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!