkas in Russia, the older women here have been through enough, and have been around long enough, to have the authority to tell anyone what to do—even what language to speak, I guess.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Classes and cotton

The school year is off to a chaotic start. But I had expected this. The piles of handwritten documents, schedules, grade books and curricula have yet to be completed and everything is at a standstill until they are signed and stamped by the director. The Soviet system of "spravki" (paper documents) for everything from permissions to equipment requests is still very much alive. When I lived in Russia we spent a few months studying "spravki" in all its forms, and how to properly write them. After months of learning about "spravki" I never wanted to see one again, but they are asked for everywhere still in former Soviet countries. The schedule for all 10 grades had to be hand written. There are four groups of each form, so a total of 40 schedules were painstakingly written in cramped letters. With each change, a new schedule was written out. The schedule covered 12 pieces of 8" by 11" white paper. Of course it had the director’s stamp of approval as well. I too have gotten used to handwriting everything for classes because of a lack of a copier. If I don’t have time to individually handwrite all of the exercises or texts, I will write them out on the chalkboard and the students will copy them into their notebooks. My chalkboard doesn’t work very well and I must first wipe where I want to write with a wet cloth and then write. If I try to write on it dry, the words are barely visible. I appreciate the efficiency of technology and the convenience of whiteboards more and more.

It is cotton season now in Turkmenistan. During the Soviet Union, the government basically drained the Aral Sea by diverting the two biggest rivers in the area, the Amu Derya and the Syr Derya, to make Central Asia fertile cotton country. The Syr Derya runs west through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan until it empties into the Aral Sea. The Amu Derya runs north-west from Turkmenistan to Kazakhstan and also empties into the Sea. The fields around where I live are still watered by the Amu Derya. From about 1960 the Aral Sea’s water level was drastically reduced because of the diversion of water from the rivers for agricultural irrigation. The Soviet government converted large acreages of untilled land in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into irrigated farmlands. By the 1980s, during the summer months, the two formerly great rivers dried up before even reaching the lake and the Aral Sea began to quickly shrink due to the evaporation of its unreplenished waters. The increased irrigation on the hot, dry regions around the Amu Derya has resulted in evaporation that has left salt deposits that make the soil infertile. Also, surface runoff has transported the salts to the river, increasing the salinity of the Amu Derya. The farms in my region water using a flood technique. They will open up the canals that come off of the Amu Derya and completely flood their fields. When the huge amount of excess water evaporates, there is a white blanket of salt on the surface. The water in the region north of Lebap, Dahoguz is too salty to drink and entire communities are suffering from health problems related to the salinity of the water. The salt is slowly leaching down to northern Lebap and I first noticed the salt left over after irrigation last fall when I was out on my usual running route. I run on the small dirt roads that weave through the fields, and with each step my shoes would break through a thick crust of salt that had formed after a routine flood irrigation. My town has been ripping up the streets to lay pipes for fresh drinking water, but the smaller villages have no such luxury. The Aral Sea is of great concern to environmental scientists, but the leeching of salt into the surface water in Turkmenistan has the potential to cause great health problems and is not being addressed. This entire environmental catastrophe began with the vision of creating a vast area of fertile cotton fields that would supply the Union with cotton enough for everyone. To this day, Turkmenistan is still very proud of their cotton. When the school children learn about the "riches of Turkmenistan," gas, oil and cotton are included. My sixth grade class learns the verb "to pick" before they learn the verb "to study." They learn the word "cotton" before they learn "family." The cotton season began last week and will continue for two months. There are some cotton-picking machines, but the majority is picked by hand, and not by choice. The teachers at my school are required to pick cotton each day after classes. Under the old president, children were allowed to skip school to go pick cotton, but this has since been prohibited. Still, I have seen a drop in student attendance in the last week (and this is even more true in the smaller villages that are still collective farms). At the end of a shift, they must weigh the cotton and fill out a "spravka" that states how much they picked. For each kilo they are given 1,000 manat (7 cents). My counterpart told me that she picks about 17 kilos in a four-hour afternoon shift (17,000 manat =$1.20). For those who don’t have time or don’t want to pick cotton, they pay someone to pick their quota of cotton. As long as the quota is met, it doesn’t matter who is actually out in the fields. No matter who collects the cotton, it is loaded onto huge trucks that take it to the cotton plant on the edge of town. The government owns the cotton. The entire cotton industry is government owned just like the gas and oil industries. Fittingly, it is called "Turkmen Cotton" and the green government trucks all share the same logo showing a cotton boll with white fluffy cotton fiber inside. For now, cotton picking is the priority and all of the fields must be emptied of "ak altyn" (white gold). During the Soviet Union the comrades were required to pick cotton as a collective, to gather it all together and to send it off somewhere. Now, the only difference is that they are paid a few cents for their work, but not much else has changed in the white gold industry.

Monday, August 31, 2009

"…and the only way to endure it all was the perfection of irony."

-Lenin’s Tomb, David Remnick

Although this quote refers to the tumultuous last years of the Soviet Union, it seems to somehow embody my life here. I wish that I could find all of the irony humorous, but sometimes it translates into frustration before I look back on it and see the actual absurdity of what happened. Sometimes I need to laugh at myself. Sometimes I need to turn my back and walk away to hide my laughter over situations that Turkmen find completely normal. Sometimes I laugh when everyone else does just because I have no idea what is really going on. Sometimes I laugh with my students about something that we know we couldn’t talk about anywhere else.

There is irony in my everyday life. I believe that it happens because of the incongruity between how I am as an American, how I want to be seen in my community, and how Turkmen actually see me. Also, the irony stems from my expectations and pre-assumptions as an American and the way things actually work here. I think that the best way to illustrate the irony that often escalates to ridiculousness in my life is by example:

"Get out the doctor’s alcohol."

One is often pressured into drinking shots of vodka while guesting but when the vodka runs out you can always have "doctor’s alcohol." There is already a room full of drunk Turkmen, one slightly displaced and confused American and no more alcohol. Oh, wait, there is some more! Get the wife to fetch the rubbing alcohol and continue toasting. See, there was never any problem to begin with. The gamble here: do you drink and wake up blind the next morning or do you not drink and hope that nobody remembers in the morning?


I changed houses. It has already been two months. I got permission from Peace Corps, the local police did a background check on the family to make sure there weren’t any suspicious characters, and I got the approval to move. Within three days of moving, I need to notify immigration of my new address. In my policy and procedure book the explanation of this process spans a few sentences. In reality, two months later, and four trips to the immigration office, it has not been successful. First, I had to track down my counterpart who has no cell phone and no house. She lives in the back of this farmer’s bank in the village and it took me a week to just find this random building. Turns out she had gone to the city with her family, so there was no way to contact her. I waited and waited. She turned up at school and I explained that I needed this registration similar to what we did when I first arrived. Easy enough, right? Wrong. We drafted a letter to the immigration. First trip—the address for the immigration office was wrong and they needed a new letter. Second trip—they need a copy of my host mother’s passport and a copy of the host family contract. Third trip—the letter doesn’t have the director’s signature or stamp. My counterpart tried to ask the director to sign the letter, but he refused because I did not ask his permission to move. I had told him about moving, but I didn’t think to ask his permission because since when does one ask permission from their boss to move? Even Turkmen teachers wouldn’t ask the director for permission. It all culminated at the local education ministry in a meeting with me, my counterpart, the director, the Etrap methodologist and the Etrap head of education. I tried to stand up for myself, but in the end the director refused to sign, stating that I needed to ask his permission before I moved and that I shouldn’t have moved. The conversation was in such fast Turkmen and I tried to keep up but ended up just going home and crying by myself. Fourth trip—the immigration guy said that the letter still needs the director’s signature since he is my supervisor. When my counterpart said that the director refused to sign, the immigration guy, who gave all of the new volunteers such trouble with the initial registration back in December, said, "why does he refuse when she has the right to move?" Even this guy supports me! Why is nothing as easy to accomplish as stated on paper? Two months of trying to deal with this and it has all ended with no registration and the director now not even acknowledging my "hellos" or basic existence at school.

"A PCV on vacation"

You can take the PCV out of Turkmenistan, but you can’t take Turkmenistan out of the PCV. We would like to think that we can still go back to the developed world and abide by the social norms, but when one PCV’s family had to extract her from the produce aisle after she had spent copious amounts of time fondling all the vegetable and voicing her great affection for the wild berries, this assumption turned out to be incorrect. We spend large amounts of time thinking about what we miss from home, mostly food and decent alcohol, and then when we come face to face with our fantasized Guinness beer or dark chocolate bar, we tend to overreact. This starts a cycle of wondering about exactly where we belong. Most people at home haven’t even heard of Turkmenistan, but they wonder exactly what goes on there when they see the weird habits we brought back. Don’t you tap the bubbles in your tea on your forehead for good luck? Don’t you spit several times into your shirt after something scares you? Right, that is in Turkmenistan. We go on vacation, but we have to stay on the middle of the bridge, not totally reintegrating at home in order to make returning to Turkmenistan easier. We want to throw ourselves into western culture, but only this is when we realize just how "Turkmen" we have become.

"Back from vacation"

One PCV told me that there is nobody who needs a vacation more than a PCV who just came back from vacation. Sadly, this is true. Coming back from vacation is a practice of difficult reintegration and a personal struggle with how badly you actually want to be here. The PCV boards the plane from London, Delhi, Bangkok, Istanbul and wonders if anybody has ever not returned from vacation and just gone home. Getting back to site is like dipping your toe in a hot bath—you can’t just get in all at once. The PCV tells and retells about the fabulous time "across the border," but also tries to forget how nice it was to have a shower and sharp cheddar cheese. Now we feel like we have a long ways to come back to our simple life in the village. After feeling worn out, tired and frustrated at site, we have spent the vacation trying to get a break from Turkmenistan, and once back it feels like that respite hasn’t made anything easier.

"2 years"

It seems like a long time. It felt daunting when I left, but now I have already been here for almost a year and I am starting to feel like I don’t have enough time to accomplish everything that I would like. I know that a year is still a decent amount of time, but when I look at it in terms of vacations (since that is a PCV way of telling time) I only have 2 vacations left. The new group is coming and the old group is headed out and I feel like I am still just getting to know them. I am in a mid-service crisis and I want some project to work on other than my clubs. But staying true to the grassroots philosophy, I am still trying to do community assessment to create the best project for them. Really, I just want to start something…but then I would feel like a Peace Corps traitor. Two years in grassroots time is enough to sit down and drink some tea. I have time, but things do seem more pressing than 8 months ago when I felt like I had all the time in the world.

"Intravenous drip"

I was over at my friend’s house and we were hanging out and talking when the nurse came over. It was time for my friend to be hooked up to an IV for her saline drip. Her mom got out the T shaped mop handle, used a scarf to tie it to a chair, and the nurse hung the IV on the mop. As I watched around the door as all of this happened in less than five minutes, everybody forgot I was there or didn’t know what to do with me and considered ignoring me the best option. The nurse asked for vodka and cleaned my friend’s arm. Then I watched as she inserted the needle and started fiddling with the IV drip to make it work. I don’t know if it ever started working because I went over and told my friend that I was leaving and the nurse gave me a look of surprise like I had jumped out of nowhere. It was another moment where I was watching all of this and analyzing from an American point of view, finding it all a bit strange and then realizing that it was all completely normal for them and that I was the most out of place thing in the room.

Friday, July 31, 2009

My English Summer Camp

Last week was the long planned summer camp that I had been stressed out about for the past month. It wasn’t so much the work that had to be put into the camp that was stressing me out, but it was the possibility that the director or anyone else could suddenly tell me I couldn’t have it and that would be the end of it. I had been promising my students that I would try my best to have this camp, and I know that they were rooting for me to get permission. I think that their undying support did help me gain permission in the first place. All the way back in the end of May I advertised for the camp at my school and had any interested students come take a test. They all thought that they had to get a certain score to get into the camp, but little did they know that the test was merely a tool for me to see how many students I should expect. Because the last volunteer at my site four years ago ran into problems from the director when she applied for a grant to cover the cost of a summer camp, I decided to avoid money all together and used some supplies sent to me by family friends and then got creative with everything else.

The camp was six days long and split into two groups of three days each. For the first three days we had 4th-6th graders and for the second part we had 7th-10th graders. I had three Turkmen teachers assisting me and another PCV from the neighboring etrap came to help, too. We had more than enough help, but the younger kids still exhausted us by the end! Each day of camp started with “Morning Assembly” that consisted of trying to wrangle all the students and then sing a few songs. I taught them “Boom Chicka Boom” and once they had learned it, we sang it different ways. I think they found my sobbing version of “Boom Chicka Boom” with my flamboyant fake crying and wailing the most hilarious. They don’t often see adults acting as silly as that, but putting myself on the extreme end of things allowed them to act goofy as well. Following the songs, we did group games and team activities. The girls turned out to be extremely skilled at carrying a ball on a spoon. My theory is that they have carried so many hot bowls of soup in their lives, that they know how to keep their hands steady while walking. They struggled to work together on the 3-legged race and got extremely competitive at the relay races. On the last day we filled up water balloons and did a balloon toss outside. Several students got wet eventually, but the balloons weren’t breaking very easily. One girl got completely soaked by a balloon and she was a good sport about it and just laughed at herself. With the older kids we had pairs of students make shapes with their bodies while having their eyes closed. The older students displayed excellent teamwork and communicated very well even when I had them blindfolded or not allowed to speak. I was impressed by how well they worked together even when given the difficult tasks that I had set (like the trust fall or leading your partner blindfolded through a course). Overall I think that we did lots of games with the students that they had never done before, using objects that they all have around the house. I was happy that I could do something new and creative with the students that challenged them to step outside their comfort zone and try something different.

After the games we split into groups and did different activities with the smaller groups. Despite the extreme weather, the first day we had a dance session. To see a group of Turkmen teenagers doing the Chattahoochee like they are in small-town Kentucky was incredible! Turkmen love to dance and although some of the younger kids had a problem keeping rhythm they were tapping, shuffling, turning and Macarena hand jiving away no matter if they were way off beat. In addition to the dance, one of the Turkmen teachers taught them origami and they made flapping birds and little dogs. The second day of camp was Christmas themed and we watched Mr.Bean’s Christmas with the younger kids and Elf with the older kids, made Christmas boxes out of origami and I taught a Christmas English lesson. The camp was conducted all in English and this lesson was the only official lesson, but of course it was fun. In addition to vocabulary and a reading activity, I taught them Jingle Bells and we played “pin the star on the Christmas tree.” For the third day we had a Halloween theme. The younger students made scary Halloween masks and went trick-o-treating through the classrooms. Definitely the highlight of the last day was the puppet show. With the first group I gave them printed dialogues with cats, bats, witches, ghosts and monsters. They made a puppet according to their dialogue, practices with their partner and performed behind a makeshift puppet stage for the class. With the older students I gave them freedom to write a dialogue themselves about anything they wanted. We had a Frankenstein monster and his love interest, Indians, rabbits, witches and one character called “Bad Boy.” Some of my more advanced students came up with witty and entertaining puppet shows that had us all laughing and enthusiastically applauding at the end. Because of the low English ability of the younger students, I was more limited with what I could do, but the older kids impressed me with their creativity and ease performing in front of their peers. The camp ended on a high-note after the puppet show as we tried to squish ourselves together to get one last memory, a group photo.

At the end of the camp I talked on the phone to my Turkmen friend with whom I went to college. During her childhood she attended PCV camps and looks back on them as some of her fondest memories. As I expressed that I wish that I could so something more for these kids, she reminded me that my little camp could be the most exciting thing that they do all summer, or that the “camper of the day” certificates could be their biggest achievement. Sometimes I forget to put my work here into perspective and that even the small projects I organize and the small changes I see in my kids are little victories I must not overlook.

Can Peace Corps Volunteers go on rescue missions?

When I get a chance to look at the news headlines each week I usually see a story about the war in Afghanistan. Since I arrived in Turkmenistan I have been scanning over these headlines, yet not often clicking on them to read the full story. Frequently stories of success are tainted by the overwhelming majority of stories about death and bombings. Sadly, these stories about soldiers and combatants who have perished during the war are so common that they have become trite. I do want to stay informed about what is happening in Afghanistan, and recently I read the story about American troops pulling out of towns and cities and I have been keeping up to date on the situation in Basra after the “changing of the knights.” Although Turkmenistan and Afghanistan border, one may live in Turkmenistan without even knowing that there is a war to the south. Life here seems so far from the turmoil across the border; the only evidence of the war is the refugee camp in southern Mary Welayat filled with mostly Afghan refugees. When my parents called me last week and told me that a guy who I have known since I was little had been taken hostage by the Taliban, I was shocked. This news made the headline I later saw on Al Jazeera (my English language news channel) of personal concern, and I would have probably barely noticed it otherwise.

All of a sudden, I felt so far away from home. And all of a sudden I realized that each soldier mentioned in those headlines means the world to their family and friends back at home. Here I am so close to Afghanistan and I thought about what my parents would do if they got news that I was in danger over here. I think about my safety constantly, and so does Peace Corps. Because of the government’s control, this country is extremely safe and despite my previous concern about the close proximity to Afghanistan, I have never felt in danger here. My heart goes out to Bowe and all of his family and friends back in Idaho. We all think about our family and friends back in America so often and find comfort in the memories and photos that we bring along with us. It is difficult enough being so far away from all of your loved ones, and I can not even imagine how much courage it takes to make it through the day in Bowe’s situation.

The second goal of the Peace Corps is to teach host-country nationals about American culture and traditions. The third goal is to educate Americans about the country where you are doing/did your service. After my primary work as a teacher, my job is to build an understanding between cultures. With so much resentment, anger and frustration across the border, Turkmenistan is next door to a country where America is viewed more as an invader than as an ally. I want to be a part of the process to build awareness about cultural differences and to educate about tolerance and appreciation of foreign cultures. I am not talking only about teaching Turkmen about America, but I believe that Americans also have a lot to learn about the world at large.

Did you know exactly where Turkmenistan was before you saw the little map on my blog?

Do you know that there are an estimated 2 million ethnic Turkmen living in Afghanistan?

Because I am cut off from most news sources here, I have been religiously reading any magazine (Economist and National Geographic have been my favorites) that I can get my hands on. Because of my lack of news, I am making a huge effort to try to stay informed, and the result has been me staying more informed that I often was in the U.S. I never thought that this would be the case. It is not easy to stay up to date, but with some effort (and everything takes a bit more effort here) it is entirely possible and necessary. I may live in an isolated country, but I do not want to feel isolated myself. I have spent this past week thinking a lot about my family and about the people I care the most about. I will be honest and say that it was not the easiest week for me, and it was probably the most homesick that I have been so far. Yet even when I miss all my loved ones so much, I know that I don’t really want to leave. I am so lucky to have so many people who are supporting me and encouraging me through all the hard times. In less than one week my feet will be on British soil and I will be gorging myself with avocados and digestive cookies, freezing my butt off in the 26-degree weather and catching up on the last 10 months with some good mother-daughter time.

Recently I have become addicted to watching Top Chef and I have almost blown through a whole season in a week. I basically sit in front of my computer and squeal about all the good food that I can’t have. The losing dish on each episode looks great to me. I have already started my list of “foods I must eat in England” and I want to write to Top Chef and recommend they do a Peace Corps volunteer quickfire challenge where the contestants have the rudimentary cooking facilities, supplies and equipment of a PCV. Let’s see just how good they are when they have cotton seed oil, rice, moldy carrots, onion, one pan, one gas burner that barely works and a knife that barely cuts garlic (those are the only ingredients my first host-family had available at one point last winter)!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Watching The News With My Host Family

On Wednesday I spent about 15 minutes scrolling through the one thousand plus television channels that my new host family has. Each Turkmen house, no matter how small, is towered over by a large satellite that picks up everything from Russian to Chinese to Arabic channels. At my former host family I was never able to have the television to myself, and very rarely watched TV at all. When my new host brother handed me the remote because he had to go out and kill a chicken for dinner, I relished in opportunity to look for news channels broadcast in English. Eight hundred channels later, I found Aljazeera in English and plopped myself on the floor in front of the television. The big story on the news was the unrest in Urumqi in western China. I was previously aware of the tension between the Han Chinese and the Muslim minority in the region, the Uighur [weegher]. Interestingly enough, this is something I didn’t know until I got to Turkmenistan, the Uighur speak a language very similar to Uzbek (See Uighur women in first photo and an Uzbek woman in the second photo). The region where the Uighurs live used to be in Turkestan and they speak a Turkic language. One of my friends here just went on vacation to China and she searched for a Uighur restaurant where she could show off her Turkmen language skills. She tracked down a restaurant, ordered entirely in Turkmen and ate a meal that is standard in Lebap—palow, yoghurt and naan. On Monday I had just talked with her about the Uighurs and we weren’t aware of what was going on in XinJiang. As I was watching this story on Aljazeera, my host family came in with lunch and we kept the television on as we ate. Although there were no sound bites of the Uighurs speaking, my host family drew the conclusion that they were Uzbek because of their clothing. My host family is educated and pretty aware of world events, but the resemblance was so uncanny that I understood their confusion. The materials, dress styles and hats are almost identical to those in Uzbekistan. The women on the television were wearing traditional knee length shirts, loose pants and square hats, similar to those worn by many women in my town. It took me several minutes to explain to my host family that these people they were seeing on the television were Chinese and not Turkmen or Uzbek. I don’t know if they actually ended up believing me, but I told them the story of my friend in China and my host mom’s response was, “mmm…maybe,” still pondering whether of not I was trying to trick her. “No, really, she spoke to them all in Turkmen and they understood,” I declared. Again, “mmm…maybe” was the response I got. I understood their incredulity because even for me it was unreal to see shots of demonstrations in what looked like my town on the international news. It reminded me of how recently Central Asia was full of nomadic tribes and how cultures and languages moved fluidly across non-existent borders. Now with immigration laws, and tight border control, Central Asian people are not able to wander like they did less than 100 years ago. Forced to settle in countries not necessarily split along already pre-established tribal borders, they have now taken up the identity of their country rather than as a more broader Turkic peoples who spread across former Turkestan.

Monday, July 6, 2009

"We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails."

-Peace Corps, 1992

In the past week I moved in with a new host family and went to Ashgabat for two days to attend the July 4th party. It seems like so much has happened in the last 7 days, that I almost feel like I have entered into a new period of my Peace Corps service. On July 1st I had been in Turkmenistan for 9 months. A friend of mine, a fellow PCV, sent me a text message that read, "If you had gotten pregnant on the day we arrived, you would be in labor right now—happy 9 months!" Thankfully this isn’t the case, but I have been here three-quarters of a year and I have indeed seen more babies born than I ever have in my entire life. I had previously decided to move host families and found a great family that lives close to school. My new host-mom, Maya is a gynecologist and my host dad, Genji works at a company in Turkmenabat. I have two younger host-brothers. Aziz is in the 8th grade and is rarely at the house, but out in the village where all of his cousins live. Azad is going to be a sophomore at a university in Ukraine and is home for the summer vacation. At my new house I have my own separate side of the house that consists of my room and a kitchen. I have my own entrance to my room and this gives me more privacy and more freedom to come and go as I please. Before I moved in, I discussed the food situation at my previous host-family and expressed my concern about the nutrition of my food. I had been cooking almost all of my meals myself at my previous host-family and I was spending too much of my money to try to compensate for the lack of nutritious food that they had available. Maya asked me specifically what I would like to eat and today she bought everything I mentioned and had placed it in my kitchen for me. We have an outside kitchen and an inside kitchen, and she has given me the inside kitchen until it gets too cold to cook outside. My host-mom lived in Cyprus for a year and she is so fascinating to talk to. We speak all in Russian together and last night we spent two hours together sharing photographs and talking about our pasts. I never spent that much time with my last host-family and I already feel more comfortable here than at my previous residence. It is common for PCVs to switch host-families and usually the families that the volunteers find themselves work out better than the Peace Corps selected families. Since I have been at my site for over six months, I have many connections and I was able to search for a family with certain characteristics that I had decided were important to me. Mostly I was looking for a family where I could have more privacy and where I felt more comfortable with the host-parents. Americans’ desire to spend much time alone is weird to most Turkmen because they are very communal people, but there are many times when I am so exhausted by the time that I come home that I just want to relax and feel like I came back to a place I feel comfortable. It was difficult explaining why I was leaving to my host-family and I know that they took it personally. I still hope that I see my host-sisters in my yoga club and I will see all of them in the cafeteria every day once school begins. I am sure that I will encounter challenges with my new host-family, but I am already much happier at my home and I know that this will positively effect my overall experience here.

It was a whirl-wind of a trip, but the majority of Turkmenistan PCVs went to Ashgabat for the July 4th US Embassy party. It was also our chance to say goodbye to our Programming and Training Officer who is leaving to work in the Peace Corps Romania program. She was one of the first people who greeted us at the airport when we arrived 9 months ago, and I am sad that I won’t be able to finish my service with her still here. She supported me greatly over the past months, especially in the beginning and I think that our new PTO has big shoes to fill. In addition to saying goodbye to our PTO, we said a really sad goodbye to four PCVs who are leaving this weekend to go home. It came as a shock that four are leaving at one time and we will miss them all greatly. Everyone deals with it differently, but I was extremely upset when I found out because I am especially close to one of them and Turkmenistan will never be as quirky and interesting without him (especially the dance moves at the Ak Altyn disco). Over the course of nine months we have had a total of seven T-17s leave. This most recent batch to leave was definitely the hardest because we have all grown so tight as a group. It shows how much we depend on each other and how much we have bonded as a group. I came here with 43 strangers and I was met by another group of 35 T-16s. Even if I have just met a new PCV, which did happen at the July 4th party, we fall into conversation like we have know each other for years. We are all so connected by this unique experience, that we will forever share a huge part of our lives together. As four of my friends depart Turkmenistan, it leaves me to think about my desire to be here and to analyze my experience so far. I have realized since being back from vacation that even on the most frustrating days, I can still say that I truly want to be here. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I am happy here in a way that sometimes I can’t explain. I found the quote at the beginning of my blog entry today in a teaching article I was reading and I know that the author was referring to changing our actions and the way that we do things to work with what we cannot control, but I also think that this quote can relate to emotions and the necessity to having a go with the flow attitude. My mom sent me a postcard that has a picture of roller skates and printed below, "just roll with it." She is right to say that this must be how I approach things in Turkmenistan. There are events, like losing 4 of my fellow PCVs, that I cannot change, but I must adjust my own sails and keep on going wherever the wind sends me.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Summer Top 10

Despite the heat that comes with the summer, this season has brought about some unexpected surprises. I have been dreading the high temperatures of the summers, but I have started taking note of the best parts of the summer rather than focusing on the sweltering heat. Here is my "Top Ten" list for the best things about the Turkmen summer. Disclaimer: remember that not all of these things apply to Turkmenistan in general and that this list refers to mostly Lebap specific things. So, if you find yourself in Turkmenistan for any reason and you can’t find what I am talking about, don’t come complaining to me!

1.) Gazly Suw

I talked about this briefly in my last entry but I feel that gazly suw deserves more explanation as it tops my list. Suw means water and gazly is the adjective form of gaz, which means gas. So, literally this would translate as "gassy water" in English. It is more accurately called carbonated water but gassy makes it sound less bourgoise (and maybe less appetizing) considering that it costs less than 7 cents. Little gazly suw stands that were closed for the colder months have opened everywhere. You can have plain carbonated water or you can pick a syrup of your choice to flavor the water. My favorite is coconut and I usually ask for only a little syrup so that it is refreshing rather than overly sweet and dehydrating. The drawback to the gazly suw stands is that once you are done chugging the drink there, they put your cup on what looks like a little metal plate, press down and water squirts up in the middle to wash (and I am using this word lightly) the cup for the next customer. You can either think about all the sicknesses and diseases you could catch from this cup, or you can hit every gazly suw stand between you and the post office and hope the guy before you wasn’t too dirty.

2.) Kvas

This one comes in a close second to gazly suw. Kvas is a Russian drink that came here during the Soviet Union. It is not found in other Welayats, but in Lebap it is very popular and most gazly suw stands also offer kvas. Kvas is a drink made from fermented bread and some describe it as the Russian rootbeer. My favorite kvas lady is in the bazaar in Turkmenabat and sells a cup for 2,000 manat (14 cents). I am sure that she makes hers from scratch and doesn’t dilute it like some of the other vendors. Kvas is not for everyone and you either love it or totally hate it. You will have to try it yourself to decide.

3.) Soft-serve Ice Cream

I just realized that my top three picks are food related and it shows how my life in the summer revolves around getting yummy drinks and cold ice cream. The Turkmen ice cream in general is not the best quality and I only really like the Turkish ice cream bars, Magnum (if you haven’t noticed that already). In the center of my town there is a little gazly suw stand that sells soft-serve ice cream. When my friend Kelsey and I were in the new cafй having lunch, another customer had a large beer mug full of soft-serve ice cream and because it looked so much like a milkshake, we decided we wanted one. It turned out to be way more ice cream than we wanted; we both finished a beer mug full of soft-serve but couldn’t figure out why we had wanted it in the first place. Since then I have turned down the offers of pints of ice cream and stick with the mini cone. At 1,000 manat it is the same price as gazly suw and satisfies the sweet tooth as well.

4.) Watermelon (or any melon)

I don’t want everyone to think that all I do is loiter around the gazly suw stands waiting for my next cup or cone. No, I also enjoy the array of fruit that is now in the bazaars. The melons are in season right now and are definitely the most amazing fruit that Turkmenistan has to offer. Consuming a half of a watermelon for lunch is not unheard of and especially when it is cold, it is crisp, juicy and sweet. The Turkmen watermelons are the best that I have ever tasted. The only better thing about watermelons in America is that you can find seedless melons, but they don’t have the sweetness that you get here. When Kelsey was here to visit I cut up a half of watermelon for us to take outside to eat and when we both picked up a piece, the first thing we did was lurch our upper bodies forward in our seats so as to prepare for the stream of juice that would be dribbling down our faces. We did this at the exact same time and laughed because we both know you have to eat watermelon leaning over the ground in order not to ruin your clothes.

5.) The Beach

About a 15 minute walk outside of Turkmenabat there is a little piece of heaven that costs 1,000 manat to get into. On the banks of the Amu Derya river there is a public beach that is maintained, cleaned and the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon. The entrance fee actually goes into the maintenance of the beach and not into the guard’s pocket, and it shows. There is sand, cold water and enough space for a roudy group of volunteers.

6.) Long days

Because the daytime is so hot, the early mornings and late evenings are the only times when you feel like being active. Being a desert country, it does cool off at night and the hours close to sunrise and sunset are the only respite one can get from the sweltering sun. My schedule has changed so much from what it was during the winter. I get up early to go running but even then I desperately want to jump into a cold shower when I get home. I feel so lethargic during the afternoons that I usually take a nap. In the evenings I open my window and hope that some of the cool air will make it into my room. You have to take advantage of the long summer days because you can barely function during the hours when the sun is directly overhead.

7.) The 4th of July US Embassy Party

Coming up next week is the big social event of the season! The US Embassy has invited us to attend the annual Independence Day party. For the occasion I had my tikinchi (dressmaker) make a special halter dress out of dark pink silk/cotton fabric that I bought at the bazaar. It is rumored that the theme this year is Hollywood and considering that they flew in Native American Indians to complete the theme last year, I can’t imagine to what extravagance they will go to this year. Although the invitation says "causal dress," we all know that this does not mean Peace Corps casual dress. I don’t think they want me to show up in my blue paisley print house koynek! This party can be compared to the Peace Corps prom where we can hobnob with all the Embassy staff with whom we usually are prohibited from fraternizing. Most of the volunteers are going into Ashgabat especially for the party and the T-17s have heard this is a must attend event no matter how many hours you have to spend on the train, or in a taxi or mini bus to get here (or for those of you rolling in manat, a 45 minute airplane ride).

8.) Short koyneks

This one might be specific to my site and more liberal communities in Lebap. During the summer women wear short versions of the winter koynek with short sleeves or no sleeves at all. I recently got a summer koynek in a bright blue and orange Indian print made. It hits about mid calf and has short cap sleeves. I am lucky that this revealing of a dress is common in my town because other volunteers are amazed that I can wear this in my community. I wear this koynek mostly in the house because it is comfortable and light. Some girls in my town wear spaghetti strap dresses and mini skirts but I wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing this in my community so I err on the conservative side to be safe. But when I go into Ashgabat it is a whole different set of rules and I wear exactly as I would wear in America.

9.) Ninja scarves and umbrellas

Sun block does not yet exist here in any mainstream form. I am sure you could find it in some foreign import cosmetics store, but the majority of people who are going to be outdoors for extended periods of time in the summer use clothing as their sun block. The women wrap their scarves around their heads so that there is only a slit for their eyes and they look peculiarly enough like ninjas dressed in paisley and floral prints. You can see groups of these ninja clad women going out to the fields in the morning carrying their tools and looking like they might be going into battle rather than to plow. In the city only the women who sweep the streets wear the ninja scarves and most women prefer a brightly colored umbrella to block the sun. I have adopted the second option and take my shiny silver umbrella wherever I go; I am both in style AND protecting my skin.

10.) Cold showers

In the winter I could only take a shower when the water was hot and now I only want to take a shower when the water is cold. My host-family still likes the banya nice and hot and steamy for a shower, and I nearly pass out if I wash my hands for 2 minutes when the banya is post-shower suffocating. I take at least a shower a day now, which is a huge leap from once or twice a week during the winter. If I have done housework or washed my laundry and am feeling especially hot and grimy, I will fill up buckets of ice-cold well water and dump them one after another over my head. The chill of the water makes me lose my breath but I know that within 5 minutes after freezing myself I will be hot again. It is 40 degrees on average now, if not higher at mid-day and I wonder how much hotter it is going to get! Maybe I don’t want to know.

From Turkmenistan to Taiwan

When my plane lifted off from Turkmenabat I looked down on the city and for the first time realized how truly tiny it is. It consists of two main roads that run parallel the entire length of the city, and where these streets end the village begins. From the air I could see exactly where the pavement stops and where the smaller, primarily dirt roads begin. Apart from the villages clustered around the perimeter of the city, the country becomes desolate and unforgiving. The ground is baked dry by the intense summer sun, sucking the color out of the soil and leaving barren dunes to shift with the wind. I soon grew tired of looking out the window as there was no change in scenery until we circled over the Kopetdag mountains outside of Ashgabat. The emptiness of the landscape reminded me of how much of this country is uninhabited. The middle of Turkmenistan consists entirely of desert and most of the 6 million inhabitants are clustered around water sources forming a line of towns and cities that curves along the borders with Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. If you were to trace your finger from Turkmenbasy on the Caspian Sea, along south-east to Ashgabat along the Iranian border, south to Mary along the Afghan border and then up to Turkmenabat and onto Dashoguz along the Uzkek border you would hit most of the inhabited area of Turkmenistan. My first plane ride in-country took a thrilling 45 minutes in a Boeing 737, just enough time to drink a cup of Sprite, eat the waffle cookies served and write a letter. I had treated myself to a 45 minute plane ride in place of the over-night train because I figured that I would pull out all the stops for my first trip out of country.

Although the individual days go by slowly, I feel like the first eight months of my Peace Corps service have gone by quickly. I was making plans for my trip back in April because everything takes twice as long to get done here and because there was no way I was going to miss that plane to Taiwan! It was nice going on a vacation to a semi-familiar city and meeting up with very familiar people so as to minimize the culture shock of leaving Turkmenistan. The first thing that struck me about Taipei was the amount of people out on the street and the amount of activity and bustle at 10 at night. Because of the 11pm curfew in Turkmenistan and because there are not that many people in general in Turkmenistan, the streets are fairly empty during the day and completely quiet at night. The speed and efficiency of life in Taipei shocked me. With the mix of modern technology and a competitive work ethic, Taipei runs like a machine—the streets are clean, the metro is extensive, there are businesses flourishing everywhere, and all of the newest technology is on display as people chat on cell phones and browse the internet at the Starbucks. It was all overwhelming for me, but I was so excited to be able to be swept away by the hustle and energy around me.

The first day I got my hair cut to a short bob and I felt like I had transformed from the Turkmen Annie into someone who was ready to do everything that I don’t have the opportunity to see, eat, drink and do in Turkmenistan. We visited a tea house high up in the mountains outside of Taipei and enjoyed tea, tea jelly, tea muffins, tea mochi and…chicken feet. Those were not tea flavored but tasty. We went to a Mexican restaurant and I consumed my beloved guacamole that I had been craving since I left America. We went out dancing one night and I was pleasantly surprised that I was more up to date on new music than I thought. I recognized Akon songs thanks to my students and sang along to a remix of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Everyday I made a point of consuming at least one large bubble tea. I have my favorite tea shops and ordering bubble tea is about the only full sentence I remember how to say in Chinese! After a month of suffering from severe stomach problems, my digestive system was happy to be eating clean, dairy-free food that was not swimming in oil. I love the tofu pudding and any kind of dumpling, noodle or rice cake. Basically, any meal not Turkmen was okay with me.

To get out of Taipei, we took a three-day trip out to the Penghu Islands in the Taiwan Strait. We stayed at a little place right on the bay in the city of Makung and explored the beaches and surrounding islands by bike. Because it was still low tourist season, the beaches were deserted and we had all of the white sand and turquoise water to ourselves. The current was not strong and we could just float out in the water for hours. It was heavenly! I was careful to apply lots of sun block because eight months of exposing little more than my wrists has left me quite pasty, and even I was shocked and appalled by the whiteness of my ankles when I saw them.

Ten days in Taiwan went by too quickly and I was back in Turkmenistan before I knew it. I was greeted in the Peace Corps office by a large group of volunteers who were in Ashgabat for the weekend and I immediately knew that the best thing about coming back was seeing all my friends again. Since being back I have made a big effort to get out and foster all my friendships in my community. I have done so much guesting in the past week and I feel assured that I have a place in my community. My summer teaching schedule is on the lighter side and I have plenty of time in the afternoons and evenings to go see friends, walk into the center to get soft-serve ice cream or, my new favorite, to down a cup of “gazly suw,” or carbonated water with flavoring of your choice. My favorite flavor is coconut and I just try to ignore the fact that they reuse the cups after a little rinsing. “Gazly suw” stands have popped up all over the place and costing 1,000 manat (7 cents) it is something I can afford on an almost limitless basis!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Jennet's Nieces

Although Jennet is not my official counterpart, she has become my closest colleague and friend here. Her family in turn has become my second family and her mother especially has taken the role as my guardian in my community. Last week Jennet’s house was as noisy and child filled as a kindergarten. Her brother from Dashoguz and her sister were visiting and the child count maxed at 9 or 10 depending on if you counted the neighbor’s kids too. Her nieces call me ‘opa’ which means aunt in Uzbek and kiss me on the cheek twice when I come to visit. Working on her Fulbright application at her house was pointless but one day I stopped by on my way home from work to run over one of the drafts with her and was ambushed by her nieces while she was making tea in the kitchen. They poked and proded at my computer and somehow hit the keyboard so that it opened up my Photo Booth application and my built in webcam activated. Their little faces popped up on my screen and they squealed at their reflections, pushing each other around trying to dominate the entire image. I took this video of three nieces, Rayhan, Aynura and Yulduz, as they ogled over the novelty of being on camera. I think that this video is adorable; I hope you think so too.

Ashgabat Revisited

There was a fleeting moment when I could see my mom on the screen, short spiky hair, and red glasses. “Annie can you hear me?” she repeated as I sat glued to my chair laughing with happiness because this was the first time I had seen my mom in seven months. Then, just as fast as the image had appeared, it disconnected and my attempt to talk to my mom via video chat ceased to work. I was sitting in the conference room on the 4th floor of an Ashgabat hotel, using the only wireless internet that I know about in Turkmenistan. For a moment there I thought I had just happened upon the most incredible technology available here, but then it failed to meet my expectations and I didn’t get to see my mom after that first attempt.

It was okay, though. I had seen my mom, even for a second, and I had glimpsed the searching look on her face as my face came upon her computer screen at home. She looked healthy, and I left through the hotel doors as happy as could be and hailed a taxi straight back to the hotel where the Lebap Peace Corps Volunteers and our counterparts were staying.

I was in Ashgabat for my second visit, this time going into the capitol for a Peace Corps organized conference. I brought Jennet with me as my counterpart, and our three days together working through project design and management proved us to be a solid team. We volunteered to lead a morning warm-up session and facilitated various team building activities, ending the 20 minutes with a group massage session. Our efforts were awarded with Peace Corps mugs depicting the stars on the American flag flying off the flag and morphing into a dove. As an example project, we decided to develop the yoga club that we had already started a few weeks back. We created a goal and broke it down into different objectives. One of our objectives included getting mats and a CD player for our class. Another of our objectives involved creating a yoga instruction manual in Turkmen and printing this for national distribution. This project was one of 13 ideas that we brainstormed during the conference. After the three days I felt motivated and excited about returning to site to start on a whirl-wind of projects. I wanted to plan an English immersion summer camp, a new English resource center, a girl’s sports club…the list went on. Jennet and I completed a beautiful poster outlining our proposed project, completing it with little stick figures in various yoga poses. We received certificates, stating that we had successfully completed the conference, and I headed back to site with a feeling of motivation that I hadn’t felt since I first arrived. It was all too good. During my travel back to site I was struck down with a bad case of food poisoning and forced to stay in bed for a week, impeding my ability to get anything accomplished. Just like the Skype conversation with my mom in Ashgabat, I was struck with a fleeting moment of success. The reality of the situation is different. I have had so many ideas from the community about projects and classes that they want me to pursue, but because I only have one and a half years here it is vital to think about what projects will continue after I leave. I have never thought so much about sustainability as I have in the past 8 months. I don’t want my work to stop once I leave, but I want it to continue long after I am gone. Maybe I will never get to see the true outcome of my work here, but I hope that by the time I leave I will have affected my community enough for my work to be continued by the community members themselves.

Sometimes grassroots work is the most frustrating because the victories can be so small. As for me, often my personal expectations are not met because I naturally have big goals and want to achieve things that aren’t necessarily wanted or possible here. My experience here has taught me that not always the most obvious way for me to go about things is going to work. Often here I have attempted to get permission for one club or another and have failed. What seems to me like a simple permission is enough to stop the whole thing from happening. Although the first attempt was not successful, I have learned to look past these setbacks and to talk to the community members about other possible ways of starting up. Although their way of going about things might not be apparent at first, the Turkmen know the system (and how to get around the system) so much better than I do.

The last week of classes and the celebration of the “last bell” brought an end to my first academic year in Turkmenistan. Although it feels like summer arrived way too quickly, summer plans are in motion and a new schedule to accommodate the scorching afternoon temperatures was set. I am excited about my work during the summer because I will be free to pursue other projects and to do some traveling to help other volunteers with their summer camps. I am sure that this season will fly by with watermelon consumption, swims in the river and afternoon naps to keep me from boiling in the 120+ temperatures!