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Friday, March 20, 2009

March Post

Freedom has arrived
March 15, 2009

Third semester is officially over (well, in five days). And about damn time I say. This last week was pretty wacky, because the Ministery came to check out the English Department, so all the teachers had to give presentations, and get evaluated. Pretty stressful for a lot of them all around, so I think everybody is glad for the break. I don’t feel like I have very productive this semester with teaching, so I have made my version of a new years resolution decided to be a more organized teacher this next semester. This includes cutting down my schedule so that I am not running from classroom to classroom unprepared, spending more time with teachers that I think will benefit from co-teaching, rather than trying to work with all of them, because some of them who just use the time to take a nap in the back, and also cracking down on my students in general so that lessons become more effective. I am finding discipline and classroom management here is the hardest thing, because besides the fact that my grasp of the Turkmen language is rudimentary at best, kids here aren’t raised to respond to normal punishment. Corpral punishment was just recently banned here (that’s not to say it doesn’t still happen a lot) but kids are used to it, so merely just speaking firmly to them doesn’t do a damn thing. Teachers scream and use any sort of verbal abuse to control their lessons. Anything less and the older children aren’t phased or don’t take notice. Threatening bloody murder to a group of 14 year olds was never something I saw myself doing, but in this land it seems the only way to get through to some of these kids. A lot of them here actually remind me of a lot of the punks in my class back in high school, when a lot of them considered it their personal duty to see how far they could push the teacher off before pissing her off. Now being on the other end of that stick I have a lot more respect for those teachers, although I didn’t think much of it at the time. But this doesn’t mean I don’t want to pummel the little jerks any less. Maybe from now on I’ll request just working with the 1st graders, at least I can hold them in a headlock when they get unruly... In any case I have 4 glorious days of freedom coming up, and I plan on using that to escape my work site and travel to the capital, get some chores and stuff done, and start prepping for my next teacher seminar. Summer is fast approaching!!

March 4, 2009
The Name Game

The first test of a teacher: remembering their student’s names. I must say this is one of the trickiest parts about working in a foreign country, because the names are all wacky and thus harder to remember. No Katies or Dannys among these kiddies. Last year I worked with a total of about 300 kids, and by the end of my contract, I knew about maybe 75 of their names, which I thought was fairly decent. Granted the names were pretty easy, in every class I had give or take a few Marias, or Jose Andres, or Jorges. We have enough Spanish names in America to remember these pretty easy. But for the life of me, I cannot seem to remember Turkmen names here. I have had my club kids for nearly two months now, and I still only know about a handful of their names. I resort to tricky ways to remember them, like making them call on each other, having them write their names on the board, or making them do roll call, but alas, I still cannot remember all of them. I will list briefly several girl names from some of my classes, to give an idea of the problem that I’m having.
1. Olgulnabat
2. Oguljeren
3. Ogulshat
4. Ogulgerek
5. Ogulsheren
6. Bagtlygul
7. Gulbahar
8. Gulnabat
9. Guljahar
10. Gurbangul

Need I say more? My newest hobby on my trek to and from school everyday is trying to translate all these names in my head, because most of the names are combinations of Turkmen words that have to do either with nature or astronomy. For example, pretty much any girl name that has ‘gul’ somewhere in it means flower-something-or-other. For example, I have several Bagtlyguls’ in my classes, which in Turkmen translates as bagtly=happy, gul=flower. So, you can imagine me saying seriously “Tell me Happyflower, what is the present continuous form of ‘to clean’?” I resist the urge of giggling a lot when I do roll call. It’s also happened on a few occasions where I have stumbled upon a sudden translation in the middle of my daily trek, and stopped in the middle of the street yelling either “Ah ha!” or just guffawing out loud, which usually draws a few curious stares from the street sweepers or the unlucky random persons within earshot. My favorite name thus far that I’ve translated is Ogulgerek, which is the name of one of the teachers that I tutor. In Turkmen, ogul=boy, gerek=want. Literally: I want a boy. I might add that she’s a woman. I wonder what it’s like going through your entire life with that kind of a name? Why not just name her Letstryagain? Or Secondtimesacharm? Outwardly, she doesn’t seem to display any sort of complex or insecurity from this, so I take it this must be a culture thing, and it doesn’t have the same significance that I ascribe to it. But in any case, I do like the idea that each name symbolizes something, even if I can’t tell them all apart. I mean, in America if somebody were to ask me what George means I’d be like, dude, heck if I know… So, I decided to see what my name would be, if I were Turkmen. In Latin Megan is Margarita, which I’m pretty sure means Daisy. So, being as there is not a Turkmen word for that particular flower, if I were Turkmen, I’d probably be Akichigul- small white flower. This to me though sounds a little bit like someone sneezing. If someone yelled after me “Hey, Akichigul!” I’d probably just reply, “Dude, bless you!’. Think I’ll stick with my given name.
Until next time,

March 2, 2009
Rematch with the Enemy: Rain

True to form, I washed my clothes yesterday, hung them out to dry, and the clouds gloriously appeared, the heavens opened up, and commenced dumping rain. I am beginning to believe this is a theme that will follow me until the day I die no matter where I end up. In the last year or so pre-T-Stan I have gotten pretty use to hand washing and line drying most of my clothes, because drying machines are kind of a unnecessary item in Spain as things dry lickity split and water is spendy. However, it was a running joke with my roommates last year that you never needed to watch the weather channel if you lived with Megan, just wait until she does her laundry and hangs it outside, and it will most likely rain that day, or the following afternoon. I can probably count on my hands the number of time that my drying clothes were not drenched in rain. It was pretty normal for our apartment to have every available perch covered in my clothing the day after I did my laundry, due to a downpour outside. My roommate Fernando had actually lived in our apartment for four years and had never needed a drying rack, but after a month of living with me, he went out and bought one due to my uncanny timing with storms.
My luck, it seems, has followed me here, for today I woke up to the gentle pitter-patter of rain drops on the tin roof, and the first thing that crossed my mind was, “well crap, there goes my dry underwear’. I thought that being in a desert, where it only rains a few times a year, my chances would be dramatically improved, but no. In fact, I think my presence here may have actually increased the average percentage of rainfall in the country. At this rate, if I wash my clothes regularly at least once a week for the next two years, Turkmenistan may go from being an arid desert climate to that of a subtropical dry climate. The other problem (besides my lack of dry underwear) was the muddy havoc that the roads were once again reduced to. This morning I stepped gingerly out the front door, reminding myself that my last encounter with treacherous Turkmen mud landed me in the hospital, and began my perilous journey to school. I arrived to work looking a wee bit like a war refugee, but nevertheless intact. I stepped into my office and took off my heels, which had a generous 2-inch layer of mud caking every available surface, and placed them next to the rows of my student’s pristine black shoes. So my question today is: how the hell do their shoes stay so pretty and shiny while mine look like I have just waded through the Caspian sea? I’m pretty sure most of us take the same general route to school. It is yet another mystery about this country that I have yet to figure out. But on the bright side of things, I made it the entire day without catapulting myself into the mud or losing a shoe in a suck hole, although there were a few close calls. So now: Turkmenistan: 1, Lowly Volunteer: 1. Thus far it is a duel match.

The Scale of Life
February 28, 2009

I am going to steal this theme from one of my fellow volunteers. This weekend the two volunteers in my region and I decided to meet up, cook some American food for his host family and spend a day not thinking about work. We crafted some makeshift pizza for everyone-which was met with a lukewarm “it’s ‘aight….” from the Turkmen crowd. Why is it that when you are bumming around the kitchen at home in your pjs and no one is in sight, you can whip up a meal worthy of making Rachel Ray bow down with tears in the corners of her eyes and say “Wo-wee, this is scrumptious!!” , but when you have to cook for an audience the mere act of boiling water suddenly becomes a process as complicated as intermolecular physics? Pretty much every one of my attempts to cook American food for Turkmen people in this country has been met with rousing suspicion and looks of “what the hell is that?” The days I have cooked with other volunteers usually results in a three-ring circus with family members coming in and out of the kitchen to see what the hell we were making. Being polite, we would share what was cooking with them, though they usually decided pretty quickly that Americans don’t know how to cook well and abandoned our creation after about three bites. However, this time our Turkmen receivers, although I’m sure will never cook Pizza for themselves, gave it a pretty decent attempt, and ate most of what we put in front of them.
The rest of the visit we hung out at home and read two-month old Atlantic and Time magazines that had come in a package, watched a news program IN ENGLISH, explored the local library, went on an evening stroll with the family through town, drank about 6 pots of green tea, and generally just spent a day in American laziness gossiping (though I’m sure the boys would object to this last one). Upon our departure, my mate said to us “Guys, I think this is one of the best days I’ve had in the last 5 months.” To which we asked, “Well on a scale of one to ten, how would you rate it?” My mate thought about this one for a moment then said “well, on the Turkmenistan scale, I’d give it like an 8. But I guess on like, a general Life scale, it’d probably be like a 5.” This managed to hit us in the funny bone, and after laughing for about 10 minutes straight; we tried to figure out why this was so true. We concluded that when you live in a country where any random person on the street will walk up to you and say first “Hi”, second “Are you from America?”, third “How much is your salary?” and fourth “will you take me to America?”, or that while walking to work you see groups of children playing with either goat bones or the carcass of a dog, your perspectives tend to alter a wee bit. What would seem like a normal, standard afternoon in the general status of things is distorted here a tad. Call us addicted to our culture, or slaves of our generation, but be it crappy pizza or old magazines, it’s the little things that make life a little smoother.

Young at Heart
February 23, 2009

It is official. I have the maturity level of a three year old. Just when I think I’m a mature, grown adult capable of carrying myself in the world, I slip up and boom-the image is shattered. But I dare anyone to try and keep a straight face while a class of second graders dutifully recite over and over harmoniously “I have one ass” (translation: donkey) or “He has one cock” (translation: rooster) in class. Even though I am perfectly aware that it’s British English and has nothing to do with anything, and there is a friggin’ picture of a donkey and a rooster right in front of me, I can’t help that my first instinct in to fall over howling in laughter. Today one of my fourth graders who was working on I have/she has statements, wrote on the chalkboard “ I have two apricots in my pants. What do you have?” and I almost choked on my tea. Since when did I acquire the mind of a twelve-year old boy? I don’t recall being this immature since I was well, immature. I blame it on being surrounded by children 24 hours a day. I calculated I only have about 6 hours each day where I am not constantly bombarded by children-and that is when I am sleeping. In any case, I believe that it’s starting to have an effect. Either that, or I just never matured. I’m really hoping it’s the first one.
I now have a lot more reverence for my Spanish teachers in college for being able to keep their cool while we fumbled around with grammar, trying to figure out what the hell we wanted to say in the correct order. I’m sure we came up with some doozies of our own. But just for posterities sake, I am going to start keeping a running tally of the funny phrases and student works that come my way. I’m rooting for my club kids-they can get pretty imaginative when it comes to slapping together a sentence. We shall see how it progresses from here. In the mean time, I’m going to work on being more mature.

February 20th 2009
The Wheel is a Turnin’

Picture a Hamster running very fast on a wheel. Now stretch this overused metaphor and replace the word Hamster with the word “Volunteer”. Not that you need a lot of imagination, but can you kind of see where I’m going with this one? I won’t say I’ve been counting or anything, but exactly one month from today (i.e. 29 days and 15 hours) is the start of spring break, and after that, 12 weeks of fourth semester, and after that, SUMMER. I can hardly believe that February is over with. It literally- and I’m going to use another tired metaphor here- flew by. I was writing the date on the blackboard today and I looked at my calendar and was like “Whoa, seriously?! Are you kidding me?!?” My students didn’t know what to make of this and so just did what they usually do when I do something weird in class, which is look at each other with confused expressions and shrug. In about a week and a half, I will have been at permanent site for three months. And quite honestly I don’t feel like I’ve done a friggin’ thing here thus far. With the first month being the end of the semester/holiday/and everything being in general chaos, and added to that my week and a half of being on house arrest (due to what I now refer to as ‘the mud incident’), I feel like I have only accomplished about a month of good solid work here. Time is a tickin’ as they say, and the inner workaholic in me is doing the finger shaking thing and saying ‘what have you got to show for it’? I keep telling myself, it’s ok, all volunteers feel like they’re not doing anything at some point, but then I ask myself, how can you been teaching 42 hours a week and still not be accomplishing a damn thing??

Usually the problem with volunteering in general tends to be that when a volunteer shows up the community doesn’t really know what to do with them, or they are just too disorganized and busy to figure out where to utilize them. In some cases they just expect the volunteer to fork over a couple of thousand bucks and have all their problems solved. Or maybe there just aren’t the resources at hand for the volunteer to be able to make an effective impact. I could probably make this list of problems about 4 pages long, but right now none of those reasons can be blamed for the predicament in which I now find myself. In the Peace Corps wheel of life, it seems to me I remember hearing that the ‘brick wall’ phase of service tended to come along a bit farther along than a few months into it But here I am: month 5-or 3 if you count my actual time in the community- and I’m just about three steps away from pulling all my hair out. I have all the general ingredients for a successful work site: an involved and experienced counterpart who is willing to let me drag her out of class at the drop of the hat to ask stupid questions, plus my very own work space with the ability to pick and choose the students that I want to teach there. I even have oodles of resources that have been left for me by previous volunteers at my site and a staff full of teachers and students dying to work with me for whatever I want to do at the moment. After school some days I literally have a trail of students follow me home asking me when I’m coming to teach their classes. Generally, the teachers seem to think I am doing a decent job, so why is it at the end of every week I feel as if I have done a whole bucket-full of nothing?
In order to better contemplate this problem I have decided to reclaim my Saturdays. I don’t know how people in Muslim countries can function with a six-day workweek. When I was in Spain, I was amazed at the Moroccan students because while we chilling back on Saturday afternoon, they would still be going at it full boar. I don’t know if I could have survived 4 years of that. One day is not just enough to recollect the sanity needed to persevere through the following week, especially since this day consists mostly of doing the chores you don’t have time to do all week-i.e. Cleaning, washing, organizing and-if you’re a teacher- writing lesson plans. It all seems like a perfect setup for the inevitable crash and burn. Although I haven’t reached this point yet, I don’t feel like continuing until I do so, seeing as how I don’t think it would be very pretty. So, as of this week I have cleared my Saturday schedule except for a few ‘chai sagatlar’- (tea time) which is basically just conversation practice with advanced students that doesn’t take much effort other than refining my gossiping skills and thinking of synonyms for all the thousands of phrasal idioms that we use every day in the English Language. Hopefully this extra day will help me step back, refocus, and kick my ass out of this rut I seemed to have found myself in. We shall see. Stay tuned…

Also, Footnote:
Thanks to all the lovely people who have shipped me AMAZING packages these last few months, I am golden in the coffee and tea department. I am like the Y2k of coffee beans right now. I am now drinking, like, three cups of really strong coffee a day in the hopes that I finish my stash before the end of my service  Although I must say-I literally don’t think I could survive an entire day of work now without a bloodstream full of caffeine, so every last bag of that beautiful java goodness will go to good use. But for now, I see no immediate need for more to be hauled across the ocean. Thanks again everyone! Keep me posted on how live is over yonder via snail mail

Until Next Time,

Pros and Cons
February 14, 2009

This last week, after my visit to the hospital post-mud incident, for which I was ordered to a week of being chained to my bed, I have had a lot of time to contemplate both my ceiling, the position of the curtains, and the particular route of the ants around the perimeter of the room. The 7 days of what I like to consider now as ‘jail time’ brought out my inner neurotic OCD tendencies, and I somehow became that weird person who re-organizes the books on the bookshelf first by size, then by theme, then by the quality of the book jacket summary, then by the particular style of narration (i.e. first person, third person omniscient, ect.), then by year of copy write. I blame in on a mix of pain meds and extreme boredom. Lets just hope I never do hard time anywhere, because Lord knows what would result from that. I would probably start rearranging the bricks based upon density content.
Anyway, besides my re-organizing skills, I also managed to write copious lists of random things, which for any of you who know me, is what I tend to do when I have nothing better to occupy my time. Some of my lists consisted of pros and cons of random things, such as coffee vs. tea, summer vs. winter, American Football vs. Canadian Hockey, and volunteering vs. working-a-real-job-and-making-actual-money, just to name a few. One of my lists were my views concerning the Turkmen Koynek (Dress), which some of you might have noticed by now is an ever-present theme in my day-to-day life here in T-Stan. So, I thought I might share it, being as I have nothing more of interest to talk about at the moment. I came up with is this lengthy- but I think rather accurate- list that describes my mindset on this garment. I present it as follows:

The pros of wearing a Turkmen Koynek:

1. It saves time.
Instead of spending valuable time trying to co-ordinate outfits, such as a blue skirt with a white shirt, or brown top with brown skirt, ect, you can just toss on a Koynek. Perfect for the fashionably lazy, such as myself. For Koynek matching here, pretty much anything goes. You can have a dress of brown African Safari print material with a bright neon pink and blue Yaka embroidered on it, and people will still say, “Hey, nice Koynek, you look great today!” This occurs even if you look like the sewing machine threw up all over you. You really can’t go wrong here.

2. Layering.
For winter at least, when it’s really cold, and heating at work is pretty much non-existent, I can put on like, 3 pairs of long johns and 5 pairs of socks and nobody is the wiser. Plus, it's kind of like wearing pajamas to work.

3. Cheaper taxi fares.
Nobody tries to take advantage of you or charge you that extra 5,000 manat (about 30 cents) more when you look like a homeless bag lady, especially a local.

4. When walking down the street, it makes for less harassment and screams of “AMERICA!! HELLO! HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!”
On days when I want to completely go unnoticed, I put on the most Turkmen Koynek I can possibly find, wrap a scarf around my head, and make a run for it. I like to think of it as my Clark Kent outfit. When he had his glasses and suit, Clark managed to blend into the mob and go quietly about his day-to-day activities without a problem, but as soon as he put that red and blue spandex on, everybody went all “HEY!! LOOK GUYS, IT’S SUPERMAN!!!” And then he had to go catch a building or stop a nuclear bomb or something. And who in their right mind wants that all the time? Dressing like a local helps with this problem.

5. No wedgies.
I know this might not be socially appropriate, but it is very true when you are wearing a potato sack. It is a very loose flowing garment.

…And the cons of wearing a Turkmen Koynek:

1. Danger of tripping is increased exponentially by the amount of walking that is done.
The design of the Koynek has what those in the fashion biz call a ‘pencil’ skirt- meaning the dress is a straight cut from the hips to the ankles. Which for Americans who are accustomed to taking larger strides in pants, makes the mere act of walking a bit tricky (picture, if you will, a mermaid trying to complete an obstacle course). Recently, I tried to demonstrate this fact to my dressmaker by miming a person taking very large, manly, Sasquatch-like steps and spreading my arms really wide while saying “Ulllly kan!” (THIIIIS BIG!) repeatedly in Turkmen. It didn’t translate well. I still have my ‘Pencil Koynek’, in which I’ve tripped three times this week, and now my dressmaker thinks I’m crazy, and that I walk like Sasquatch.

2. Static Cling.
Although the sack-like design of the Koynek (which provides the extra space to wear those 32 pairs of long johns) is a plus, all those layers together can often turn into a wrinkly nightmare that will cling to anything that moves. On a super clingy day for example, picture walking down the street looking like you just rolled out of bed. But not just any bed, mind you. Nooooo, siree. Rather, picture a bed that has been kidnapped by a gang of pirates, used as a sail through a hurricane, then repossessed by the Australian government after a failed ransom attempt and used in a lab to test the effects of electric currents induced by shocking. Afterwards, when the economy took a turn for the worse and the lab was closed down, this bed was stashed in a warehouse, forgotten, but then later rediscovered and given to a retiring Employee as part of his Pension packet, who decided to roll it in a vat of honey in order to attract Kangaroos during hunting season. That people, is static cling.

3. Constant fear of tucking the back of my skirt into my underwear.
Ok, also not socially appropriate, but it is a legitimate fear that I have every time I visit the pit toilet. You know that scene where the girl comes out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck on her shoe and everybody laughs at her? Well, being as no toilets here have toilet paper, let alone a seat, or a door, or sometimes a roof or walls, this is never a very large concern of mine. But I am however, genuinely afraid of exposing my bum to all the world while obliviously walking down the street post pit-toilet one day with an edge tucked into my bloomers.

4. Slower reaction times.
When avoiding Turkmen dogs, wearing a Koynek gives the dog a slightly bigger advantage. I’d like to see one of them try to chase me while wearing one of these suckers. I’d say that would even the playing field a little bit (ok, I still have a little residual anger with Turkmen dogs, I am aware of this). Also, I might have caught that bus last week and not been late to school had I been able to run. How Turkmen girls run (and in 4-inch heels, on gravel roads) is still a mystery to me. I’m thinking it takes years of training at this point.

5. It’s a Koynek. Enough said with this last one.

…..The End

To wear or not to wear, that is the question. In short, this is just one example of what a single week of house arrest will amount too. Although don’t get me wrong, there are there some perfectly dandy Koyneks out there- they are just worn by those with more fashion or grace than this particular volunteer has the capacity for. Also, given more time and boredom (perhaps this summer), I may also tackle the merits of the Turkmen Telpek, which closely resemble that of the Davy Crocket hat, except that instead of a Raccoon pelt, the Turkmen hat contains the hide of an entire sheep that somehow props atop a man’s head. It is quite brilliant, really. Kind of like balancing a lap dog on your forehead.
Also, in answer to the queries- yes, I have kind of given up on the whole picture-uploading thing. How other volunteers here have managed to do it is a mystery to me. I’m basically technologically retarded, and added to that I am living in a technologically challenged country, so that’s two strikes against me right there. If anything, I can try to mail pictures to ‘The America’ and have a family member who is more techno savvy, or who has a better Internet service than I, to attempt to post them or scan them, or however it is done these days. Or they can just pass them around or make copies. By 2010, maybe? (I’m kind of serious when I say that…)

Also, mostly because he told me not to do this (hehe...) Hi Dan’s mom! Your baby is doing just swimmingly here in this little village. I make sure I bug him at least twice weekly for sanity’s sake. Mine, mostly. I don’t know if I do anything to help his.
Love to all ya’lls in The America and otherwise.

1 comment:

khocking said...

Hi Megan - glad you ignored Danny! I was chatting with him on Facebook this morning - feel like a techno genius. Glad your back is better - take care, Karen