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 cafะน 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!