13 October 08

12 January 2008

Back In The (Former) USSR

Goodbye, civilization! Just 30 hours of travel on the way back. I didn't sleep at all, but I fared better than the unfortunate woman who was seated behind me. I say "unfortunate" because somebody had replaced her children with 3 hyenas. She apparently hadn't realized it yet and I didn't have the heart to tell her.

30 December 2007

Jesse Jackson <3s My Mom

I'm back in the US after 33 hours total travel time. My flight from Germany was delayed so I missed my subsequent flight to Cleveland and had to stay in the DC airport overnight. The whole place was empty except for the night shift janitors and a strangely cheerful man who was skateboarding up and down the airport hallway. I settled myself down in the corner for a good long sulk, figuring I was in for a hellishly boring night. Next thing I knew, someone with obscenely bright green sneakers plopped down next to me. I looked up and it was the skateboarding guy, holding out an orange. "I tried to find you a flower, but there aren't any here," he said. "But it's a good orange." I took the orange gratefully (it was my only food in 14 hours) and we chatted a bit. Then one of the janitors brought me a coke, and another one offered me a book, and I ended up hanging out with several cool people for the duration of the night and it wasn't so bad after all.
Arriving in Cleveland, I got off the plane just in time to see Jesse Jackson embracing my mom. Deprived of sleep and in a daze, I merely assumed I'd gotten off in an alternate reality where Jesse Jackson was my dad. He walked over to me and shook my hand and said he respected what I'm doing overseas.
I wonder if he'd respect me less or more if he knew I'd been stewing in the same underwear for 2 1/2 days.
Anyway, apparently Jesse Jackson was on the flight that came in before mine, and my parents got to chat with him and told him I was in Peace Corps Turkmenistan. So as far as I know, he is not my dad and this isn't an alternate reality. Which means I still live in the same universe as Dick Cheney, but also the same one as nice people who give strangers oranges and cokes.
Happy New Year, everybody!

Me trying to sleep on the Dulles airport floor
Not my dad
Today's Advice For the New Volunteers: Your mom was right: Always bring a change of underwear and a toothbrush with you wherever you go.

30 November 2007

Kid Logic

So today I'm in one of my afternoon classes. I give the students an exercise to do in class, and just as it gets quiet, one of the kids turns to a classmate and utters a string of curse words that could strip the paint off a fence. Very colorful, grammatically correct, and IN ENGLISH. Of course I yell at him. Then I ask him, "What were you thinking? If you'd said all that in Russian, I might not have understood you. But you said it in English and got in trouble. Why?" He says sheepishly, "Because this is English class!"
Today's Advice For the New Volunteers: That cough accompanied by fatigue and achy back is probably just a garden-variety cold, not Dengue Fever. And it's almost certainly not going to cause you total nervous system failure in 5 to 7 days. Seriously, don't worry about it.

12 November 2007

Lost a Whole Lot of Underwear Last Night

Freak wind storm came in the middle of the night. Took it right off the line. Probably some guy in Iran is pulling it out of his trees right now. Well, at least it was clean.

05 November 2007

Now I Can Be Incoherent In Three Different Languages!

I've been studying Russian ever since I moved to my new site, and I can now speak and understand it at a (very) basic level. Which is awesome, because it means I can understand just about anything my students are talking about in class, even when they don't want me to understand what they're talking about. So they can no longer talk about who's dating who and then claim (with feigned indignance) that they were actually talking about the lesson. I can also tell them to do their homework in three different languages, so that nobody can claim that they didn't understand me. Of course, working trilingually can also be confusing. I can ramble on about a subject for a few minutes and then realize I have no idea which language I was just speaking in.
When I first got to my site, my students asked me which languages I knew. Without thinking I replied, "Ya znayu Turkmenski. Orscha gowy bilamok." That is, I told them in Russian that I knew Turkmen. Then I said in Turkmen that I didn't speak Russian very well. I have no idea why it came out that way. Nobody even questioned it.

02 November 2007

A Bag of Dragonflies

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I've gotten used to sharing my living quarters with all kinds of exotic bugs. Killer bees, legions of hairy-legged flies, half-ant half-spider mutants (aka "spants"), etc. I take pride in the fact that very little shocks me anymore with regard to insects in my house. But the other day even I was surprised by what I found when I came home from school: my home had been invaded by dragonflies.
Keep in mind I had never even seen dragonflies in Turkmenistan before. As far as I know, they prefer swampy climates, not the desert. But dozens of them were flitting around my apartment when I walked in, a couple of them dive-bombing my head as if in greeting. My first thought was, "Ugh! Bugs!" and I swatted at them frantically for a few seconds. Then I saw their pretty, glistening wings and thought of what an enigma they were -- water-loving bugs in the desert? I felt bad for wanting to kill them. But there were a lot of them, and pretty or not, I didn't want them in my house. So I got a plastic bag and began collecting the dragonflies.
It was fun; kind of like chasing fireflies as a kid. Sometimes I'd catch one just to have 3 or 4 escape, but eventually I got all the ones I could find. The bag was buzzing with frantic insects. I briefly considered saving them for school the next day to show my kids, but I wasn't sure how long the bugs would survive. So I went out on my porch and opened the bag. Dozens of dragonflies poured out and soared away, their wings sending off blue-green rainbows under the sun. Not something I ever thought I'd see here, nor expect to see again. One of the little neighbor kids happened to be passing by, and looked up in amazement. After the dragonflies disappeared into the sky, he looked around as if to see if anyone else had witnessed this. He didn't see me up on my porch, and there was nobody else outside at the time. After a minute or two, he walked on, tugging his wagon behind him. I wonder what that little kid was thinking as he walked home.
Today's Advice For the New Volunteers: If the egg floats, it's gone bad. If the duck floats, it's a witch!! BURN IT!!!

17 October 2007

All I Want For Christmas Is Some MSG

You know what I miss? Preservatives. All those unpronounceable, carcinogenic ingredients that you never really appreciate until they're missing. I don't get many preservatives out here, and I wish I did. I drank some fresh milk the other day and was pretty grossed out. Why? Because it tasted like it came from the inside of a cow. Now, don't start writing me smarmy emails. I know where milk comes from. I would just rather not be reminded of it.
I also miss the FDA for setting limits on the number of rat hairs and cockroach parts we get with our food. Because I now know what it's like to get unlimited rat hairs and cockroach parts with your food. If you know anyone who works for the FDA, give that person a big hug and tell 'em it's from me.

12 October 2007

Life in Bizarro World (aka the Russian suburbs)

I've spent the past year of my life getting used to being the funny-looking pale person who's taller than just about everyone else. Then I walked into my new school.
Have you ever been in one of those optical illusion rooms like they have in funhouses? The kind where you go in one end and you tower over everything in the room, and then you go to the other side and now you're tiny and everything's huge? That's what it was like going to my new school and meeting all the Russians. On my first day there, I stepped into the principal's office to ask for directions. She said, "I'll have a couple of the 7th grade English students take you where you need to go." I looked down for the students, since the 7th graders at my old school barely made it to my collarbone. Then I looked up...and up. *These* were seventh graders? The girls were taller than me! And blonde, and freckled! I tried not to gape like an idiot, but then failed completely when the girls started speaking to me in fluent English. They said they were glad to get the chance to work with a native English speaker, especially since the school (like most schools here) doesn't have textbooks. It's hard to perfect your grammar without having anything to refer to. Then they told me about how they were planning to have an English-only day camp over the fall holiday, and then a Halloween party the week after that, and would I be able to go and help out? I stammered something in the affirmative, probably sounding like I was the one for whom English was a second language.
I observed a 9th grade English class that morning. I was the second shortest person in the room. The kids were politely interested in my presence there, and asked a few questions about America. Then a cell phone went off, and then another. The teacher sighed and stood up. "You know the rules. Hand them over." She collected the students' phones and said, "You can get them back after class is over." Yes, in Bizarro World, the students all have cell phones and mp3 players, but no textbooks.
That evening, some of my future 9th and 10th graders took me for a walking tour of the town and pointed out places of interest, such as the gymnasium (complete with exercise machines and public swimming pool) and the amphitheatre where concerts are held ("Yeah, Avril Lavigne's playing here next week," one of the girls said sarcastically, and laughed). As we headed back towards home, we were approached by a couple of girls from the school - a blonde and a redhead, both in blue jeans. My students introduced me. "This is the new teacher from America?" they said, and eyed me rather disappointedly. "You don't look American. You look just like us."
Today's Advice For the New Volunteers: If you ever drop anything into the hole in the outhouse floor (shoe, flashlight, neighbor's kid) let it go because man, it's gone.

27 September 2007

Dom Sweet Dom part 2

The best thing about my new apartment? The bathroom doors. Instead of the shower and toilet being together in one room, they're separated into two smaller rooms. And just so you know which is which, the doors each have a little illustration. The shower room has a picture of a girl in the tub, and the toilet room has...

26 September 2007

Dom Sweet Dom

I am no longer the Peace Corps equivalent of "Couch Guy" - I have my own place now! My new site is a primarily Russian suburb of Ashgabat. Since it's near the city, I'm able to live in an apartment.
Chateau Brit (as I am now calling it) is 3 rooms plus bathroom and shower room - larger than my entire house back in the village. Nobody'd lived in it for over a year so the amount of dust inside defied belief. I could (and did) write my name in the dust on every wall. How does dust even coat a vertical surface? You'd think gravity would have a thing or two to say about that.
But minor things aside, I'm insanely psyched to have this place. I almost feel like I'm not a real volunteer anymore now that I have luxuries like privacy and running water. It's nearly enough to make one feel guilty. But not so guilty that I'm not going to enjoy it!
Anyway, that's all for now...updates will continue to be sporadic as I settle in at the new school and figure out how to sweep my walls.
Today's Advice For the New Volunteers: The Jedi mind trick does not work on Central Asian police officers. Therefore, when passing through a police checkpoint, you should NOT say "You donít need to see my identification, these are not the Americans you are looking for."

11 September 2007

How Hot Is a Turkmen Summer?

Well, Summer's back is broken and it's now a balmy 100 degrees fahrenheit during the day. But just a few weeks ago it was a different story - we're talking 130 on some days.
If you really want to know what a Turkmen summer is like, just dump a half pound of sand into an industrial-sized hair dryer. Aim it at your face, and turn it on to "high". But if that doesn't give you a good enough idea, check this out:

How hot is a Turkmen summer?
- So hot that my lipstick turned to liquid in the tube, and my eyeliner disintegrated on my eye and turned me into the little dog from "Spanky and Our Gang".
- So hot that in the cities, the asphalt is soft and spongy like moss.
- So hot that only rabid dogs and Peace Corps volunteers are awake between the hours of noon and 3 pm.
- So hot that the chickens lay hard-boiled eggs.
- So hot that the dust devils come in to town to beg for a drink of water.
- So hot that you can't find chocolate in any markets anywhere because of its stubborn refusal to stay in solid form.
Read that last one over to yourself. No chocolate for four months out of the year. Now you all know how truly tough we have it over here.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Dude, where's my chocolate?" (Chuy, menin shokoladem nirede?)

10 September 2007

Long Time No Blog

As lots of you have noticed, this blog was on hiatus for much of the summer. That isn't because nothing happened, or because I got sucked into a wormhole and temporarily ceased to exist. It's because for July and part of August I was medevac'd (medically evacuated) to the United States.
I actually got to go back to my hometown for a few days, which was great. Shocked the hell out of my parents when I showed up, since I hadn't given them any advance warning whatsoever. My mom nearly fell backwards into the pool when she saw me, which would have been a *great* picture to add to my photo gallery if it'd happened.
Now I'm back and better than ever (thanks to the free nose job I got when my chart was accidentally switched with some other patient's). Soon I will be teaching in another part of the country under safer conditions. I'll give you the details on my new place as soon as I get settled in.
Until then, here's a few highlights from the pre-U.S. part of my summer:
- I saw a dust devil, about as big as half a Buick at its point, and watched as it left swirly tracks in the sand. At one point it overtook a tractor, and I was warned by some villagers that getting hit by a dust devil will cause all sorts of diseases, including cancer. (Does the Surgeon General know about this?)
- I spent several lunchtimes sitting on the sand under a clear blue sky. I tossed bread to doves and ate sweet, juicy watermelon the likes of which America has never tasted.
- I met some Nevada State Troopers who were sent to Turkmenistan to teach proper police procedure to the KNB. I wish them the best of luck in that venture.
- On a sad note, there was a car wreck in my village; 2 cars full of teenage kids were speeding up and down the road at 95 miles an hour, driving side by side (it's a common activity during wedding parties). They hit a truck headon. Nobody was wearing seatbelts; 4 kids died.
- I was stuck in a traffic jam on the way out of my village. Cars were backed up quite a ways. In light of the previous week's accident, I dreaded finding out what was causing the holdup, but I got out and looked anyway. A cow and a bull were blocking up the entire road while engaged in the act of procreating. We waited for them to finish and continued on our way. None of the locals in the cab seemed to think this was at all amusing or out of the ordinary.

20 June 2007

Where the Kochelar Have No Name

Bono would love this place. My village has only 2 streets that are marked with names, and nobody really knows what they are because they are printed once each, very faintly, on the sides of crumbling concrete structures (relics from the Soviet era). Anytime I've referred to these streets by their "proper" names I've gotten looks of confusion. People only know streets by who lives on them. Which is fine if you're a local, because you know everyone in town. But if you're a foreigner like me, getting directions anywhere is next to impossible.
"You know Ogulfrey? Well, take a left at her cousin's house and keep going until you get to the pasture that Atamyrat brings his sheep to. Then make a right, and at Maham's aunt's house make a left. They have a new outhouse, very clean - you can't miss it. My house is halfway down that road, just across from the biggest haystack." It was with those directions last week that I attempted to go to dinner at my friend Gulshat's house. After 45 minutes of tromping through dusty roads and sheep pastures, I located the street and found the house across from the largest haystack. Surprised at how easy it was, I walked up and knocked on the door.
"Hello! I'm here!"
I was greeted by several smiling faces - two women, a little girl of about 4 years old, and a baby. "Come in, come in!" I sat down as directed and accepted the tea gratefully.
"We'll eat in a half an hour," one of the women said.
"It already smells wonderful," I remarked to her. She beamed, and handed me the baby to play with while she worked in the kitchen. At one point I called in to her, "So, when is Gulshat coming?"
"Gulshat?" She asked. "Oh, I don't know, maybe later."
A few minutes later, the door opened. Expecting Gulshat, I looked up and said, "Hello!"
Two men appeared. "Hello! You came!" The older one said.
"Yes," I said. "It's very kind of you to have me over."
"Not at all, not at all. So how is your work?"
We talked awhile until dinner was brought out. No sign of Gulshat, but everyone else was eating, and I was encouraged to do the same, so I did.
Afterward, I played with the kids some more, and tried to teach the little girl how to say "Hello" and "Goodbye" in English, much to everyone's amusement. Finally, it was getting dark. Gulshat never arrived, but I had to get home.
I thanked them all again for their hospitality. "I'm sorry to leave, but I must go now. Please give my best to Gulshat."
"Of course," they said. "Come back again soon!"
A few days later, Gulshat found me at the school. "Brit! Are you okay? What happened?"
"What do you mean? And where were you the other day? I went to your house and your family fed me, but you never showed up!"
Gulshat looked extremely confused. "No, they didn't. I was there; we waited for you for hours!"
"What? This was Wednesday, right? I went to your house. I met your mom, and your sister and her kids, and your dad and your brother. They were all really nice. But you never came!"
"I don't have a brother."
"You went to the wrong house."
"No! Everyone there knew who I was. They fed me!"
"You went to the wrong house."
"I followed your directions exactly."
"You took a left a Ogulfrey's cousin's house?"
"Yes, and then turned right after Atamyrat's field."
"You saw the new outhouse?"
"Yes, and your house is the one across from the biggest haystack. That's where I went."
Gulshat giggled. "It isn't the biggest haystack anymore. Aman's cows got into that field and ate half of it. Now the biggest haystack is across from Mehri and Serdar's house."
"So I ate at..."
"Mehri and Serdar's house. Oh, you got to see Anajemal's new baby! Is he cute?"
"Yes, he is..."
"Was the food good?"
"Yeah, she made polov."
She giggled again. "I bet they were surprised to see you. Oh, well, next week I'm going to be at my mom's house. You have to come have dinner with me there, okay?"
"Okay, sure! Is it far?"
"No, not at all! Just take a right past Guljemal's cousin's house..."
*True story. Okay, perhaps slightly embellished.*
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Where's the bathroom? Just go outside, take a left at the goats, and it's the second shack on the right."(Nirede hajathana? Dine dasharda yore, chepinde gecilardan git, we ol ikinji saginda jay.)

08 June 2007

Further Adventures in Third-World Consumerism

Today I went to the store to get my daily diet cola, and I also wanted to get vinegar so I could make salad dressing (fresh veggies are in abundance now - like delicious, flavorful tomatoes for less than 20 cents a kilo). Well, the Turkman word for vinegar wasn't in my dictionary. So there I was trying to ask the shop lady for vinegar without actually knowing the word for it; I went into all these vast descriptions of "something that is like water but very sour". And "sometimes it's made from old wine or old apple juice". I described its appearance, its various uses, etc - it was like playing that party game, Taboo. There were a bunch of women in the store and they all joined in, trying to guess the item. At first I was embarrassed at sounding like a complete ignorant foreigner, but they seemed to think it was great fun. They were pulling down everything from cognac to sewing needles to bottles of mineral salts. Finally, I said, "When you make shashlyk (Turkish barbecue), you use these ingredients..." and I listed them all out, leaving vinegar last and saying "...and then the thing that I need!" One of the women said, "I know! I know!" and grabbed a bottle and held it out - it was vinegar! I said, "Yes, yes, that's it!" Everyone laughed and cheered! That's Peace Corps. Something as mundane as going to the store for vinegar ends up being a big crazy adventure.
Turkman Word of the Day: Yoda = Path

03 June 2007

He Was Probably Trying to Sell Me Car Insurance

This morning I was sleeping comfortably when I felt something like a hand come to rest gently on the top of my head. I figured it was just a dream, and dozed on. Then I felt the hand move. I grabbed at the top of my head and something squirmed out from between my fingers and landed with a plop on the pillow beside me. Fully awake, I opened my eyes and found myself being stared down by a sand lizard (about 5 or 6 inches long, kind of a drab khaki color, big beady eyes). I blinked, he didn't. I wasn't in the mood to go chasing a lizard all over the place so I shooed him off the pillow & he skittered across my bedroom floor.
Freaky, but by no means a worst case scenario. I can think of many things that would be scarier to meet eye-to-eye first thing in the morning. Giant spiders, cockroaches, and Keith Richards all come to mind.

25 May 2007


Guess the famous Shakespearean play this feral dog is performing and win a prize!
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Alas, poor Yorick...I knew him, Horatio."(Wa-hey, Yorik janwar...Men ony biledim, Horatyo.)

21 May 2007

Things I've Learned in Turkmenistan

1.) Never wear lip gloss in a sand storm.
2.) Never yawn in the outhouse. (Flies + an open mouth = an unanticipated protein snack.)
3.) Roosters do not merely crow at dawn. They crow at dawn, dusk, 3 pm, 3 am, and whenever they damn well feel like it. As a matter of fact, if my neighbor's rooster were to meet with an unfortunate accident, I might be very grateful...
4.) The fewer time-saving devices there are, paradoxically, the more spare time you have.
5.) Whoever said "A dry heat is more tolerable" should be placed in a mental institution. Preferably one without air conditioning.
6.) Kids are the same the whole world over. So are mothers.

15 May 2007

The State of Equality in the New Marker Economy

Introduced another new holiday to the kids: Mother's Day. Same as with Valentine's Day, I explained a bit about the holiday and passed out paper and school supplies for the kids so that they could make cards for their moms. I had recently gotten some markers sent from the States, so I brought those in to supplement the other stuff. Turkman bazaars do have markers and they aren't terribly expensive so the kids are at least acquainted with the concept of markers. But when they saw the American markers they got really excited and proceeded to argue over who got to use the cool new American markers. "Guys," I said, "Markers are markers. The Turkman ones are just as good as the American ones." No, the kids insisted. the American ones were definitely better. I wasn't able to convince them otherwise until one of the more observant kids read the backs of the marker boxes and announced, "Hey, the teacher is right!" The other kids said, "What? Why?" He held up the marker boxes and said, "The Turkman markers and the American markers were both made in China!" The squabbling over markers stopped after that.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "American components, Russian components...all made in Taiwan!"(Amerikan shayler, Rus shayler...hemme Taywande eldildi!)

21 April 2007

Whereupon Your Intrepid Adventurer Discovers That There Are Killer Bees in Turkmenistan

Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Egad."(Wiyy.)

16 April 2007

The American gets Punked

In a brief fit of good judgment I decided not to introduce April Fools' Day to the kids of Altyn Asyr (it's one of my favorite holidays, but the teachers looked awfully nervous at the prospect of hundreds of kids "celebrating" a season of pranks). I did tell some of my teacher friends about it, though. So on the Monday after April Fool's day, I was teaching my 4th-form class as usual, when one of the little girls stood up and said quite primly and in perfect English: "Excuse me, teacher, I have to pee." I was totally thrown! Finally I said, "Okay, you're excused!" The other kids kept straight faces for about 10 more seconds and then they all busted up laughing. I said, bewildered, "Did you guys understand what she just said?" Yup, they did. Then I noticed a couple of the other teachers peeking around the corner and giggling...
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Everyone's a comedian."(Hemmeler degishgen.)

11 April 2007


Here's what I saw today when I went out for a walk: I went outside and my host mom's laundry was decorating the line. It was flapping around in the wind and looked like a bunch of colorful birds that were trying to escape some snare. I walked down my street and a grouchy old man was yelling at a bunch of kids for pestering his donkey. Some of the kids were from my 4th-form class and as they ran away giggling they yelled in English, "Hello teacher!" I went past the grazing field full of spring lambs. The shepherds stood motionless, all wrapped head-to-toe in billowing white sheets with only their dark eyes uncovered. Ghostlike sentries, they silently watched both sheep and passers-by. I stopped to say hi to the old lady who sells sunflower seeds. She instructed me to buy her seeds and settle down with some nice young man, although I'm not sure in what order she wanted me to do that. A little boy darted past us, focused on his favorite toy: A long thick wire with a wheel at the end of it. He steered it down the path with rapt contemplation, as though it were a hundred times more engrossing than anything Nintendo could invent. Maybe it was. Then, just as I was rounding the path that would lead me past the school, my little buddy from the 6th form startled me out of my reverie by jumping out in front of me from absolutely nowhere. He said, "Hey Br3it! Come with me!" He grabbed my arm and made me run with him to the town's general store and pointed to the bottles of cola. Score! The merchant lady had Diet Coke! So I bought a liter of it and went to the curb to sit and enjoy my favorite beverage. I offered some to my buddy (sort of like a finder's fee), but he said, "No sugar? No thanks!" We sat and watched the dogs chase each other around the street, and he pointed out all the old men who looked like Santa Claus, and then it was time for home and dinner.
So, even the days where nothing happens here - I mean the days without princes or elections or festivals - you can't really call them uneventful.

03 April 2007

World Festival

There was a big international arts & folklore festival in Ashgabat today, and I watched some of the coverage on TV. It was supposed to be for "all of the world's nations" but not everyone was represented (I imagine there's a few countries that are still looking at the invite and scratching their heads. "Turkmenistan? Where? Did this thing come with a map?!") But there was an interesting variety, anyway. Of course, most of the people attending were from Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (those being the countries that border Turkmenistan), but there were also people from Brazil, Japan, India, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and - strangely enough! - some Native Americans from Arizona! I didn't catch which tribe they were from, but it was really cool to see them there. They sang and did a tribal dance. I was proud to point out to my host mom that they were Americans, although she then asked why they don't look like me. That led to a rather complicated discussion which maybe I'll post about at a later date.

Here's an interesting little factoid that I plan to pursue further: The Turkmen have a mythological figure (pre-Islamic) that is identical to the Native Americans' Kokopelli. He's the same hunchbacked, spiky-haired, lame little flute-playing god that you see all throughout the American southwest. How is it that the Turkmen tribes share a symbol with the Native American tribes?
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "No, Borat wasn't invited to the festival."(Yok, Borat festivala chagyrulmedi.)

31 March 2007

This blog entry brought to you by Aunt Ogulshat's melons

A few days a week I have combination English/American Civics classes for the English teachers at my school. They ask me questions about American culture & government and I respond in (mainly) English, and we have some dictionaries handy to look stuff up when necessary. I also bring in American magazines, civics books, etc. for them to look through. Awhile ago we talked about advertising and commercials in America (which as you may know is the advertising capital of the world). There's hardly anything resembling advertising out here. Turkman magazines & newspapers don't have them. Russian television channels have some commercials, but the Turkman channels don't really have them. Even the word Turkmen use for "commercial" is Russian: reklama. I told them that was something I liked about Turkmenistan - there aren't billboards every few feet to mess up the scenery like there are in America. There also aren't any big "chain" stores. Out here it's the land of the "mom & pop" shops - literally, because what they call stores are usually some old lady selling melons in her front yard.
I started an English club awhile back, and one of the first things I had the students do was make posters to hang around the school telling about the club - when it meets, etc. The next day one of the teachers came up to me, laughing, and said, "You American! You're here just a few months, and already there are commercials in the school!" She was kidding of course, but wait until she sees the five Walmarts and seven Starbucks I'm opening up here next month...
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Nine out of ten men who have tried camels prefer cigarettes."(Dokuza-ondan duyanlari edip goran adamlar chilimlari saylayarler.)

23 March 2007

You gotta fight for your right to eat chorba

Turkmen celebrate the arrival of spring by throwing lots of toys (parties). At toys, the villagers get together and gorge themselves on food and then sing & dance all night. There's typically one huge pot where the main dish is prepared, usually chorba (soup) or palow (rice). The pot sits over a fire outside & everyone takes turns helping with the preparation. When the food's ready, there's a specific order in which the meal is served. Honored guests from outside of the community get served first. After that, the hierarchy is: elder males, younger males, elder females, younger females, and children. There's always more than enough to go around, and besides the main meal there's candy, fruits and vegetables (at this time of year, all of the produce is imported from Iran, because of course the crops in Turkmenistan have just started growing). After everyone's eaten his fill, it's time for the music and dancing. At some toys, the music is performed live with guitars and flutes, and people take turns singing. At others, there's a more modern DJ setup with speakers and a CD player (or sometimes even karaoke). Even though the work is hard in spring, with land to till and crops to plant, Turkmen always find the energy to dance. One time I danced for almost four hours straight until I collapsed into a chair, too exhausted to take another step. Still people continued to dance; several of my friends called over to me and said, "Why aren't you dancing? Join us!"

I've seen toys where everyone danced in a circle around a huge bonfire, singing and laughing. The toys where there's a fire are my favorites; it's awe-inspiring to watch the elders stand around the fire, their faces illuminated by the flickering light, singing songs in their old tribal dialects. At one such toy, I watched the young men take part in a game to demonstrate their prowess. They put on suits of shiny red satin which looked as though they were made from the fire itself. They lined up, and while the women sang, each man took a running start and leaped over the bonfire. Then when every man had taken a turn, they lined up and did it again, until everyone had gone three times. I never saw anyone stumble or get burned this way.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Please pass the sheep-head soup!"(Goyun etly chorba berayda!)

12 March 2007

March is New Soul Month

(It's "Nowruz" which in Arabic literally means "New Soul")
Quick update: At the end of February we had in-service training and our group got to stay at the nicest hotel in T-stan because the Armenian national soccer team had taken over the one where we usually stay. It had a disco, a spa, and the Prince of Bahrain. The latter gave me roasted baby goat and let me hold his royal falcon. That week we also met the aformentioned Armenian soccer team and a bunch of British oil workers.
Then I went back to my village and was welcomed by an intense dust storm that beat dirt into every molecule of every object unlucky enough to be outside. The wind screamed, the livestock flipped out, and there was no electricity, gas, or phone for about 4 days (not that I have a phone, but the telegraph office does). As soon as the dust settled we had a massive rain storm. That kept the electricity, gas, etc. out for even longer, and also caused major floods. Half of the village was flooded, and the other half was caked with mud. The roads were underwater so there was no traveling to other towns; that plus no phone meant we were effectively cut off from the rest of humanity. Made life hard on many of the families out here, but they handled it a lot more cheerfully than I did! I didn't have classes the day of the worst floods so I wasn't required to wade through the mess (but I did anyway to get some pics).
When we'd stayed at the hotel in Ashgabat, it took 2 full days to feel like I'd washed all the mud off me. At this point I think it would take a whole month.

Today's Turkmen Lesson: "You should see the camels trying to swim."(Olar duyanlari yuzyp goryarler sen gormaly.)

19 Feb 2007

"Okay, but how many ears are wearing students?"

Number of adult English students who understood that question: 0
Number of 4th form (9 & 10-year-old) English students who understood and answered correctly: all 78 of them
...And that is why kids are so much more fun than grownups.

So, February 14th, 2007 was a significant day in Turkman history because that's when the new president was announced. But in my village it was also significant because that's when the town had its first ever Valentine's Day.
Bearing markers, crayons, candy, and purloined printer paper, I walked into my 4th form class last Tuesday and announced that Wednesday the 14th was a holiday in America. I explained a little about Valentine's Day and how people give valentines to people they like. Then I passed out candy and art supplies and the valentine-making (and sugar highs) commenced. We made about 80 valentines and hung them all over the school, adorning the bare walls in bright colors (although the students hung most of them themselves, so the color only went waist-high).
The kids had a blast & learned a lot; not only had they never heard of Valentine's Day, but none of them had ever so much as seen a crayon before. I actually had to explain to them how crayons worked. Can you imagine going through life without ever knowing about the way new crayons smell when you first open the box?

The next day during my free period I was sitting in the teacher's room, and one of the teachers came over to me and said, "The 4th form students have a question for you. Could you come upstairs for a minute?" I followed her up, and all the kids were standing there, grinning. A little girl presented me with a carefully wrapped package, and on it was a note that said "To Teacher Brit from School 2 of Altyn Asyr. Happy Valentine's Day!" Inside there was some candy, and a photo album that the kids had pooled their money and bought! Plus, a bunch of the kids had gone home and made valentines for me, so I got a bunch of valentines too. They'd even gone to the store and bought a Taze Yyl (Turkman Christmas) card & crossed out the "Season's Greetings" part and wrote in "Happy Valentine's Day". Best Valentine's Day ever.

On the way home, I stopped at the store and saw a bunch of guys sifting through piles of fake flowers and boxes of chocolates. I overheard one of them say, "Valentine's Day? What is Valentine's Day?" Turns out they'd heard of this strange new holiday from their kids, and decided to get their wives presents! As I continued home I got wished a Happy Valentine's Day by the woman at the telegraph office and several of my neighbors. That evening, one of my host brother's friends stopped over, and my host mom said, "Hey! Did you know that today's an American holiday?" "Yeah, Valentine's Day," he said. "I know all about that."
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Happy Valentine's Day."(Ashyk-magshuklar guni bilen gutlayan.)

14 Feb 2007

All Hail the God of Suggestive Architecture

Happy Valentine's Day!

Today's Turkmen Lesson: [REMOVED]

14 Feb 2007

Election Day

The new official president: Kurbanguli Ber____dov

I watched the inaugural hoopla on TV. [REMOVED PER USPC POLICY]

Immediately upon being sworn in, Ber___dov (formerly the head of the Department of Health and Education) signed a bill increasing the required amount of schooling from 9 years to 11 years (it had been 11 years under the Soviets; N___ had lowered it to 9 years during his presidency). Everyone I've spoken to is happy about the change - even kids, surprisingly enough.
Another positive thing is that he had promised to make the internet available to the public. Just one day into his presidency - lo and behold, Turkmenistan's first public internet cafe is opening!
Of course, one of the big questions is whether he'll decide to have elections again in 5 years, or whether he'll do the "President for Life" thing like his predecessor.
The other question is what he'll do about the possible gas pipeline around the Caspian - Russia doesn't want it, of course, because they're used to getting all of Turkmenistan's gas at a bargain price. If the pipeline happens, Turkman gas will suddenly be up for grabs in the Western markets - good for T-stan, not so good for Mother Russia. If the new president actually does decide to act in T-stan's interests rather than Russia's, things could get mighty interesting around here (Google "Yushchenko" and "dioxin" to find out what happens when Putin doesn't like you). Hopefully the new president won't order any Russian takeout if he does go for the pipeline.
All in all, an auspicious start, I think. Wish us luck over here!

07 Feb 2007

Conservationism vs. Turkmanism

In America, people try to conserve electricity. In Turkmenistan, no one bothers since it's one of the few things that's affordable (being free and all), and anyway it conserves itself by going off several times a day.
In America, people worry about whether a thing is biodegradable. In Turkmenistan, things go rotten altogether too quickly for anyone's liking, and anything that doesn't is considered valuable and worth hanging onto. This goes for old soda bottles, pieces of metal, plastic lids, etc.
In America, people value hybrid cars and other ecologically-sound methods of transportation in order to reduce the amount of noxious fumes going into the atmosphere. In Turkmenistan, few people can afford a car, but the horses manage to produce some noxious fumes of their own (which modern science has yet to find a way to combat).
In America, people recycle old newspapers into other useful products. In Turkmenistan, they do too: it's called "toilet paper".

01 Feb 2007

The windy season

"They say traveling broadens the mind; I reckon I could pull mine out my ears now and knot it under my chin."

I'm discovering that Turkmenistan has more than just the usual four seasons. Like now, for instance: the season between winter and spring. It isn't cold anymore - it's around 55-65 degrees farenheight - but nothing's started growing yet. The main characteristic of this season is the wind storms that blow through the desert producing massive clouds of choking dust. If you've seen the movie Hidalgo, it's like that (only without the cute guy on a horse). If you're silly enough to venture outside during such a storm, you have to cover your face because every inch of exposed flesh gets sandblasted. At first I thought the dust storms were really cool because the wind makes crazy sounds, and afterwards there's so much dust everywhere you can write your name on any surface you want. But now the novelty has worn off. The dust has worked its way permanently into everything I own, and the wind is so bad my neighbor's chicken has laid the same egg four times.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "This weather blows."(Bu howa ufleyar.)

25 Jan 2007

A Brief Caveat on Turkmen Grammar.

The Turkmen word for "to suck" is "sormak". But the word for "to rule" is "soramak". So when describing a band in Turkmen, you have to be careful. With one extra letter, you could be saying that Vanilla Ice rules.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Stop, collaborate and listen. Ice is back with a brand new edition."(Dur, yyg we dinle. Buz taze neshir bilen gaydyp gelyar.)

23 Jan 2007

The Restaurant at the End of the (Central Asian) Universe

A bunch of us Ahal Velayat volunteers just had dinner at the "Iranian Truckstop", a little diner next to Iran's border. It's an actual truckstop for the drivers who go back and forth between Turkmenistan and Iran. As you walk in, you're greeted by a big, smiling picture of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Seating is not on chairs but on plush Persian carpets. The restaurant offers a variety of Turkish, Turkmen, and of course Middle-Eastern fare; there are hookahs available for those who partake, and the servers know both Turkmen and Farsi. The food is good but a little pricey (about $4 USD for a four-course meal) - I give it 3 1/2 out of 5 stars.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "American what? No, I'm Australian, mate!"(Amerikan name? Yok, men Ostralyadan, dost!)

20 Jan 2007

Fun with Soviet-Era textbooks

"Twinkle, twinkle, new bright star.
Now we know what you are.
You are Sputnik, pretty star,
You are from USSR.
We can see you in the night
When you show your little light.
You are shining very high
Like a diamond in the sky."
--From a Soviet English book, published 1978

17 Jan 2007


The winter holiday is over and I'm on a regular teaching schedule now. Well, nothing is "regular" over here; any plan is subject to change according to the weather, the day of the week, and the whims of the higher-ups. Any Type-A personality who finds himself teaching in a third-world nation is likely to end up huddled in a corner, banging his head against the wall before too long. Given the lack of resources & vagaries of the administration, you absolutely have to be flexible out here or you'll go insane. For example: The electricity comes and goes, so I have to plan my lessons around that. Not that there are any electronic gadgets I can use anyway, but I do have to have a backup plan in case the classroom is too dark for the kids to see the chalkboard. The 4th form has no textbooks whatsoever. This is a blessing in disguise, since most of the English textbooks are riddled with grammar errors anyway and I like having the freedom to teach whatever I want. Also, there are never enough chairs to go around, so the last few kids to show up are stuck having to stand all through class (at least it encourages punctuality).
Despite things like that, teaching out here is incredible. The kids are amazing - they're smart, eager to learn, and they actually respect their teachers. All of the teaching supplies in the world can't beat having a kid run up to you before class on Monday and show off all the English he's learned over the weekend because he couldn't wait until class to tell you.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "A camel just ate my gradebook, so I guess you all get an 'A'."(Duye men zurnalim iydi, son uchin siz 'bash' alyanyz.)

5 Jan 2007

Turkmen Traffic Report

This morning's traffic report brought to you by Turkman Cola Lite. It's cheaper than the real thing, and only tastes slightly of sheep.
It was a busy rush hour in Altyn Asyr this morning. Today on the freeway 2 cows stopped to take a leak at the same time, and 2 other cows decided to wait for their comrades, blocking both lanes entirely. Several human pedestrians grew impatient and pushed up against the cows to urge them on and got themselves splashed with urine in the process (thus proving that it never pays to tailgate).
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Sana chorba yok." (No soup for you.)

3 Jan 2007

Taze Yyl

A little more about my new home: It's so much like I imagine the Old West to have been that I keep expecting to run into Billy the Kid. People ride around on horses and drive livestock directly through the center of town. There's mud everywhere, yet women all go around in long pretty dresses (which of course get dragged through the filth and have to be cleaned constantly). The town also has outhouses, tumbleweeds, and a seedy pool hall that serves rotgut liquor.
On New Year's, aka Taze Yyl, the streets were full of young guys yelling and drinking and shooting things up in the air; rather than joining them (because for a lady to do such a thing would be unthinkable), I instead allowed myself to be bundled up and hustled from house to house to sip tea and chat with the other ladies in town. I think it's ironic that I flew halfway across the world to parts unknown just to get treated like some delicate flower, but it's all part of the experience, right? Tune in next week when I sneak out to the pool hall in drag (just kidding)!
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Chagalar hamsternyn menizleri bilen dogulmesynler." (May your children not be born with the faces of hamsters.)

29 Dec 2007


Yesterday I was officially "registered" to live in Turkmenistan. This is a necessary ritual if you're a foreigner (if you don't register within a couple of days after you arrive, you have to pay a $100 fine and possibly get thrown in jail). I had to go to the Immigration Office in the nearby town of Tejen and show several forms of ID along with the passports of the people I'm living with. In addition, one of the teachers from the school had to accompany me for identification purposes. On Thursday, we took the 30-minute trip into town, found the Immigration Office (after walking around in the snow for more than an hour and asking several locals where the office was), and were promptly turned away because I didn't have letters from the school director and department heads to prove that I am gainfully employed (I had no idea I needed anything like that). By the time I got back home it was too late to get the letters, so I resolved to get up early the next day and resume my quest. I figured I'd get up at 8 am, get the letters and grab a taxi by 9:30, and be at the Immigratzi by 10.

The next morning I went to the department head's office and asked for the letter. One of the secretaries had to type it, and she typed at approximately 3 words per minute. I needed copies in both Turkmen and Russian, and she wasn't very familiar with the Russian alphabet, so I ended up typing that one for her to save time (since by that point it was already close to 10 o'clock). This amused the heck out of the other teachers, who all gathered around to watch the American teacher type Russian words on a Turkmen computer. I type at maybe about 55-60 wpm which in America isn't terribly fast, but in T-stan apparently it's superhuman. As I typed, I got a lot of "Moloday"s* and I heard someone say knowingly that all Americans are good with computers, which made me giggle inwardly. Anyway, I got a little over halfway done when the electricity went out - a common occurrence here. Everyone groaned, and someone started making tea on a little gas heater because that's what you do when the electricity goes (it could be a long time before it comes back, so you may as well hunker down). We all hung out and drank tea for a couple of hours. The lights came back on at around noon, and I finished the letter and got the department head's signature just before he left for lunch.

Next stop: the director's office. She was also at lunch when I got to her office, and since lunch breaks can sometimes last several hours, I walked to her house to get her. She was there and was fine with signing the letter, but she didn't have her seal - her secretary did (and of course her secretary was at lunch). We called the secretary, who had to cut short her lunch break and drive into town to deliver the seal. At long last, by 3 pm, I had all the requisite paperwork, so the other teacher and I got a cab to the Immigration Office. I waited nervously as the officer cast a stern eye over all of my documents (miraculously, he didn't pick out any spelling errors on my Russian version of the letter). Then he started speaking rapidly to the teacher who was with me, too rapidly for me to understand much. She said something about the street being very short, and I realized he was taking issue with the fact that I didn't list a house number for my residence (the houses on my street don't actually have numbers). I held my breath as they argued, and finally he nodded, grunting, and grabbed the big rubber stamp on his desk and stamped my passport. I exhaled, relieved, and my teacher friend gave me a big hug and said "Now you're a citizen of Turkmenistan!" Heaven help me.

*Moloday/Molodetz = "good girl/boy" in Russian. Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Men size suyji balyk tutyp berdim." (I caught you a delicious bass.)

28 Dec 2006

New Year, New President, New Home

The interim president of Turkmenistan: K____ Ber__dov.
On February 11th, the new president will be chosen from 6 candidates. Ber__dov is the most likely to win - it's really no contest, but at least there will be elections! I have a feeling there won't be any huge, sudden changes - just subtle shifts here and there. Nonetheless, Turkmenistan will be an exciting place to live for the next two years.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Hazir sen gaz bilen bishiryan." (Now you're cooking with gas.)

26 Dec 2006

S Novem Godom

Things are pretty calm around here, so they are shipping us off to our permanent sites tomorrow morning. That means I most likely won't be updating the blog for quite awhile. Wish me luck on this next step of my adventure.

22 Dec 2006

President Turkmenbashy is Dead.

He died of a heart attack at the age of 66. We don't know what's going to happen next, because there were no plans made with regard to a successor. On December 26th the country's officials will hold an emergency meeting to determine who the next president will be. Thus far, it appears as though Turkmenistan's political structure will stay the same and we don't anticipate major upheaval at this time. However, Peace Corps and the American Embassy are taking every precaution to ensure our safety here and in the event that things do become unstable we would be immediately evacuated to a country nearby.

We're not permitted to leave the area right now for security reasons, but we're safe. Yesterday was supposed to be the day that we, the trainees, were sworn in as full volunteers. There was to be a ceremony with our superiors, teachers, host families, neighbors, and friends, followed by a big celebration. Instead, we had a rushed swear-in this morning, attended by only a handful of the Peace Corps staff. Whether or not we will actually get to carry out our service here is completely unknown. It depends a lot on the next few days.

Turkmenistan has one of the world's largest natural gas reserves and a fair amount of oil as well. This fact hasn't escaped the notice of neighboring countries, so it's in Turkmenistan's best interest to get a new leader appointed as quickly and smoothly as possible. Sadly, this means there will not be elections. The new president will be appointed, not elected by the people.

The people we've worked closely with and who have treated us like their honored guests are realizing their worst fears. Their leader is dead. Living under N_____, people had free electricity, free gas, and at least things were stable. Now nobody knows what will happen with the schools, their jobs, the future. I feel terrible for the people here, but having witnessed the Turkmen tenacity and strength firsthand, I have a lot of confidence in their ability to make it through this.


19 Dec 2006

Gutly Bolsun T-15s!

Well, I passed the language test and I'm about to be sworn in as a full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteer. It's been a challenging 3 months & the real PC experience has yet to begin. After a week of celebrating with the other T-15s, I'll be heading off to a town that you won't find on any map. I miss all of you back home. Drink some egg nog for me.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Pejalsta, sen duyani sallanchak surada dykmaly dal!" (Please keep the camel out of the manger scene!)

08 Dec 2006

The problem with sand dunes is that there's no established right-of-way.

Since the weather's been getting colder we've all been staying inside more, which means we watch more tv. I was watching music videos with my host family the other day when Green Day came on. I said, "Hey, Green Day! That's an American band, I like them!" Amusingly, the song was "American Idiot". My host mom asked what the song was called so I translated the title into Turkmen. "American Idiot?" she asked. "What's it about?" I gave her a vague summary, and she was incredulous. What kind of people insult their own country? The spirit of nationalism here discourages such a thing. She watched the entire video, laughing and shaking her head (one thing I love about my host mom is that rather than frowning at anything she doesn't understand, she gives it a hearty chuckle instead). My host sisters, on the other hand, watched the screen disinterestedly for half a minute; then one of them said "You like really ugly guys," and they went back to gossiping about school.

Random fact: The "Dell Dude" is alive and well and doing Russian potato chip commercials.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Eger senin duyan menin babegimi iyse-de, bashga babek bar." (Even if your camel eats my baby, I have another baby)

29 Nov 2006

The village of Altyn Asyr

This is what you see all around you when you look out the window on the 4 hour bus trip to Altyn Asyr from Ashgabat:

That's the Garagum (Karakum) Desert. Rumor has it Ghengis Khan took one look at it, said "I don't really need to conquer these people that badly," and went home.* The Peace Corps, showing a bit more gumption than Mr. Khan, sent a small regiment of 5 volunteers across the expanse to do some reconnaissance this past week.
Of the 4 volunteer towns in eastern Ahal, my particular village is the smallest of the lot. Everything there seems to be coated in a thin layer of grit. There's no market, no running water, no phone. The "road" is really a crater-infested mud path shared by cows, pedestrians, and one lime green Chevelle.
There are few buildings that aren't residences - namely the school, the policia, and one bar/pool hall. The latter is conveniently located 2 doors down from my house; however, in a stroke of bitter irony, I'm not permitted to go in because I was born without the requisite equipment to operate billiards in Turkmenistan. In other words, no stick + no balls = no pool.
Altyn Asyr has never had a volunteer before; I'm the first American most people in this village have ever seen. If I thought I got stared at a lot in Ashgabat, it was nothing compared to what it's going to be like next month.
This is what the village looks like,

and this is why I'm going back there to teach for the next 2 years:

This was my last class of site visit week, coming around to my window to say goodbye. During the week of my visit, I'd initially had some doubts about whether I was going to be able to do my job - I'll be the only English speaker in town because none of the current English teachers at the school actually speak English (no, I have no idea how they can teach a language they don't speak). Not to mention I'm in a particularly conservative area of an already conservative country, and the town is so "rustic" I'll have to walk 2 miles just to make a phone call. But at the moment that I snapped that pic, I realized at least people really want me there, and given that fact how could I possibly go wrong? Famous last words, I'm sure. Tune in later to hear about my getting trampled by a thundering herd of crazed bovines, or falling through the floor of the outhouse or something.

*Perhaps not his exact words.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Bagyshlan, emma senin duyan menin babegimi iyeyar." (Excuse me, but your camel is eating my baby)

26 Nov 2006

"Hosh Geldiniz Sinekhana (Welcome to the House of Flies)"

-The sign I made for the library (kitaphana) where we study.

It snowed Monday!! In other news, I got my permanent site placement: I will be here in the Ahal Region. My town is: [REMOVED] (etrap center). From Ashgabat, it's a 4 hour drive through the Garagum Desert with nothing but mountains on one side and wasteland on the other. There's no internet anywhere nearby, so I won't get to update stuff as much starting next month. I'll write a little more on my village and upload some pics next week. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving!
Camel count: mass quantities. Flies killed in the Sinekhana: 51

19 Nov 2006

Greetings devotchkas and malchicks

It's been pretty darn meshgul (busy) around here, so I'll try to sum up the past few weeks as quickly as I can. After I got back from the aforementioned climb (Oct 21st), my host sisters ran up to me and said that if I got cleaned up right away, I could go to mosque with them. I had been wanting to go, since the mosque in our town is the largest in all of Central Asia - huge and ornate with giant gold-tipped spires - and it'd be a shame not to see the inside of it when given the chance. Some of the Americans here hesitate at going to mosque because of the potential conflict with their religion. I have no higher authority than myself to offend, so I went.
Most of the surfaces in the mosque are of sparkling white marble, and the rest is solid gold. Gold lamps, door handles, trimming, even some of the tiles on the floor are gold. There are big fountains all around the mosque that would make any Las Vegas casino turn green with envy, and gorgeous stained glass windows that are lit up at all hours. Praying at the mosque entails 2 hours of calisthenics, so now I know how Turkmen people can consume all that sugar and sheep fat and not be obese. You don't sit and listen to the cleric. You move constantly. Kneel, stand, etc. I didn't understand anything the cleric was chanting but he did amazing things with his voice. Sometimes his voice was a whisper as thin and dry as paper; sometimes it buzzed like a hive full of angry bees, and sometimes it climbed and climbed until he was half singing, half wailing and it filled the mosque and I thought he'd shatter the stained glass.
I had been a little nervous about entering the mosque at first - I was afraid that someone would be offended at the presence of an American in such a big Muslim holy place. When I mentioned that to my host mom she laughed and said, "No, no, you'll see." (Well, that's a rough translation.) Nope, nobody was offended. Nobody spoke during the service, but some of our neighbors touched my sleeve and smiled as they walked by. Afterwards, a couple of women came up and asked me why I wanted to come to mosque, and I answered honestly: "I wanted to see what it was like." Apparently that was acceptable, because they both hugged me. So it was definitely worth going, even though all the movement added to the soreness of my muscles the next day.
I've been back to the mountains twice since October. As the weather gets colder, the highest peaks are beginning to get white caps. Yesterday I didn't do any climbing; I rode up to the top of the mountains in a big cable car. Suspended by a cable hundreds of feet in the air, I could see all of Ashgabat and even a little of my own tiny village. It was a really peaceful feeling. Being in the mountains when clouds roll in is also quite an experience. You start seeing these wispy tendrils curling around the rocks, and the next thing you know you're cold and wet and can't see more than a couple of feet in front of you. Awesome.
That's it for now, more updates later...
Camel count: Probably up to the hundreds now. When I was in the mountains I saw some big gazelle-like things with curly horns. Turkmen call them "keyik".
Turkmenistan's southwestern mountain range. The Iranian border is just a few miles away.

21 Oct 2006

The 16k hike

This morning I got up at the crack of dawn to climb a mountain (part of the range separating Turkmenistan & Iran). This afternoon we rode back to town with a Turkish guy in a 30-year-old Mercedes Benz. We sang Backstreet Boys songs at the top of our lungs. Yeah, I'm doing a lot of things here that I never would have done back in the States.
Camel count: I stopped counting at 30. There's just way too many to keep track. Maybe I'll start counting sand lizards instead (I took a bath with one of those the other day).

15 Oct 2006

2 Jews, a Muslim and an Athiest walk into a bar...

...That's how all of my language classes start. Well, we don't actually have our language class in a bar - it's in a library (we did suggest that class be moved to a proper drinking establishment, but our teacher vetoed the idea).

So, I was standing around with my host sisters the other day in Ashgabat, and I made some remark in English. Immediately a guy came running up to us and asked, "You speak English? Are you American?" I said yes, and his face brightened and he introduced himself (the name was really long and foreign, and there's no way I'd spell it right, so I won't try). He said he was from Afghanistan, and that he was a doctor & worked for the UN. His English was impeccable. He asked what brought me to Turkmenistan and I told him I was with the Peace Corps. He said, "Really? I know the Peace Corps! That is how I learned English - when Peace Corps was in Afghanistan!" I said I didn't even know that PC had ever been in Afghanistan, and he said "Yes, they were, but that was many years ago. Of course they aren't there now." I said, "Maybe someday we'll be there again," both of us knowing full well that isn't likely anytime soon. He smiled kinda sadly and said "I hope so. Those were some of the best memories in my life, learning English." We talked a little more, until my sisters & I had to catch the bus home, and he told me where his apartment was and said "My wife and I live up there. Please stop in and drink tea with us sometime. My wife knows English but not Turkmen, and she would love to talk with someone." I know training's a pretty busy time, but I'd still like to try to take him up on his invite.
Camel count: 19

09 Oct 2006

The Arrival

"You know you're in the Peace Corps when running water means a really fast kid with a bucket on her head."

For the first few days of training we stayed in Turkmenistan's capital city, Ashgabat. Ashgabat is about as modern as a smallish rural American town - a little backwards, but not shockingly so. One of my favorite experiences in the city was visiting the bazaar. A bazaar is a big, open marketplace with individual stands selling anything & everything. One stand will have soap, coloring books, and perfume. Another will have mushrooms, bottled water, and magazines. There's also a meat area with lots of big chunks of unidentifiable things hanging from hooks, the blood dripping right out onto the floor. It's kind of reminiscent of the last few scenes in a slasher flick, but with more flies. The best thing about the bazaar is that there's rarely a set price for anything, so you get to haggle. I bought a thing of "Barf" laundry detergent for 1,000 manat less than its posted price and felt smug for the rest of the day (at the unofficial rate, that's about a 4 cent discount, but it's the principle of the thing, dammit).
After a few days of misleading comfort in a very nice hotel, I got to see the real Turkmenistan. I was dropped off at my host family's house in a small village in the Ahal region on Saturday afternoon; within a couple of hours I managed to travel back in time about 100 years. The house I am living in has no running water which means drawing water from a well for everything. The bathroom is an outhouse with a hole in the ground. It's in the back where the sheep graze; I made the mistake of feeding the sheep some apples when I first arrived, so now they follow me to the outhouse and wait outside the door baa-ing at me until I come out.
The American Parahatchylik Korpus (Peace Corps) volunteers are a novelty around here; we draw a lot of curious stares. However, the Turkmen people are incredibly friendly and hospitable, and extremely patient when I try out my horrible broken Turkmen on them.
One very pleasant aspect of Turkmen life is tea. A few times a day, people stop what they're doing & sit around a little mat on the floor and drink green tea (like the kind you get in Chinese restaurants). Meals are eaten on the floor too. Last night I had my first dinner with the host fam and we had a popular Turkmen dish: palow. Palow is just a big thing of rice with chopped up veggies and meat (I didn't ask what kind of meat; that's going to be my policy from here on out). Everyone sat on the floor in their bare feet and scooped the palow out of one bowl with their fingers, although I was given a spoon (I guess they heard something about Americans liking utensils). For dessert there was pomegranate and the candy I'd brought as a gift. A lot of people around here are candy addicts, the effects of which are visible in the number of gold teeth that flash out at you when they smile.
Anyway, I'll pick up later with more of my first impressions of the place. Oh, and there's some more photos here.
Camel count: Just 2 so far. The neighborhood posse

03 Oct 2006

The Journey

Frankfurt, Germany

Brief stop in Azerbaijan

Crossing the Caspian

30 Sept 2006

Departure Day

This is what packing for two years in the desert looks like. Well, not really, but it's as much as they're letting me take. The final score was:

Shoes: 5
Electronics: 3

Here's my playlist for the flight, for those of you who want to know what flying to Turkmenistan sounds like.

15 Sept 2006

My address during training

Britain Anderson, PCT
U.S. Peace Corps/Turkmenistan
[if you need my address, email me & I'll send it to you] Ashgabat, 744000

...Mail can take a few weeks to get there. It's likely to get there more quickly if you write "Airmail" and "Via Istanbul" on the envelope. It's likely to get there less quickly if you write "This envelope contains anthrax" or "Top Secret Plans to Hijack a Jumbo Jet" on the envelope.

Official Disclaimer:
This is a personal blog, owned and operated solely by the writer, Britain Anderson. The contents of this blog reflect the opinions of the writer and do not in any way reflect any policy or position of the United States Government or the Peace Corps.

Copyright (c) Britain Anderson 2008