Tuesday, June 30, 2009

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!

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