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.

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