living among the insane and the deeply unfortunate   Leave a comment

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.

“Gypjak? Gypjak?”

“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.


Posted July 31, 2011 by turkmenlaura in Uncategorized

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