Monday, March 30, 2009

Away from Site: Destination…Ashgabat

For the first three months at site we are not allowed to leave for over-night visits. March 7th marked our “freedom day” when we finally became full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers without any restrictions. We still have to tell Peace Corps everywhere we go and get permission from our counterparts and supervisors, but the bottom line is that we actually can leave! For my first over-night trip away from site I planned to be away from site for five nights, two spent in a train, and three in Ashgabat. I secured permission from my supervisor with no problem and he looked at me as if wondering why I was asking him if I could go since it was going to be our Spring Vacation. I asked my very flustered counterpart if she could write a letter to the Lebap migration registration (a special part of the ministry that monitors foreigners and must be notified if we leave for more than three nights). Authority is something to be feared here, and she was extremely nervous about making a mistake with this process. Because it is not a Peace Corps policy and because the last time I tried to go help my counterpart with the initial registration I was yelled at for coming with her, I could only help her with the letter writing and then hoped they would accept our letter and grant me permission to go. Technically we are free to move around the country (except to the restricted zones where we still need additional visas), but I am still unfamiliar enough with the system to doubt the outcome.

I was prepared to head to the vokzal (train station) by myself to battle it out with the ticket lady in a mix of Russian, Turkmen and English swear words, but Jennet saved me and called her “familiar person” as they call it who works at the vokzal. This contact in the vokzal offered to buy us all round-trip tickets, which was way easier than the disaster situation of me at the vokzal ticket window that I had played out several times in my head. To buy train tickets in Turkmenabat you need to go five days in advance to buy your one-way ticket. Again, you will need to purchase your return ticket five days in advance from that date. The system doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t make getting a ticket easy for anyone, especially the unfortunate PCV who has to beg for a ticket from the confused ticket lady. The train ticket for “kupe” (2nd class) costs 50,000 manat and we pay 70,000 so that the ticket lady will pocket her cut and reluctantly hand us the tickets. All of this hassle is side-stepped if you happen to have a “familiar person” at the vokzal who can just do it all for you at the same price. Collin ended up having to change the return tickets for the other three Lebap PCVs going, and he tried to go exchange the tickets without any luck, only getting the answer, “that just isn’t possible” or (translation) “you need to know the right person to get that done.” Despondent from a completely useless day trying to change these tickets, Collin returned back to his school and upon re-telling his story found out that a lady who works in the cafeteria is the ticket lady’s sister. Perfect, we have a connection! Now anything is possible. And it was. The cafeteria lady wrote a little note on a piece of paper, and the tickets were changed immediately without any questions. That is how it works here.

By Thursday night four Lebap PCVs were on a train to the big city. Ashgabat may only be a city of less than a million people, but for us it has grown to epitomize the metropolis that we are so far removed from. The train leaves at 7:30pm and arrives in Ashgabat around 9am. The trains are relatively new and clean but they stop so much that the constant lurching motion makes it hard to sleep. Sometimes it feels like the conductor never learned how to drive a train as I brace myself so I don’t fall off my bunk as he screeches to a stop. We bought giant bottles of beer called “bujak” that is the stuff made with the left overs after the real beer has been made. It is the difference between a juice and a “fruit flavored drink,” the latter you know isn’t the real thing. We fondly call “bujak” our “beer flavored drink.” But it is cheap and that is what we are looking for. Around midnight we decided to call it a night because the temperature in our cabin was intolerable without opening the door, but we would get yelled at every time we did that, and the conductor told us he didn’t have a key to open the locked window. And besides he said, “there are children who could fall out.” Children? Out of a window that opens a few inches? Shortly after he woke us up two hours before we were to arrive in Ashgabat, six hours after we called it lights out, he opened up a hallway window to let some fresh morning air in. But what about the children falling out we wanted to yell at him! Still, nothing could contain our excitement as we approached Ashgabat and looked out the window to see expanses of green leading up to the mountains still capped with snow. This is actually the beautiful part of the desert, we all thought, and we sure miss it.

There were about twenty-five T-17s who went into Ashgabat for the weekend. Instead of staying at a local hotel, I chose to stay at Tess’ house on the outskirts of Ashgabat. She lives in one of the tall white “elite buildings” that are sprouting up all across the city. They go up in less than 40 days, being worked on around the clock, but it takes at least 40 days for the cement and everything else just to dry. Building regulations are not being met like many things being built across this country. A good part of Friday was spent wandering around the Russian bazaar, enjoying some good shashlik (barbequed meat) on rice and salad and catching up on the last three months. On Saturday we walked all the way to the city center to the big Turkish supermarket. Impash is as close as you get to a western style department store in Turkmenistan. The first floor is all food and kitchen supplies, the second floor is clothing and the third is a food court with a mini bowling alley and a billiards room. The prices are high at Impash, but there are some things that you can only find there, and I was on a search for curry powder and found it.

On Sunday we were planning on having a picnic with some of our Turkmen friends out by where the Health Walk is, but the weather was cold and rainy so we had a mock-picnic inside. Ayna’s family had made shashlik for us and we brought fruit, lavash, drinks and a cake. The rest of Sunday was spent walking around the city and sitting on the computer at the Peace Corps office for unreasonable amounts of time. The rest of the group headed back to site Sunday, but I stayed an extra day for a dentist appointment. The dentist that Peace Corps uses is really good, and she quickly filled my chipped tooth and the cavity that I had. The dentist is never a pleasant experience, but it was better than I expected in Turkmenistan. Peace Corps doesn’t mess around when it comes to medical and dental treatment, and our Peace Corps Medical Officer will be coming around to my site with-in the next few weeks to check on me. I left Ashgabat on the train, not wanting to leave, but knowing that the longer I stay away from site the harder it will be to go back. I shared a kupe with three Turkmen, and the surprising thing was that they didn’t ask me any of the usual questions, but just included me in their conversation. I have never had this happen. Usually it is a bombardment of the same old questions, and then I get the silent treatment once all their questions have been answered. “I am from America. I am not married. My salary is very low. I am a volunteer. I am an English teacher. I will live here for two years. Sorry, can you speak slower. I arrived six months ago…” Once we had finished out pot of tea, I climbed up onto the top bunk and fell asleep. I was so tired that I actually slept all the way through the night until the conductor knocked on our door. I didn’t feel a single stop, or hear a single screech of the breaks. I guess being exhausted from an exciting weekend in the big city is what you need to sleep through an over-night train ride in Turkmenistan.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One Year Ago

I found out in March 2008 that I was coming to Turkmenistan, about one year ago I found the packet on the floor of my room at about 12:30am on a Sunday night. At that moment, it was the last thing that I wanted to see. I was nervous about reading my country placement and then not having anyone there to calm me down when I freaked out. I went to pick it up and put it on my desk, intending to open it in the morning, but as I looked down at it, the letter inside had just shifted enough for me to see “…assignment Turkmenistan…” in the address window. My first reaction was to panic because there I had it in my hand, the country in which I would spend the next two years of my life. Once my emotions had subsided, I realized that I knew next to nothing about this country. I had a good friend from college who was from Turkmenistan, but she was always vague about her home country when I asked her questions. I had read about the former president who went by the name Turkmenbasy, and about his cult of personality. But where was Turkmenistan exactly? What language did they speak there? And what was my job? They mentioned students but they also talked about teaching teachers.

The last year applying to Peace Corps had been a long, tedious process of forms and medical exams and now I actually had it here in my hand, an eight-page booklet intended to be my introduction to the next two years. There were, of course, more forms and the instructions to contact Peace Corps with-in the next 10 days to either accept or decline the invitation. I was petrified. My first thought was, I can’t go to a place I know nothing about, but even then I knew, with fear still making my heart beat rapidly I would make that call to Peace Corps and I would accept. I sat down at my computer and searched for Turkmenistan. Obscure pages came up, mostly focusing on the outlandish personality of the former president. I couldn’t find any information about culture, daily-life, people, or boring, normal things. All I read were titles like, “this is the weirdest country I have ever visited,” “not a place I would ever go back to” and so on. This didn’t help me at all. I decided to search for Peace Corps blogs and I found one in particular, written by a T-16 also named Annie that I found most comforting. She related her experiences to novels she was reading, and marveled at the peculiarity of her life, but also reveled in the unique experience she was having. I read her stories until I felt like I could be that Annie in the blog.

I accepted my placement in Peace Corps Turkmenistan without any hesitation, and suddenly it was like all of my anticipation for my service compounded and I felt like it was tomorrow I would be leaving. I continued to search for information about Turkmenistan and I got my hands on anything and everything I could find; I YouTubed videos of Turkmen singers and dancers; I read other Peace Corps blogs; I looked at photographs of Turkmen rugs, dresses, horses and people. I examined all of these things, searching for a taste of what my service would be like. I desperately wanted a glimpse into what my life might be like in this mysterious country.

I quickly figured out that there simply wasn’t a lot about Turkmenistan. Everything is on the Internet, but a search for Turkmenistan came up with slim pickings for reputable information. Turkmenistan is a closed country. It is isolated and not many people come here and not many people are compelled to write about the normality of life when there is the eccentric figure of Turkmenbashy who will attract so much more attention. I decided to give my research a rest and to stick with reading the Peace Corps blogs because those seemed as real and accurate as I could find.

After almost six months of living here myself, I am that Annie in the blog. My life at time still seems foreign to me, like I am in a dream, but I have a schedule, I have work, I have friends and I just go about my life. When I think I am adjusted, something will happen and I know, nope, I am far from settled. My life in Turkmenistan is not like what I imagined as I read through the eight-page introductory booklet. There is nothing that could have prepared me for what my life is like here except for coming here and experiencing it day by day for myself. Maybe if a T-18 is reading my blog now, panicked by the thought of this far away country, they should know that it isn’t necessarily the country that makes your experience unique, it is you that makes it worth it. Life in Turkmenistan is different for every volunteer here, and it is the people you meet, the students you see everyday, the friends you bond with and all of the personal relationships that you create that make your service your own. I think that it is a common dream of volunteers to enter Peace Corps with the lofty intention to save the world, but when any change happens, it must happen on an individual basis first and then gain momentum as the idea catches on. I will not save the world in two years, but I will try my best to gain the trust needed in my community to start some small changes and to affect people on a personal level.

I arrived in Fall, survived the mild Winter and already there are signs of Spring—blossoms, buds, warm wind, sun and green grass. I am a world away from that day I received my placement, but I am still Annie just like I was then and I know a lot more about the real Turkmenistan than anything I could ever find on the Internet.