January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Rebecca Walton is a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkmenistan: Peace Corps Turkmenistan : The Peace Corps in Turkmenistan: January 3, 2004 - Personal Web Site: Rebecca Walton is a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan

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Rebecca Walton is a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan

Rebecca Walton is a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan

Rebecca is a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkmenistan . She has requested that we place her letters on our web site so she doesn't have to write everything to everyone she would like to (she has no access to copy machines or other such conveniences, and very limited and sporadic access to email). Other volunteers have taken some pictures in Turkmenistan .

Sept. 12, 02
Hi Mom & Dad!

I just got Dad's 9/2 postcard from France and guiltily realized I hadn't written yet. I've been debating whether I want to a) write insanely long letters, b) just let y'all read my journal when I get back, c) just leave a lot out. I haven't decided which yet, so I'll try to get a "best of."

Today was the day Ambassador Kennedy came to talk to us -- she was interesting. She talked a lot & ate way into our lunch time, and as we're all dirty, sweating, hungry and covered in bug bites (plus had been sitting on hard chairs ALL MORNING) we were a little less attentive and awe filled as most of us usually would have been. I currently have two mosquito bites on my face, one-two(?) on my right leg, two-three(?) on my left, one on my index finger, plus a massive -- it's huge! -- greyish-purple spider bite on the left. This is with using a mosquito net at night, and keeping most of my body covered during the day.

Training is at a Soviet summer camp (I'm calling it Soviet still since it's just like all the Soviet ones were (was Soviet and hasn't changed). We're all in barracks with rows of beds like in the Madeline books. A typical day starts at 7:00, with a trip to the latrine. Imagine the worst you can and you'll probably be spot-on. It's got four little sections divided by walls about three and a half feet high. Basically, it's a hole -- about the size of two feet held together -- flanked by two bricks for your feet. There's a drainpipe-type thing behind that can be turned on to rinse it. Theoretically it could be left on all the time, but then you get a big mosquito problem (like in one of our three latrines). If you only turn it on when you really need it, though, the stuff's probably pretty well caked on. The whole deal is a delicate balance -- literally, in the physical sense, and also between time of day vs flies, mosquitos, and smell. Wasn't that pleasant? So after that is tooth brushing -- a separate trip to accommodate hand washing after the latrine (I can't carry everything, plus there'd be nowhere sanitary to leave the tooth stuff).

I forget to mention that every time I leave the barracks I have to put a skirt on under my nightgown -- I wouldn't feel comfortable outside with that much of my legs bare. It's a real pain.

Anyway, then comes tooth brushing with bottled water at the Girl-Scout-camp-style rows of outdoor sinks. I accidentally used tap water once -- which our medical officer has actually mentioned as a not-bad way of exposing your system to the local water in a controlled, tiny amount. Everybody points out that we will eventually be exposed no matter what we do, so purposefully giving your system small amounts can limit the eventual damage. (unless you get typhoid right off the bat!)

Then at 7:30 we have breakfast in the very Soviet pavilion -- shuttered windows to the kitchen and rows of long tables with benches. Breakfast is typically the only meal with any protein for the veggies -- hard-boiled eggs and kefir. Every other meal is all white bread, white rice and veggie salads with soda to drink. It's insane. But the food's all good -- we're being spoiled by the Russian cooks though.

All our sessions are in that same pavilion -- we sit in a circle on those hard, hard chairs for about two hours at a time listening to lectures on safety, host families, diarrhea, etc. Right behind the pavilion is the "river" -- actually a large creek, really. This whole camp (Yashlyk) is pretty green -- lots of trees. It's fenced in, though, and outside the fence it's all hilly desert. Just like in the pictures! Over the river are 2 latrines and our showers.

The sessions/lectures usually last until 5:30 or so, and then we have an hour before dinner. After dinner everyone congregates in the pavilion and studies, plays cards, practices Turkmen, etc. People organize hikes in the desert (morning/evening), yoga sessions, jogs, swims (yes, we have a pool!), etc.

We do have electricity here (and have been told we all will in all our host families) although in the five days we've been here it's gone out for various reasons in my barracks four times. The flies are nuts -- tons of them, everywhere, crawling all over you.

I was able to request placement in a Turkmen community. They tested my Russian, and I've been using it a lot clarifying things for people in language class, etc. This week we're all in Turkmen class, but tomorrow we get our placement and those going to a Russian community switch over. Saturday we move to our training sites -- we get split into groups of five to six and scattered around outside Ashgabat. So the day after tomorrow we move into host families, most of us with minimal ability to communicate. I feel ready, but then I've got a back-up language to express myself in.

I'm having a lot of fun learning Turkmen. Peace Corps policy is not to teach you grammar, which is the road to a terminal two (never being fluent, because if you don't begin with it you eventually become unable to learn the grammar and speak correctly -- street Turkmen, basically. Understandable but inappropriate for most situations) but I'm managing to pick it up myself. Personally I need the grammar to learn, so by refusing to give it to me they're just delaying my progress, but on the other hand I'm having fun deducing it on my own. It's a fascinating language.

The heat here hasn't been that intense -- I have no idea what the temperature's actually been, but today was the first day I really felt like it was hot -- I sweated a lot today.

Oh, and it turns out I won't be able to try camel milk! Unless I can find it in a store, pasteurized. Of course I suppose I could boil it. But all homemade non-boiled dairy can give us tubercuolsis/brucellosis. The list of diseases we can get here is really, really long. Some of us are going to have to take anti-malarial pills that can cause hallucinations. Our medical officer is really cool, though. She's been in Zimbabwe for the past twelve years, but it was just closed (for obvious political reasons) so here she is. She has a sort of Australian/British accent, great sense of humor, seems to be very caring. Although she's given us a LOT of shots. She and this Air Force guy sit you down in a chair between them and tag team you so that one of them is always stabbing you in the arm. The first or second day here we each got four vaccinations -- we got homemade chocolate chip cookies though! And on Sept. 11th the Russian cooks made us pizza. It was very ... Russian, but I think we all appreciated the sentiment.


Hi again! I didn't want to end my letter with that last thing I wrote [requested "not for web" by author], so now I've got to fill another 2 pages.

I haven't been hiking in the desert yet, but in the morning when the sun's coming up it's really beautiful. It's all khaki/golden steep hills/small mountains covered in scrub. I guess a little ways out of camp there's a traditional Turkmen family and we can go gawk at their cows.

I'm a little worried about scorpions, spiders and snakes -- I haven't seen any scorpions or snakes so far, although there are some really freaky bugs here. Flies everywhere, bees ( a lot of them too), these super freaky, GIANT, part-orange wasps, ants that have long, spidery legs, etc etc. Besides bugs the only wildlife I've seen is a little tiny bird and those big, crow-sized birds with long tails that are black, white, and shimmery royal blue. They kind of look like mini-peacocks with their tails closed and down.

Today we have mostly language lessons and I'm not really looking forward to it. Turkmen's really hard for a lot of people, and I'm like the assistant teacher because I can translate her Russian, so I always end up asking all the questions and giving all the explanations. It can be really tiring. People sometimes make things more complicated than they are ... and then Turkmen does too. Class is like this protracted negotiation that all has to go through me. I'm looking forward to being in a family so I can learn at my own pace, although I'm sure the whole class thing is valuable in a different way.

One of the other hardest things about being here is trying to be simultaneously more and less conscious of germs. You have to think about them, but if you do it too much, you'll just gross yourself out. I started out thinking "I just touched this, so I can't touch this or this until I've washed my hands," and it's turned into "welll ... as long as I wash my hands right before I eat or touch my eyes, etc I should be okay" because the reality is, everything is just dirty.

That said -- the sky here is incredible. It's just huge, light blue, and so clear -- today there were some tiny wisps of white clouds. Somehow it's much bigger, wider & deeper than our sky. And oddly enough, I have yet to see the actual sun here.

Love, Rebecca
P.S. We got stamps just yesterday, so I couldn't have written any sooner.


Hi again! We just got our site placements. For training I'm going to the village of Turkmenistan, not far from Büzmein/Bezmein or Geok Tepe (Gök Sepe). My host family has twelve or thirteen people in it! (For the training site, that is.) It's definitely going to be an experience.

My permanent site is Bairamali, about thirty minutes from Mary. It's supposed to be right by Old Merv, the ruins of the city, etc. The area is very agricultural. I'm going to be teaching primary and secondary English, and replacing a volunteer currently working there (he'll be there throughout my training and when I visit my site I'll get to meet with him. I have already met him, but had no idea he was where I'd end up).

Okay, I have to go shower, today's hot too and I'm sweating like crazy just sitting here. I'll write again soon from my training site!

Love, Rebecca
P.S. post shower: My training host family are the Orazyyazovs (Ohrahzee yahnov), mother Ogultauwak, father Annaguly, 5 daughters, 3 sons, a sister-in-law and a niece.

Sept. 30, 2003
Dear Mom and Dad,

Tomorrow the T-12's find out where they're going, which means if I'd asked Rahmai when I called him (twice!) today, I probably could've found out who I'm getting! Oh well -- I'll find out Sunday when our Mary spy returns with the news.

Today after class I found the back door of the school locked when I went to go to the latrine. (That happens a lot -- they randomly decide to lock the door to the school yard.) When I turned to go the long way around out the front door, one of the cleaning ladies said "Shall I let you out the window?" I said sure and followed her into a classroom, watched her lift a chair out the window, and climbed up the radiator through the windowsill onto the chair in my ankle length skirt. She waited patiently until I came back and we reversed the process. This is such a weird place sometimes. It's good I enjoy the absurd.

I've decided to throw a party for my birthday next week -- sort of like my 4th of July party. I didn't have that at my house because I knew my neighbor-relatives would crash it and I didn't want to have to make enough food for them. This time I'll make a little extra. My host mom isn't crazy about the idea, because I want to invite 20 people and she doesn't trust this 'American food' concept. Especially because what I want to make is actually chili somsa, which is neither American nor Turkmen and definitely NOT palow. But I'm going to buy the food myself and Andrea and Heidi and I are going to do the cooking, so she can worry but I don't feel bad about putting them out at all.

Right now I'm thinking chili somsa, cornbread, chocolate cake, deviled eggs and maybe coleslaw (does that go with chili? I don't know), watermelon, of course, apples, sliced cheese. I think that should be enough ... I've never cooked for 30 (my 20, my host family and relatives) people before. It'll probably be expensive, but I don't care. I want to celebrate!

Also -- Mahym (training host sister) is getting married! Keýik-jan, aka Aýnurgözel (by the way, it turns out my host grandma wanted to name me Allanur, light of God, but was afraid it wouldn't be appropriate) is totally going. I'm going to have to come up with a really good toast -- which I need to do anyway. I just realized when the T-12's get here I'll become their guesting toast-translator -- back when Ryan was around (oh, the good old days) when it was my turn to toast I'd raise my glass, smile, and say in English "Okay I'm going to talk awhile like this and then when you 'translate' just make up a really good toast for me and thank everybody and everything." I started out slacking on toasts and pretty much kept on in that spirit as much as possible but soon I'm going to not only be responsible for my own, but translating and doubtless embellishing other people's. Oh, the pressure. I really hate toasts. I usually (still) pad them with English to make them longer and as unintelligible as possible.
Oct. 1, 2003
Well, I pulled an ear in class for the first time today. It's sort of a spiritual defeat ('sort of' since I tried before last year and just couldn't catch the punk). Disappointing to have resorted to. During cotton I'm working with Sheker-teacher because she's the only one here -- I was sort of dreading it but it's working out really well. She is learning from me in the moments before she runs away every period, leaving me with her class, and after last years punks in the 7-9 forms I can deal with the still essentially sweet-natured 5-7 easily. It's great -- they don't make fun of me. When I made one mini-punk carry a chair up front and yelled "Sit!" in Turkmen, they all laughed but then I realized they were saying admiringly "She said that so well ... sit!" (It's an endless mystery, much speculated over, whether I understand any Turkmen or not -- I refuse to use it much at school on principle.) Anyway, working with Sheker I feel like we're partners rather than two random people who happen to be sitting in the same classroom. Even if one partner keeps running away, it's still nice. If she'd been in the room I probably wouldn't've had to pull that kid's ear, but that's because she would've smacked him upside the head three minutes earlier. Overall I guess there's not much difference.
Oct. 4, 2003
Um (which we're not supposed to way here, it's a bad word in Turkmen), so I'm sort of dating somebody, (except it's not really dating, it's just hanging out together a lot and driving me places and giving me things) only there's no such thing as dating here, which raises a problem. My host family thinks this means we're getting married, and not only that but Very Soon. If not, well then technically I am a Bad Girl. Not really, because I'm American, but still sort of. It doesn't really matter, other than I have to sit through many, many conversations about this impending yet SO non-existent marriage. And sitting through endless toasts about how your host dad is so honored to meet your future husband and which country will the wedding be in on what is essentially a second date is pretty excruciating.

I never draw pictures in my letters any more, do I? I can't think of anything to draw pictures of.

Me a year ago: short puffy hair, ghostly pale, scrawny (looking back, I think I lost about 10 lbs from all the diarrhea in 40-ýyllyk), holding Eje's oval Ahal-style bread and a broom (training family always made me sweep)

Me now: long, henna-red braids (well, not long for here), tan(!), wearing the same dress, but now I have hips and a J Lo butt, holding UNO cards and War and Peace. Now I read instead of helping, but I also entertain the kids a LOT

Hmm, my drawing ability has suffered. You know, my host family still describe things as being "as white as Aýnur's arms when she came". They also love my hennaed hair -- "Before, your hair was sort of light yellow", said with a sort of scrunched up face) "but NOW! Now the color is just so beautiful". I still get a shock every time I see my reflection when light is hitting my hair, but it is softer and falling out less.
October 7, 2003
Tomorrow is the party! My host mom is driving me crazy with her utter lack of faith in me to know things like I should pick the dirty laundry up off my floor and maybe I will need bread. I'm restraining my "I knows !" and "I will" and "I'll do it myself"'s and Nabat is reassuring her that I and Heidi and Andrea (who are going to help me all day tomorrow, for goodness sake) are indeed fully functioning adults and that maybe she should think of this as if her neighbors were having a toy. It seems to have worked. I am worried that people will crash and I won't have enough food, but so far everyone Turkmen I've invited is flipping out that I won't make enough (widely held belief: When Turkmen are guesting they eat like cows) and they need to bring food (NOT done here) and while I find it insulting, I also think it's sort of sweet. Everyone here is so willing to take care of me. I've been fighting it for a year, but maybe I should just let them ... hard for me to do but there's a lot more of them than of me and if I don't I might just lose my mind.
Although the 'taking care of me' includes interference in my personal life. When I started wearing eyeliner, the School 2 teachers all shook my hand and everyone commented on it. I'm getting tons of questions about the sort - of - maybe - dating and today (when I was literally pulled out of my club to gossip about it) got a "Let's you will have a boyfriend!!" when I demurred. Emi, if I never apologized for it before, now I'll say I'm sorry for calling you Barbie and dressing you up.

So it's the night before my birthday and I have a huge pot of chili bubbling on the stove, with the double boiler for sweetened condensed milk fudge lined up for when the burner's free. My host mom calmed down after dinner tonight when I started cooking, and by the time she went to bed was saying "Aýnur, you have to leave something to do tomorrow!". My host family are all asleep and I'm puttering around the courtyard checking on my chili and being ill in the latrine. I find the late night cooking / puttering part of that really restful -- I've always liked doing stuff late at night or early in the morning when everyone's asleep, all the more so when 'everyone' is 20 curious people totally unfamiliar with the things I do. It's a nice way to have some room to breathe.

I'm really excited for this birthday -- life has been good lately. My instinctive response to extending my service is no longer "Hell no". Even with cotton, my classes and clubs are going well, I'm more comfortable than ever with my host family. I haven't even been propositioned by a taxi driver in a long time. I can't even remember for sure the last time one asked me if I was married!

I told you my host mom wants to sell me and an introductory offer was 40 million manat, right? I figure that's you guys' worst nightmare -- my Turkmen host family sells me, and for a fraction of what you paid for my Bryn Mawr education. I would be funny if it didn't involve being a gelneje -- don't worry, Mom, I'm not likely to follow that Bryn - Mawr - girl - becomes - Afghan - nomad's - 3rd - wife example from that book you were so passive aggressively reading before I left! My host mom and dad have a pretty good relationship for here, and it still involves toasts (in front of company) like "There's an old Turkmen saying that goes something like this. Aknabat, when you talk a lot after the wedding, no one likes it!" or flipping out when she's giving herself her 3rd 'skin-lightening' facial of the week and saying only sluts have facials (I was like, remind me not to come out of the banya the next time I'm doing one) and if he catches her with one again he'll cut her face with a knife. He's never hit her and I don't think he will, but still. She likes that he gets jealous (and will relate the facial story with relish) ... but still.

Well, it's 12:30 and I have a huge pot of chili and a pan of "fudge" (two cans of chocolate sweetened condensed milk with two Turkish (i.e., crappy, waxy) chocolate bars melted in. It tastes good. I'm just afraid it'll stay soupy. If it does I'll melt it back down and it'll be frosting. It could also be used as hot fudge sauce -- yum. This is an original Peace Corps Volunteer discovery (unless some previous T-5 or something really discovered it). Go me! Tomorrow: 60 (maybe more ... I'm afraid of running out) chili somsa, three pans of cornbread, another pan of fudge and a bunch of fruit and soda. And cake, although a bunch of people've said they're going to make me a cake, so I don't really know if I should bother.
October 9, 2003
Well, my party is over and it went really well (by American standards). The local guests were a little unsettled by the sit around and talk, calm, non-structured thing. No meat, no alcohol and no endless rounds of toasts is a very foreign idea. But I think they had fun and the chili somsa (okay, we made 80 -- have a grocery bag FULL of them in my fridge) and cornbread were hits. There were four cakes and tons of food. We used School 9's Peace Corps grant huge nice stereo and danced. Yusuf taught us a Turkish folk dance that involved running in manic circles and kicking and this morning half my friends are out of commission from stiff, sore muscles. It was the first time I've gotten my friends, coworkers and host family all in the same place and I was really glad I did.

For presents I got two cake pans from Heidi (the Murgap bazaar has EVERYTHING), two boxes of chocolates, four bouquets of roses, a perfume gift set, a rubix cube, a cool Turkish anti-evil eye necklace, and balak (the traditional women's pants (underwear). The balak are like circus pants -- patchwork in very bright patterns and HUGE. The waist is drawstring and they're very very loose and baggy to your knees. Mine don't have a drawstring yet, so they're hard to try on, but I demonstrated them for the American boys, who had never seen them before. They still don't believe that just about every married woman here wears the things as a matter of course. Balak are one of those things that are traditional, but no one makes their own daughters wear. Their wives and gelnejes they do make wear them -- that's the only reason it's married women that wear them. Some girls decide to around age 22 or 23, but most wait until someone's making them.
October 11, 2003
Well, I'm back in 40-ýyllyk for Mahym's toy. It's really nice to see everyone again (you got so fat! Your hair grew long!) but Mahym's not glad to be getting married, so that sucks. Brides almost always cry here, even if they're happy with the match, because it means they're leaving their family for the first time and for good. It changes your life in every way -- a sudden and irreversible jump into adulthood. Very different from us. So I get why they cry, but it still freaks me out. Right before the gelnalyjy (bride-taking), when you're sitting in a room full of women and girls staring at the bride, and she suddenly bursts into tears and starts sobbing and her sisters and friends un - and re-dress her in the bridal outfit as she just sobs with a handkerchief pressed to her face -- it sucks. I'm used to happy brides. Mahym's marrying into Bazmein-gres, right across the big road from 40-ýyllyk. Ten days after the wedding she'll start work again. I haven't asked anything about the boy because everyone seems to depressed about it, and she's 25 which means the match probably isn't a great one for her.

Everyone in my training family says Salaam to you all. Meilis got his driver's license, Owez is studying Arabic with a mullah and has called the azan (sp) -- call to prayer -- 30 times. Everyone else is pretty much the same.

Here's the dress Mahym will wear:

She'll wear a guppa with chains and bells that weighs 15 kilos. I tried it on and walked around yesterday and decided maybe I won't buy myself one after all.

She's bringing a suitcase full of personal effects, one full of candy and cookies (traditional) and four large scarves tied around bundles of dresses, scarves, socks, sweaters and leather jackets, including gifts for the boy. His family has to buy all this, plus a good Turkmen carpet, mattress and blanket (for her to sleep on) and a nice stereo, along with the bride herself at the gelnalyjy. They also give money to enter the house when they take her and for the breast milk she'll feed future kids with. Oh, along with all the scarves she's bringing is one of those special hair-pouches I think I described earlier. Women are supposed to keep all their hair that falls out all year in it (and then bury the hair at night on Gurbanlyk, feast of the sacrifice). It's sort of like a purse, covered in gold embroidery and tied with a cord.

All the fuss and ritual is kind of neat, but I still wouldn't want to be a Turkmen bride. This family too is talking about how great it'd be to marry me to a Turkmen. And I know now why gelins walk so slow: it's the 15 kilos of silver on their heads plus all the ornaments sewn to their dresses plus the huge breastplate and kurte (jacket worn on your head) -- talk about freaking heavy.

Anyway, the picture on back of this was commissioned and embellished by Atash and Läle, who asked me to please write a letter on back of it.

Things are good. I'm actually maybe really going to go on vacation, finally, although now I have to figure out which of my Turkmen dresses I can wear in which foreign countries without getting stared at like a freak. Or I could lose about three more pounds in time, and just wear my jeans, although it feels so weird now.

Funny -- the women in training family'll pull their dresses up when they sit so lots of their calves are showing. It freaks me out! I'm careful to keep my ankles covered. They laugh at my Mary dialect (Öññat mi? Ha ha ha!), and I boggle at their pronunciation.

Love, Rebecca

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Turkmenistan; PCVs in the Field - Turkmenistan



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