December 1, 2001: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: About Town: Turkmenistan Diary by Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Helbling
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December 1, 2001: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: About Town: Turkmenistan Diary by Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Helbling
Turkmenistan Diary by Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Helbling
Turkmenistan Diary by Peace Corps Volunteer Linda Helbling
by Linda Helbling
Caption: Linda Helbling, Tivoli resident, celebrating her birthday at Avchi House of Health in Turkmentistan this past August during her stint the Peace Corps.
"Why," he said at last, "why did you come alone?"
"It was for your sake . . . Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone,the relationship I finally make . . . is not impersonal, not political. It is individual. Not We and They, but I and Thou."
-Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
My North Road neighbors had a going away party for me. They came with food, small gifts for my travels, kind words of support. And questions. Lots of questions about where (in God's sake) I was going."Turkmenistan," I said. Borders on the Caspian (trying to make it sound a bit more romantic than I sensed it was going to be.) North of Iran and Afghanistan. That last locator helped a bit.
We ate and drank and talked about the Peace Corps in general. But did any of us really know where this adventure was about to take me? Central Asia was not well known in those days.
From September 1999 until September 2001 I served as a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) in a simple farming village in northeast Turkmenistan. Avchi, known in Soviet Days as the Karl Marx Collective Farm, is a village of 6000 residents an hour's drive from the Uzbek border to the north and about the same distance from the Afghan border to the south. The largest major city in the region, lying midway between Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, and Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is Turkmenabat (formerly Charjew). Guidebooks call it a dismal place, primarily because it is littered with shabby, Soviet-style apartment buildings. I called it a cultural center as it was where I'd go to meet up with friends, feast my eyes on the colorful bazaar, and cool my feet in the waters of the Amu Darya.
I lived with the Allaberdiev family: Djora (1955), his wife Gurbanai (1959), and son Ashir (1985). We shared their small brick home on Seidi Street in the center of the village. Twice a day, Monday through Friday, I'd walk the quarter mile to my office in an outpatient clinic called Avchi House of Health. Twice a day, because I would walk home at noon to have lunch with my family and then have a little "down time" before returning to the clinic at two o'clock. I worked as a health educator, focusing on maternal and child health.
All of the people I lived with and worked with were Muslims. Most of the people I knew were Turkmen, though I was acquainted with Russians and Uzbeks too. Over the course of those two years, many of those people became good friends. And when the time came, it was hard to leave that life, those friends. We all expected me to go on November first. The events of September 11 changed that departure date.
I kept a journal these past two years, fearing that things might so quickly become "routine" that I'd better document some of it to keep it fresh in my mind. There is a rhythm to life; it turns out that the Turkmen rhythm was surprisingly similar to the American one.
April, 2000. A rough day at work. Boris doesn't OWN a toothbrush. We did our dental hygiene presentation this morning for the fourth graders. We discussed the importance of keeping your teeth clean, how often you should brush, etc. Even talked about flossing (though it somehow seems absurd to me in this country.) We finished up. Walked back to our clinic. And then he tells me he uses his index finger and water. No toothbrush. No toothpaste. And Boris is the dentist!
March, 2000. Discovery. Figured out why cars appear to be about to run me over. I've been trying not to take it personally. I now realize that drivers look like maniacs because they are constantly swerving to avoid the lumps and bumps in the road.
May, 2000. Early morning. A little too early to walk. I don't know what time the dogs go home, but I don't want to risk it. Yes, even my sweet Tuzik goes out carousing in the neighborhood. I don't understand the dynamic of dog packs. Seems that around 11 pm they rendezvous. Is that normal?
June, 2000. Hot. Very hot. When I returned to the clinic after lunch, I walked into one of the treatment rooms and was hit by the heat and by the all pervasive body odor of the four women in unbreathable polyester dresses (this in a country which is the fourth largest producer of cotton). I LIKE the smell of body odor, but it did catch me off guard. Three of the four were stretched out on the beds. The fourth, the obstetrician, was sitting on a blanket on the floor. Sharing the blanket with her were a metal teapot, four dirty cups and that ubiquitous bread. Swallows have nested in the clinic. The outhouse has a resident owl. A doctor, nurses, birds. No patients. No work. At least not in the afternoons, not in the 41-degree centigrade heat. And yet there are lots of children sick with diarrhea. Some will die. The young ones.
July, 2000. Early evening. I am expecting two English students, plus my host brother at 8:30 pm, so I head down to the main house to help get the evening meal on the topjon (a raised outdoor platform where all meals are taken during the hot weather; most nights my host "parents" also sleep there under a white muslin tent). I pump a few buckets of water, prepare tea and serve a vegetable-based soup with macaroni, fresh cucumber from our garden and raw garlic. Bread is served with every meal. It is considered sacred, and there are all kinds of social rules about bread: never put it upside down, never step over it; if you eat nothing else, you must at least take a small piece of bread. . .
August, 2000. Thoughts of food. Our garden has radishes, scallions, dill, parsley, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes and apricots at the moment. You can buy other produce at the bazaar, things like Iranian bananas and limes. Actually, there is very little I can't buy, though with the exception of the fabulous produce, the quality is pretty lousy. Oh, but to see the head and lower legs of the cow that was just slaughtered…and the eggs, the bread, the baked goods…shish-kebab marinating in an onion/parsley/vinegar marinade smelling oh so good!… and to savor the fact that these goods could not be any fresher! And, for some reason, today there were not too many flies. Perhaps my standard of sanitation has been drastically lowered? There are times when the flies are so thick I have to hold my breath for fear of swallowing a mouthful. You get used to a lot of things.
October, 2000. Language, the last frontier. Turkmen speech is so distinctive that it constitutes an independent Turkic language. By the time I leave here, I will be speaking a language known to a few million people. (Turkmenistan has a population of five million, but not all know Turkmen, as Russian was used by many people for the past 70 years.) My tutor asks me what I'll do with the language once I am back in the States. Good question.
Standard Turkmen was formed in the Soviet period and written in a modified Cyrillic script after 1940. After gaining independence, the government decided to implement a new Latin alphabet as the state script, nearly identical to present day Turkish. I have learned the new alphabet, but most of the people I am in contact with only know the "old" one (or the Russian language.) So, besides my slowness with learning the language, my "audience" at work can't read what I write!
December, 2000. New moon. Walked into a cow last night. It was dark and I walked straight into it. I thought my night vision was improving. Guess not.
January, 2001. Precipitation! It snowed yesterday, though the snow is gone now. Replaced, to my dismay, by thick, slimy mud. I'm learning to walk more "assertively" on the quicksand-like surface. Thank goodness precipitation is a rare event.
June, 2001 Accomplishments I can: balance on one leg for indefinite periods of time; pee without hitting my shoes; eat sunflower seeds 'one-handed"; tell a funny story in Turkmen; negotiate the purchase of an airline ticket in Russian; eat soup quickly enough that the fat doesn't have time to congeal on the surface; accept food from three different neighbors all on the same day and still eat my "three squares."
October, 2000. An outing. Another bus, this time to Sayat, a small town not far from my village. I needed to pick up some papers from the English department of an elementary school. I didn't tell them I was coming as it doesn't seem to make any difference. People don't plan here. Things just happen. I got to the school only to discover that the teacher had gone to Turkmenabat for the day. Another English teacher invited me to his house for lunch. His name is Ture, he's 58, married with eight children. His English was mediocre, but he seemed nice enough. Off I went without the slightest hesitation. We ate fried eggs, scallions, parsley, yummy potatoes in a not too oily broth. And hot bread just baked by his wife. I showed him photos of my family. We talked about T-stan, the lack of personal freedoms, the difficulties of a country with such a low standard of living. These items were from his agenda. I treaded carefully and talked about how much I liked the Turkmen people, and how much I appreciated the freedoms of the USA.
My host walked me several blocks to the bus stop/taxi station and tried to get me a free ride back to my village. When that failed, he negotiated a good rate for me, and off I went. I chatted with the taxi driver and the passenger in the front seat the whole way home. It's the good news and bad news of taxi travel. The drivers are generally very curious about what I am doing here. The bad news: they often turn around to talk to me as they drive. I am grateful for the few cars on the road, though a collision with a cow or herd of sheep seems likely. I have learned not to worry about those things that you can't control. And to not make too many plans, but just allow myself to float along with the day.
July, 2001. Drought. It hasn't rained for months. We had some lightning on May 8th, sparks crackling from the antenna wire. Scared Ashir big time. But no rain. I think a lot about rain, a lot about water. This country is somehow able to sustain itself through the canal system built by the Russians. The country is 80% desert, yet they can grow almost all that they need. Never mind that the Aral Sea is drying up. Never mind that for a portion of each growing season, the garden must be hand-watered. Gurbanai carries a bucket and mayonnaise jar.
The Amu Darya flows north along the Turkmen- Uzbek border. Both countries siphon off large volumes of water to irrigate their fields. Talk is that we may be evacuated, may need to leave if the lack of water becomes more severe. Not sure if that would be because the county would end up fighting with Uzbekistan and we would be in harms way, or because there would not be enough water to meet our basic needs. Either way, we would have to leave the country. Peace Corps has a plan whereby they would make sure we had water. According to MBB ("my buddy Betty"), there will be some system of giving us money to buy bottled water, which we somehow would have to get to our homes. Water for our own use, not for our families. Can you imagine having water that you wouldn't share? It's the plan according to MBB. She has been known to be wrong.
Regardless of whether or not we are evacuated we are, of course, short-timers. Less than five months to go. I think about what I'll miss and what I won't miss. Here are a few examples:
Things I'll Miss Good friends-family-fabulous food- smell of apricots ripening on the trees - gorgeous roses, fragrant roses-exotic birds-not having to wash my hair everyday-donkeys, the sight and sound of them-eating meals outdoors-believe it or not, bus rides, especially from Avchi to T-bat-rocking babies to sleep on a pillow resting between my legs-children asking me to juggle - throwing the dredges of tea from the bottom of my cup directly onto the clinic floor-my dog, Tuzik-neighbor who calls me "gychi" (scissors) each time I pass his barbershop-cheap air travel-saying "amin" at the end of each meal; praying each time I pass a cemetery-lots of other thoughtful Muslim traditions-geckoes in my room-time to read
Things I Won't Miss My KNB (formerly KGB) "tail-trying to keep track of all those relatives-cottonseed oil, not because it isn't tasty (it is) but because of my arteries- mutton or sheep in any dish-the downright ugly, home-dried apricots, which have flies all over them as they shrivel up-the stumps of mulberry trees, left bare when silkworms are in need of nourishment-that owl in the outhouse at work who carries on each time I visit-dried, cracked, painful heels-the 500,000,000 flies, ants, and mosquitoes (figures from the UNICEF/WHO/HELBLING Census of Annoying Insects, Vol. 11, 2001. Figures do not reflect the 1,200,000 mosquitoes I have killed)-cars and truck exhausts, pot holes that would swallow up my Honda Civic-holding babies who soak through all their clothing (no diapers here) -children asking me to sing-washing dishes using no soap - using teacups which someone else just used after the cup has been 'washed" with a teaspoon of tea-snot rockets-bucket of dirty water under the "hand washing station"-most other dogs, especially after I was attacked April 3-people who perpetually ask me to take their pictures-temperatures that range between 40- and 50-degrees Celsius-outhouses, especially my own, now that the summer is upon us and the 5x5x5 foot hole is almost filled- smelling human excrement when you don't expect it (other times you hold your breath)-buying tickets at the airport; being pushed and shoved as I board any plane-not being able to remember the names of all those people who call me "Linda"-going guesting and being expected to eat a huge meal, regardless of whether or not I am hungry-bees, now that I know I'm allergic-speaking Turkmen 24/7.
I'm sure the list will grow. Will this country grow? Will the dictatorship, one party system become a market economy? Not while the current president is in charge. Money from the sale of natural gas goes for yet another monument, another statue of the President-for life, Turkmenbashy ("Father of all Turkmen"). I could be wrong. I've been known to be wrong. It might rain.
September, 2001 Back in the USA I returned to my village on the 11th of September, having gone into the capital to welcome the new group who had arrived on the 9th. I was eating supper with my family when a 14-year-old neighbor rushed in to tell us that the World Trade Center had been hit by an airplane. She speaks good English. I heard "accident"; I heard "terrorist," too. I rushed to her home and sat riveted for hours just sobbing in bewilderment. Friends came from all over the village to hug me, to express their sympathy, to ask about my family in America. Were they safe? Was there any way I could call them? A young friend spent the night with me "just in case I needed something, or needed someone to talk to."
Peace Corps called within the hour to tell us that we were in a "Stage 1 Emergency." By the afternoon of the 12th, we had advanced to a "Stage II," and all volunteers were clustered together in the major cities. For more than a week, we PCVs lingered in Turkmenistan, until our evacuation plan was finalized. Throughout those ten days, friends from my village would come to see me. For them it meant giving up a day in their fields, or in the cotton fields, to make the one-hour trip to Turkmenabat. They brought news from my village, gossip about what was going on. They did not really believe that I would abruptly leave. Taxi drivers, total strangers, almost everyone I'd meet would ask if my family in America was okay, if I was okay. They would assure me that we were all safe in Turkmenistan where people are not allowed to own guns, where no terrorists live. I agreed with them. I was safe among the Turkmen people.
It was among these Turkmen, these Muslims, that I lived and laughed and worked for the past two years. They are people who are curious, interested in learning about foreigners and of different ways of other cultures. They treat all guests with a respect and generosity that is hard to describe. Muslims have a saying that "A guest is more important than your grandfather." In that Turkmen (Muslim) male-dominated society, that is saying a lot.
I am back in the States. I write "you and I" in my letters to my family and friends in Turkmenistan. And all of a sudden my North Road neighbors now know where I've been these past two years
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Story Source: About Town
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