Currently, this blog will be used for my thoughts, pictures, and excerpts from letters I send home from Turkmenistan. I will be in Turkmenistan from October 1, 2008 until December of 2010. You can send me letters and packages using the address to the right.
Many thanks to my family for posting updates to this blog as I will most likely have limited internet access over the next few years.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


It is becoming difficult for me to determine what might be interesting to you, the reader, versus what I find interesting (nuanced Turkmen grammar, cultural differences between various regions, etc.). I have been here for so long (over 23 months as I’m typing these words) that new and exciting things don’t happen to me as often as they used to.
So, I thought I’d take a note from someone who hasn’t been here quite as long. During our close of service conference we had a cultural Olympics, one of the events was squatting. Earl, our country director wasn’t terribly excited about this event because he concluded that you only squat when going to the bathroom and that because there is ample amount of diarrhea amongst volunteers this is a frequent occurrence. So, in order to set Earl right and as an entertaining activity for those of you who question the poor quality of my knees after I return I have written a list of some of the activities done while squatting. This is not an all-inclusive list.
-Going to the bathroom
-Washing laundry
-Doing the dishes
-Peeling potatoes
-Cutting vegetables (this can occur for hours if you are preparing for a party)
-Filling my water bottle from my filter
-Waiting in line
-During the speeches made at wedding celebrations
-Chatting with my host family
-Conversing with my co-workers
-Cleaning my bedroom
-Brushing my teeth
-Resting while waiting in line

Ramadan in Turkmenistan

When I heard I was coming to Turkmenistan over two years ago and that it was an Islamic country I was excited to learn more about Islam and perhaps participate in Ramadan. When I arrived and saw that most Turkmen call themselves Muslim but very rarely are practicing their religion. Many, if not most, Turkmen drink large quantities of vodka, I have never seen anyone attend a call to prayer, in fact, we have a mosque in my village but it never announces prayer. I would absolutely hear it – it is located only 2 blocks from my house (one from my previous host family’s house).
Most readers will also know that I have fasted for three days each spring since I was 16. This year I did not fast. There were several reasons at the time and so I decided to hold off this year.
Therefore, two days ago when my host sister told me she was observing Ramadan and my host father said, “Kelsey, you should do it, it is very helpful for people” I thought about it for about a half an hour before I decided to participate.
A few notes: Ramadan starts in the evening so as I count days they start in the evening and end the next evening around 8pm when we’re allowed to eat dinner. According to my calendar Ramadan this year started Tuesday evening the 10th of August. My host sister started Wednesday evening the 11th and I found out about it Thursday evening the 12th. I anticipated starting on the 12th and asked my host sister to knock on my door when she woke up to do breakfast. She didn’t. When I asked why she neglected to wake me the next morning she informed me that if you don’t get up on your own volition you won’t be blessed: it won’t be a successful Ramadan.
I decided to get as much information about the rules as my host family saw them and then begin that evening – Friday the 13th.
1) No food or drink while the sun is up.
2) No alcohol.
3) No swearing.
4) No bad deeds (being mean).
Friday evening I had my regular dinner and went to bed early (10ish). I set my alarm clock for 3:30 when I got up, made myself breakfast (coffee, boiled milk, bread with butter) and went back to bed around 4:30. I woke up to start the day at 7, read my bible, and went to work. It is now 9:40 am and I’m mildly hungry, but no more so than I would be at lunch time. The problem is that I have to wait until 8:15ish tonight before I can eat or drink anything. I will absolutely be taking a nap this afternoon and reserving all of my energy.
Last night and the night before (my villages official first and second day of Ramadan) small groups of children showed up at our house begging for sweets and candy. They would chant a saying that bestowed the giver of sweets with blessings for wealth and long life. It reminded me of a religious Halloween. The first night we had 4 groups of children and last night I lost count at about 7. My host mother said this was a lot of kids. All of the children who are observing Ramadan visit their neighbors who give them candy or cookies. My host father told me that this occurs on the first, second and third nights.
I finished Ramadan, I wasn’t a very faithful observer, but I did a lot better than the majority of Turkmen I know. Even my host sister, who was very observant for the first few weeks stopped in her observation because she had to go pick cotton.

Cotton Picking Year #2

It is that time of year again…cotton picking season. This year I opted to go with my co-workers. All doctors are required to put in a certain number of days picking cotton, actually all government workers are required to pick cotton.
Therefore this morning I got to work at 8am, waited until 8:30 when my co-workers were ready to go. Because villages are relatively small there are always cotton fields nearby. Because all of the doctors had to go to a specific field in order to get credit for going it took us a while to locate it as it was in a neighboring village.
10am arrived at the cotton field and dressed for work: long sleeve shirt over a long dress, socks, a head scarf and (for me) sunscreen. We picked cotton for the next hour and twenty minutes after which I was covered in a sheen of sweat only to find I had picked a grand total of 6 kg of cotton…
11:30 lunch time: Everyone grabbed their belongings and pulled out whatever odds and ends they brought to make a lunch. Lots of bread, some honey, fried potatoes, some bread fried with meat, and a lot of candy. Whoever owned the field was kind enough to provide lunch for everyone – there was a huge pot of boiling soup. Lots of broth, a little bit of everything else. And of course, tons of hot green tea.
12:30: after being goaded into drinking far too much tea to be good we waddled back into the field for another go around. This time we are out for nearly 2 hours. I spent the time enjoying some podcasts from the states and getting tons of scrapes and scratches all up and down my arms.
2:30: To my delight I find I’ve picked 9 kg over the past two hours! That puts my total up to 15. This year they are paying at the rate of 700 old manat/1.40 new manat (~$.50) per kilo. That means at the end of the day I’ve worked hard for four hours and earned enough to buy a snickers bar. Now, as a Peace Corps Volunteer I’m not allowed to accept money for anything I do and therefore couldn’t accept the money, but I think they’re going to buy me a snickers bar with my earnings anyway.
They didn’t end up buying me a snickers bar, instead I got two pairs of socks, not the super cool homemade socks that are awesome, but two pairs of normal everyday socks.

Anecdotes II

I was at a birthday party the other day – for my old host nephew who was turning 2. I was sitting in a room full of women, all his relatives and there was alcohol. T
he oldest woman in the room insisted on someone opening up the bottle so one of my previous host sisters (or sister in laws) opened it up and began asking who would drink. The older woman who is my counterpart’s mother – in – law and also Kervan’s Great Grandmother says, “Don’t ask, just pass it out!”. The younger woman complies and starts passing out cups and everyone is refusing. This isn’t a group of women that I normally drink with so I was surprised we were even going to attempt it. Drinks were passed out and the Great Grandmother refused to drink. She was the one who was adamantly pushing the vodka and she wouldn’t touch it. It turned out to be only a very few number of people who would drink. And after 10 minutes of constant pestering the Great Grandmother did have a shot, finally.

So, my entire mouth has broken out in canker sores and it is incredibly painful. I got back to site after seeing the PC doctor and was told by my co-workers I need to apply a paste of egg whites, narcotics and ampicillion to all of the sores. Now, I have no idea what that would do, but I already have medications so I think I’ll stick with those.

My host brother and I had a philosophical conversation last night on the differences between fruits and vegetables and animals for use as food products. My host brother is constantly making fun of me for not eating meat. Sometimes I find it annoying but usually it is entertaining. Last night he asked me why I didn’t eat meat and to the best of my ability I explained my reasons and that led to the conversation about killing items/animals to use as food. I argued that fruits and vegetables don’t have emotions and gave lots of examples. My host brother countered those arguments with things like “vegetables cry when you cut them”, “they are constantly growing”, “Their movement and the way they grow is their way of celebrating”, and “you kill the fruit or vegetable when you remove it from the tree”. I was most excited not that we were having this conversation but that I could follow it and contribute in a somewhat meaningful way.

We have guests from Ashgabat and Mary this week. Lots of children running around! One of the young boys from Ashgabat has been talking about seeing donkeys since he arrived. My host family found him a donkey (I was at work so I’m not real sure how this happened) and he was leading the donkey around on a long leash, similar to a dog. He even got yelled at when he brought the donkey into the outdoor area of our house and the donkey pooped. My host family told him to put the donkey away. He returned about 5 minutes later and they asked where he put the donkey. He wouldn’t tell them. So, then my family gets worried, they start telling this boy, “the donkey will die if it is in the sun, where did you put it? is it safe?, if it isn’t it will die”. My host brother went out to find the donkey and returned a little later saying that the donkey was safe and all was well. Those city kids…. (this is for you Grandma and Grandpa!).

The president…well anytime he visits everyone drops everything they are doing to clean up and get ready for his arrival. He isn’t even coming anywhere near us and all of my co-workers are required to assist in preparations. This means that once again, the grant progress has been halted.

My parents and sister came to Turkmenistan in March and our guide was a totally amazing, generous man. He went way beyond what I could ever have expected or anticipated. He videotaped everything and gave everyone copies of the DVD and it was really great. On my birthday he sent me a text message wishing me a happy birthday and last night he showed up at my house. He brought with him a large blow up of the picture of my host family and my family that was taken just before my family left the village. He also brought some nice snacks, a small Turkmenistan flag for me and additional copies of the DVD. He chatted with my host family, he and I discussed Turkmenistan’s history and water rights issues surrounding the Amu Daria which originates in the Aral Sea which, you may know, is rapidly disappearing. Jepar came to Lebap for a gathering of a bunch of friends and came early so he could see me, bring presents for my host family and myself. The generosity and giving nature of Turkmen will never cease to surprise me.
Yesterday was fresh bread day. Each time my host family makes fresh bread they tell me when it comes out of the oven and I eat a bunch with butter. It is soooo tasty! Yesterday I grabbed a round of bread and some butter from the refrigerator and went to start eating when my host mother saw the butter and looked at me with a disgusted face and said, “Don’t use that butter! It was made yesterday. Use the other butter, it was made today”. I love that I live in a place where butter is made fresh EVERY day.

Today, for dinner, my host father had goat meat and goat fat fried in butter then placed in a rather large teacup, topped with about two teaspoons of salt. Then top that with about a quarter of a loaf of bread and pour hot green tea over the entire concoction. It was quite interesting…

Please forgive me if I...

Please forgive me if I….
…take food from your plate to eat.
…drink or eat out of serving bowls.
…share your glass without permission.
…eat with my mouth open.
…click my tongue at you in disappointment, horror, disapproval, empathy or simply to say no.
…touch your clothing without your permission.
…ask how much you paid for an item.
…ask how much money you make.
…ask about your marital status and number of offspring before I know your name.
…ask how much you weigh, or comment on the fact that you have lost or gained weight.
…shake your hand each time I see you.
…begin eating dinner before everyone is present.
…constantly tell you to eat more and that you aren’t actually full.
… tell you without prompting how much I paid for an item.
…pick my teeth with a folded candy wrapper or safety pin.
…pick my nose in public.
…don’t shower more than once a week.
…wear the same clothes all week.
…snot rocket on your shoe.
…listen to music on my cell phone without ear phones.
…show up at your house without an invitation and expect you to feed me.
…repeat what you say to the person sitting next to me.
…shake my head in disapproval.
…say wah, mah, or bah (in any context).
…call you an animal.
…drop call you (call and hang up before you pick up the phone so you have to call me back).
…try and convince you to lower the price of an item by 10 or 20 cents.
…and when you don’t lower the price walk away in disgust.
…do anything else totally out of the ordinary, please chalk it up to the fact that I’ve been living in Turkmenistan for the past 25 months.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The life and Times of Silk Worms

Day 3 – 4/7/10: I first encounter the silkworm. We are expecting the arrival of several Peace Corps staff members and my host brother says, “Kelsey! You have to come and see the gurçuk!”. The what?!?!?!? I obediently follow him out to the area next to our cattle and goat sleeping quarters where we store our potatoes and onions. He leads me into the main area and then into a side area that I have never been in before. The room has this slightly humid warm smell. There are four wires suspended from the ceiling and they are supporting this large wood structure, part of which is covered with a huge white piece of thick paper. On top of this paper is this mat of green. I look a little closer and realize this mat is alive and moving! On even closer inspection the mat is actually hundreds upon hundreds of freakishly tiny green worms and chunks of leaves. Bombyx mori – the silkworm. I run back to the house and try and grab a few pictures but due to the lighting they aren’t very good. These guys are about the thickness of a paperclip but only as long as the lead on a sharp pencil.
Day 7 – 4/11/10: On my way back from the outhouse I realize there are people in the silkworm room and decide to check on the little buggers to see how they’re coming along.
I have a bazaar fascination with living things – when I was younger we were camping through the Boundary Waters and I spent most of the evening staring at a group of snakes that we had disturbed with our presence. I also recall a several worms squirming through the post rain mist that nearly made me miss my bus. If you ask my mother I’m sure she could give many other examples.
But, back to the gurçuk. Today the worms are at least 5 times as long as they were just four days ago. I am totally blown away at their rate of growth. I had noticed from the piles of mulberry leaves that they must be increasing in size. The pile that my family prepared and cut was getting larger and larger every day, I just hadn’t realized their rate of growth was so steep.
Some background on the silkworm – bombyx mori. They exist on a diet of pure mulberry leaves. The worm gains a size of about 3 inches in its approximately 45 day existence. Their cocoons are one continuous strand of silk – they usually average 915 meters in length (1000 yards), but usable silk is between 600 and 900 meters. According to Encyclopedia Britanica the pupae are killed with hot steam in order to preserve the silk cocoons. I’m not looking forward to that aspect. But if allowed to turn into adults – each female lays 300 – 500 eggs. And their wingspan is about two inches in length. Silk production has been around since about the middle of the third century BC and the secret of sericulture was vigorously guarded by the Chinese until about 550 AD when Justinian I convinced several monks to smuggle back some worms. In order to use the silk 2 or 3 cocoons are unstrung at the same time and twisted into one piece of yarn. (This information was obtained through Encyclopedia Britanica)
I have decided to follow and document through words and pictures the life of this gurçuk. I am very excited! Who would have thought – I go to Turkmenistan and learn about silkworms!

Day 9 – 4/13/10: I decided to take some more pictures of them today. They are about ¼ the length of a matchstick. They are so cute. They’re getting more and more active. Today I spent about a half an hour staring at them and making cooing noises in their general direction. These silkworms will be fluent in English before their short lives are over! I still haven’t gotten any great pictures but I’ve decided to include some of the pictures I take so you can get a better idea of what they look like. The second picture has my host mother in the corner. The large mat of them has tripled in size over the past 9 days. Aren’t they just adorable?!?! They have these small horns on their butts, so cute!

Day 17 – 4/21/10: I am simply amazed at the volume of leaves they eat. My host family completely covers them with leaves at least 5 times a day and each time they have completely demolished the previous leaves. You walk into the room and you can hear their collective tiny mouths munching on the food at the same time their tiny butts are dumping the excess. The first picture from today was taken on day 12, the other is from today. I didn’t include the match in the most recent picture because all the worms are longer than the match and about three times the diameter. Like I said, they grow so fast!
Day 26 – 4/30/10: What magical creatures silkworms are! I just returned from helping with one of the five daily feedings. I tossed leaves haphazardly over the growing pile of sticks that was covered with worms now as long as my finger and nearly as thick. The room was alive with the stench of the collective crap from thousands of worms doing nothing but consuming leaves for nearly 4 weeks. My ears were buzzing with the melody of their tiny mouths going to town on a new pile of leaves. I had to be very careful not to step on any poor worms who fell from their perches down onto the ground. I rescued several dozen from the terrible fate of premature death by foot and as I picked them up I couldn’t help but feel very powerful, their soft squishy bodies seemed so vulnerable. It was as if I could feel their intestines moving those leaf bits through their system. When we started all of these worms took up the size of about 2 meters squared. Now they fill two rooms and they seem to crowd one another out on the branches and leaves. I am truly in wonder watching them. I think I got some good new pictures!
Day 34 – 5/8/10: Well, this is it. They have made cocoons. I walk into the room and it smells like rot and decay and moth balls. It turns out that several of the worms never made cocoons, I’m not real sure why, but those that didn’t are dead and rotting on the large pile of sticks.
The end 5/10/10: My host family sold the cocoons today. They ended up with 87 kilos of cocoons. They make 27,000 per kilo so they ended up making 2.35 million which is about $165 for a month worth of hard work. Pretty good income especially when supplemented by my host father teaching at the school. I hope you enjoyed this! I probably made it longer than it needed to be, but I really find living creatures very interesting.


Aylanmak: to take a walk, stroll, or travel around.
The carpet man, aka Serdar, lives just outside of Ashgabat and makes good money selling Turkmen and Afghan carpets to foreigners both in Turkmenistan and abroad. He and his wife are really nice people and I have visited his house twice in search of carpets, once when my family came and a second time with another volunteer on July 3rd.
Serdar’s family is originally from the region of Turkmenistan that I live in. His family fled Turkmenistan for Afghanistan when the Russians arrived. Serdar was born in Afghanistan. When war came to Afghanistan they fled to Pakistan. He returned to Turkmenistan with his family in the mid 90’s. Carpet making in Turkmenistan has moved away from what it traditionally was. Most carpets made now are made with synthetic dyes and only made to last 10 years or so. Traditionally carpets were made to last forever. Because Serdar and his family weren’t here for the transition to synthetics he still knows how to make all of the dyes by hand, how to take care of the naturally dyed carpets, and how to wash them without bleeding. As far as I know he may be the only person in the country who still uses traditional dyes. Serdar obtained his Turkmen citizenship shortly after arriving back in Turkmenistan and got married shortly after that.
Back to the story: after the second visit Serdar’s wife mentioned that Serdar would be traveling to visit some of the girls who make carpets for him in Halach (my local county). She asked Jess and I if we would like to aylanjak (future tense) with him. We replied with enthusiasm.
He arrived in the region on Monday and didn’t call. Tuesday his wife called Jess and said he might take us out then. He didn’t call. Wednesday he called me at 9am and asked if I would be ready if he picked me up at 11 that day. I said yes!
11:00am: Serdar arrives in my village and we travel towards Halach center and stop on the way. There are six girls who are about to cut a 4m by 3m silk carpet from the loom. We watch as they cut the carpet down and tie off the fringes on the ends. Serdar folds the carpet and puts it in the trunk.
12:00pm: We travel to a village just outside of Halach center where Serdar is using a small house owned by one of the families who makes carpets. We drop off the carpet, I take a bunch of pictures of all the yarn he has in this house. The colors are simply beautiful!
12:30pm: We go and pick up Jess from her village and then return to this village outside Halach.
1:15pm: Lunch: beef stew with potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, bread, yogurt, watermelon, cantaloupe and beer.
3:00pm: Visit at least 10 different houses to look at carpets. Each tribe in Turkmenistan has its own carpet pattern. We saw several of these patterns as we were traveling. Jess saw a pattern that involved the five main tribes ‘flowers’ in one carpet and decided she needed to buy another carpet.
Carpet stats: Serdar has girls and women in each welayate (region) making carpets for him. There are over 100 girls just in my region. The silk carpet that I mentioned above took 6 girls 3 – 4 months to make. For each square meter the girls collectively get 1.5 million old manat (about $100). They split that money up according to the amount of work done. For the large carpets the person whose house it is and whose loom it is gets a percentage of the money and the rest goes to the girls.
4:30pm: Watermelon break followed by an hour nap. The sun is so intense here that at least 90% of people take afternoon naps sometimes sleeping as much as 3 hours in the afternoon.
6:00pm: Serdar takes Jess and I to see the Amu Daria. I have only seen it once before and we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle to actually get a good look at it. The section of the river we saw was 2km wide. It was absolutely astonishing how large it really was. The water by us was moving very slowly but we could hear rapids and see the water towards the middle of the river bubbling and turning as it sped along.
7:00pm: Return to my village. Tell my host family about the trip. Onat aylandyk (great trip - past tense)!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Tears are an interesting cultural phenomenon, well, more specifically crying.
Weddings in Turkmenistan are huge, long affairs. They are usually at least four days of formal activities plus sometimes small family celebrations both before and after the actual wedding. On the final day of wedding there is a lunch at the bride’s family’s house. All of the women in the bride’s family gather around her and have a last meal. After the meal all of the very small children gather around the bride (who is wearing a velvet dress, probably 40 pounds of gold and ornamental jewelry and has her hair braided down to her waist using fake hair). The small girls cling to her like their life is dependent upon it and they place their heads in the brides lap and cry. The bride covers her face and she cries. It is symbolic of a time when your wedding meant a total removal from your family and the fact that you may never see them again.
The crying goes on for about 10 minutes until the women from the groom’s family arrive. They then pry the small girls one by one from the bride and shove them in the opposite direction. When the bride is by herself they lift her from the ground and lead her out the door to an awaiting vehicle. The vehicles bumper is covered with more small children – both boys and girls – who are also crying. The bride has her face covered this entire time with a small white cloth and is supposed to be crying.
The tears in probably 90% of weddings are fake. If the girl getting married loves the man she is about to marry it is all a show, however, I have seen real tears. You can tell because the atmosphere in the room with the bride is completely different. If there are fake tears everyone else in the room is joking around, laughing, and generally really happy. If the tears are real everyone is upset. Remember, the room with the bride is filled with all of the female members of her extended family and her friends. The weddings I’ve been to with real tears are girls who are getting married to a man they hardly know, or getting married quickly after finding out that their boyfriend married another girl.