27 December 2008

Into Africa

I've finished my work in Turkmenistan, all of the difficult goodbyes have been said, and I am preparing to leave for Cairo tomorrow. Here is where I'll be going:

That is: Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania. I'll be returning home on March 2nd.
I'll try to post updates before then if possible, but if not, there'll be loads of pictures and blog entries when I get back. Off to the next adventure!

17 October 2008

The Geography of My Town

I realized that I've been writing about the goings-on in my town but have never really talked much about the place itself. Having explored extensively, I now know where the important stuff is - for example:
a.) where all my friends and favorite students live;
b.) where to get the coldest diet coke;
c.) where to get the freshest kim chee (spicy cabbage salad) and the juiciest kebabs.
d.) where the scary drunk panhandler hangs out and what path to take to avoid him; and
e.) where to go for fun on a Saturday evening.
...Here are some of the places in town that make Abadan what it is.

The park: A pleasant agora with trees, fountains, the obligatory gold statue of the previous leader, and a stage where there are concerts on Saturdays (but Avril Lavigne has yet to play on it, much to the disappointment of my students).
Chocolad: Large abandoned building in town where vagrants and drunks live. The name is a bit of bathroom humor with the locals. If you don't get it right away, you don't really want to know.
The gymnasium: Offers a swimming pool, weekly karate classes, and an exercise room where enormously buff Russian men listen to Britney Spears while lifting weights. YOU try telling them they have bad taste in music, I dare you.
The bazaar: Abadan's own mall. Consists of a dozen people all selling the same fruits and vegetables for the exact same price; you can spend all day going from merchant to merchant looking for some discernible difference on which to base your purchasing decision. The trick? It doesn't matter which merchant you buy from. Just make sure you buy from the same merchant every time, and eventually your loyalty will be rewarded with free stuff!
The scary drunk panhandler: Hangs out near the bazaar and yells at everyone who passes. Before I'd learned any Russian, I assumed that what he was yelling meant something. Then I discovered otherwise. Typically he yells things like, "Hey (expletive) television and potatoes more yesterday legs (expletive) give me money (expletive)."
France: The biggest, stinkiest garbage pit in town. Neighborhood dogs love to roll in this pit and return home triumphantly reeking of rot. This landmark is referred to as "France" by the kids. One day I asked them why they called it France, and I got the "You're kidding - it should be obvious" look. I get that look about once a week.
"Because France smells."
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"On television" was the prompt reply. When a kid responds with "I heard it on television," it is generally accepted that the data is irrefutable. The assumption is that if you heard something from Serdar's little brother Ali, it can be questioned, because that kid has been known to be wrong. But the television guys are experts. I mean, they have cameras and everything.
"I don't think France smells."
"Have you been there?"
I had to admit that I had not. "But I know people who have, and they don't think it smells." Even I realized that this wasn't much of an argument against Hearing It On Television.
"Oh. Okay." The kids remained unconvinced, and the garbage pit remains France. Sorry, France.
School #8: The place where kids go to hear the American talk funny. A large and well-maintained facility; every spring the previous graduating class's grafitti is painted over, offering a fresh writing surface to the current year's seniors. Also has a surprisingly good cafeteria with cheap coffee for teachers, a row of shoddy outhouses with no doors (which make teachers regret indulging in cheap coffee), a garden where no plant dares show its face, and a volleyball net where the aformentioned American once blasted away the misconception that all Americans are good at sports.
the Old Apartments: A uniform row of soviet block apartments where yours truly lives. Not to be mistaken for the New Apartments, which look exactly the same but have fresher paint. Triple-reinforced concrete walls papered over with soviet-era newspaper makes for a kitschy "bomb shelter chic" look.

13 October 2008

Times They Are A-Changing

I had gotten a letter from a girl back home who wanted to be pen pals with a student in Turkmenistan. My English Club read her letter and of course, they all wanted to write to her. So I gave them her contact info: email and snail mail. As soon as I told them her email address, they all wrote it down and said, "Great! We'll email her."
"Wait," I said, "she also has a postal mail address."
The students groaned. "Brit, postal mail is soooo slow." "And writing makes our hands hurt. We'd rather type."
It's amazing how fast things have changed here already. Just 2 years ago internet was banned in Turkmenistan. But by the time my students are my age they will most likely have forgotten what life was like *without* the internet (as most of my generation has in America).

12 October 2008

Back to School

I'm back at school and taking things much more in stride now that I've been here for a couple of years.
To any new or prospective volunteers who might be reading this, I give you one truth: your second year of service is easier. You'll have found your stride, learned your limits...and the language really does come with time. You spend your first couple of months at site nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. You listen to the strange words being spoken all around you, knowing that people are talking about *you* but unable to understand what they're saying. I was there, and I thought it would never get better. But compare that to my first day of school this year:

I walked into the classroom, full of 5th-graders who had never had me as a teacher.
"It's the American teacher!" said one.
"American? So she doesn't know Turkmen!" said another, rubbing his hands together in glee, imagining all the chaos he would be able to cause this year.
"Are you sure about that?" I asked menacingly in Turkmen.
"You DO know Turkmen?!" said the boy, eyes widening.
"Kid, what country is this?"
"Turkmenistan!" one girl answered for him, and slapped the kid upside the head for good measure.
"Do you know Russian too?" a girl asked in Russian.
I responded in kind. "Yes, I know Russian." A bluff; I know enough Russian to realize when they're using bad language or talking about non-school-related stuff during the lesson. I certainly couldn't write a master's thesis in Russian.
"Wow," one kid said.
"Yeah. So open your books and let's get started," I said. Everyone did I as asked.
It's going to be a good term!

11 October 2008

End of Ramadan

When September ended, so also did Ramadan. My entire neighborhood celebrated, with parties going on in the houses and the streets. The Turkmen were celebrating because it was a Muslim holiday and the end of the fasting period. The Russians were celebrating because the Turkmen are their friends and they're not ones to miss out on a good party. I joined in as well and went to several different houses, eating shashlyk (kebabs) and plov (rice) until late into the night. Then some of my friends and I went out on the porch and watched people jump over the traditional bonfires, only their silhouettes visible against the fire's orange glow. I realized then it was my last Ramadan in Turkmenistan. I guess one of my friends thought of that too, because she asked me if I'd still remember them all next year. As if I could ever forget the friends I've made here!

08 October 2008

Holiday in Cambodia (and Thailand) continued

One of my favorite towns in Thailand was Kanchanaburi. Kanchanaburi has wildlife refuges, waterfall parks, caves, temples, museums, nightclubs, and the historic River Kwai. At one of the wildlife refuges I rode an elephant through the jungle and into the river for a bath (his bath, not mine). I was riding bareback, so I had to hang on best as I could. I'd been given some soap and a brush to wash the elephant with, and after I was done scrubbing behind his giant ears, I asked one of the guides, "How does he rinse off?"
"Wait and see," was the enigmatic reply. Suddenly the elephant decided that he was clean enough and walked deeper into the water until he was completely underwater and I was submerged up to my shoulders. He started to shake his head back and forth to clear off the soap. This, for me, was like being in an underwater rodeo in slow motion. Somehow I managed to stay on until he finished. As this was happening, one of the guides sent another elephant into the water. This elephant was sans rider and in a frisky mood. After hosing himself off with several trunkfulls of water, he reared up on his back legs. In this position he was about as tall as a 2-story house, and he was only 10 feet away. He rolled his wild eyes down at us and I realized that these animals are not only extremely large, they're intelligent. Since these particular elephants appeared to be in very chipper moods, that revelation was awe-inspiring but not panic-inducing.
Eventually we left the river and rode over to a tall platform where I could climb off, but everytime I tried to swing my leg around, my elephant put his ear up and blocked me. After the third time, I looked over at the guide in confusion and he laughed. "He's playing with you," he said. I patted the elephant and thanked him for the ride. Finally I was allowed off, but then as I walked away something swatted at my ankle - the elephant's trunk. I'm not sure if he was saying "Goodbye" or "Give me a banana." Probably both.
I went to another wildlife refuge called "The Tiger Temple". Tigers are an endangered species in Thailand, and at this reserve Buddhist monks take in injured and orphaned tigers. To help defray the costs, visitors can pay a fee to have their pictures taken with the tigers (which I did). The tigers are surprisingly mellow, although I suspect that the adult tigers who are allowed to mingle with the public are given a little something extra with their breakfasts to keep them in a good mood. Tiger Prozac?
At this same refuge there are also water buffalo, wild pigs, and deer - all of whom are treated well and are subsequently unafraid of people (although the other animals don't seem to like the tigers much). I walked up to a deer to see how close I could get and was surprised when he came over and butted me gently, as if asking for attention. I scratched him behind his fuzzy antlers for awhile and then approached a big albino water buffalo. I patted him on the head, but he looked like he couldn't care less and I felt kind of silly standing there patting an obviously bored water buffalo on the head.

Cambodia was much more raw than Thailand, with more jungle and fewer trappings of civilization. The roads were mostly mud, and with the monsoon season, frequent downpours turned the red mud into soup. Taking a bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I was amazed that we never once got stuck or slid off the road. The enormous grey bus did spray hapless pedestrians in showers of orange backwash, but few seemed to care or even notice. They were already soaked.
The big thing to see in Cambodia is, of course, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Considered to be one of the "travel wonders of the world", it gets hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. If you aren't familiar with Angkor Wat, it's a Khmer temple complex from the early 12th century. The name Angkor Wat simply means "city temple", which doesn't do much to describe the amazing architecture. It's a huge system of moats, sandstone towers, stairs, bas-reliefs, and snaky trees that grow straight out of the stone and wind themselves around the towers and statues in a rather eerie way. You almost get the idea that if you don't keep moving, the branches may envelop you too. The carvings also blew my mind. There were gods and goddesses and demons and even scenes from hell on the walls. The Bayon Temple was my favorite part of Angkor Wat - It was decorated with hundreds of massive stone faces, all smiling mysteriously.
In the village near Siem Reap, I visited a crocodile farm. The crocodile farm was interesting for the sheer numbers of crocs kept there - hundreds upon hundreds. They don't move much, just lie in the mud like piles of logs. When one does decide to go somewhere, however, it moves with surprising speed and you're reminded of how lucky you are to be up on the platform rather than down in that pit.
A dark grey monkey about the size of a large cat roamed the crocodile farm, seemingly unafraid of the huge reptiles. He swung over and studied me almost somberly. He looked as though he could use some cheering up, so I picked a bright red flower and handed it to him. Without hesitating, he took the flower, stuffed the entire thing in his mouth, and swung away.
The farm has a gift shop with alligator skin items (sold with an official-looking certificate that assures the consumer that the croc-who-is-now-a-wallet died of old age) and crocodile wine, which supposedly cures most ailments. Presumably it does not regrow any limbs you may lose in obtaining the blood.

26 September 2008

Holiday in Cambodia** (and Thailand)

Someday Americans are bound to discover Thailand. It's got everything - beaches, nightlife, shopping - and an amazing culture that you'll never experience summering in Florida. Florida doesn't have the giant gold buddhas, pagoda roofs, a vast royal palace, or spiraling iridescent temples detailed with mirror glass so they sparkle in the sun. And the pad thai you get from the delivery place downtown is nothing like what you'll get made fresh on the streets of Bangkok.
Most of the rest of the world has already discovered Thailand, and I ended up going sightseeing with people from Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Israel, Australia, South Korea, and even Ghana. I only met one other American, though. He was an English teacher from the Bronx. We swapped war stories one night and it was uncanny how similar they were. Poverty, racism, obstinate school's a small world.

I arrived in Bangkok with my backpack, a map, and a slight sense of trepidation. Though I was traveling alone on this trip, other volunteers had assured me that I was far from the first to go solo in Thailand. It's easy - everything is in English, they'd said. And it's as modern as any western city - their healthcare system is even better than ours (not that that's saying much; Kyrgyzstan has better healthcare than we do)!
One piece of advice I'd been given was to never accept the first price I heard for anything. Taxis, street vendors, whatever. So when I was approached by a taxi driver at the airport and offered a ride for $15, I scoffed. The man protested, said that it was a fair price, gas is expensive, etc. But I could tell by his mannerisms that this, like in Turkmenistan, is all part of the game. I countered with how I am a volunteer and I don't make much money. He lowered the price slightly and reiterated that taxis are very expensive to maintain. I said, "If it's that expensive, perhaps I should take a bus."
No, no, he insisted; buses are hot and crowded and slow. Certainly you don't want a bus. He lowered the price again. I hesitated, sounded dubious.
He grew impatient. "200 baht ($6)! 200 is the least I can accept. It costs me that much to park my car," he said.
I was on the verge of accepting the offer when the airport's bus rolled by. On its side was "150 baht! Air conditioning!" written on the side. "Sorry," I said to the driver, and flagged down the bus. I heard an "Arrgh" from the cabbie as I climbed on.

As I was sightseeing in Bangkok, I was wandering into one of the many temple gardens when a couple of guys with cameras turned, grinned, and took a photo of me. Cheeky, I thought, and raised my camera and took one back. A minute later they came over and one said, "You weren't offended by that, were you? I'm sorry if we offended you."
"No, I wasn't offended."
"You're American?"
"Yes, and where are you from?"
The man paused, and he and his friend looked at each other. "The middle east," he said hesitantly.
"Which country?" I asked.
Another pause. "Iran," he answered. "But," he said quickly, "you shouldn't pay attention to the things you hear on the television. Iranian people think Americans are good people. Please believe that."
"I do believe that, don't worry. I've been living in Turkmenistan for nearly 2 years now and I've met many Persian people and they're all very hospitable and kind. So please don't believe anything you might hear from the media about Americans, either. We don't all agree with everything our politicians say."
We chatted a bit more until I had to catch my bus. I found it funny how all the Iranian people I've met in my travels have been afraid at first that I, as an American, would hate them for being Iranian. Growing up in the U.S. you hear from politicians that there are people in the world who hate Americans simply for being American - that they would stone you on sight. It turns out they've been hearing the same thing about us. Just one more indicator that it's the politicians who start the wars and not the people.

It was refreshing to see the freedom that women have in Thailand. For example, a woman is free to hold one of the positions of highest honor: monk. Female monks, like male monks, shave their heads and wear billowy robes. Also like male monks, they are treated with respect and honor. One time I was on a bus and a female monk got on with what I assume was her assistant. She looked around regally, and then pointed to a seat that was already taken. She said something to the assistant, and he bustled over to the man who was sitting there and spoke for a moment. The man quickly gathered his things and vacated the seat, and the monk sat down.
I also discovered that the best time to cross a busy city street is when a female monk is also trying to cross. Everyone brakes for monks.

At one point I was passing the university and saw a growing crowd of people. In Turkmenistan, a gathering means some sort of celebration, and usually comes with free food. With that in mind, I wandered into the crowd. On closer inspection I realized that this was in fact a demonstration of some sort; people were holding signs (which I couldn't read), and there was a woman at a podium saying things with conviction. People smiled and nodded at me as I passed through, so I figured that whatever they were protesting, it wasn't anything about Americans. And there was free food. I noticed that the police were cordial and unarmed and kept a polite distance from the masses, and the masses in turn remained calm and non-violent. I'd silently commended Bangkok on a protest well done.
Later I asked a local worker if he'd heard about the demonstrations downtown, and he said he had. "It's about the Prime Minister Sundaravej," he explained. Then he said ominously, "Some people would like to see him dead." The people I'd seen earlier certainly didn't seem to have bloodshed on their minds. I hadn't noticed any of the kind of tension that usually indicates that things might get ugly - no flushed faces or harsh tones, no aggressive body language of any kind. But just a couple of days after I left Bangkok, things did get bloody. Close to 35,000 protestors stormed the government house and attempted to overthrow the government. At least one person died and dozens were injured.
I am starting to feel like I'm bad luck for the countries I visit. Three months after I arrived in Turkmenistan, their leader died. One month after I visited Georgia, Russia attacked. Days after my visit to Thailand, rioting and coup attempts occur. I am starting to wonder if I should call eastern Africa and warn them of my impending arrival this January. But then Sudan would probably just laugh. "Heard of Darfur?"
...More about Thailand and Cambodia the next time I get internet access!

**Bonus trivia: The last time I was able to use a Dead Kennedys song as a blog entry title was when Schwartznegger was elected governor...

12 August 2008

Quick note

I just heard the news about the invasion of Georgia by Russian troops. I saw footage of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I am saddened when I think of what the Georgian people must be going through right now, and sickened by the thought of Georgia's beautiful old buildings being pounded to dust.
I remember when I was talking to my friend's family in Tbilisi, and how they said they wanted to move out of Georgia, and how I couldn't believe anyone would want to leave what I thought was paradise. Even though things seemed calm when I was there, I thought they must feel threatened indeed if they wanted to leave that cozy cottage nestled in those green hills. I hope for the sake of the friends I've made and for everyone else that a cease fire happens soon.
I'm sick to death of hearing about countries "flexing their military muscle". When will they start flexing their mental muscle instead?

04 August 2008


That's it for blog entries for about a month, because I'll be in Thailand and Cambodia for the rest of August. Updates when I get back.
Here's what flying to Bangkok sounds like, if you're me.

31 July 2008


One thing I noticed about Kazakhstan's Almaty is that in its attempt to be ultra modern, it's sacrificed a little bit of its Kazakh personality. Tbilisi, on the other hand, doesn't give a damn about being modern. There are ATMs and McDonalds, but they are fitted in around the old cathedrals and statues. The architecture looks like the Mediterranean, Great Britain, and old New Orleans all mixed together. On every cobblestone street there are some buildings bearing proud Greek columns, and others dripping with iron latticework. Some walls are entirely obscured by ivy; others are adorned with carved gargoyles and angels. The effect is such a romantic one that you feel obligated to fall in love. I fell in love with the city. I visited centuries-old monasteries and bought handmade candles from monks. I strolled through an artists' market where painters and craftsmen displayed their creations on blankets.

Georgia is the world's leading producer of cute little old men. They all have round pink cheeks and whiskery faces, and they like to wear newspaper hats. You can see them herding goats in the fields (stick in hand, burlap sack slung over one shoulder), drinking wine on their porches (wine makes pink cheeks even pinker), or playing backgammon at bus stops (occasionally smoking a pipe). Georgia knows its little old men are cute; that's why so many souvenier shops have wooden replicas of them for sale.

I'd wondered why I'd never seen the elders of Georgia wear anything other than black. Then it was explained to me that it is a Georgian custom that if someone you know has died, you must wear black for two weeks. I guess when you are that old, you always know someone who's died.

My friend and I decided to go out one night while we were in Tbilisi. As we walked through the streets, we could hear cheering and shouting coming from every pub we passed. A sign in front of one pub said, "World Cup Soccer tonight! Russia vs. the Netherlands!"
The Georgians were rooting for Russia? How could that be? We went inside and took a seat. As I sat down, I noticed on the bar television that the Netherlands had the ball. They approached the goal, scored, and...the pub erupted in cheers. People jumped out of their seats and high-fived each other. Then I understood. The Georgians were rooting *against* Russia.

31 July 2008

For the love of god, WHY?!?!

...Oh, wait, the headquarters of one of Georgia's major oil companies is on this street. Never mind.

23 July 2008

Kazakhstan, continued

Bazaars in Kazakhstan aren't all that different from bazaars in Turkmenistan. You have your usual assortment of fruits and vegetables (prices vary according to your haggling skill), smelly meat counters offering fly-flecked goat heads, various trinkets protecting you from the evil eye, kvass (fungus beer!) vendors, and tables of random junk you can pick through if you need a shoelace, rat poison, toothpaste, or souvenier flag pin. I did see one unique table at the Almaty bazaar, however. A sweet little old lady was hunched over some bags of medicinal herbs for tea. As I passed, I smelled something that reminded me of a certain frat house I used to live down the street from. Was that...?
One of the Kazakh cousins confirmed my suspicion. Like in America, buying and selling marijuana in Kazakhstan is illegal. However, it grows wild all over the mountains and in vacant lots and nobody cares. And if old merchant women sell baggies of it at the bazaar, the authorities ignore them. Who wants to arrest a little old lady?
I wonder what would happen back in the U.S. if one of the church ladies tried to sell bags of pot at a flea market...

I was shocked at how aggressively modern Almaty was. That kind of modernity almost hurts the eyes when you're coming out of more rustic surroundings. Everything seemed clean and bright and hard & people and things moved waytoofast. Mirrorglass skyscrapers gave me vertigo when I tried to look all the way up to the top. People pushed past me, engrossed in their phone conversations. Flashing neon lights grabbed my attention and made me see spots. The American part of me loved it and soaked it all up, but the Turkmen part of me recoiled a bit.

As we were leaving Kazakhstan for Georgia, I finally saw a glimpse of the Soviet spectre that exists in all of the former states. We had a layover in Aktau, a smaller city in Kazakhstan, before we arrived in Tbilisi. My friend's mother, who speaks English although Russian is her first language, instructed us all to speak only English in the airport. "If they think we are from around here they will expect a bribe. But they don't try to get bribes from Americans."
No problem for me, since I'd have a hard time coming off as anything other than American. But for my friend and her mother, who are fluent in Russian, it was too much for them to not respond in Russian when questioned in the same. Then began the interrogation.
"How much money do you have on you? Are you from Armenia? Do you have any jewelry? Are you hiding something? Open your shirt!"
I rushed to where my friend and her mother were being questioned. The customs woman started barking at me in Russian as well, and I said, "I don't speak Russian. Do you know English?"
The woman asked in English, "How much money do you have on you?"
"Gee, I don't know...." I said, trying to think.
"That's fine, you can all go," said the woman abruptly.
"How about you speak first at the checkpoints from now on?" My friend's mom suggested, relieved.
That was the first time my lack of fluency has ever been so useful.

18 July 2008

Kazakhstan, part 1

This is a series of blog entries I wrote while on vacation in Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. It's not narrative-style, just random musings. Hope that's not too frustrating for the more linear-minded.

In Kazakhstan I spent most of my time with my friend's huge extended family. There were uncles, aunts, great uncles, great aunts, grandmothers, grandfathers, and about 40-odd unaccounted-for individuals whom I simply referred to as "cousins". One aunt (at least I think she was an aunt) asked me if my own family was this large.
"Nope," I replied. "Growing up, it was pretty much just me, my mom, and my dad."
"You don't even have any brothers or sisters?!" she asked, astounded.
"Well, we had a lot of dogs," I offered.
The aunt laughed so hard tears came from her eyes. Throughout the night she'd repeat what I'd said to the others, to fresh laughter every time.

Like in Turkmenistan, many Kazakh families take great pride in stuffing their guests so full they can't move. The tables groaned under the weight of the meals we were served. Most of the older generation only knew a few phrases in English: "Okay, no problem", "Sit down please", and "You like? Eat more!". They used these phrases often. At one point I was grabbing for yet another slice of tender spiced roast beef, and an uncle said, "You like?"
"I sure do," I replied, taking a big bite.
"Is horse!" he said proudly.
I stopped chewing.
"Oh my god, I'm sorry, I should have warned you!" My friend said. "Are you okay?"
I took a moment to reassess my feelings about the meat. Still tender, still tasty. I swallowed. "I like it!"
The uncle beamed and clapped me on the back with a huge hand, nearly sending Mr. Ed back up. "Good girl!"
That wasn't the last time I ate horse in Kazakhstan. I ate horse sausage, horse steak, horse jerky... Not the weirdest thing I've eaten in the past 2 years, and I'm sure there'll be weirder to come.

My Russian is less than perfect (pretty bad, actually), and I tend to confuse common words that sound like each other. For example, "to write" and "to pee" are only one letter different from each other in Russian. One evening I was writing in my journal when some of the little cousins came in and asked what I was doing. I thought I'd spoken correctly, but when they erupted into giggles and shrieks I knew I must have just told them that I was peeing in my journal. Oh well, that's sometimes not altogether untrue.
Out of all of the academic pursuits I've undertaken, learning languages is the most forgiving. If you make a mistake in a foreign language, everyone has a chuckle & it's a good time. A goof on a computer programming assignment is generally not met with such mirth.

Sacha Baron Cohen is persona non grata in Kazakhstan. If you've seen the movie "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan", you understand why. Kazakstan is represented by a film exec's idea of what a backwards 3rd-world village should resemble. I've seen backwards 3rd-world villages. And I've seen Kazakhstan (cities and villages). Not the same. I mean, for one thing: the "Kazakhs" in the movie are *white*. Kazakhs are Asian. This isn't at all the most ridiculous incongruity. Portraying Kazakhs as anti-semitic and misogynistic is a cheap shot (and not true); granted, the movie is a comedy and shouldn't be taken seriously, but Kazakhs realize as well as anyone that the world knows very little about Kazakhstan. A movie like Borat is all most Americans will see of the country, and the roughly 51% of America that takes pride in its ignorance will accept the portrayal as gospel.
A lot of Kazakhs asked me if I'd seen the movie, and wanted to impress on me that Kazakhs aren't like Borat. I told them there was no need; I could see that for myself. I also mentioned that the movie made Americans look racist, misogynistic, and ignorant as well - and unlike the faux "Kazakhs", the Americans weren't actors. They were being themselves. I then asked the Kazakhs to please not judge Americans based on that movie, and I'd try to spread the word to people back home about Kazahstan. They graciously accepted the deal.

18 July 2008

Update, finally

It's taken me awhile to update this blog. My excuse is I've been busy drinking water. You have no idea how much water you have to drink to stay hydrated in 130-degree heat (and no air conditioning). I go through more than 3 liters a day, plus my usual cola/coffee consumption which I'm not giving up just because it's summer, heat be damned. I should probably just hook myself up to an IV drip. Anyway, I'm doing the Kazakhstan/Georgia/Ajerbaijan trip account in installments, with the first couple following this post.

25 May 2008

School's Out For Summer

The school year, inexplicably, is over. It seemed like it just started, but there you have it. On Saturday we had our graduation ceremony.
I was asked to give a speech. I was asked the morning of, so I didn't have any prior warning. This was a good thing, as it saved me a sleepless night of preparing and agonizing, and my speech wouldn't have been any different even if I had prepared. Once the speeches part started, I discovered that, although I'm getting better at understanding Teenager Russian, my School Administrator Russian is still lousy. I understood very little, so I had to listen carefully for my cue. Finally I heard "(Russian, russian, russian) Amerikan," --my ears perked up-- "(Russian, russian, russian) Britney!" And then my kids cheered. My cue!
I started with introducing myself to the parents and telling them, "I'm a teacher. But I've also learned a lot from this school. When I came here, I thought I'd see how different everything was. But I was surprised to learn how similar we actually are." The rest was your standard graduation speech - congratulating the students on their hard work, telling them that they have their whole lives ahead of them and they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, etc. When I was done speaking, my kids had a surprise for me - they'd gotten me a bouquet of roses! I almost cried, but managed not to.
Besides speeches, the ceremony had live entertainment. Since the school is half Turkmen, half Russian, there was one Turkmen singer and one Russian singer. It was interesting to watch how each side enjoyed the entertainment (for the Turkmen and the Russians were seated separately; Russian students and parents on the right and Turkmen students and parents on the left).
For the Turkmen singer, most of the Turkmen kids stood where they were and listened. The dancing that did happen was segregated - boys with boys, girls with girls. When the Russian singer started up, the Russian kids ran out en masse to the center, and promptly paired off boy-girl, boy-girl and danced as couples. The Russian teachers also danced. People sang along and clapped.
During graduation, the parents also responded differently. On the Turkmen side, the parents watched with quiet dignity, making no noise or facial expressions when their child was handed the diploma. On the Russian side, it was just as you'd expect at an American graduation ceremony. The parents cheered loudly as their kid's name was called, and several moms burst into tears. There was a lot of hugging afterwards (I got hugs too, sometimes from parents I didn't even know). Seeing the contrast between Turkmen and Russians, I got a little insight into why some volunteers occasionally find it difficult to integrate here. When people display emotion so differently from the way you display it, it's easy to assume that your emotions must be different from theirs - even when that isn't the case.
After the ceremony was over, doves were released, and then so were the kids. I'm going to miss this year's graduating class, and I hope they're happy and successful in everything they do!

22 May 2008


There are swallows all over the place these days, and some of them have even built nests in the stairwells of my apartment building. What I like most about them is that they mate for life, so they go everywhere in pairs. They take turns watching the eggs and bringing food for the babies. They're also very curious birds, and not at all afraid of humans. So when I left my porch door open the other day I got more than the cross-breeze I'd been hoping for. I also got several myhmanler (guests). They would fly in, always two at a time, and sit along the wall where the wallpaper was peeling off. Then they'd bob their heads up and down as they watched what I was doing. At the time, I was trying to clean my floors with no water (water shortage), and wasn't too sure how I felt having an audience. If it'd been a Disney movie, the birds would have all been pitching in with the housework, perhaps whistling a jaunty tune to speed things along. As it was, their chattering sounded a bit more like mocking to me. "What's she doing?" "It appears that she's washing the floors without water." "Hahahaha!"

20 May 2008

Racial Tension

Today I broke up a fight in class. This is not entirely unusual; fights happen from time to time, but it's generally nothing serious and the kids end up being friends again by the next period. Today was different in two respects: The first was that the kids were only in 5th grade, and the second...
It started with a boy and a girl squabbling over seats in class. The girl got the seat the boy wanted, and he called her a hen. She called him a sheep, he called her a cow, etc. Calling someone a farm animal is a standard 5th-grade insult. Then the boy knocked a couple of the girl's books on the floor and she got really mad. She said, "You're black!"
The boy flew into a rage like I'd never seen. He grabbed her by the hair and started hitting her in the face. I jumped in at this point and separated them. The girl was crying, of course, because he'd whacked her pretty good. But what surprised me was that the boy was crying much harder. I asked him, "Why did you hit her like that? You can't be hitting people!"
He sobbed, "She called me black!"
I said, "So what?"
The other kids in the class all looked at me in disbelief. One girl said, "It's a very bad thing to say."
I said, "I don't understand. Why is it bad?" The boy who had been called black was indeed a couple of shades darker than the other kids. It was a Russian class, but he was clearly of mixed descent. Far from funny-looking, the kid had enormous brown eyes and cheekbones any girl would die for, and I assumed he was probably quite the heartbreaker (or would be in a few years).
Everyone looked uncomfortable at my question. The girl replied, "It just is."
I said, "No, I still don't understand. Many of you think 50 Cent is cool, right? And Snoop Dogg, and Akon, and other American rappers who are black?" The kids nodded. "None of those men think it is a bad thing to be called black. They are proud to be black. So why would you say it is a bad thing?" Nobody said a word.
I said, "America's next president might be a black man. In fact, I hope he wins. I will vote for him."
The kids looked surprised at this. One boy asked, "Why do you want a black man to be president?"
"Not just me," I replied. "Many people want him to be president. We want him to be president because we think he is a smart man, and a good man, and he will help our country. That's why."
The kids all just looked at me like I was slightly weird, but the little boy who'd been called black had stopped crying and managed to smile little bit. I figured this would be a good time to lighten things up, so we played Grammar Tic Tac Toe and there was no more talk of black or white. Although a few kids did call each other "sheep" and "hen" still.

18 May 2008

Happy Magtymguly Day!

29 April 2008

Of Dutars and Goats

The other week I got to go to a concert in Ashgabat, the first I've seen of its kind. It offered a sample of music from some of the major cultures in Turkmenistan: Turkmen "halk" (folk) music, Persian music, and Tchaikovsky. I'm glad to note that there was also opera, which had been outlawed under the previous leader. In addition to the music, there was a performance of a traditional Turkman folk tale (the above picture is from that).
The concert started with the Turkmen traditional music. This consisted of two men sitting in chairs, with one man playing what looked like a tiny violin sculpted from a gourd (I was told that the name is something like "gijik", but I may not be spelling that right), and the other man playing dutar and singing. The vocals were uniquely Central Asian: the singer would belt out a couple lines of song, fall into to a middle-eastern sounding wail, and then the wail would be interrupted by what sounded like violent hiccups. He actually bounced up and down in his seat, going "hic! hic! hic!" I couldn't help but giggle at that, but the audience went wild every time he did it - applauding, cheering, etc. They loved those hiccups.
After the hiccuping man and his accompaniment cleared the stage (with much applause), a few more microphones were brought out along with four sets of bongo drums. One man stood in the middle and began to play. Gradually, he was joined by another man, then another, until there were five men on stage. Four played drums, and one had a tambourine. The beat intensified and sped up, and then a man with flowing black hair and a crimson shirt strutted on stage holding something that I can only describe as a dead goat that had been converted into a saxophone. A goatophone, if you will. And he began to play. He blew into that thing with more moxie than I've ever seen anyone use on a goat carcass. He danced all over the stage and filled the concert hall with awesome sounds for song after song, with one of the drummers occasionally adding vocals. I am now a huge fan of the goatophone and of Persian music in general. (By the way - if anyone knows what that instrument is actually called, shoot me an email, will you?)
Tchaikovsky and opera were next. It was well done, but everything after the Persian music was anticlimactic. Then there was the Turkmen folk play, and the story (as best as I could discern, not being completely fluent) was as follows: A young Turkmen guy from long ago is wandering around playing his dutar when he stumbles across a mystical camp full of beautiful girls. He tries to woo the prettiest one with his dutar playing, and almost succeeds until the old camp mother hears what's going on and cusses him out. She moves all of the girls to the highest peak of a mountain, and tells the guy he can only marry one of them if he can throw an apple to the top and the girl catches it. So the guy runs off to tell his buddies about the secret stash of hot chicks that he found, and they all run to the mountain and start flinging apples. None of the guys succeed until the dutar guy tries. Of course, he makes it, and the girl he likes catches his apple, and that's where the play ended. I assume she held up her end of the bargain and married the guy, unless she decided to hold out for someone who could toss a watermelon or something.
The concert was overall a mindblowing experience, I got some great video footage, and I am kicking myself for not having gone sooner. For my last 8 months of service I am definitely going to try to soak up more culture.

Goatophone virtuoso

20 April 2008

What Turkmen/Russian students want to know about American students

I had my students make up a list of questions they would ask American high school students if they had the chance. The list is here if you're curious.

03 April 2008

Adventures in 3rd World Dentistry

You know how awkward it is when the dentist is elbows-deep in your mouth and asks you all sorts of questions about work, family, etc.? Imagine that but the questions are in Russian. That's how I spent my afternoon. It was pretty painless, although I did keep having "behind the Iron Curtain" moments. Whenever the dentist would hold pointy, whirring instruments up to my face and interrogate me in Russian, I expected her to start demanding the location of the secret documents. Even though it was a nice, smiling lady asking me how I liked my work, and not a grim-faced guard.
The verdict on 3rd World Dentistry: not all that scary, actually. I mean, they can't really make all those instruments look more intimidating than they already are.

01 April 2008

April Fools!

It's April Fool's Day again (still tied for my favorite holiday). I decided to make a little more of a production of it than I did last year. This year I decided to play a couple of pranks on my kids. Nothing big, just made a couple of fake tests that were a conglomerate of Spanish, Latin, and Greek; I also did the "Where's your homework?" gag (there was no homework, we're just getting back from spring break). For my 6th form class, I wrote "The Jabberwock" poem on the board. First I had one of them try to read it (the brave girl who volunteered did an astoundingly good job pronouncing everything), and then told them to translate it. After a few tense minutes punctuated by frantic flipping through dictionaries, hands started to shoot up. "Teacher!! We don't know ANY of these words! They're not in our dictionaries!!" Panic ensued when I told them we'd gone over these words in the previous semester. "Come on, guys, 'brillig'! What's it mean?" One kid suggested hesitantly that "toves" must be something you cook on, and some of the other kids made arbitrary guesses as well. Eventually I felt bad for them & crossed out the poem and wrote "April Fools!" above it. There was a collective groan. Mildly sadistic, but a teacher's gotta have fun once in a while.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimbol in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe!" (Brillig boldi, we wabede olar slithy toveler gyrediler we gimboldiler! Borogovelar oren mimsy boldi, we mome rathler outgribediler!)

25 March 2008

Chubby Baritone Turkish Aliens = Comedy Gold!

Just watched the Teletubbies dubbed in Turkish ("Teletabiler"). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, it's these little fat aliens that run around and say "Eh-oh!" in squeaky voices. For those of you who ARE familiar, you may be wondering why they had to be dubbed over, since the Teletubbies don't really speak English - they just make goofy sounds and fall over a lot (kind of like a Peace Corps volunteer on holiday). I'm not sure what the reasoning was for the overdub, but it seemed like the only difference was that the Turkish voices were in a much deeper register. It sounded like a very large albeit slightly effeminate pro-wrestler was doing Tinky Winky's voice. Laa-Laa sounded like Mickey Rourke just after finishing off a carton of Marlboro filterless. Dipsy was channeling Barry White, and Po was a perfect copy of Doctor Girlfriend. So did the Turkish TV channel feel that the British tubbies weren't manly enough? Are all of the aliens in Turkey beefcake? This is something I will ponder further as I plan my June vacation to (among other places) Istanbul.
Today's Turkmen Lesson: "Turkey: where men are men, women are women, and teletubbies eat broken glass and play kickball with boulders!" (Turkiye: Yeri erkekler erkekler bolyarler, ayaler ayaler bolyarler, we telatabiler dowuk chuyshi iyarler we futbol dashleri bilen oynayarler!)

02 March 2008

The Cabbage Fairy Was Here!

Gas for everybody!

22 February 2008

Oozhus Weather

We've been having a crazy storm for the past 3 days, almost like a hurricane but with dust instead of water. I woke up the other night to what I thought were explosions, but turned out to be stuff being blown into my windows. Keep in mind I live on the top floor of my apartment building, and heavy things were making it up that high. The big problem is the "dumpsters" here are just 3 short cement walls marking where you should put your garbage. When the wind picks up, the garbage goes everywhere. I was trudging to school the first morning, just concentrating on staying upright, and got blindsided by a huge carboard box almost as big as I was. That's a hell of a thing to be startled with, especially before your first cup of coffee!
Dresses were also an issue. Most women here don't wear pants (the fact that even *some* do shows how liberal the town is; in the village, no woman would ever wear pants). Every woman in town was having "Marilyn Monroe" moments for the duration of the storm. Take 3 steps, your dress flies over your head. Grab it and anchor the damn thing back to earth, take another couple of steps, lather, rinse, repeat. At one point, I was struggling with my dress at the same time an old Russian lady a few feet away was struggling with hers. She turned to me and said something I didn't understand, and then, "Oozhus!" I could tell by the way she said it what that meant, so I said, "Da, oozhus."
I heard that word about 30 more times before the storm blew itself out. On another day, I was entering a shop with a couple of my students, and it took the combined efforts of all 3 of us to close the shop door against the wind. When we finally managed it, we collapsed against the door, worn out, and one of the girls muttered, "Oozhus."
But the funniest part of the storm was the walking birds. The wind was so bad that the birds refused to fly. So all over town I was seeing birds waddling around on foot. I saw one on the way to school, walking all hunched over just like I was. The wind kept blowing him off course, and his feathers were dissheveled. As I passed him, he looked over at me with the most disgruntled face I've ever seen a bird make. His beak opened slightly, and I could've sworn I heard him say "Oozhus."

15 February 2008

Post-Valentines Day

Today one of my 7th-grade Turkmen girls was caught writing a love note in her 2nd period class. I wasn't there when it happened, but I'd heard all about it. The poor girl was catching a lot of flack from her classmates for being so "forward".
Later in the afternoon, during one of my free periods, the note-writer (we'll call her Guljemal) and another girl (we'll call her Bahar) burst into my room.
"Brit, can I see your dictionary?" asked Bahar breathlessly.
"Sure," I said. Bahar grabbed my Turkmen-English dictionary and began paging through it. Then she yelled triumphantly and turned to Guljemal.
"'Shameless' is the word. You are a shameless girl!" Bahar scolded. Guljemal scowled and grabbed the dictionary.
After a second of looking she said, "Well, you are backwards!"
"Backwards?" Bahar asked. I handed her the dictionary and she looked it up.
Aha, I thought. Now the girls will have a debate about traditional vs. modern values. And I will be able to facilitate, and maybe teach some new English words to boot! I love my job!
Bahar thought for another second and then turned to Guljemal. "Shameless!"
Guljemal squealed indignantly and gave Bahar a little push. "Backwards!!"
The 2 girls ran out of the room, jostling each other as they went. I could hear their voices carrying as they ran down the hall. "Shameless!" "Backwards!" "Shameless!!" "Backwards!!!"
I love my job, I love my job, I love my job...

12 February 2008

Bush Legs

Occasionally on a trip to the bazaar I'll see a bunch of people waiting in line for something (well, a line would suggest something orderly. It's more like a clot really). Things go scarce now and then, depending on the weather, on the goings-on in Iran, Russia, etc. and sometimes people have to wait for things like eggs or milk. Recently, I saw one such line and was curious as to what people were waiting for, so I asked somebody. "Bush ayakler!" ("Bush legs!") one of the merchants said, grinning. Turns out the U.S. is trading frozen chicken legs for something, probably oil, and now chicken is available in Turkmenistan! Chicken For Oil, not a bad idea. If anyone from the U.S. gov't is reading this, I'd like to suggest a few more things that we could use out here:
Frank's Red Hot for oil (we have the chicken, let's make hot wings!)
Ben & Jerry's for oil
Guacamole for oil
Nintendo Wii for oil
The list is actually pretty long, so drop me a line if you want the rest.
I really hope this becomes a trend. There are so many splendid non-violent ways for America to get the energy it needs, and so many people in third-world nations who have yet to experience the joy of sacking out in front of a video game with a Mountain Dew in one hand and a burrito in the other.

17 January 2008

More of a Good Thing

My collection of pictures of feral dogs munching on skulls is growing. I don't know why the sight amuses me so much, except that I figure any place where the dogs use cow skulls as chew toys is certifiably hardcore. Won't find any pantywaists sipping pumpkin lattes here, no sir. We want a morning jolt, we hook ourselves up to the tractor battery. (Or maybe that's just me.)

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 chatting with several nice 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 wearing 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 play pool there because I was born without the requisite equipment to operate billiards in Turkmenistan.
This village has never had a volunteer before; I'm the first American most people here 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) 2008