Monday, May 3, 2010

Shopping List:
I always take my time and walk along the rows before I start buying the day’s purchases. I look over the fruit and vegetables and causally ask a few vendors their prices. I have found that the lettuce and radishes are cheapest in the back where the vendors have their produce laid out on plastic tarps and crates. The apples are freshest in the front where the vendors display their shined and washed fruits and vegetables on recently renovated stalls. Women bustle around, hardly appearing burdened by the large bags they have hung over their arms. The men with carts yell “tachka, tachka” to warn you that you have about two seconds to move out of the way or else you will be run over. I pick up one of the apples and ask the vendor the price. “15,000 manat per kilo,” she says ($1.05). “No,” I say. “Give them to me for cheaper.” “12,000 manat,” I suggest ($0.84) and eventually she settles for 13,000 manat and I save a fraction of a dollar. Sometimes I evesdrop on Turkmen shoppers to hear the prices the vendors tell a native. By now I know the going rate for tomatoes or oatmeal, and I scoff at an inflated price and move on. The cell phone card lady greets me with a familiar “sen” used for friends, and she asks about my work. Every week I buy the same card from her, and when I skip a week she asks me where I went. The oatmeal lady lives in my town, and she gives me a good deal on a kilo of oatmeal that lasts me almost a month. The moneychangers incessantly ask me in furtive murmurs if I want to change dollars even though I have told them from the beginning that I only have manat. As I walk around I can hear people whispering, “she’s American” and this echo around the bazaar has become familiar along with the squawking of the birds, the pounding of heavy feet, the yelling of greetings across aisles and the crinkling of plastic bags as they are handed to the customers. Every Monday I take my reusable bag to the bazaar in Turkmenabat and try my hand at bargaining away at my shopping list.
As the weather warms, the stalls at the bazaar swell with fresh produce. The winter months bring slim pickings for fresh fruit and vegetables, and in the spring new produce appears overnight. My shopping list is incredibly simple and straight forward compared to what I used to have in America. I make everything from scratch here. Therefore, the products listed are raw products, straight from the local farms around the city. The strawberry lady assures me that she grows the strawberries herself in a small village 30 minutes outside of the city. The cauliflower that I happen upon also comes from a village in my region. Most of the vendors sell produce that they have grown from seed. Of course the occasional pineapple or kiwi is most definitely not grown locally in Turkmenistan, but the kinds of imported produce I can count on one hand. Although I complain about the slim pickings in the winter, I have come to respect the idea of truly eating what is in season, and what is available locally. If it isn’t grown here and now, you won’t find it in the bazaar! I am acutely aware of what I am eating, where it is from, and that it is in season. The idea of “locally grown” is not a choice here, and it is the way that all Turkmen eat. We have lost this in America, where we can get anything at anytime of the year. When are lemons in season? They’re in season in the fall in Turkmenistan, but in America who knows, because they are always available. There are few ready-made foods here, and by making everything from scratch I know exactly what I am eating. An oatmeal package that one can buy in America is full of processed sugars and chemicals, but here I am sure my oatmeal consists of oats, milk, water, apple and honey. Cooking oatmeal from scratch takes more time than 30 seconds in a microwave, but I am certain that what I am ingesting is good for me. This new style of shopping, cooking and eating has increased my appreciation for the clich├ęd “circle of life.” I don’t think Turkmen would need to go through this realization because they are used to eating what is in season, but as an American I can really see the difference between the shopping and cooking experience here and in my home country. When I return to America, I will take my reusable bag to the local farmer’s market, browse the aisles and select the best produce. Unfortunately in America part of the fun is cut out because the prices are non-negotiable, but the farmer’s market is by far a more enjoyable experience for me than a supermarket.

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