The memories I'll keep

Meretbibi and I, dancing at my first Turkmen wedding (a "toy"). She was my primary counterpart ever since training, as well as my second mother. She tried to take care of my every need, walked me around town, helped me buy things at Talkuchka, had me over for dinner - she even took me out with her students to the theatre and to the country. We had our moments of disagreement, and it was hard dealing with her stubbornness and lack of motivation to change. I appreciate her kindness, however, and her genuine care for her students.

Abadan, my shy and insecure friend. She was the teacher who supposedly needed the most help - well, she was certainly the one who improved the most and eventually surpassed the others, even though she was stuck with the toughest kids. I had the most consistent time with Abadan, and she took all my advice to heart. Even when she had to spend whole weeks "marching" with other university students for national holidays, she still wrote her lesson plans and developed new English games that resulted in immediate visible enthusiasm and improved language skills from her students. Pictured here, she took me to a nearby cotton field to show me how to pick cotton - one of my favorite memories right before I left.

Maya was by far the best English speaker at School 41. It took me a while to meet her because she just had a baby when I started. I love Maya, with her youthfulness, sarcasm, and openness in expressing her disgust about the present system and her desires to get a job as a Russian-English translator for a foreign business or embassy. With two young kids, she didn't have much time to devote to teaching, a source of frustration for both of us. Well, I value our friendship above all else, no matter if she continues teaching or not.

My teacher friends at School 41 - all Russian speakers, even though some are ethnic Turkmen. They certainly knew how to party without being shy about consuming alcohol, telling witty jokes, and sharing unforgiving gossip.

Toplum teachers
Maya, Gulnar, and Mehri - English teachers at Toplum, the new school in Ruhabat. All of these young women come from families very loyal to the government or else very wealthy, otherwise they would not have such cushy jobs at the "model" school right outside of Ashgabat. With such corruption and a strict focus on appearances, students did not receive authentic grades or instruction - half the time they were being filmed by Turkmen TV to propagate the notion that Turkmen children were smart, healthy, and well provided for. Nevertheless, I still befriended these young women and shared with them thoughts about love, loneliness, frustration, and hope in the future.

Hanifa and Family

Hanifa and her family are an inspiration to me. Run out of Afghanistan by the Taliban seven years before I met them, Hanifa and her family were forced to live as refugees in Ashgabat; all seven had to cram into a small high-rise, Soviet-era apartment, separated from family and familiar culture. Hanifa took the initiative to learn English and apply for refugee status in America through UNHCR. I was privileged to partake of their hospitality (and yummy Afghan food!), as well as see them off to America (they now live in Tennessee). Their spirits were never crushed, and because of the mother's foresight, all the children have also learned English and are doing well in their American schools.

Gulshat Jason and Father Andre
Picture on Left: Gulshat, a "happy flower" and friend. She took me under her wing ever since our first days of training in Chuli. She and I remained friends after I settled in Ruhabat for the long haul. Almost every Sunday we got together at her sweet Ashgabat apartment to exchange cooking secrets - she taught me how to cook Turkmen and Russian dishes, while I taught her how to bake yummy desserts. For a time, we even went to Catholic Mass together - we studied Bible passages, and shared prayer requests. She has an understanding of God's love and peace, and I pray all the time that she will continue to seek Him and stay strong as a woman unwilling to abide by other people's expectations.

Picture on Right: Father Andre (standing on the left next to my PCV friend Jason) was a kind and jovial man who encouraged me in my faith and daily walk with God - he knew how it was to find refreshment and rest in a harsh and barren environment. He and Father Tomas (not pictured) were "cultural attaches" from the Vatican, Polish priests who conducted Mass in Russian and English at the Vatican Embassy in Ashgabat. They both faithfully attended my Bible studies and put their heart into their sermons, prayers, and worship (even though English was their third language). Thank God for the support He provided through our small community of believers (mostly ex-pats from European and SE Asian countries) - such weekly morsels were small but enough.

Brazil Champions

Team Brazil, my camp kids at the Model UN summer camp for the best and the brightest kids in the Ahal Veleyat. With Heidi, my co-counselor, we took care of these kids and had lots of fun making up country skits, winning scavenger hunts, burning effigies, and teaching them how to respect themselves and each other. "Ole, ole, ole, ole! Brazil, champions!"

The Producers
Bahar and Bahar, pictured with my friend Jen (on right), the two producers of "Beauty is a Beast", the spoof play performed by the kids from the American Councils in Ashgabat. They took care of everything after PCV Shawn ET'd (early-terminated), directing the group of kids who had never performed in an American play before. I really respect them (they both left to go to colleges in the States) and I hope they will continue to inspire their younger peers.

9B, Ayna, Ayka, and Shemshat

Some of my favorite students - Class 9B (who graduated after my first year of teaching), Ayna (with her mother), and Aybelek (Ayka) and her friend, Shemshat. Class 9B were the misfits of the school, the smart and cool kids who didn't listen to authority most of the time. I befriended most of them and hopefully taught them practical life lessons along with some popular English songs ("Yesterday" by the Beatles was a big hit). Ayna was one of my best students, the one who really understood English concepts and the one who ended up studying in an American high school for one year (in Phoenix, AZ). I still keep in touch with Ayna and hope that one day she will attend college in the US and then return to her country to create positive change (she is already making a difference in so many ways). Ayka and Shemshat took care of me before I left, advising me on who the best Turkmen and Russian pop singers were at the time. Plus, they were the best at picking up American football.

The map
Photo by Jane Bardon
Now onto Peace Corps people... the well-known wall map in the office that recorded the locations of every PCV in the country. Each year a new group of volunteers arrived from the States to replace the group that had just finished two years of service; therefore, there are approximately 70-80 volunteers in the country at one time, each group overlapping another one by a year. Near the end of my service, the number of faces on the wall map dwindled, and yet my T-12 group (the twelfth group of volunteers in country) all stayed fairly close as friends and colleagues.

Megan and Carmen
Photo by Jane Bardon

Megan and Carmen were good friends of mine throughout service, partially because we had to survive training together in Ruhabat. We learned Turkmen in the same classroom, learned how to eat on the floor, and how to live with Turkmen families. Each of us had our stomach troubles, bouts with homesickness, and joys of trying on our first Turkmen dresses - fun stuff!

Photo by Jane Bardon
Becky was everybody's friend, as well as one of the most motivated volunteers in our group. Here she is filling her cup with filtered water that was either treated with chemicals or boiled first. Each volunteer took one of these filters to his or her site (along with a mosquito net, medical kit, and volunteer-authored cook book); volunteers in Dashaguz (the velayat, or state, where high salt and mineral content spoil the water supply) had to pick up a distiller as well.

Larry and Patty

Larry and Patty were constant sources of Minnesota dead-pan humor and fresh perspective. Their projects out in Tejen (in the Mary Velayat) were famous - one being "Camp Cornucopia" (where all the camp participants were divided into food groups and given food names appropriate to each group). Other favorite events were when Larry led the camp morning workout by singing "George Washington Bridge", and when Patty acted out the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi battles the pink robots".


Photo by Jane Bardon
Enesh is one of the sweetest Peace Corps staff members. She is the receptionist at the Peace Corps office where she answered the office phone and kept track of all our packages. Always with a smile, she had a beautiful child during the span of our service and we were all so happy for her!!

Jen's care packages
Photo by Jane Bardon

Speaking of care packages... Jen always got the best packages from her friend who would send two paper-ream boxes at a time, stuffed with canned and packaged goods, candy, drink and spice packages, and cured meats that she would share with all us by stuffing random foods into our mailboxes. My favorite package sent from home was the big padded envelope my parents sent me during training, full of M&Ms, re-addressed by my PCV friend Rob to himself because he was jealous of the number of packages I was receiving... I almost fell for it. My most unfortunate missed package was the one Peter sent me with the Girl Scout cookies inside. The PCVs and I would joke about how there must be a group of really fat Turkmen officials who feed on American goodies stolen from Peace Corps packages.

Sam and Tom
Photo by Jane Bardon
One of the many things we did to occupy ourselves during our down times included planning all-volunteer parties (this one for Jack and Jane's 50th anniversary) and organizing random contests for everybody's entertainment. Here we have Sam and Tom competing to see who can eat the most cabbages the fastest. Not only could Sam not eat as much as Tom, but he also couldn't keep down what he did manage to eat (not a small amount).

Jen and Sarah
Photo by Jane Bardon

I also had the chance to travel around Turkmenistan with my fellow PCVs. Here I am with T-13s, Jen and Sarah. We managed to get visas to the restricted area, Bahara, only because we went with Ed (PC country director) and Judith (PC medical officer). The coolest thing was looking over the 50 foot drop down the waterfall we are standing in front of in this picture.

Jack and Jane
Of course I will never forget Jack and Jane, my friends since training, who had to endure many hardships (brucellosis and an abusive host family) and yet accomplish so much - they outlasted some other volunteers younger than half their age, a feat in and of itself! They also compiled and helped translate a tri-ligual medical dictionary, the first of its kind, for doctors and nurses to use in Turkmenistan after they left. I learned so much from their perspective and experiences, as well as from their example of being loving and supportive partners through many good and bad times.


And last, but certainly not least, my friend Elynn is one of the most giving and adventurous volunteers who traveled with me through Central Asia, India, and the rest of SE Asia. This picture is at an elephant farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where we hiked for 3 days and 2 nights through steamy jungles, river canyons, and hill tribe country. Throughout our experiences, we shared a lot, put up with many uncomfortable situations (train ride from Delhi to Agra, hotel schemes in Siem Riep, visas to Central Asia, malaria in Vietnam), met some amazing people along the way, and just became great friends.

Swearing In
Photo by Jane Bardon
The T-12 group of Turkmenistan volunteers after six weeks of training:
52 arrived on September 11, 2003; 48 were sworn in on November 14, 2003.

Photo by Jane Bardon

The T-12 group after two years of service: 34 volunteers made it to the COS (Close of Service) conference in August of 2005; the Peace Corps staff was nice enough to have the conference in Turkmenbashy, a city in the Balkan Velayat. It was strange and exhilarating to realize that we were almost finished, to reflect on our Peace Corps experiences, and most especially to spend some good time with the friends we made during the past two years. The beautiful Caspian Sea is behind us.

Fun with space
School teachers
Abadan in the cotton Thailand water and sun

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