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.

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