A Pumpkin Like Any Other
Well, the gauntlet of the American Holiday season has officially kicked off, starting with Halloween. The students are off from classes for 11 days, for fall break, so I decided to throw a Halloween party to break up the monotony a little bit, and because the time is quickly coming when I will be winging my way back home. Just last week my advanced students completed their first round of the competitive FLEX exams (the US State Department program that provides study abroad scholarships for Central Asian students) Five of mine passed to the second round, which I was proud of, as last year only two of my 10th graders made it in. To celebrate, I organized a Halloween party at my resource center, and invited Russ, my fellow PCV who lives in the village over from me, to bring his students into town to celebrate with us. Three of Russ’s kids also made it past the second round, which for a village school is a huge accomplishment. As luck would have it, a few days ago I was cleaning out my resource center in preparation for leaving, and I stumbled upon a huge box of unopened Halloween decorations and party favors that had been sent by a previous volunteer and never used. I went a little crazy and hung up plastic skeletons, and ghost streamers EVERYWHERE, bought a crap load of candy at the market, and baked cookies like there was no tomorrow. One of my 8th graders, who is also my neighbor, I made a journey to the Bazaar to hunt for pumpkins for 25 kids, which was an adventure in itself.
In America, pumpkins are basically used for decorative purposes. We stack them on porches or stuff them in cornucopias, and hollow them out for Jack o’ Lanterns, but other than showing the holiday spirit, they really have no other utilitarian purpose. Here however, they are one of the main staples of the Turkmen diet. The main type of pumpkin that can be found most everywhere are long oblong pumpkin-squashes, which are shaped more like thin eggplants, or those blow up toys you can punch and they pop back up again (don’t ask…) and are, I might add, ridiculously scrumptious. Sometimes they are so sweet, a plain steamed pumpkin might taste like someone has slow cooked it in brown sugar for a day. De-lish. Mainly, the pumpkins are steamed, or fried with onions and stuffed into baked somsas or steamed dumplings (which is by far my favorite Turkmen dish I have eaten here). For the last few Autumns I have waited in anticipation for when the pumpkins finally come into season, because I know that it means we get to eat Kady Manty (pumpkin dumplings) for a few months before winter sets in, and we are back to onion and goat meat. As crazy as it sounds, it’s one of the reasons that fall is my favorite season here. This particular Bazaar trip though, I wasn’t in search of a nice tasty orange squash for Manty: I was hunting for little deformed orange balls that would most closely resemble an American Jack o Lantern. After combing the bazaar, my student I managed to find a few sellers who had an assortment of deformed pumpkins that would suffice. After insisting several times that I only wanted the “’kichi-jek togoluk kadys’ (little round pumpkins), I got a good selection to choose from. We went from stall to stall and picked through truck beds full of hundreds of green and orange pumpkins to find the roundest, orangest ones they had, which seemed to amuse all of the sellers-as nobody picks pumpkins here by look-only by how thick the meat it, or how big the pumpkin is, and for sure nobody wants the scrawny under-grown ones. I ran into a woman I knew who explained to one little old lady seller that I was a foreign teacher and we often did strange things like this. That explanation seemed to appease her for the time being, and she forked over her round pumpkins. In a little under an hour, we managed to fill an entire car full of pumpkins, and a taxi driver hauled me, my student, and our pumpkins to my office in his old Russian Lada, where 20 some odd teenagers touting knives and wooden spoons were waiting to unload our bounty outside my office. We caused quite a stir, as nobody could quite figure why the hell we were hauling in scrawny little deformed pumpkins by the cartful into the Education Building on a Sunday afternoon, when everyone was supposed to be hanging out at home washing their laundry.
The party lasted a few hours, and was one of the best times I have had with my kids in a while. As my service is sweeping to a close in less than two weeks, I have been looking back on the last two years and trying to summarize up my service, over which I feel somewhat conflicted. Every volunteer has different accomplishments and experiences throughout their service, although the basic idea of Peace Corps is to do grass roots development projects executed in a sustainable manner. In Turkmenistan, one of our main goals has been to try and work with teachers and execute methodology training. This is meant to be a sustainable method for continuing to improve teaching quality and education effectiveness on a wide level to the population. However, what most volunteers have discovered is that the organization of the school system and the strict regulation of access to resources makes these changes a constant uphill battle, which is enough to make even the most diligent volunteer want to pull their hair out. Personally, though I have tried to do a far amount of methodology training, overall I don’t really see any change in the teachers or our classrooms since I have come to the school. So in this sense, I guess I have failed. But the work that I have instead found to be the most rewarding is working outside of school with my club kids. Though it may not be work on the level that we were trained towards, it is what has kept me going for the last two years, and I hope the impact that I have made on these 30 some kids will be sustainable, if on a different level. As hubris as it may sound, I hope that the memories that they have accumulated and the experiences they have had with me will somehow impact how they change as adults, and in turn impact the lives of the people around them as they grow older. I never really saw myself being a mother-hen type to a pack of rowdy teenagers, but I will honestly say as the day approaches when I am going to have to say goodbye to them all for good, I get more and more emotional about it. I have seen so many of them grow and change over the last two years, and it just hit me today, as I lined all them up together outside my office to take a group picture, that THIS, not the governments’ promise of sweeping global change, or the promise of adventure, or some propaganda pamphlet, was why I gave up two years of my life to fly halfway around the world. So, you ask, was it worth it?
In all honesty, Hell yes.