The trouble was I’d lost my ticket. It was somewhere between Siemreap and Chiangmai – a distance of about 800 kilometers. I wasn’t going to find it again. Turkmen Air officials told me repeatedly that it didn’t matter that I had my passport or that my name was on their list. The one in the lavender button-down gave a red and green ticket a few shakes in my direction, his eyes wide, mouth open. I had to have the physical ticket in hand, he told me, to board that plane back to Ashgabat.
They didn’t “do” e-tickets, and I didn’t “do” paying 700 USD in cash for a new one. I had paid less than half that for my two-way ticket to Bangkok and back. I asked Peace Corps Thailand if they could send me home, to America, from there. They said no.
That did it, though. Peace Corps Turkmenistan was notified firstly that I was stuck in Bangkok, and secondly that I wanted to resign. Then I had Bangkok to myself for a week while I waited for my plane ticket to arrive from Ashgabat. I saw every stop on the sky train, every stop on the orange line of the Chao Phraya River Express. I knew which bus I could take to where and for how much. I ate more papaya salad and pad thai, more aloo matar and Dunkin’ Donuts than I should be proud of.
When I finally arrived in Ashgabat, I was greeted by the Country Director with, “Um. We need to talk.”
Maybe the trouble wasn’t that I didn’t want to pay 700 USD for a plane ticket. It could’ve been that for the few days I spent in Siemreap, Cambodia, all I could say – as I stood by the river in the shade of a banyan tree, as I read stories about the outside world published in an English-language newspaper, as I bought books off Khmer Rouge survivors, as I ate everything any street vendor could offer me – was, “Turkmenistan sucks.”
That wasn’t quite it, either, though being accosted by this strange universe where there were things to do and see didn’t help. I didn’t hate Turkmenistan. The real trouble may have been that for the past eleven months, I’d taught only a handful of classes, very few of them being with my teaching counterparts. I’d taught the same set of three lessons to a rotating group of club kids. I’d been to one wedding, one hudaýoly, one open classroom and one goodbye party. And I wasn’t sure what I had done in the mean time.
I wrote a lot of letters. Drew a lot of pictures. Read quite a few books. I knew Ruhabat’s every road and every asset – I’d walked it (I had tried biking it, but my bicycle needed a new everything each time it emerged from our black steel gates). I had tried to start a yoga class and a cooking class. I had tried to build a tri-lingual library and an afterschool program. I tried to have an art club and a music club. I tried to have a cleanup day. I tried to be friends with everyone.
I tried. A lot.
The TEFL Program Manager at Peace Corps told me he knew my skills weren’t being used, that he’d told my teaching counterpart the same. Maybe we could get a schedule written up for me – I’d feel better if I filled a little more of my time. I reminded him that we’d tried that before, that having a schedule on paper didn’t mean having a schedule in real time. After talking to my counterpart about it myself, I knew that it wasn’t going to get any better. She was sweet, sorry she hadn’t been of much help, but she didn’t know how to turn things around, as she was only sometimes interested in potential projects. School politics got in the way all the other times.
It was a sad parting, but I assured her the trouble wasn’t with her.
The trouble was everything. So, I was put on that next flight to Lincoln, via Baku, via Frankfurt, via Chicago, sent away to find something that would let me use my skills, and if nothing else, feel just a little more like things were possible again.
It’s hot – that’s everyone’s excuse. It’s why kids don’t come to club. It’s why the lights welter in and out, steady as the Caspian. It’s why we eat only melon. It’s why My White City Ashgabat is only almost utopia. All the silence, the myriad fountains, statues, ambitious building projects of white marble, the free natural gas – it may fool you. There is one thing, though, that can’t be subsidized for the good people of Turkmenistan: cooler weather. As they say, only the insane and the deeply unfortunate find themselves here in July and August.
So here I am.
On the Director’s charge I sit in an empty classroom every morning and try to catch a breeze or a student. In the afternoons, “at hot,” nothing is expected of me, so I make my way to the city in search of recreation and other work. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in the production of “English on the Radio,” a ten part series for teaching beginners conversational English. After a couple hours’ work I form myself to the negligible remaining space on the bus, amid the odor of the people and the damp of their clothing. It’s back home, then, to sit alone beneath my family’s chandelier and air conditioner, watch, listen to the power come in and out, contemplate the worth of my experiences here.
One such afternoon three weeks ago I found my routine interrupted. I was stranded at the bus station with two hundred other people. The older women were yelling, waving their päkets around. The younger were sobbing, punching the buttons on their cell phones. The men were gawking akimbo.
In came a green city bus. With one hand on his head to keep his tahyýa from falling off, the driver hung out the window, “I am going to Änew!” Two women climbed aboard. The rest of them grew frantic.
“Abadan – you don’t go to Abadan?”
“I need to go to Togsan!”
I stood and watched before I strolled over to the lonely bus driver. I asked him what was happening.
“I don’t know. I’m to Änew.” I nodded and took another look around. Then I called Peace Corps.
There was an explosion near my site, I was told. The roads had been closed, communication cut off. I couldn’t get a hold of my host family or anyone else in the area. So, I spent the night in the office.
The next day Turkmen State Television reported that it’s hot. Unseasonably hot. It’s why those fireworks went off in slow, steady succession, leaving high rises of black smoke in the air. It’s why several buildings were leveled. And several people.
It was the heat in Ashgabat that drove me away, to the balmy recesses of Turkmenbashy, to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Another volunteer and I disembarked the train at eight am to find the city formerly known as Krasnovodsk. A cool breeze came off the sea. It jostled the collars of the Turkmen navymen. It eddied in the dips of the mountains, softly eroding the its homes. Its pink Soviet homes which are tucked away, peering down toward the sea. The president’s enormous white yacht was at dock.
We walked the whole town that day, saw graves of the Japanese and the Kazakh, the red glow of off-shore drilling, the grey smoke of the refinery. We had heard more Russian, English and Chinese speech than Turkmen. By evening, families had parked their Ladas near the beach for a melon picnic and a swim. They were wearing shorts. And bikinis.
I wasn’t sure where we had gotten to. Where was the sheen of white marble, of Ahal Teke uniformity, of silence – of perfection? This was no Ashgabat.
We joined the families with a melon of our own. I slipped off my sandals and stepped from a rusty fender embedded in the sand to the water, parting the algae and plastics as I went. We swam and picnicked till someone got word from someone else that their contact with the secret police said the road to the resort beach was open again. The President and his Ministries had passed. They had had their yacht tour. They had opened an overpass to ease holiday traffic. Now, they were on their merry way back to the capital – a journey not to be impeded by anyone who couldn’t behave herself properly, who wasn’t draped with that same marble-white sheen that is draped over everything.
There were three other taxis beside ours on the highway, and each one drove past the new overpass in all its splendor like it wasn’t there. We arrived as the sun was setting. The water was clear. The sand was brown and fine. Behind the nearly empty resort hotels, a fountain and light show had begun over the water.
We slept right there, by the water. There I was, happy as one metric ton of displaced sea shells rolling over the shores of a desert beach.
By the time we awoke with the sun, we had returned to Turkmenistan as we knew it: flat, searing. There was no vegetation, no shade. Only the quiet white buildings at our right, and the salty Caspian at our left. It was hot.
It was hot, so we used the toilets and showers and shaded canopies belonging to Hotel Hazyna like they were ours. So we walked to the pool, to the slide like it was ours. The DJ cut the music. Were we guests? Yes. Did we have our key? No. What room number? Uh – 307. What was our family name? Uh – we don’t understand? We had lost. Back to the unrelenting heat. Later we were told that only people of Turkmen nationality are admitted into that hotel.
Then it was back to that special kind of heat in Ashgabat that makes you crazy. The kind that keeps you showing up to school and hoping to catch that one student. That one student that you tell to draw the most beautiful place she can imagine – and she draws the Turkmen flag.
I offered peanut butter cookies to the three remaining fifth graders who had stamina enough to make it to the final English club meeting. They stared at me, shaking their heads. Each one said, “I will not eat,” with a wave of the hand. I instisted. The three of them shared a single cookie, in nibbles.
If you can’t win your students over with cookies, what else is there?
Nothing. The school year is coming to an end, and there is nothing that will entice anyone to spend an extra hour in that old building. I include myself in this statement – I’ll take my cookies elsewhere. The weather is too beautiful, and there is too much tea to drink, too many picnics to be had.
In the evenings the neighbor kids roll around on one rollerblade, it’s pair on a friend’s foot. They toss around a soccer ball. Everyone’s out with the mosquitos, walking the streets, visiting their extended families.
I paid a special visit to my paternal grandfather, who lives with his youngest son and family. I’d been over before, to sit with the women on cushions in their drive, to tell them that “Laura” doesn’t actually mean light and stars, but I was glad they liked the name, to tell them that I do indeed say, “Hello, hello,” to my mother on the telephone.
I’d even met the family dog.
On this special visit the family was celebrating the birthday of their deceased grandmother, and her second coming in the form of my host sister Ziýnet. Ziýnet, age seven, was born shortly after the grandmother’s death, and is her namesake. When the cousins don’t do what she wants, she scolds them by saying, “You’d better listen! This is my second life, and I know better than you. You didn’t listen to me the first time around.”
Now Ziýnet and the younger kids were racing from light pole to light pole. The older boys were washing the car. The older girls and the women were in and out of the kitchen with plates and trays. The dog was sleeping undisturbed in a far corner. The men had large dusty logs in their hands and were slamming them against the curb for the fire, chips flying.
Once there was a satisfactory number of smaller wood to be had and the fire was going, Grandfather brought out a large metal rod with small holes. His son connected this to a rubber hose and disappeared into the bathroom with the other end. As he stuck the rod beneath the fire, Grandfather chuckled and said, “Gas is free in Turkmenistan.” The fire shot up, two feet above our heads. He looked up, shook his head at the orange above him, chuckled again. “The President says gas won’t be free in 2030. But now there is much.”
I was standing near the fire, preparing my own vegetables to be barbequed in the stead of their chicken and meat patties, innocent to the dog who had woken and crept up from behind me. There was a sharp pierce at the back of my knee and I felt something thicker than sweat trickle down my leg. I turned around, dropped a piece of onion on the dog’s head, bent over to examine the wound, and said, “Fucking hell, you stupid fuck!”
I was wronged, trangressed, and I wanted to vomit.
My host mother ran to me. “Are you bleeding? We must put vodka – and kill the microbes.” I said it was alright, I’d clean it with soap and water, but I had to call Peace Corps. “Oh no, do not call them. It is alright. This dog bites everyone. Now you are introduced.”
Another woman chimed in, “The dog bit my sister on the hand – and it bit Aýgul’s mother! Everyone is okay!”
Someone else, “Drink vodka, you will feel nothing!”
“It’s just policy,” I said. “I will call Peace Corps.” It took three separate calls to arrange for Peace Corps to come to me, rather than the other way around, as all the people who knew how to drive the freshly cleaned car had had several shots of vodka by then. She arrived with her medical kit, treated the wound with many sighs, warned the family not to kill the dog but observe it. I assured her there was no risk of the family following Turkmen law and giving it its just deserts. A nod, “Yes. To them it is a joke. It bites everyone to say hello!” I asked her if it was the polite thing to do to bite back. She paused before saying, “You must look at the bite before bed and take your temperature. Come to see me on Monday.”
Monday. I’d have plenty of time before that to wander out of school and into the neighborhood looking for stray animals, tea and vodka.
Something’s changed. I don’t know if it’s the barometric pressure or what-have-you, but since spring break, I’ve actually gotten a little classroom time. Above are a few photos from the first grade class I was working with this week. When I get finished with them they will know that there is a difference between the letter, ‘g’ and ‘j’. And they will know ‘p’ and ‘q’ do not together make the letter ‘pew’. I took these after informing my teaching counterpart that it is pronounced bench, not bitch.
There are two flights of stairs that run strait up the Köpetdag. They are steep, uneven, cement, and they divide into thirds the mountainous ecosystem surrounding Ashgabat. On our recent hike of the eight kilometer “Health Way”, it was my duty to rescue the sand colored lizard in our path. The thing was trying his best to clear the curb, but this particular species was not selected for its vertical. We trapped him with our feet; I picked him up by the tail. He swung back and bit me on the forefinger; I flung him into the wild, somewhat more forcefully than I had intended. But he was free. Free to find his friends, his babies, his mate, his food, his dreams. He just lied there, blinking.
At least he was free.
It was our own last day of freedom. Tomorrow meant back to school after two and a half weeks away. Two and a half beautiful weeks of discos, mosques, hotels, bazaar food, real coffee at the office. It’d soon be back to stale bread, instant coffee, greasy soups and the quest to find a free classroom and my teaching counterpart. So here we were. We had flung ourselves into the wild, the wildest wild one can find near Ashgabat. Having downed some sandwiches and damned-good pears, we were ready to do this thing, the eight kilometer stretch, equipped with one and a half liters of water, three cans of beer and a liter of Fanta.
Kilometers one and two were difficult, more difficult than they had been four months ago. Stairs upward and no relief – unless you count the golden domed gazebo with the benches at every half kilometer. Or all the times I stopped to pretend to take photos.
It’s possible that six months of greasy soup and limited physical activity takes its toll on a body.
My self-image plummeted when I realized I still hadn’t caught up to the couple “bein’ all kissy” (fellow volunteer Jason’s words, not mine). They stopped more frequently, for longer, yet they were always just out of reach. To have the breath for that kind of pace and at that altitude.
So much for endurance: some time after the second kilometer we passed them for good. The spacing between gazebos and kilometer markers stopped making sense. There were stretches of non-stairs, statues of the wildlife we wouldn’t see in real life. It had started to feel like we were actually in the mountains.
By the time we reached the fourth kilometer, the ascent had steadied and Ak Şäherim Aşgabat, “My White City Ashgabat” was beneath us in its own white smog cloud. A sight to see. And cause for a can of warm beer. This, a fun-size Snickers and a bite of bread propelled us forward. It took a Turkmen, though, plastic shopping bag in hand, cutting through our path and bounding down the side of the mountain via goat path to get us off the Cement Way. We wandered freely among the bronzed statues of birds and mammals, looking toward the sublime, the snow capped mountains of Iran, until, at the eighth kilometer, we had no choice but to take the stairs down to the parking lot. We had made it.
We watched the last bus leave without us.
Only construction workers loitered near their truck, labeled ADAMLAR, “PEOPLE”. They pointed toward the city, told us to walk.
Two hundred yards later, they were insisting we become a part of their cargo. We piled in the back with the group of them squatting in mud, their shoes still shining, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. They shared a loaf of bread. Music played from someone’s phone. We were off, toward the city and the smog, toward the confines of the work week. Peering back at the mountains, we saw a lone live fox. He was rooting around the rocks arranged to read “TÜRKMENISTAN 2017” beneath Olympic Rings.
March is almost up. I’ve been living in Ashgabat for half a year now. Some days it feels like there may not be anything going on on the outside. Is there?
Some updates on my life here: It’s spring break. I’ve moved in with my new host family. There’s a visual update below. And a link to Peace Corps Turkmenistan’s 50th anniversary celebration, as shown on Turkmen national television.
“Ashgabat descends from the hills in an amphitheater fashion, facing towards the Garagum desert. The city is especially beautiful against violet spurs of the Kopetdag Mountains in early spring when millions of flowers enfold the fruit trees in a pale pink bridal veil and the city’s courtyards are adorned in semi-transparent gauze of tended young leaves.” –taken from the English10 textbook
Early spring. It’s a tease. One day it is seventeen degrees centigrade, the next it’s snowing. Turns out, here is no different from anywhere else I’ve wintered.
My students change with the weather. The day of the big snow, only three of my seventh graders showed for English club. We were huddled in Abadan’s dank classroom, peeping out of our scarves to discuss family photos.
“Her name is Gulşat. She is 22.”
“His name is Meýlis. He is 3.”
The rest of the student body was throwing snowballs in the courtyard. One of my tenth graders caught me between classes. With one stubby, pink hand he grabbed my shoulder; with the other he smeared a handful of snow in my face. I hadn’t yet developed my strategy for dealing appropriately with such happenings. I thought first to bring my knee to his balls, but I was wearing a Turkmen dress. They limit leg movement. Then I thought to impress everyone with the use of a few choice words. They’d know my knowledge of the Turkmen language is not limited to the classroom. Teachers talk about having their students respect them, you know? I walked away instead. Everyone laughed at me. I still haven’t developed that strategy.
Anyway, I can’t stick to one strategy – I need a new one at least every two weeks. Sometimes daily. My schedule changes this often. It took me a month and a half to set one for myself, just because I could never figure out who was free when, when which classes met where. When I did, the schedule was changed for the new term. I adapted to this. Two weeks later it changed. It may have been because it was raining. For a week half the school was closed to paint the floors. The following week, the other half was closed. You can’t paint just one half of a school’s floors, not for a visit from Berdimuhamedov himself, the Second President of Turkmenistan.
All I know is that I never saw the President. I am never in the right place at the right time.
This is how it is: some sunny day I came to school having prepared a lesson on direct and reported speech. Maya greeted me with, “You are late. Tenth form went.”
“Um, 10 ‘D’ is at one, right?”
“It was – yesterday it changed. Now they have a history lesson.”
Having nothing else to do, I went to sit with the secretary. She was making name cards, typing one letter at time, printing one card at a time. She asked me if I was waiting. “Again,” I said, “I do not find my students.” She nodded, told me to continue sitting, then. When the School Director saw me, she told me I should answer the phone if I was going to be where I was. If I had known the Turkmen word for useful, I’d have told her that all I wanted was to be thus.
The next time I locate 10 ‘D’, the weather has changed, and they have moved on to something unrelated to reported speech. Maya asked me, “Do you want to do an activity?” Oh, sure, I did. I’d tired of saying things like, “I am not prepared to work with them on this Ashgabat-text. It is too difficult for them.” I’d tired of wondering which of the Kopetdag’s spurs are supposed to be violet. Or what I would do if one of my students were to describe anything with such superfluity as the city being “adorned in semi-transparent gauze of tended young leaves”. I might’ve been content to have one tell me, “Ashgabat is near mountains,” and not forget that vital little “to be” verb. So, we did an activity. We reviewed the verb “to be” again, or the past simple tense with tic-tac-toe. The students were paying more attention to my boots thick with mud than the chalkboard. I excused myself by saying, “I found a dirty way,” and we all laughed. I continued on: it’s an X or an O for every correct conjugation. They didn’t stop staring at my boots.
I seem to be the only person in this country who can’t keep her shoes shining.
The snow was falling heavily as I arrived to school one day. My teaching materials were wet because there is no space for me to leave them at school. My hands were so cold that I could not grasp the stub of chalk. I had dropped my gloves in the mud and to wear them would have been maskata. I suffered through. By the time my students arrived, I had illustrated when to use the in, at and on prepositions on the chalkboard. We were promptly kicked out of the classroom by one of my teaching counterparts. Her ninth graders needed a place to sit, she said. Fifteen minutes later I had found another classroom, and my fingers had thawed enough to write it all again.
I can’t say much for my work or the weather. But this evening, the snow is falling softly, and the sky is violet behind the darkening grey spurs of the Kopetdag, and there are buds on all the trees. Spring may just be on its way.