Saturday, November 14, 2009


Not every mother is present at our births to hear our first cry. They may not see our first steps but they guide us nonetheless. Some mothers appear in our lives when we need them the most, to comfort and support us with their loving arms, to teach us and speak softly of our mistakes, often working tirelessly without praise. They walk onto the path of our livse at a special time when we, the children of the world, big and small, need a gentle smile, someone to laugh with us and cry with us and accept us for who we are. They show us the way of kindness and love for a short time, but remain in our hearts and memories forever. These are the true mothers of the world, whose loving arms we will reach for when we cross heaven's doorstep.
Rest in Peace, Shafige.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Survival 101

Turkmenistan has lots of lessons to teach, unfortunately most of them are tough lessons about survival. Making it through the harsh summer dust storms, blazing heat and immense boredom is definitely a feat in itself. Then comes the heaven sent melon season and the produce flows through the markets into small villages like mine and life is bearable. Summer is also vacation season for PCVs and my first out-of-country trip took me to Turkey to revisit the beautiful city I glimpsed briefly on my way here and rekindle an old flame. Michael and I spent the first 2 days in the heart of the tourist area of Sultanahmet in a nice B & B type hotel where we made friends with hotel staff who took us out to eat and walk around the city. Then we decided to stay in Taksim, the popular cultural center of the city, for the next few days. Our first day there we saw a protest and despite the fact that I had no idea what was being demonstrated I was deeply touched by the show of citizens participating in their government. The street fairs, open air cafes, Spice Bazaar and live music overwhelmed me with culture and I felt enveloped by the spirit of Istanbul. Later, after our brief encounter with Turkish cop-show actors (you may even catch us in the promos for the new season!) and watching Ice Age 3 in Turkish (lots of squeaks and eeks are pretty universal) we took a night bus 12 hours to the Mediterranean coast town of Fethiye and stayed in a wonderful little place called the Farah Pension, owned by a helpful and friendly Turkish couple. We made day trips to docks where boats were being made and remodeled, explored various beaches (including one that made us feel like we were in a kind of British Pleasure Island) and did some great hiking and biking around, too. We even met up with a Turkish friend from Hospitality club who had shown my friends and I around on my first trip to the city and had some good food, wine and conversation.

The beauty of vacation can sometimes be overshadowed by the typical "post-vacation blues" that a lot of PCVs and other people experience and 10 days seem to fly by. When I arrived back, I could only play the tough guy until I hit the airport and then the smell of Turkmenistan and the bleakness of my mountain village's scenery brought the fact that I had been removed far from the cultural metropolis and excitement of my trip to Istanbul home to me in one fell swoop. The fact that my beloved counter-part was on sabbatical made work even more difficult, but luckily after a few rough days and a visit from Peace Corps staff to try and rework things at my health clinic, I was back to my old self and ready to recommit to the second year of service.
A few days ago we had another surprise and challenge to all of the current PCVs in Turkmenistan's morality- the news that the expected 2009 class of volunteers were not granted permission to come this year, but will have to wait until next year. Things right now are not all that clear and there are lots of ideas flying around about what the future of Peace Corps in Turkmenistan will hold, but we are told to continue working and we will see what next year will bring. For me in the village, it does not change too much, although now there would be the opportunity for me to move to the city if I need to since I would not be taking a new volunteer's position there anymore. For now though, things are going well in my village. My most fulfilling work, of course, is done with the children and there is now a devoted and expanding group of kids who come out for my sports club and health club. The health club barely squeezes into the waiting room area of the maternity section of our clinic, but I am just happy to have any space to work with children. Their excitement and ethusiasm keeps me going. The other day I saw "little Mary", the 6th baby girl of a family whose real name is Altyn Ay (Golden/6th Moon..Alty is 6 and Altyn is gold so its a play on words kind of), but her 5 older sisters all wanted to call her Mary. She is growing prettier everyday, my little namesake. And babies that were born last year when I arrived are starting to toddle around and walk already. Its great to be able to measure my service in terms of other little peoples' lives. In terms of cultural adjustment, language and learning to make work for myself here we PCVs seem to follow a similar, if condense development.
Well, its time for me to get back to my village in time for my counter-part's son's marriage. I'm so happy she'll be back next week and hopefully we will start working on developing materials for birth support partners in Turkmen. That should keep me busy for a bit.
Hope you are all well and enjoying the crispness of fall. We are planning Halloween activities for our students during the Fall Break coming up at the end of the month. There may even be some trick-or-treating going on in this small village in Central Asia, who knows?!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Travel Brochure and much more

Hojagala village, Balkan region: the Appalachia of Turkmenistan

This small quintessential Turkmen village in the flatlands of the Western Balkan Mountains has many similarities to regions of the United States known as Appalachia in the great states of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia. Here are just a few:
- Mountains
- Guns and Religion
- Population per square kilometer
- Teeth per capita
- Births per capita
- Inbreeding per capita
- Hojagala: Where Gossip is news and news is toilet paper!

Reasons to visit: There is an American living there. A very intellectually-starved American who will show you the finer points of Turkmen hospitality in exchange for news of the outside world. Lots of carpets and carpet making! ExperienceHiking in the mountains! Foxes, leopards, hedgehogs, turtles and antelope!! Anthropological study? Genetic study? Mental health study? To see if your tough enough to brave my toilet? Just come.

Travel tips: The water is not vegetarian. All kinds of creatures love to live in or around uncovered toilets including lizards, giant beetles and birds (yes, we found this one out the hard way!) Also it is advisable to bring extra sunscreen for it is entirely possible to get sunburned on your precious buns while feeling the effects of the living water. There’s no such thing as “where the sun don’t shine” out here. Bring your own satellite phone. When you need to use the village’s one phone the most it is likely to not be working. Blame the narcomen for cutting our wires! Popping squats anywhere at night is better than braving the toilet, you just may need to change your socks more frequently. When people say “til the cows come home” they are referring to around 8:30 which is when the cows actually do come home.

How to Find Wild Mushrooms:

1. Immediately after it rains or when its still raining if its been raining for a day or so go out to flat meydans (plains) where mushrooms grow. You can follow the other mushroom hunters or ask someone where they found them last year.
2. Find a friend to go hunt for the sneaky fungi with you. It will help pass the time (you’ll be there for at least a few hours if you want to fill a whole grocery bag) and help you catch the ones you missed.
3. Get a big packette to put your mushrooms in and make it your goal to fill it. Don’t drink too much tea before hand, as there is no real brush cover on the meydans and with other hunters it will be hard to be discreet.
4. When you arrive at the meydan search for greener areas of interspersed dirt and brush clumps. That’s where the shrooms like to generate.
5. Search these areas by scanning the earth for areas where the ground is broken and looks like something is about to erupt from the soil underneath like an alien embryo or crusty pimple, but much more appetizing. The real “gelin komelek” – bride mushrooms- the ones that are good to eat- do not usually show much above the surface and are white-topped with brown undersides and fat stalks. If they do and are yellow or black topped with skinny stalks they are the “yilan komelek”- snake mushrooms- which are no good, apparently.
6. With your hand or knife (use knife if you are squeamish of earwigs or baby scorpions since they tend to like to chill near the mushroom stumps) remove dirt layer and reach under mushroom cap and pull on stump.
7. Continue til your bag is full or your head is spinning from scrutinizing dirt patches for hours.
8. Wash and clean. The Turkmen remove the spore gill area but I think its tasty.
9. Cook or not and enjoy your tasty toadstool. They are a limited time treat so make as many mantys (Turkmen steamed dumplings) and omelettes as you can tolerate while you can.

Poem of the oba
May 2009

The wind sweeps down over the folds of the parched plateaus
into this tender earthen bowl
firmly cupping white-washed stone and mud-packed blocks
surrounded by scratches of barbed wire and salvaged metal scraps to guard precious foliage from hungry mouths.
the landscape peppered with course, furry dots shifting on the green sprouting meydans
that bear witness to the fallen rain.

Song birds whistle and call, trilling and dipping between homes and grazing cattle
their voices indistinguishable from school boys tending their flocks and passing time.
The sun slips non-chalantly behind the sloping shoulder of the western mountains.
It pays no heed to the sleepy crumbling buildings or their histories.
It does not tell of the petty rivalries, runaway brides or children lost. Nor the scarcity and abundance of seasons past.
It ticks out its patterns, rhythmically counting
row by row, set by set
as steadily as the young women pack their rows of colored yarn closer together,
beating out a familiar tempo with their fork-like combs:
red, red, black, red, white, red, black,
blacks of green and indigo hues and saffron orange
red, red, red, black
tie one and leave two
pull through and tighten rows.
Pixelled shapes take form from unwritten patterns,
internalized designs.

A girl leaves her cushion empty, runs away to a new life
her darak does not sit motionless for long, new hands find the rhythm,
Images blossom beneath the nimble, scarred fingertips
holding the stories of their lives, handed down,
internalized designs.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cheers! Two dozen reasons to celebrate.

Its strange that the theme song from a 80's American sitcom would be constantly in my head in a small village in Turkmenistan, but I can't help but hearing the line "Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.... " echoing in my head as I walk through my village on the way to work. I'm greeted by name by almost every person I see and in a few cases of the little kids I've been teaching in my English clubs I even get a few "Hello, How are you? I am excellent". I go back to that song everytime I'm feeling down. The week after I came back from my March trip into the city was one of those times. The situation with my first family was ackward and I made plans to move as soon as possible, but it still took a few days to get everything organized through the migration office and my new host family. It was definitely my first time experiencing real homesickness here so far, but once I got settled in with my new host family things started to look up. They are a family with a mother and father my own parents' ages with 4 children (2 boys, 2 girls). The older son and daughter who are my age work and study in Turkmenbashy on the Caspian Sea. The 19 year old son and his wife (who shares a birthday with me!) and 11 month old rolly poly toddler, Soyli, (in the photo with her mom) and younger 14 year old sister live at home. They are really warm and helpful to me and I feel the much needed motherly affection of my host mom. They have also taken me on excursions to the mountains (where I counted 54 turtles in one day) and Parawbibi the spiritual tourism site in the mountains about 1/2 an hour away from Serdar city where a young religious female saint apparently escaped persecution by miraculously being swallowed up by the mountains.

I'm about to head back to my village after 4 days here at a conference for PCV's and their counter-parts to learn about project design and management and taking care of other work. The conference was a great chance to get my project kick-started and help my counter-part learn about the planning process. We are planning to remodel a room in a nearby house that belongs to the hospital for use as a health training room. We hope to use the room for exercise classes for women, healthy cooking classes and health clubs and first aid lessons for teenagers. We have a lot of work ahead of us from grant writing to finding in-kind donations and planting our vegetable garden (a big tangyr yalkasyn-thank you to Michael for the seed donation!) to provide ingredients for our cooking classes. This was a perfect time to come into Ashgabat as I got to celebrate my birthday here in the capital hanging out with other PCV's and enjoying the city life for a bit (including the glory of hot SHOWERS!).

Back in the oba (village) I managed to complete my first carpet which was turned into a small cellphone purse (you can see me making it below). Unfortunately, still waiting for the cellphone to fill it. My one and only complaint about my site is communication can be a bit tricky, but thanks to my site mate in the city I manage to stay in touch with the world at all. Anyway, its amazing what you can pick up when there is no technology around to distract you.
For now, Wishing you all a Happy Easter (tomorrow is the Russian Orthodox version) and new beginnings all around!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Happy Spring!

Happy Spring and Persian New Year (Nowruz) to everyone! I’m getting ready to go back to my village today after a long weekend and much needed break visiting my first host family. As I walked into their kitchen on Friday, I smelled the basmati rice cooking with saffron and the greens from their garden and felt instantly at home. I spent the last few days doing errands in the big city and making rounds with the Rezayev family to their relatives eating sweets and wishing everyone “Eid shomo mubarak” for their spring festival that is kind of a mix between our Easter and Halloween (its sort of like trick or treating in that sense). Each home has a big table spread with sweets and green sprouting plants as well as an assortment of things starting with the letter ‘S’ for good luck and a mirror to spread the blessings.

I have a lot of work waiting for me back in the village. I had a theft occur this past week and although my 1st host family has been very nice and is not suspect, it feels like the right time to move to a new host family. This family will be more my own age with a young son and his bride who has a 9 month old baby (and we share a birthday) as well as a 14 year old host sister and parents of my parents age who seem generous and energetic. I’ve been getting to know them over the past few months and look forward to staying with them. Before I came here I had worked for 2 weeks without a day off since there lots of babies to catch on Sundays for some reason. My baby count is up to 8 and I officially became a baby girl named Gulsum's “gorbek enay” (belly button mother) this past week as I got to cut the umbilical cord. I’m still teaching at the school and doing a series of 1st aid lessons that I plan to expand in the summer months. My director at the clinic wants to make a health education room just for me and other community members to do health lessons in, which is really exciting. I’ve been working mainly on making lots of posters for the clinic’s birth area, setting up a resource bookshelf and getting pregnancy lessons ready that I hope to start soon with my counter-part. My hobbies have expanded and I’m actually making my own little mini-carpet. Most days I spend an hour or two making what I hope will turn out to be a little cellphone purse. Pictures to follow if my computer cooperates, inshallah! There are a few on my brother's facebook profile if you haven't check them out.

Enjoy spring and all the new life wherever you are!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Adventures in childbirth and dental hygiene

Two months into my Peace Corps service and happy, healthy and loving my work. My small village is the perfect fit for me and I love walking to work everyday and saying hi to everyone I pass. They all seem to know me, but I'm still seeing new faces everyday. Work has been everything I could hope for so far. My counter-part is wonderful and I have attended 4 births with her so far. The first birth I had to make use of my bike flashlight (Thanks to the Millers in Pittsburgh!) to help the midwife see when the lights went out at the clinic and word is spreading about the novel idea that I let women see their babies heads crowning by holding up a mirror for them. I've also been teaching hygiene and nutrition lessons at the kindergarten and I've started recieving reports from parents that their kids are asking for toothbrushes and singing the "this is the way we wash our hands" in Turkmen. They get so cute and excited to brush the teeth on my giant mouth model made of plastic bottle bottoms. After work a few times a week I have English and sport clubs for the kids and I seem to have sparked an upsurge in the local childrens sports gear market.
My host family is great and I feel really at home with them. Our village just got gas last week, so thats made it easier for me to take a "bath" a little more frequently which is wonderful now that I've started running. People are getting used to seeing me in my running pants, jogging around sometimes with little kids in tow and will say "Arma" (Don't get tired) to me as I pass and smile. I've even done some exercises with some older women who are overnight patients in the health clinic getting treatment for hypertension related problems, which are really prevalent here.
I'm also getting to meet women my age who are making carpets by joining in their work with them and learning a bit of the beautiful intricate patterns they have learned by heart. I'm hoping that I will be able to develop more presentations on pregnancy, nutrition and childbirth for future informal classes with these groups of women.
Its snowed a few times, but only once where the kids hit the streets for snowball fights and snowmen. The mountains look amazing covered in snow and I don't think I've ever seen the stars so clearly as I do on my walks to the outhouse late at night.

More in a month or so when I get back to the city again!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Site Visit

Pre-service training has been going well and I returned from my visit to permanent site in a small village in Balkan region this week. The village has a population of around 1,500 people and is surrounded by the beautiful Kopet Dag mountains. Its very remote and my host family are farmers that grow tomatoes, garlic, chilis, apricots, honey and other tasty fruits and veggies in the spring and summer. They have three small children who are quite energetic and I met several girls my age who are carpet weavers and they taught me how to weave a little bit and promised to help me learn their art. My counterpart is a really sweet older lady who is a midwife and there is a birth room at the small but cozy house of health. They are very excited to have me work there and although the winter months don't seem very inviting I think my work in the village will be interesting and the people are very welcoming.