December 08, 2008
The Flowers in Tejen
Smell the roses, count your blessings, eat your last meal, and get ready for the real deal, people. As of three days ago, we woke up at 5 o’clock in our nice hotel rooms, and one by one over the coarse of a few hours, the 43 of us squished all of our crap into a caravan of minibuses. And as dawn hit the tip of the city, we sped in all directions over the country of Turkmenistan to our new homes….
So, I have heard so many stories from other volunteers, even from before I came here, who told me that the first day you actually realize you are in the peace corps, and not just on some random weird vacation, is the day when the truck pulls up to the village, drops you at the front door, and peaces out for good. The phrase “that was the day I realized I was a volunteer” is the one sentence I have heard over and over since I started this whole shenanigan over a year ago (along with “holy crap what have I gotten myself into?” “Am I crazy?” and “when is the next bus out of here?”).
So while I watched the taillights disappear into the distance, I joined the hoards of PCV’s before me in taking a deep breath, picking up my suitcase and saying to myself “Ok, so here goes….”. I shut the gate behind me, followed my host father into the house, and began to lug all my crap into my room, which surprisingly had no door. Generally one to roll with the punches, I nodded and said to myself, “well, on the plus side of things, I do have a bed…”. But the worrying was all for naught, because about an hour later the door turned up-apparently my host father had been installing the mandatory “peace corps deadbolt” onto it, and so it was down for repairs. Wanting to be a good volunteer, I started putting some of my things away, organized a bit, and then, because my host mother and the kids were out, decided to take a quick nap to recharge my batteries so I could be properly talkative and social.
Long story short: I woke up five and a half hours later. So much for the first day impression with the host family; I slept through the whole damn thing. Apparently staying up the night before you go to permanent site isn’t the smartest option, especially if you want to be perkier later. I got up that evening, having missed lunch and dinner, stumbled out of my room, and my host mom, who was seriously concerned and confused, started yelling “Megan!! Why you sleep?! What is wrong!?”. So yeah, off to a great start. But a little explaining in broken Turkmen/English and we were cool. I actually came at a pretty good time, because this week is a four day holiday, called “good neighbor day” which every other person repeatedly explained to me, is when you go guesting and eat lots and lots of Dograma (bread soup) and Palov (rice with carrots and onions) and gossip with family and friends. Or in my case, go to a house, avoid eating too much oil, and listen to everyone talk about “the American and her salary” for three hours in front of you. But it was actually lots of fun. The first night, we went to my “host grandma’s” house and ripped about a hundred loaves of bread for the Dograma. (It’s later mixed with a vat of boiled animal fat and onions, and served with some sort of broth stuff. Yum.) I can honestly say I had some nice calluses the next day on my‘ bread tearing thumbs’. Then because it was late, we crashed at grandmas pad (a surprise to me, and I admit the high maintenance American in me desperately wanted my toothbrush and contact solution the whole night). We woke up the next morning for some serious cooking and entertaining. I wore my new koynek, which all the Turkmen ladies glowed over. It’s amazing how much more the people in this country like you if you just put on a sack of a dress with flowers sewn on it (and let me just add to the visual by pointing out that my koynek is also bright orange, and I could probably be six months pregnant in it and nobody would be the wiser). A stunning difference from my old uniform of a skirt and long sleeved shirt. The women wouldn’t really let me cook, so I just sat around looking lazy for a while, until the first guests showed up, then they stuck me in a room with two Dyzas (old ladies) and I let them grill and critique me in Turkmen for a while, until more people showed up and they brought out the beloved Dograma to eat. By two o’clock I was so incoherent and tired I literally fell asleep at the table (by table I mean rug on the floor), until some of the ladies noticed, loudly let my host mom know, then we were hustled into the grandfathers car to drive us home.
The ride home was a story in itself as well. The grandfather is an interesting man; a Journalist, he lived in Cuba for a few years, and in some random Scandinavian country for a while, (although as far as I could tell, he didn’t speak Spanish, English, or Norwegian). But packed into his car on the way back, he filled me in –through translation-on some valuable American history of which I was previously unaware. I will present that conversation here in loose translation, so you can fully enjoy and pass along this knowledge to all of your friends and colleagues.
Grandpa: “Girl, do you know American history?”
Me: “Yes, I think so.”
Grandpa: “Then who is Christopher Columbus?”
Me: “The first European that came to America.”
Grandpa: “Do you Americans say that he discovered America?”
Grandpa “Bah, Stupid! Before Christopher Columbus came to America, the Turkmen people were there.”
Me: “Really, how is that?”
Grandpa: “The Turkmen were in Russia for many years, and long ago a group of Turkmen traveled across Russia and came over the water to Alaska!”
Me: “Really??” (In disbelief)
Grandpa: “Of course, why do you think your Indians in America look like Turkmen people? Because we were in America before Columbus was there. He came many years after we had found it. Our people were the first ones there.”
Me: “Wow. And to think we never knew. I’ll make sure to tell people back home about that.”
So there you have it. Not that our history books aren’t accurate already, but we’re missing the part where a large majority of Americans are genetically derived from the Turkmen people. Take that as you may.
That’s pretty much it for the first few days here in Tejen. Not much else for interesting tidbits of life on this end of the world. Although, I suppose I can pass along the highlight of my day today: this morning I translated for my host dad part of a BMW engine manual from German into English and then with my host mom into Turkmen and Russian. Never mind that I have never studied a single world of German in my entire life, my Turkmen is barely passable, and I don’t speak Russian. I now know how to say automatic brake fluid in 4 languages. Life is funny sometimes. Peace out, ya’ll.
December 24, 2008
They’re all going to laugh at you!
Gün Tertibi. These two words little have been the bane of my existence for the last week and a half. Gün Tertibi is Turkmen for Daily Calendar. After a nice 5 days of complete laziness and avoiding reality and the outside world, I finally ventured to school with my counterpart to see what this volunteer teaching thing was all about. I was told there were 5 English teachers. Not too bad, thought I. But then factor in that there is an afternoon schedule and a morning schedule, and that the English Center has to be open in the morning and in the afternoon as well. Roll that into a second-world school system and what you basically have is -in a nutshell- general chaos. My Department director was gone to the capital for a week, so for the first week I had it pretty easy, just following random teachers around and teaching a lesson here and there and writing down when they wanted me to come and promising that the center would be open soon. I also discovered that there were two more teachers than originally accounted for-making for a total of 7 teachers I will work with. So this Monday we finally had our schedule meeting and she mentioned that I needed to teach not only in the morning and the afternoon, and have the center available in the morning and the afternoon, but I was also asked to teach advance classes at another school as well. So I worked up a schedule complicated enough to confuse pretty much everybody involved (including me) and am crossing my fingers and hoping that it works. So the last day and I half I have spent trying to figure out the graphs and charts feature on my friggin’ computer (apparently I made it through four years of college with out doing graphs and charts-that’s what you get for being a liberal arts major) and a doing bilingual newsletter for the district schools here in Tejen.
It will be interesting to see how successful this newsletter thing is (or if I’ve just wasted a day and a half), because in Turkmen they have two forms of the language-the spoken form and the written form. I only learned the spoken form, because PC said we wouldn’t need to write in Turkmen, we just needed to know how to speak it. So thus I am doing a written newsletter in spoken Turkmen. We’ll see how it goes over… I keep hearing Adam Sandler’s voice in my head over and over again saying “They’re all going to laugh at you! They’re all going to laugh at you!”. I guess I’ll see next week when I open up the center if the message got through.
In the meantime I am wishing everybody over the ocean a Happy Holiday season!!! I keep forgetting its’ Christmas here in a few days-because Christmas spirit isn’t much in this part of the world, and if nobody mentions it, I kind of forget about it. My host mother though, bless her soul, is cooking me a Christmas dinner, and next Saturday we got a travel permission to go to the Capital for a Volunteer Party hosted in the office, so me and one of my other volunteer pals are going to journey in and crash with my old host family for a night. I am a little worried about how excited I am to use the Internet when I get there…
December 25, 2008
Christmas and Margaret Thatcher
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE….AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!!! (Plus Kwanza and Hanukkah)
Dear Santa: I want a pony and a princess castle. Or maybe a pair of jeans. Actually, make that a glass of pasteurized milk. With one of my mom’s Brownies with the dried cherry things. Or maybe the most recent issue of the New Yorker or a Newsweek. Wait, you know what? I got it. I would like, for Christmas, one medium sized shower Loufa (that spongy thing you use with soap). That would be the end all.
Actually, to be completely serious, the number one thing on my holiday wish list would be like an inch of snow. This is my third, count it, THIRD Christmas without snow overseas. Although interestingly enough, there is this weird white film on the sand here that kind of resembles frost, and could almost pass for it, but I’m pretty sure it’s dried up salt. I’ve decided I’m just going to pretend it is frost, if only to boost the seasonal spirit of things So while all of you in the Northland complain about the frost and snow and ice, please think of the less fortunate out there who have only frosty-looking sand and camels wearing cowbells. And maybe, if you feel up to it, make a snow angel for those of us who can’t.
On the upside of life, I’m going to an English Christmas Party today at my school. The kids are singing Jingle Bells, doing a skit of the Cinderella story (which somehow translates here into “The Ash Tree”) and Singing Mariah Carey’s Hero (accompanied by cell phone music). They are also doing an English Trivia Game. One of the advanced students let me preview the Trivia answers, and I totally got schooled. Europeans are always harping on us poor Americans because we don’t know anything about Geography or History. And I’m a prime example of this stereotype. Guess who didn’t know who the third President of the United States was? Or the first woman Prime Minister? (Yes, Thomas Jefferson and Margaret Thatcher for all of you smarty pants out there...) And who knew that the capital of Australia is NOT Sydney. (ok, maybe lots of people….) I just nodded, praised them on how smart they were, shrugged and said I hadn’t studied any of that stuff in 7 years, but I used to know it when I was a student (did I?). So I’m supplying a Christmas tree and a bit of American culture. Should be fun.
Oh I forgot to mention to people earlier, but I now have a new address and wait for it…a phone number!! Although I’m not sure what the country code is to call to Turkmenistan, but I’m sure a little sleuthing on the Internet and it would be easy enough to find out if you so desire to phone me . I think Turkmenistan is a12 hour time difference from standard Mountain Time… Anyhoo, they are as follows:
Megan Haggar, PCV
Mekdep #7, c.p. Ejeby
Ahal Welayatynyñ, Tejen Etraby
Tejen Saher, 745360
Well, that’s pretty much it. As always, I would looove your letters and news (i.e. any old magazines and newspapers with news of the outside world, cause all I get is Russian news)! Although, on a last note…if ANYBODY feels like sending a gift- and I will totally reciprocate with Turkmen goodies-and has in their possession the pirated 5th Season thus far of The Office, I will personally mail you an ENTIRE Camel. You would make about 50 volunteers here in this country extremely happy. Merry Christmas to all!!