Charades and Camel Milkshakes
Salaam men dozum!
Hey to all from the desert. Well I am in one piece in Turkmenistan as of a few days ago. We arrived in the capital of Ashgabat after almost three days of traveling and stumbled off the plane at about 3:00 in the morning, although it didn’t make any difference as none of had slept for two days anyway and our clocks were all screwed up from 3 days of time zone switching. It was kind of a weird arrival. I had heard that Ashgabat at night is an experience-and its true. The government and monumental part of the city looks like it was built about three years ago-everything is clean white marble and gold and one-dimensional. Its due to the fact that there was a huge earthquake about 50 years ago that leveled pretty much the entire city, so there are no buildings older than that time period. It kind of looks like you just stepped into a Sim City game with all the new marble. I half expected little computer generated people to come strolling down the sidewalk and turn the corner. The president keeps in effect a strict 11:00 noise curfew, meaning in the capital of the city after about 10:00 you will see no one-and I mean NO ONE-on the streets. We stopped in the middle of the street in front of the hotel to unload our bags. It was in the middle of the city, but that didn’t matter much because we were literally the ONLY cars out and about. We were able to unload over 80 suitcases without blocking a bit of traffic. I dare anyone to try that in downtown New York on a Friday night, it probably wouldn’t go over so well.
The next three days consisted of whirlwind meetings and culture classes at a conference building, learning about our schedules, job preparation, beginning language courses, and getting some more shots (oh joy...). We took a trip to the Russian Bazaar to pick up some last minute things (although it was mostly so we could try out our new language skillz on the shop vendors). My proud purchase was a power surge protector for my computer for 85,000 manats-which is about 6$. We started at about 8 every morning, and were done by about 6 every night. I wish I could say we passed out every night, but all of our internal clocks were so whacked that nobody was really sleeping very well. On Saturday we had one last minute session with our instructors, signed on names on about the hundredth piece of paperwork, and returned to the hotel to meet our host families!! It was pretty nerve wracking-and we were all freaking out.
I now live in a village about half an hour outside of Ashgabat. I’m thinking I lucked out because my host family is pretty much adorable, and I love their home. We have two houses, a bathhouse, a small garden, a chicken coop, and small lime orchard, and the obligatory squat toilet. They are pretty wealthy for Turkmen standards, and are pretty crafty when it comes to money. The father was an economist, but now works for a Turkish firm in the capital, and the mother is a nurse who works at an epidemic sanitation center in the village (I think that means vaccinations). They have a small shop they run from the front of their house, where they sell odds and ends like vegetables, bread, toiletries, cigarettes and coca cola. Jennet, which means paradise in Turkmen, is 16 and the oldest of the three kids. She is studying to be an English teacher and will start university in Ashgabat next year. Needless to say my Turkmen language skills being what they are right now, she is my new best friend. She is also a seamstress, and I’ve convinced her to make me a yakacoynek (a traditional embroidered dress) for a wedding we have to go to in a week. By’ran is the middle son, and so far loves cheating in all the card games I have taught him and laughing at me whenever I try to pronounce Turkmen words. Mamajan is the youngest of the three, and I call her “men gyz jigim kazyk”- my little Kazak sister. She looks a lot different from her siblings and my host mom says she looks like she’s from Kazakhstan but doesn’t know why, although I personally think she looks kind of Chinese. I tried telling them the joke about the postman baby, but I don’t think they really got it. I’m blaming that on cultural differences and a language barrier, and not the fact that I’m pretty bad at telling jokes.
Our schedule for the next few weeks is pretty intense-tomorrow we go to mosque because it is the Memorial Day for the earthquake that leveled Ashgabat (I talked about that earlier I think.) It’s a pretty big deal, so we’re wrapping ourselves up in scarves and hustling off for a ‘culture lesson’- and then we have to start our 4-hour language classes.
Last note of happiness-a whole week has past and I am still spared from the revered Montezuma’s Revenge. The T-16 volunteers (Peace Corps volunteers that have been here in T-stan about a year now) told us it hits everybody within the 1st 72 hours, and I made it past the window. They were right to, because on the third day a bunch of my fellow T-17’s started dropping like flies. Lets just say there were a few empty seats and lots of sprints for the bathroom our last day of training. So far, so good, although I did have a near brush with disaster when my host mother tried to give me a traditional drink of Chal. Chal, for those of you who aren’t already aware, consists of fresh camel yogurt, water, and salt...stir, shake and pour…MMMM! I had to desperately explain to her I couldn’t drink the tap water because it would possibly KILL me with all its invisible floating parasites (haha). So they tossed out the bad Chal and made me my very own mix with water from my purifier. So yeah, that was fun.
Word to the wise-camel yogurt and salt water does not make the greatest beverage in the world. Stick to your raspberry mocha latte’s people, and tip your barista.
BMW’s and Icebergs
Oct 8, 08
So I’m regretting the fact that I suppressed my urge to pack more shoes. They advised us to bring four pairs -of the work, house, and recreational variety-and so I did. I narrowed them down and whittled them out, which was not easy, being as I’m really attached to many and/or all of my shoes. But I said to myself “Self, don’t be an idiot-you’ll be living in the desert. What in the Bajeezus do you need with 13 pairs of shoes in the desert??” So I did it. First it was 11, then 7, then 5….and then the final 4. My beloved Chacos, a pair of running shoes, my house slippers (key in any Muslim country where shoes aren’t allowed in the house and you’re constantly running in and out), and a pair of work shoes.
However I didn’t count on the fact that pretty much all of my walking would be done in my work shoes as we have to dress up for work everyday. And that I would live a half an hour’s walk from the school. Today I think I walked about 8 or 9 miles in them due to the fact that my house is waaay out there, and we did lots of “ errands” in town (i.e. shopping and the post office) as a group to kill time before language classes. By the end of the day my heels had pretty much had it, and were coated in layers of well-earned dust. And I was left wondering how many more months they have left in them before they start disintegrating. It’s not looking good at this point. I wonder what the policy on wearing hiking books to work is here. I’m betting they would look charming with my dress.
Well, I finally succumbed to my first bout of stomach woes. Remembrance day we went to a Mosque outside of the city with our group for some ‘quake history’. I wasn’t feeling so hot when I woke up, but I ate to make my host mom happy because she’s so nice. While we were at the mosque we ate a big spread that people were laying out, stock full of some interesting and dubious food items. And as the entire kitchen staff was watching us, we did the best we could to polish off the massive amounts of food they keep trucking out. After we ate we were informed by our language teachers that no, that was not lunch. Lunch would be in an hour, and we had to eat that too. When I got home that evening my host mother didn’t seem to understand that a stomachache was excusable grounds for not eating, so I obligingly shoveled more food down my throat. Lets just say I’m glad they gave us a medical kit and that our pit toilet is of a sprint-able distance.
I have been keeping a running tally of the strange things I have seen so far. One thing I love about traveling to different countries is the random things that you see or do…it makes getting up every day just that much more fun. For instance just yesterday my fellow Americans and I decided to walk to the bazaar for some ice cream. While we were hanging out, we met this nice chap who worked in the bar next door and with much pantomiming, he invited us back into this back room where I saw the LARGEST billiard table I have ever seen in my life. Now this might not seem that strange, but keep in mind that I am living in a desert-where the nearest harvest-able tree is the next country over. For this reason most everybody traditionally sits, eats, and sleeps on the floor, and generally have only one or two pieces of furniture in their houses. Wood is THAT expensive. So to see a 15-foot long mahogany billiard table in the back of a dive bar in a Turkmen village is literally like seeing a BMW parked on a floating iceberg in the North Pole. Guess you never know what to expect. But I must say I’m enjoying the everyday oddities, like the pair of camels that hang out by the water tower on my walk home from class everyday. I’ve decided to name them Ali and Muhammad. You just don’t see camels like that too often in Montana. Well, hope all is well on the other side of the globe and let me know you all ya’ll are doing!!
Oct 9, 08
Trek to Ashgabat
So week two at our training site is coming to a close. We went to Ashgabat yesterday to get some more shots, medical checkups, and some Internet time. It was kind of a bummer cause we got there late, partly due to me and one of my group mates. They had told us meet at the Bazaar so I made it there, and saw no one except one of my other site mates. We hung out for a while and were pretty confused because no one else was showing up. We were just on the verge of getting a taxi when one of the group leaders turned up, all frantic-like, looking for us. Turns out everybody had been waiting in the Peace Corps van on the OTHER side of the Bazaar and were almost about to ditch us. Don’t know how we missed that memo. So we got to Ashgabat late and it was a little hectic running around the Peace Corps office and getting all our crap done in time. Towards the end some other trainees from other sites showed up and we had a fun whirlwind reunion, catching up with a few people and swapping stories of our sites and host families before we were herded out. I was kind of bummed cause I had saved all my blog entries on a flash drive and the file wouldn’t read on the office computer, so these probably won’t get downloaded for a WHILE. I’m hoping someday soon we can get access to a computer...but I guess this is one way of weaning me off the technical world. I suppose I better just get used to it and start writing some friggen letters to people…
So the Peace Corps office is pretty sweet and they have a killer library of books left by 10 years of volunteers, so my decision to not bring any books totally paid off. I loaded up on a few before we headed out. Although with all the work we’ve been doing I don’t know when I’ll have time to read any of them. It seems like I’m busy every morning from the time I wake up (at like 6) to when my head hits the pillow every night (around 10 or 11). And the down time I do have I like hanging out with my host family, because they help me with my Turkmen and I can play with the kids (plus they won’t think I’m a weirdo who hangs out in her room all the time). Looking at our schedule, it’s looking like its only going to get busier. A lot of trainees did say that training was the hardest part, and if we can get past that, its cake. Although some others said that was the easiest, most fun time of their service. So we’ll see how the crow lands on that one.
Well I have oodles more to talk about, one of them being the school, which we finally got to go to and meet all the English teachers and the kids, but I’m pretty beat. I’ll elaborate about that on a future date. Peace.
Oct 27th, 08
Well, it’s on to week five now. It’s weird to think I’ve already been here a month, although at the same time it feels like I’ve been here for years. It’s the break between the school trimesters, so the kids have a week off school. We had our day camp scheduled for the break, so for two whole days we took over the school and herded children for half a day of “Inglis Klub”. Its basically part of our practicum to get us ready for out permanent site, so we can get an idea of what to expect when we have to set up clubs at our individual sites. Ours went relatively smoothly, the only bump in the road was that one of the girls in my training group announced that she had decided to terminate early and go home. It was a pretty big shock for everyone, as the six of us have all gotten to be pretty close (we see each other pretty much all day, every day) so it shook everybody up a little bit when she left. But she had thought about it a lot, and made the decision that was best for herself. So we trucked on and pulled the planning together, and our club went pretty well (if you define successful as being able to entertain 40 middle schoolers for several hours with the vocabulary spectrum of a confused toddler). Most of the kids were awesome and super enthusiastic, and made it that much easier and fun for us. So now we’re enjoying having a few days off for ourselves the chill out with our host families before the next trimester starts, which is nice because our schedule has been pretty ridged up to this point-10 hour days, 6 days a week. I actually slept in until 9:00 this morning! (A far cry from Spain where it was WEIRD if you woke up before noon on the weekends) To think, this time last year I was probably hanging out at a wine bar in Granada somewhere putting my feet up….
So today was Byramchylk (Turkmen independence day), so I went in to Ashgabat with a friend to watch firecrackers. I’m starting to experiences the first boundaries of a Muslim culture. I’m used to being able to hang out with whomever I want, but here I’m learning I have to be a lot more aware of who that may be. In the states I always had a pretty good group of guys friends as a norm, but here whenever my site mates, most of whom are guys, stop by and want to hang out I have to make clear to everyone where we are going and why, and that we are just BUDDIES. I haven’t had to explain my schedule The first day I walked home alone with one of them, by the next afternoon it had somehow made it through the town grapevine that we were “together” whatever that means by Turkmen standards. And today I went to Ashgabat with another site mate, also a boy, and came back after dark. So, by Turkmen standards, right now I am probably one step above a street walker (a.k.a “loose woman”.) Just wait till I start running. In PANTS. That’s going to blow their minds. My poor host family. But I say bring it on, gender boundaries. Bring it on. I’m ready for ya.
Hope everyone is doing well and keep those marvelous letters coming! Ashley, we miss you and are thinking about you!
P.S. I will have some pictures up just as soon as I am able