A word of introduction from Greg: These are selected journal entries from Scott Todd, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan Group III (1995-97). They describe Scott's reaction to his life in the capital city of Ashgabat from Fall of 1996 to Fall of 1997. Scott taught English at the Turkmenistan's University and conducted teacher-training seminars with local English instructors. Scott now lives in Hawaii and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm sure he would welcome any comments.
"From Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: where exaggeration is not necessary."
PC Turkmenistan for the Internet
September 15, 1997
Dear Greg and Carol,
Your letter is posted on the lounge bulletin board, and I picked up the plea for Turkmenistan information for publication on your website. Here I'm sending along some samples from the newsletter that I send home, in hopes that this is even more than you really want. I've taken out all the stuff that's about my own usual life, and most of the stuff about the university, in favor of general Turkmenistan observations. However, if you want all the rest of it, that could be arranged, too.
The big news here you've probably already heard: that English has been eliminated from the curricula of almost all of the schools, both the secondary schools and the higher education institutes. You can read about that toward the end of this.
Also on this diskette is one long newsletter that I wrote about this last summer's session of camp. 'Though you might want to hear about that.
Other news: With the departure of Kevin Baker (Parmer is now the PTO) and return of Jamilia, we've gone through a complete staff change. The oldest surviving person who makes more than ten grand a year is Ty. Kevin has gone off to join Bob in Poland. The new CD is a big change from Bob. (You can read a bit about her, below.)
We lost Marie Thomas yet again, this time because she fell and broke some bones. Also, when Kimberly Naahielua didn't come back from her vacation and needed to be tracked down in India via the state department, she got separated. Perhaps you've heard from her. Other than that, we're looking at the end of the tunnel.
By the way, Greg, though your offer is very generous, please don't feel the need to head to the supermarket and then the post office to send me anything. In 74 days we'll be headed for home or parts unknown as well. I only look forward to getting more news of you.
A peculiar wave of consumer capitalism has been washing over Ashgabat.
Lilia Mikhailovna came home the other day with a box of Corn Flakes. Suffice to say that my mouth was agape. She'd bought it at the store right down the street. I missed the supply, though, and didn't manage to get any before it was gone.
There's something going on with the supply of products. The bazaars, and speculator stores have things that they've never had before: jelly, vinegar, canned tuna, chick peas, and tomato paste, even (wow!) fresh milk in half-liter cartons, grapefruit juice in liter boxes, American-made mayonnaise. Goods are overflowing from the kiosks.
I teased Jessica about wanting to go to the bazaar "To look at all the stuff," as being a rather dork thing to think given that we're Americans, but she's right--there's a lot more there, now, than there was a year ago.
The question is, is it a trend? Or is it a glitch: a short-term glut of imported products brought in during the dictatorial spending spree of the "Independence Day" celebration?
The students are missing a lot of classes as we approach "Independence Day," because they're off participating in rallies. In order to encourage participation, the dictator is bribing them. Younger kids are getting bags of biscuits and candy. The higher-ed. students recently all came home with new watches. On the watch face is a picture of the dictator. What's amazing is that these guys are actually wearing these things.
Children are begging in the bazaars. I had never witnessed this before this weekend, when Jessica and I were accosted by different kids in both my local bazaar, and the Russkiy Bazaar in town. They were tenacious, too. In my local bazaar, this Turkmen girl wanted a lick of Jessica's, or my, ice cream. She tugged at our sleeves or pawed at us, or merely got in our ways, and not just a few times, but repeatedly over the course of several minutes. Refusal meant nothing to her. This was true as well of the Russian-speaking boy in town. Saying "No" or even getting mad at him did not put him off. He kept asking, following us from place to place, getting in front, touching. While I might be sympathetic to a kid without enough to eat, Jessica said that there were a whole bunch of Fagan's kids floating around asking for money, and comparing their "takes."
I don't know what to think. On the one hand, these kids are pathetic, and this country is crawling with poverty. The first beggars I noticed showed up this winter: mostly old women and cripples taking even 20-manat notes (worth about 1/25th of a cent). They're still out there by the bazaars, and there are more of them, now. I wonder if, as they manage to do this unmolested by police (apparently), there will be more and more of them soon. It is really very sad. And I have more money than nearly anyone here, yet for some (selfish?) reason I don't want to give them any and encourage street panhandling, knowing that no matter how much I give it's not going to put a dent in the situation. No support system here. No "welfare as we know it." Blessed indeed are the societies that will be willing to take care of their poor.
Here is the beginning of all telephone conversations:
(translations are in the footnotes)
Me: (I wait)
Caller: Dobrii den
Me: Dobrii den!!!!!!!!!!
I do not even slightly exaggerate when I say that typically people say hello five times, trying to ascertain merely by voice tenor if they've gotten the right number, rather than simply identifying themselves, or saying who they are trying to reach. Then if they determine that they have not gotten the right number, they hang up. I go through this about nine dozen times a month. I imagine that this is simply culturally appropriate, so that if I tried my own brand of politeness the conversation would go something like this:
Me: Hello. This is Scott Todd calling from the Peace Corps. May I speak with Arsen, please?
Callee: My goodness! You are very rude. Why haven't you said "hello" to me 6,000 times?
October 24, Thursday
Almost by surprise, I found myself in the home of the U.S. Ambassador last night. Yesterday afternoon Phil Knott had handed me an invitation to a reception at the ambassadorial residence. "It's for all the American teachers in Ashgabat," he said. This surprised me, because so far the ambassador has shown what seems to be no love for Peace Corps volunteers. I asked if all the PCVs had been invited, and Phil said that he supposed so, because they were American teachers in Ashgabat.
The invitation was not addressed.
"Sorry it doesn't have your name on it," Phil said. "They said that they were sure there was another teacher at the university, but couldn't exactly remember who it was." Phil thought about this for a moment. "That's a bit strange, because they must have a list of all the Peace Corps volunteers."
As it happened, I was the only volunteer at the reception, although PC Country Director Bob and Finance Director Marvin were there. I am quite sure now that I got this invitation by mistake. Last semester, there was another (non-PCV) American teacher at the school--another of the missionaries like Phil, but he's gone, now. What I'd like to know, is why Phil Knott would be invited to the reception, and some nameless other American that they thought might be at the university but they weren't sure who it was, as would the director of the International School, and some Peace Corps staff, and a whole lot of other people, but no Peace Corps volunteers?
(The next day I would find out that Maura and Jason had not been invited to the ambassador's place on Wednesday night. Neither had Molly, even though she was house-sitting on the embassy compound, not fifty yards away from the ambassador's house. And he knew that. Clearly, the invitation that Phil had delivered to me, was not intended for me.)
Yup. The President of the United States and Chief of State Bill Clinton called us, "The best America has to offer." But apparently we aren't good enough. Not enough to be invited to a state department function at which every other American in the community is invited.
November 8, Friday
From the department of Things I Learned in Turkmenistan:
Ring around the collar...exists.
Before I came here, I'd thought that it was something invented by the advertisers of Wisk.
November 9, Saturday
Q: What do you call a 15-year-old Turkmen wearing gray?
Explanation: During the "Independence Day" celebration, and since then, there have been new cops on the street many of whom look like they've never had to shave.
Olga came in and wanted some help with a translation. She, a secretary at the U.N., had been assigned the task of translating, by tomorrow, the applications of seven Turkmen organizations (including one ministry), for U.N. funds to open ecology centers. The application even said on it that they could be written in Russian, though English was preferable. I asked Olya why she had to do this: why didn't the organizations do their own #$%^&* translations? She said that "They weren't interested" in doing the translating.
They're asking for money to do things that they should be doing with their own budgets, and they're not interested enough to do a translation, but are making the UNDP secretary do it, instead? What bullshit. I told her I thought so, and eventually stopped helping her with it. Most of what we were translating was vague (and, in the case of the ministry of environment, untrue) nonsense anyway. (The aforementioned ministry had written that it implemented all of these powers to make the country's production operate in an ecological way. Try telling that to the people who live off the cotton fields in Dashaus, or to the former fishermen of the Aral Sea. Or to the keepers of the game preserves, who are earning eight bucks a month and therefore selling their services as guides to help hunters gun down the endangered mountain leopards that they're supposed to be caretaking. In the desert culture of corruption, the environment doesn't mean a rat's ass.)
I came into my room to write.
The United Nations is paying for Turkmen dictatorship. As is USAID, the World Bank, and the Peace Corps. And anyone else who is giving aid to this country.
How can I say such a thing? The United Nations and World Bank are paying to build things like environmental centers, experiments in plumbing systems, roads, expert consultants, etc. USAID is giving farm equipment, and money. The Peace Corps is contributing teachers and nurses and businesspeople. All this at the request of the Turkmen ministries. Now, let us say that the Turkmen ministries applied for grants to put Italian marble on the facade of the presidential palace. Would we give them assistance for such a thing? Of course not. Yet we do. By giving them teachers, farm equipment, environmental centers, food, or any other kind of assistance, we are freeing up money in their budget to do other things, such as build presidential palaces and five-star hotels. Any kind of "humanitarian" aid in the form of doing things that the government should be doing, amounts to giving the government money.
If the dictator of Turkmenistan allowed it to be spent in the right ways, this country would have plenty of money. The gross national product of this nation comes out to several thousand dollars per capita. Recently Turkmenistan has reached agreements with Ukraine and Armenia to be paid the billions (yes, that's nine zeros) of dollars that they owe it for natural gas. The gas exports alone are worth enough to give every citizen in the nation $1,000 per year, and still have some left over for government services. Yet your average Turkmen is receiving a salary of about $10 per month, and the infrastructure is crumbling while the money from cotton and gas go to bank accounts in Europe.
This country has the wealth to spend on its own environmental centers, on teachers, on water lines and telephone cables and power stations. Instead, it is spending it on monuments to an ego. And we are helping.
I needed to get to Nebit Dag (in the interior of Turkmenistan), and figured it would be more convenient to take the train than to fly. It was what the locals afforded, anyway, and the scenes of towns along the way would make up for the slight amount of time that might have been lost. The distance would be covered on the train in under two hours, anyway.
At the Ashgabat station, I wandered up to the ticket window. "Yes, how can I help you?" the woman asked.
I struggled with the language. "Ticket, please. Nebit Dag. Tomorrow."
She smiled at my feeble attempt and shifted into English as she handed me the printed ticket. "This ticket is good for any day, " she said, "but if you want to be sure of getting a seat, you should make a reservation. But I don't think tomorrow will be a problem." It cost me about a quarter of a local day's wage.
As I left the station, a policeman touched his cap in greeting to me. I walked to the zebra crossing, where the cars stopped to let me go by. But when I came to the next intersection and tried to walk across against the light when no cars were coming, the other pedestrians glowered at me, shocked. I quickly stepped back to the curb and waited with them, until the pedestrian light turned green.
The next day I went to the station, looked at the departure schedule of several trains per day--some express, some stopping at most of the towns along the way so as better to serve the various people who would take this train.
I looked for a non-smoking car, and there were many more of these than smoking compartments. Inside I noticed that people had indeed reserved seats, but most of the seats were empty and unreserved. I could choose between small compartments of six seats each, or the car of long rows of reclining chairs that made the cabin look like a Boeing. I chose a window seat, and put my bag up on the wide luggage rack.
The train whispered out of the station at its departure time.
Very shortly thereafter, the conductor came through and checked out tickets. He took mine and frowned. He said something that I didn't understand, then tried in English. "This is the fast train. There's a supplemental charge." The extra charge was only about 20-minutes' wage for the average worker, though. He punched some numbers onto his hand-held computer, and it printed out a receipt. "Thank you very much!" he said, smiling at me courteously. He went on to the next people, continuing the job that he did every day.
People were sitting, talking quietly to their friends or reading one of several daily newspapers they'd gotten at the station. Near to the center seats that had a table, there was an outlet on the wall, bearing the symbol of a computer next to it.:
A few stops along the way, an announcement came across the train speaker. "Our honored passengers," the voice articulated, "We will be delayed at this stop for one or two minutes. We are sorry for any inconvenience this might cause, and ask for your indulgence."
When we arrived, I got into the orderly line out the aisle. The conductor was standing at the door to assist disembarking passengers with their luggage, and embarking passengers with the stairs, if necessary. As is the habit in that part of the world, everyone said good-bye as they departed.
"Auf Wiedersehn," the conductor said to me.
So, ye Turkmen-experienced: is your head reeling? Suffice to say that this is not actually about going to Nebit Dag, but about my train trip from Salzburg to Munich. However, putting it into our local context is meant to underline that what we think of as normal practice in the west--helpful, sensible service--here seems like nothing but bizarre.
About December 19
The last of the T.2s, including Jessica, got on the plane out of Ashgabat: seven of them flying together for travel in India.
It was a teary departure, of course, and once one person started, it spread quickly to the entire crowd of Americans, Russians, and Turkmen who had shown up to see them off.
Jessica had been in town for two weeks before that, (which explains why there wasn't a word put down in my journal in the weeks since I returned from Austria). We spent the time saying good-bye in many ways, and in her preparing for her departure. We talked a bit about what's going to happen with us now, but the answer finally, is that we don't know. A year is a long time.
My room is overflowing with her left-over stuff, to be given away to various volunteers and locals.
This is part of what I wrote in my column ("Water Flowing Underground") in the volunteer newsletter:
...OK, enough of this. Where's the "water flowing underground"? It was in the crowd of people who gathered to shed tears at the departure of the seven T.2s who got on that plane to India. Given that Molly was leaving, I was kind of surprised that half of Ashgabat wasn't there, but the dozens of Russian and Turkmen faces beaming with love and gratitude for all that those folks had done, and just for who those seven people were, gave a light to our entire meaning for being here. I've wondered about tears in cases like that. It isn't really sorrow, because it comes from the joy that we had of knowing a person. Crying isn't so much an expression of sadness, or happiness, but is more an outpouring of pure emotion, that I might call simply, love.
I took the bus home that night, and drank Bloody Marys until I was able to go to bed. A week later my room was still a disaster area, strewn with her clothes and with mine, papers covering the floor as I stayed out the apartment as much as I could. Getting back to work was hard.
It is December 27, and outside right now it is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That's 70. Or 21 C. I can't believe I stopped the Frisbee games almost a month ago.
Once again the tree of trees is up at the university. It is the New Year's decoration to end it all: a five-meter-high green metal pole, with about 75 smaller pipes shooting out of it, into each of which is stuck an entire small evergreen as its "branches," covered in tinsel and hanging baubles. Seventy-five trees cut down in a desert land for this annual decoration. The tackiness of what it looks like is far outweighed by the tackiness of what it is.
Kids have been playing with firecrackers all month, all over the country. Explosions go off all the time. My neighborhood sounds like Bosnia. I've seen boys who looked like they were seven years old (which means they were probably five) lighting the things off on garbage heaps. The bottom line of this idiocy was at the university, where some fools were throwing them out of the third floor window into the milling crowd of students by the entrance.
January 12, Sunday
There are times that one can be told something, or read something, that will totally spin one around, will make one think that one has been completely wrong, all along. I've had something like this experience, as a result of reading Ken Kalfus' article, "Far From Normal," in the December, 1996 issue of Harper's magazine.
The article is about how the mafia controls Moscow, and Russia in general. For a very few, the chaos of Russia's post-communism is a boon, an explosion of wealth for the ruthless and their molls. For everyone else, it is a nightmare. The police and politicians are in the hands of the mob, and the common people still live in poverty. Yes, there are restaurants and stores with goods in them, but only for the few who are carrying guns in their shoulder holsters, and for the prostitutes, girls from the countryside having made their way into the city, who are catering to them. Kalfus relates this story:
"Nowhere in Russia does the contempt the powerful have for the powerless show itself more visibly than on the roadways. In the United States, it's the dented Camaro without a tail-light, or the lumbering paneled station wagon that swerves into your lane, runs the red light, and turns out to be piloted by a blustering, insurance-less thug. But on Moscow's roads, the ones flouting the law and common sense are the heavily waxed new foreign cars, often traveling in packs as they push aside smaller, older automobiles. (No one, not even drivers of ten-year-old Zhigulis, shows regard for pedestrians, who scatter like chickens when a car turns into a crosswalk.) Government officials are awarded flashing blue lights for the roofs of their cars, which they use to intimidate slow-moving drivers on the single-lane road to "dacha-stan." The blue lights are also made available to their associates and hangers-on, and anyone with money and connections.
"My friend Galia lives on the outskirts of Moscow in a small village that I will call Kamenka, one of the few identifying details I have altered here. On the first day of this year, a maroon, top-of-the-line Lada roars down the street in front of her house at about 60 miles per hour, hitting and killing her German shepherd, Runa, and then dragging its body some 100 feet.
"The driver emerges from his car without a word of apology or regret, but demands that he be compensated for the damage to his front lights and fender. When Galia's husband, Andrei, tries to pull the dog's body from the street, the driver grabs him and demands $300. After the consequent tussle and shouting match, the driver leaves, promising to return. That evening three four-wheel-drive vehicles arrive in the village and park in front of her house. Several men with pump-action shot-guns step from their vehicles and fire repeatedly and with characteristic misdirection into the house across the street, doing a fair bit of property damage. Then they corner some neighbors and interrogate them about the dog's owners. The neighbors don't reveal anything, but the entire village has been terrorized. Galia and Andrei send their daughter to stay with relatives in another village.
"The following day, Andrei meets with a friend who is a policeman and explains what has happened. After listening thoughtfully and sympathetically, the cop says, 'The most important thing is to determine whether this is the Lyubertskaya gang of the Solnsevskaya gang. I'll make inquiries.'
"The policeman is true to his word and arranges for a representative of the Lyubertskaya boss to come to Galia's house. Borya, as he introduces himself, arrives in a BMW, accompanied by an Audi. 'Why aren't you going to pay?' he asks. 'Do you think you're the boss of this region? Are you so brave?'
"He tells them that they will have to arrange for the car repair, and that if they have any more problems they should come to him. This is not exactly the end of the affair: when the driver returns, he demands $12,000, for replacing the entire car. A heated discussion about the actual worth of the car ensues, but in the end he settles for the $300 he originally asked for."
So this article makes me think: perhaps there are worse things than dictatorship. Of course, Niyazov is nothing more than a common thug himself; he merely has the distinction of being the one with his picture all over the place so that everyone knows whom they're paying off. The Moscow mafia may actually be a bigger problem. Moscow's return to lawlessness and ruthless capitalism has bred an enormous quantity of tribal lords, extortionists and murderers. Has it done some good?
I would be very interested to visit there, and to talk with my friend Aleksei, who is himself running a tourism business. Does he have to pay protection money? Does he feel free?
I missed some excitement while I was gone (on vacation in America). There was actually a curfew in Ashgabat for a few nights. As advertised it was all part of the Turkmenistan Vice Squad's well-intentioned efforts to improve the morality of the Turkmen citizenry, namely by arresting the prostitutes. A prostitute is defined as any woman seen in the presence of a foreigner or wearing anything other than a Turkmen dress after 11:00 p.m. Charged with their mission, dutiful cops scoured the streets, roughing up and arresting countless people who were unable to prove that they were not (a) prostitutes, or (b) hiring prostitutes. According to U.S. embassy sources (and if I were Newsweek I would now write, "NEWSWEEK has learned"), it worked something like this: "The regional [mayor's] office decreed that single women found in the company of male foreigners or noticed to be performing lascivious behavior would be arrested as prostitutes. If innocent, they would have to pay a $200-$300 fine to be released. If guilty [i.e. not able to pay the shakedown fee], they would go to prison. Then a decree was issued stating that only families could rent houses in Ashgabat. Single people had to live in hotels. Additionally, all housing agreement contracts had to be registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and were subject to a $2 per day tax. A curfew was also ordered. All bars were to close at 11 p.m., and everyone off the streets by midnight. Obviously, the foreign community did not find the decrees very appealing, not to mention what it was doing to the local female population of Ashgabat. (Many local women were harassed and/or arrested.) After two weeks under the new decree, the President made a televised announcement, to an audience of foreign diplomats, nullifying the [mayor's] decrees."
Ah! The dictatorial spin-machine: Yeah, sure, like the mayor took some sort of initiative on his own, and that unpopular set of rules came from him, and now the president has kindly and expeditiously dealt with this problem. Um, in some other parallel universe, maybe.
I was finally pulled from bed at 10:00 by a phone call from Shemshat, who said that the "Emergency Action Plan Drill" was starting today, and I should come to the Peace Corps office as quickly as possible. I arrived about an hour and a half later, and spent the next hour and 45 minutes performing my job as a "Warden" by trying to call other volunteers on the phone, never reaching a single one.
The "Emergency Action/Evacuation Plan" is a Peace Corps scheme designed to instruct us in the case of a national disaster, such as political unrest or earthquake. We had been warned that this month we would have a drill of this plan, to see what we could see. And what we see is: absolutely nothing. In this "drill" we telephone volunteers and send them telegrams saying that we're at Stage One: Stay Put. Tomorrow we're going into Stage Two: Assemble at Cluster Sites. They'll take all the volunteers out of whatever they're working on, doing (and in a couple of cases, wherever they were going e.g. to other cities) and see if they can all join together at various volunteer' apartments, and of course they will signal to them to do this by calling them on the phone and sending them telegrams. Now, if there ever really were political unrest or a major earthquake here, does anyone even remotely believe that these communication systems are going to work? Hell, they don't work right now. By 2:00 this afternoon only four of the five major cities had even been contacted, forget all the volunteers. This is under the best of circumstances: a weekday morning with everything functioning as well as it ever does. This whole exercise is bizarre as an MTV video. It's like saying, "Today, we're going to practice flying F-14s, so sit in this wagon and I'll pull you along."
We do learn some things, but they don't have much to do with what might happen in an emergency. We learned today, for example, that many--and I mean many--of the phone numbers that Peace Corps has for the volunteers are wrong. Some are for addresses that volunteers had three or four host families ago. Some of them are so haphazard that they were clearly given to the office by a computer random number generator. Some don't even have the right amount of digits in them. On the list, my counterpart is named as Tanya Yudina, who left for St. Petersburg almost a year ago.
I do understand we're going to get a pizza party out of this, tomorrow afternoon at the Peace Corps office.
Sometimes there are truly trends in life. I spent a complete hour last night trying to telephone the volunteers in Chardjew, in order to tell them that I'm coming to visit (which now I am not), and an hour the night before doing the same thing. So in the last three days, I've spent three and a half hours dialing telephones trying to reach other Turkmenistan cities. Number of successful calls: one.
Late March (after my trip to Dashauz)
The earth of Dashauz always gives the impression that there has just been snow. Even in mid-July, the park pedestrian is confused into thinking of flurries, by the dusting of white powder on the ground.
It is salt.
Within the city and out of it, the grounds of Dashauz are highlighted by flows of salt. The ground water is very close to the surface and either seeps to the top, or is laid there in large quantities by irrigation. This water, brought hundreds of miles through the desert via the canal, has passed through the runoff of numerous cotton fields and has evaporated along the way, until it is poison to drink, and saline. When it is put on the fields and evaporates in the desert sun, the salt is left behind, making barren numerous swatches of land.
Passing over the area, an airline passenger can see the canal below, and the way that overflow and seepage have resulted in large floods of water, little lakes and ponds that will vanish and leave behind the salty residue. In order to maintain cotton production, the ruined land is taken out of commission, and other land is opened up, or the salt is plowed deeper into the earth.
While volunteers in other parts of Turkmenistan have been issued water filters, to strain out harmful bacteria, the volunteers of Dashauz were given distillers.
The city looks to me pretty much like every other Turkmen Soviet city, with its rows of cheap prefab cement and brick apartment buildings that are crumbling, and its desert dirtiness. Elizabeth asked me what the city of Mary was like, and I said that to me, pretty much everything in Turkmenistan looks the same. She and Chanda both disagreed with this, saying that they found such small towns as Buzmein and Geok Tepe to be quite different.
There is a slight difference to Dashauz, in that it is really not Turkmen, but Uzbek. The official statistics say that it is primarily Turkmen, but everyone in town will tell you that Uzbeks are surely in the majority, perhaps by far. The Uzbek border is only a few kilometers away, and Dashauz was once part of Uzbekistan. (Well, insofar as any of those borders were ever truly delineated in the tribal past.) One can see the onion-dome doorways of the Uzbek madrassahs and mosques, for example in the main bazaar.
The bazaars and stores also differentiate Dashauz. Products are more varied and available than even in Ashgabat, as they are brought in from the more open economy of Uzbekistan.
There are five volunteers in Dahauz, all women. Brandyn is in Tagta, a few miles away, but was in Ashgabat during my trip there, even though he had specifically asked me to come visit him and talk to his teachers. The women are all currently living with Uzbek families.
At Elizabeth's place, I had the pleasure of doing shots of vodka with a man who claims direct blood relation to the prophet Mohammed. While the documentation is long gone, there is some evidence. His family's mausoleums--found outside the city--are the enormous stuff of the powerful, ascending in size and artistry as they go back in time. Elizabeth's host family is indeed quite wealthy, living in an enormous house every room of which I figured could easily contain my entire apartment. Their wealth is large regardless of the fact that the father is the middle child of thirteen, and Elizabeth said that there are almost always people in the house asking for the man's advice, assistance, or largess. If he is not a direct descendant of Mohammed, people surely believe that he is.
Yet we were drinking rounds of vodka, something that would not have made his umpeenth-great-grandfather happy. The Koran, one may remember, is pretty specific about drinking--make that not drinking--alcohol. The Turkmen and Uzbeks are Muslim in kind of the way that the British are Anglican: only for holidays and funerals. I have yet to meet a Turkmen who has read any of the Koran or who can name the five pillars of Islam. (They are, by the way, to go to Mecca if possible, pray five times a day, tithe, say and believe "There is no god but god, and Mohammed is his prophet," and to fast during Ramadan.)
The house of this Mohammed-son is in a surreal Uzbek neighborhood. The houses are all very large, but are deceptive, because of their one floor and single entrances with no windows looking at the street. They give the impression of being nothing but walls. The streets are unpaved, muddy, rutted and hilly, with garbage strewing the streets and people loitering, all running to a quick conclusion that this is not a place to be found after dark. It is a rich slum.
Every one of the ESL volunteers in Dashauz is currently in the process of moving. Sara has been living in the home of someone who is about to return from elsewhere; Elizabeth is a long way from the center and finds her family situation constraining; Chanda's family just freaked out on her and she fled; and Margrette's hosts are about to move to the United States.
Chanda had been living with an Azerbaijani family. Their daughter had been at English Summer Camp and was a self-possessed good English student. A couple weeks ago, though, Chanda's host mother started raving at her about giving Peace Corps money late, and how it wasn't enough, and did she think this was a hotel, and if she didn't want to live there why didn't she move out, and now come and eat breakfast right now... that sort of thing. So Chanda packed herself up and moved to Margrette's. Chanda's old host sister has applied for a home-stay exchange program in the United States. Does her mom think that the American host family is going to be demanding money from her and complaining about it?
Margrette's host mother, Mila, lives in the house with her son and daughter, who are both around 10 years old. Her husband is in New York, where he is a legal resident alien. According to Sara, he got political asylum in the U.S., for reasons that neither she nor I could venture explain. Having recently lectured Ogulnabat on the unlikelihood of getting political asylum these days, unless you could demonstrated that you were in actual physical danger, I don't see how a well-to-do Uzbek from Dashauz managed to convince American authorities that he deserved preferential treatment, but there it is. His wife and kids were headed to Moscow that Saturday, to finish up the immigration paperwork that they can't do here. (I don't know why.)
I sat at lunch on the second day, chatting with the ten-year-old girl, Aina. She can say no more than a couple of words of English right now, so it is a bit strange to think that in just a few years, her native language will shift, and she will feel more comfortable in English than in Russian. Their guest volunteer, Margrette, would know about this better than anyone: her family moved to the U.S. from the Philippines when Margrette was precisely Aina's age. Margrette can now say almost nothing in the language of her childhood.
So Margrette, like Sara, is looking for a new host family. They are both doing it on their own, because they feel that Peace Corps' assistance in finding host families is inadequate. Indeed, many volunteers have come to this conclusion. Peace Corps doesn't initially search hard enough, doesn't screen well enough, isn't involved in the task, in spite of the fact that volunteers are changing host families on an average of every six months. However, it seems that at this point many of the volunteers prefer that Peace Corps stay out of the job of looking for their new families.
Recalling the most requested items when I used to go visit Jessica, I took food with me to Dashauz. This turned out to be the proverbial coals to Newcastle, because Dashauz's bazaars and stores are better stocked than those in Ashgabat. Being only a few kilometers from the Uzbekistan border, goods are coming across from a freer economy. The big Uzbek bazaar in the middle of town featured people selling TV sets and VCRs, next to the clothes and toys, besides the food and alcohol and assorted small luxuries that we find in the capital city.
All of the T.3s are in agreement that the supply of goods--perhaps as an indicator of the economy as a whole--is significantly better than when we arrived. During our site visits, we heard stories of volunteers' having a hard time finding enough food, but no one seems to be starving any more. The products in the kiosks, bazaars, and stores, are of an increasing variety, now including more electronics, mechanical toys, imported food. A Turkish shop recently opened in my own neighborhood, that sells bathroom construction supplies and fixtures. The T.4s have no idea, and it is difficult to convince them that as little as a year ago, we could count the winter bazaar items on two hands.
After playing ultimate frisbee today, my two Turkmen female players tried to hide. Bahar ("Liberty") was wearing an enormous overcoat in spite of the heat, and Gulyalek asked if I would accompany her to the market, so that people would think she was a foreigner. In both cases, the issue was their clothing; they were wearing track suits. Both were afraid that people would talk about them disrespectfully, because they are Turkmen girls who were engaging in sports, rather than wearing Turkmen dresses and behaving properly.
As we walked out of the sports area, we were discussing Turkmenistan's need for a good women's liberation movement. I expressed my own belief that women and men should have exactly the same choices, and they agreed but said, "It's really quite impossible right now."
Bahar started in about the reasons that secondary schooling has been cut to nine years.
"Saparmurat Turkmenbashy says that girls have to be able to get married."
"Yes, I know that's what he says," I replied, "But why is it that they can't get married anyway?"
"Because the girls used to finish school when they were 17, and then go the university until they were 22, and then they were too old. Or they would marry while they were in school, and then wouldn't look after their studies."
"Ah, so why couldn't they get married after 22?"
"The boys and parents want to get them married younger, so if girls went to the university, then the boys got married and they couldn't get husbands."
This, of course, does not make mathematical sense. The boys, after all, have to be marrying the girls. (Well, not necessarily. I mean, if they were really desperate to marry someone under 22 and the girls were in school, I suppose that they could marry each other, but I haven't heard this idea proposed around here...) I explained this.
"Look, if the girls waited until they were 22 then the boys would have to wait, too, right? And besides, that doesn't really work because the boys are at the universities and institutes, too. And besides that, OK, why are we reducing secondary school? That means that everyone--boys, girls, and that great majority of people who do not go on to higher education--are being less educated. All of that 'It's our culture' stuff about the young women is just an excuse." It takes me a while to explain the word "excuse."
"So, let me tell you what seems a more likely real reason for reducing the amount of schooling."
"All right," she said. "What?"
"They haven't got enough teachers. They pay the teachers very badly and make them work long hours for six days a week, and the Russians have been leaving the country and the Turkmen are quitting. The schools are very difficult places to work, and for what? For 60,000 manat a month?"
The two girls puzzled over this for a while. They aren't used to critical thinking as a part of the political process. They aren't accustomed to having someone accuse the president of lying.
"Maybe you're right," Bahar said.
I've had students keep lists of their new vocabulary. The least proficient students always have the most complicated lists. One student had words such as, "compact," "black-guardism," "decorous," "ebb-tide," "edge-tool," "paramour," and "midriff." This is a student who can neither say nor understand nearly anything in English. She really needs words like "eat," and "pencil," and "do." The problem may simply be one of intelligence. The smart students are the ones who've learned some English, and are also the ones who can glean which words are likely to be useful to them in the future. They select them from the texts they're reading and what they hear in class. So their lists are reasonable. Meanwhile the dumber (lord forgive me for saying it) students just look up random words from a dictionary, because they aren't bright enough to figure out that "black-guardism" isn't really something that they need, and they aren't doing their homework anyway, so as to get the words that are more at their level in the book.
The floods in Turkmenistan have been amazing. Who would have thought that a desert land could so quickly become a sea that's a thousand miles long and five feet deep. The U.N. has been paying for the fleets of boats--old war surplus cruisers--to assist in the relief of the sheep and camels that are stranded on the mountain sides.
Oh, wait. It's April 1, isn't it?
PC Country Director Bob McClendon was interviewed in the newspaper (Neutral Turkmenistan) a couple weeks ago, and I translated it for our newsletter. Most of it was pretty straightforward and uninteresting, but one thing that he said has raised eyebrows all over the volunteer community. He was talking about the reasons for living with host families, and according to the article he said that in Turkmenistan there have not been any instances of volunteers or families wanting to sever the living arrangement. This is truly a strange thing to say, given that only a tiny proportion of us are still with our original host families, and most people have already been with several, often having ended host-family relations under rather rancorous circumstances. Heather has lived in nine places. Bob said in the article that he thinks that the record of no break-ups is due to the intense loyalty that the volunteers feel toward their hosts, and to the good refinement of the Turkmen.
Some volunteers are speculating that Bob is truly out of touch, but given that Bob himself has helped a number of volunteers to find new families, I more think that he's simply, um, trying to give us good press. This is a bad lie, though, because absolutely anyone who has had anything to do with us knows that it isn't true. It shoots our credibility all to hell, and makes the locals think that we're just like they are: saying whatever and lying in the press to make ourselves look good.
This afternoon I'm heading to the Caspian Sea again, this time to go to the city that used to be called Krasnovodsk (Russian for "Beautiful Waters"), and is now called "Turkmenbashy" (Turkmen for "Ugly Old Troll"). It is the main seaport of Turkmenistan, founded by the Russians and almost wholly a Russian and Azerbaijani city. Why the dictator decided to put his self-given name, "Father of the Turkmen," on a city that in which there are few Turkmen, is anyone's guess. One of my co-teachers said it was precisely for the reason that it's the most Russian city in the country: everything must come under his thumb and image.
The airline passengers stood on the tarmac in Ashgabat for about thirty minutes because somewhere along the line someone forgot to put fuel into the plane. The aircraft are "AN-24B": over-wing, 50-passenger, twin-propeller jobs, noisy as hell on the inside. I recall the sounds of twin engines from my sky-diving days, and some of the way those guys fly, in near-stall mode, also reminds me of wanting to jump out.
Brendan met me at the airport and a friend of his took us down the road past the oil refineries into Krasnovodsk. Brendan lived in a one-bedroom flat with a 75-year-old woman who slept in the living room. That arrangement was not as Brendan had once supposed it might be. She had told him that she wanted someone to watch after her place while she went to live with her daugher elsewhere in the city. But then she started coming in, at first for a night or two, and then more, because she said she was worried about Brendan--that he wasn't getting enough to eat, etc. Now she's there all the time. She makes soup for him every night, and won't let him wash his own clothes. It brought to mind the competitions I had with my own host mother when I first moved in, about whether I was going to wash my own clothes and toilet (I said I would do it, and she insisted that she would; I won) and whether I could wash the dinner dishes for the family (still a source of contention)--competitions which frequently verged on physical combat.
As I found out that night, sleeping in Brendan's room separated from the living room by only a curtain, his "host mother" also snores like an AN-24B.
Brendan had arranged for a mini teachers' conference to be held on Friday morning, so I did my old routines demonstrating methods and advocating English only and task teaching. Brendan gave a presentation, and Kirsten Firing--one of the new volunteers--talked about their resource center. Also on the schedule was a presentation by one of the teachers for the Turkmen-Turkish school.
The Turks have opened a number of schools in Turkmenistan. They board students, who pay, but there are scholarships for those who cannot. They teach only boys. In the first year, the students receive only English classes, and from then on, almost all of their normal subject courses are conducted in English. They also get instruction and some classes in Turkish., and very few in the students' native languages. The goal of these schools is to send students to be university educated in other countries.
Many of the Turkmen teachers are resentful as hell about the Turkish schools, with their good facilities and piles of contemporary textbooks with which to teach the best students pulled out of the other schools, and their animosity showed at the conference, in their reactions to the Turkish presenter. "We have no questions!" one teacher snapped at the end, waving him away. This rancor is ill-placed, I think. It is really remarkable what the Turks are willing to do, coming here to work for peanuts in an effort to educate the Turkmen. I would think that the local teachers' hostility would be better placed at the reasons that they don't have these facilities and textbooks and salaries.
On the plane back, I was trying to get a little much-needed sleep, but flies kept landing on me. In my half-awake stupor, I figured there must be three flies around me. As I finally gave in to waking, I realized that there was little likelihood that the flies were only around me, and looking around I saw my fellow travelers also shooing away the flies. Sure enough when the flight attendant walked down the aisle, a cloud of flies was swept up in her wake. It wasn't difficult to figure that if there were two or three flies for every passenger, then there were upwards of 100 flies on that plane.
Part of what kept me awake was thinking about my Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant proposal. I've been working for the last two months on writing a grant application in order to put a water system onto the Medical Institute's athletic field, so that we can promote the growth of grass there. The process has been amazingly slow, requiring all kinds of people's intervention and support. It's been very difficult to figure out how to convince the SPA committee that the Medical Institute is doing cost-sharing, because nobody has any money (except the brigands in the government). It's all got to be in-kind, but even there I sometimes wonder if they really want the project. I mean, I know they do, but are they willing to contribute? It's the same problem that I have with the U.N. projects. Olya and I were arguing about this the other night. Some people had come from the U.N. head office to look over the projects and books, and criticized the locals because there wasn't enough cost-sharing. Olya said that the bigshots didn't understand the situation, here: that the government won't give money and there isn't any. I took the opposite view: that the bigshots do understand the situation, and that's precisely what they're criticizing. Why should the U.N. be picking up the tab for all these projects if the local government doesn't want them enough to pay part of it? This country, I say again, does have money. It just uses that money to build toys (hotels, palaces) rather than to educate its citizenry.
One of the big projects that the U.N. is trying to do is the construction of a desalination plant in Krasnovodsk. Matt (Place) was saying that the U.N. Development Program was going to pay for the whole thing, but Olya says that isn't (right now) true. They're looking for donors. When I hear that stuff, I don't wonder that the U.S. won't pay its U.N. dues. As I recall reading, desalination plants cost in the area of a billion dollars. (Rumor has it, though, that the Krasnovodsk one is supposed to be of Chinese manufacture/technology, so it may be cheaper.) Yes, Krasnovodsk has a big water problem (even though it sits on the edge of the Caspian sea), but that would seem to imply that some of that capital for solving the problem should come from the Turkmen treasury, from its huge natural gas and cotton sales.
The water has become sporadic again, and dirtier. During the winter and spring months it was almost 24 hours a day, and nearly clear. The past few days, though, it's been back to the old schedule--a couple hours in the morning, and couple in the evening, and it's murky. 'Not as bad as the really brown water we got when I first arrived, but not clear, either. Summer time, and people are using water.
Word has come down to our department chair that next year the university--along with all the other higher-education institutes of Turkmenistan--will be accepting only half the number of students, and will require only half the number of teachers.
Right now, about half of our students are taken because they are legitimately good, have studied for more than a few minutes of their lives, and know something. The other half are there because they have paid bribes, or because they are related either to bigshots, or to university faculty/administration.
So, with this reduction, which students are we going to lose? The good ones, or the influential ones? It is difficult to imagine that the university would start telling the ministries that they can't send their kids any more.
Which means that all future classes will be filled entirely with precisely those students who have no reason to learn anything, and don't do any work. This portends ill for the future of Turkmenistan.
I'm really quite upset about it. Everyone is. And why, exactly, would they be doing such a thing? You have to plumb the depths of your cynicism for the answer to that question.
The Agricultural Institute English department has been experimenting with communicative teaching, and I got a call from the department chair last week, because she said she was interested in the idea of teaching students according to their proficiency level: she'd heard the talk I gave at the methodology conference. I'd thought I'd just been venting--wasting my breath to say something that I really wanted to say, but no; apparently it had an impact. So I went over there and we talked, and the department chair wanted me to give the same talk--this time in Russian--at a conference that the Ag. Institute would be holding.
I should have known there was something funny about it. This department chair woman called me most every night in the week running up to the conference. "And of course you'll bring your charts." These were diagrams I'd made showing how in these mixed-proficiency classes, the students end up not coming together, but in fact getting farther apart in their abilities over the course of their studies. "Did you find the charts?" "Don't forget to make the charts." "Remember to bring the charts," she would say to me, night after night.
My impression was that it was to be an in-house number, with some teachers and administrators and deans. She told me I would be met in front of their library (a one-room facility) by a student. I spent the evening previous writing out my presentation.
But when I got there, I was escorted to an enormous hall in which there were flags and television cameras and about 200 people sitting. The printed program I was handed indicated a three-day affair with about 100 presentations! The title of the conference (and I quote) was listed as: "NEW CONCEPTS OF PROFESSIONAL PREPARATION FOR SPECIALISTS AND CONTEMPORARY PEDAGOGICAL THINKING IN THE CONDITIONS OF DEEPENING MARKET AGRARIAN REFORMS OF SAPARMURAT TURKMENBASHY."
So the thing begins with the rector's standing up and thanking the minister of education, who is sitting up there on the stage with him. I look at the program of presentations for the day, and there are 35 of them. Now, normally at a conference there are a couple of plenaries, and then people divide up and choose from concurrent sessions of a half hour or an hour. Not here. According to the schedule, each presentation was going to be only about 10 minutes, and they were all going to be plenary. The rector asked that everyone keep it to 10 minutes. Thirty-five of them? Were we really supposed to be there for the next six hours? The presentations had titles such as, "The lessons of the president of Turkmenistan, S.A. Niyazov: principally new approaches to the organization of output practicums of future zoological technicians in the conditions of tenant brigades," and "About the shortening of the period of training of veterinary doctors and the increase of quality of their practical knowledge and skills in light of the recommendations of Saparmurat Turkmenbashy at the meeting of higher education institutes on January 16, 1997."
And so the presenters started coming up. It was all drivel, without any presentation of irony, and yet with no shortage of that. What with the imminent reduction in the number of students and teachers in all the insitutes, the idea that there are going to be any specialists at all, much less more qualified ones, would be laughable if it weren't so sad.
I looked around the room, and saw that everyone there was as bored and irritated as they could be. Including the minister. I wrote a note to the person who had invited me. What was I doing there? What did any of this have to do with proficiency-level English teaching? I couldn't imagine going up on that stage and showing "the charts," given what I was hearing from everyone else.
And it went on. And on. "Can I read your presentation?" said the English chair, sitting beside me. I pushed it over to you. She read for a while. "I don't think you should include this paragraph. Let's take it out, shall we?" she said. Then later, even more implausibly, "Can I add a sentence in here? I really think that you need to say..."
After two hours of these 10-minute presentations, the rector stood up to say that the minister of education had other appointments and would have to leave, so we would be taking a break.
When the minister left, the hall cleared out. There was not one person remaining. They started to take the flags down, the cameras were packed up. The English chair looked at me forlorn. "Oh no, I really wanted the minister to hear what you had to say about this. It's so important not only for English but for every class11 that's taught," she said. "Could you come back tomorrow?"
What? And do this again? There was entirely too much of that as it was.
Latest evidence that Turkmenistan does have money: according to the BBC, plans are afoot to raise a monument to you-know-who, that will look something like the Eiffel Tower, complete with restaurant near the top, and a gilded statue of the dictator, arms raised, on the peak. The statue will rotate. Lit up by searchlights. Two hundred feet high. So they say. I just have to see this. Man, if that thing isn't finished by the time I leave, I'm extending!
The new country director [Ann Conway] is quite different [from Bob]. She's already met with about half the volunteers, and today we all received a message from her about who she is and what she considers important. She asks what we are doing to work ourselves out of a job, to transfer our skills to the host country. She regrets that she can't do site visits immediately because so many volunteers are on vacation.
Sveta and Ty
June 15, 1997
Yesterday we returned from Ty's wedding. We spent seven hours on the bus there, and seven hours back, and twenty hours at the site and it was worth every bus minute.
The party was great fun, as I had hardly anything to drink but danced jitterbugs and waltzes mostly with Colleen O'Dell and Amy Pease. During toasts I silently practiced my simultaneous translating and was 100 percent successful until I was actually asked to interpret for this one tipsy guy, who said a bunch of strange things that, once I found out what he actually had said, I was perfectly happy enough that I had not translated correctly. There was something about how a wish to someone good was that he live 103 years on his own salary, and then lives the last two years of his life at government expense because he's been put in jail for rape. Cute perhaps in a certain context (though I can't think of one right now), but not exactly politically correct to an American audience, and not something I'd perhaps give as a wish to a newly-married couple. Ty would later tell me that this guy hadn't even been invited to the party.
I spent a lot of the evening videotaping, and so have a 90-minute tape to give to Ty and Sveta as a wedding present. The food was bounteous, including a lot of caviar left over toward the end of the evening, much of which I ate. Intent on closing down the party, I was among a handful of volunteers who were picking up plates and tables at 3 a.m. The place we were sleeping was unbearably hot, so I was awake at 5:30 and playing guitar with Jeremy and reading. That second day I chatted with the people whose house we'd slept in, a few hundred yards from the wedding party. They sat leaning against the brick wall of their compound as one of their friends sold various nothings from a table. They were a half-block away from the bazaar. The man told me that Americans were good people, because we'd caused the break-up of the Soviet Union. They said how bad it was, the lies they'd been told about Americans over all those years, but when the topic of conversation turned to the characters of people from various nations--the old cliches about Armenians and Jews, and Uzbeks, and the Turkmen--I decided it was time to go. I hate having that talk, and it's one of the favored topics around here.
There were still a few dishes left to be done--the mountainous stack of those already washed made for a good shot on the video. So I wiped a few as the last got complete. The whole crew packed up for a trip to the local reservoir, for a swim, and some ram that had been prepared by cavemen. We were gnawing it off the bones. Between that and Lilia's version of prepared meat, I could easily become a vegetarian.
People don't eat with knives in Turkmenistan. Neither do they in Japan, but on the Asian isles, red meat is cut into tiny pieces so as to be easily eaten with chopsticks. Here, you're expected to drives your fork into some huge hunk of flesh, and gnaw on it or tear it with your teeth. The Turkmen dinner table can look like a scene from Quest for Fire.
The bus rides weren't bad, either. The first one whizzed by to the tune of two rubbers of bridge and a couple chapters of The Hotel New Hampshire and some chatting in the aisles. The second was longer, again with two rubbers of bridge, but I was still operating on two hours of sleep and I didn't drift until the last hour of the ride. I did manage to capture on videotape, two dozen people asleep on that bus. It made a fitting ending: it means everyone had a good time.
English eliminated from Turkmenistan schools
From letters of August 7-September 7
English is being removed from the curriculum of almost all of the higher education institutes in Turkmenistan. It will still be taught at the university, at the Institute of World Languages in Ashgabat, and at the Pedagogical Institute in Chardjew. Besides at those three, the English departments are being abolished.
But it goes farther. The minister of education is announcing-right to the director of Peace Corps Turkmenistan, in fact-that next year, English will be eliminated from almost all secondary schools. Each city will have an English magnet school, but the posters of the dictator of Turkmenistan with the quotation about how, "In the future it will be normal to speak three languages: Turkmen, Russian, and English," are clearly about to be taken down.
According to a memo we got from PC Turkmenistan country director Ann Conway, about her meeting with the education minister, "Minister Abalakov stressed that the intent of the changes is to improve the quality of education. Currently there are students taking English who are not interested in their studies, and there are teachers who are not trained or experienced enough to teach English effectively. The ministry wants to create a program where the teachers and the students are able and motivated to teach and learn English." Someone's going to have to explain to me how eliminating English improves the quality of education.
Of course, anyone who's been in Turkmenistan for more than five minutes knows that the real reason for all this change is because they don't have the teachers. The reason they don't have the teachers is because the teachers are quitting. The reason that the teachers are quitting is because they aren't being paid enough and the schools are hellish, the kids without discipline. The students are not interested in their studies, that's true, but what is being done to deal with that problem? It's interesting that the Ministry of Education is bowing to the inclinations of 12-year-olds.
The English magnet schools, meanwhile, will surely be accepting students whose parents can bribe them in. Also, the ministry has announced, there will be foreign language classes available at other schools, but on a fee basis. Students will have to pay their teachers in order to get English lessons.
(Along with English, also being eliminated are geography, biology, and physical education. Most non-Russian schools are going to stop teaching Russian, as well. Phys Ed has already been canceled at the university and the other institutes.)
It is difficult to say if this is more maddening, or sad. It certainly puts a dent in one's impression of how much one might have accomplished, when the whole program that one has been working for-to train teachers and students in English-is simply wiped out. I think it's very depressing. I'm not alone. Many of my fellow TEFL volunteers don't have schools to work in right now.
The Peace Corps now has to reevaluate its mission. Most of the Turkmenistan volunteers are high school English instructors. It stands to reason, that if the local English teachers are being put out of work, but the volunteers are being retained, then we're taking the jobs of locals, an idea that ruffles the feathers of everyone at Peace Corps. Already some volunteers are hearing that school administrations want the Peace Corps teachers to stay on, because they don't cost anything. To them, we are teachers whom they don't have to pay.
For the time being, my role is steady at the university. As previously reported, there are changes there as well. The number of students accepted this year was cut in half, effectively eliminating the competitiveness of all the students who are legitimately good, in favor of those students who can pay the acceptance bribes.
One of my campers applied to the university. He is a bright, diligent kid from a Turkmen village who in against all odds has somehow managed to learn English. He won the English Olympiad in his region, and in the national competition got sixth place. At his university admissions interview, his examiners blatantly asked him for $3,000. This is an amount of money that his family doesn't make in a year. He was not accepted at the university.
Meanwhile my department has paradoxically grown from about 25 to about 101 teachers. The reason is that all of the different English departments were consolidated. There used to be separate English departments in the faculties of Interpreting and Translating, International Relations, Sciences, and Foreign Languages. Now there is just one. With Sona gone, the burden of managing this unwieldy burden has fallen to an interim department chair, my colleague Svetlana Viktorovna. She's going crazy.
Old news: I've decided to cancel my SPA project. Yeah, even after all the kvetching I did about it's not getting its well warranted approval, I've decided that I simply cannot trust the people at the Medical Institute enough to believe that this project is going to be successful.
I had some time to think about it during my vacation, and to realize that all of the misgivings that I-and the SPA committee-had about the sustainability and the community contributions, are too real. The fact that the Medical Institute people have been treating us like peasants ever since the beginning has done nothing to shore up my faith. When the rector's secretary simply barked at Artur, and then at me, that we had to return to her the promisary letter from the institute, and that she wouldn't even tell us why, merely that there would be no further discussion until that letter was on her desk, well... The prorector kept us waiting for a grand total of many hours as he perpetually didn't show up for arranged meetings. The institute always did everything they had to with absolute reluctance, and finally, in the end, wasn't contributing anything. The original agreement said they were going to supply student labor and grass seed and transportation, along with the commitment of a staff member to maintain, water, and cut the field. But then there were the sad stories that grass seed wasn't available and they couldn't pay for it, anyway; and my engineer said he didn't really know how he could use student labor, anyway. The project was meant to put water in their swimming pool, but the pool itself was in disrepair and in need of at least one coat of paint: but when we asked if they had paint or the ability to refurbish the pool they said no, and when asked how they would get it they shrugged, or even worse, said that they'd ask the Peace Corps for more "help." (A request that would be flatly impossible: the whole idea of a project such as this is that no further assistance will be given.) Any disagreements-for instance, that the maintainence person should water the grass only late or early in the day because you can't water grass when the sun is scorching it, as was evidenced by the fact that everywhere they'd tried to do that on the field was completely burned out-were met with near-intractability, and a final, "Nu, ladno, ladno..." Ladno is a word in Russian that signifies, sort of, "Whatever." It doesn't mean real agreement, but more like, "Whatever you say, just shut up and I'll act like this is OK just so long as I get what I want." That's not the attitude I needed. Rather, a successful project has got to come from the community itself, starting with their willingness to do what's necessary to make it work.
Since making this decision, the two Peace Corps volunteers at the Medical Institute have assured me that I'm right. They don't trust or like the administration there either, thinking that their sole quality is greed.
Excellent day on the ultimate field [courtesy of the Agricultural Institute and their awesome and enthusiastic sports director]. Artur and I spent several evenings telephoning, and forty people showed up to play, though mostly they sat on the sidelines and chit-chatted. Nonetheless I'd say nearly everyone got out on the field at some point, and some of them played and played and played. At the end when I announced that we wanted to start a league with real teams and a schedule, it got a round of applause. This may actually happen. I've got a bunch of people who are going to show up on Wednesday afternoon to do a demonstration for the Agricultural Institute.
The T.6s arrived this morning, two years and a day after we did. Dan Chalk stayed over at my place and we got up at 5 a.m. to go to the airport and greet them.
As we had, they'd been traveling for a day and a half straight, but somehow seemed quite a bit more lively than either T.3 or T.4 had upon their arrivals. I was not affected by the same sense of deja vu that I had been when T.4 came in, looking like a mirror image of my own group's arrival. The greeting was a bit different, too. The ambassador was not there; there were no "official" speeches of greeting; there were no Turkmen schoolkids in traditional garb there to dance; the salt-and-bread offering were given not by some telpek- and silver-crown-clad Turkmen children, but by local Peace Corps staff. This time we volunteers moved around in the group talking to them a bit more. A couple of the new trainees stand out. One went to Andover (class of 1991), and there was an older black woman who had had quite an exciting life including having been an English teacher to helicopter pilots in Iran at the time of their revolution. ("We had to keep a low profile for a long time before we were evacuated.") She may find Turkmenistan rather tame. There are apparently several master's degrees in the group, including one MA in TESL from the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont.
When T.3 arrived we didn't have to go through customs at all, but this time they made everyone drag their own bags up the two flights of stairs from the tarmac, walk past a customs guy, and haul their luggage back down two flights of stairs to the bus that was waiting at the parking lot, about 100 meters from the plane. This shows the difference only between who was on customs duty the day we arrived, and who was on duty this morning.
A whole bunch of those T.6 guys are big.
Dan Chalk told me this story:
"I went into school last week to find that none of the students were there. It isn't cotton-picking time yet, so I asked someone where the kids were. They said they were out working on the wheat. So I went around to the collective farm. The kids were all sitting around this pile of wheat that had just been cut. They were going through it by hand, and pulling out any little black grains that were in it, and putting them into tea-cups."
"My god!" I said. "By hand? A bit of wheat at a time?"
"How long are they supposed to be doing that?"
"For the whole week."
"I don't suppose they were being paid for this."
"They were being given 1000 manat [about 20 cents] for every teacup they filled."
"Did anyone fill one up?" I asked.
"Well, when I left, there were a couple kids whose cups were about 2/3 full," he said. "And I was there for three hours."
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