What is the exchange rate from Tstan currency to American currency?
It is 2.84 manat to one dollar if you are exchanging into manat and 2.86 manat if you are exchanging into dollars. The exchange rate does not change according to how the market is doing. When figuring how much something is costing me in dollars I divide by three for a rough estimate.
Do they drink alcohol or have bars?
They do drink alcohol since they are what I would call “Muslim-lite.” Vodka is their drink of choice although beer is also available. Most other alcohols are hard to come by and very expensive. They don’t have bars, but they have restaurants that turn into discos at night where people go to dance. Most women do not drink as it is socially unacceptable, although it happens more often in my site because it is more cosmopolitan.
What is the legal drinking age?
I don’t think they have one. I’ve seen kids as young as six carrying a bag of vodka their parents sent them to the store to buy. I don’t think kids that young are drinking it but they don’t check IDs or anything at stores and restaurants, so if you look old enough (older teens maybe?) you can drink.
What kind of music is popular among the kids there? Any American music influence?
Kids listen to Russian and Turkish pop as well as American tunes. Lady Gaga is popular here, so is Shakira. They know American music. Sometimes they know songs that I don’t. And often they listen without knowing what the lyrics say. I hear some really raunchy stuff in taxis and I know they have no idea what’s being said because they would find it offensive. Recently, I had kids ask me what “Jagger” is because they were listening to “move like Jagger,” so I had to explain who the Rolling Stones were.
What did the kids there think of American football? Have you showed them basketball or baseball?
They found it interesting though I don’t think they’re about to try to form a team. I taught them the basic rules of basketball and baseball but they were already somewhat familiar with them, probably from watching Russian television. I’ve found it really difficult to get kids involved in physical activity. It’s just not valued in their society. Everyone takes taxis everywhere, even for a couple blocks and sports aren’t viewed as a hobby. Once people become adults, you don’t see anyone running or playing tennis or throwing a ball around or anything. They just sit at home watching TV and eating oily food. So their bodies and their minds atrophy. Their life expectancy isn’t as long and they age really fast. I see Turkmen women my age and they look worse than my mom who is almost seventy.
Would it be culturally unacceptable to encourage your students to exercise more?
No, and I do it all the time. It’s just hard to get them to listen. At least they’ll walk home with me after club rather than take a taxi.
Do people in Tstan own cars?
Yes, though not to the extent that Americans do because you can take taxis everywhere. Taxis here are different than what we have in America. They’re called “gypsy cabs” by some people. basically taxis are just some driver pulling over and giving you a ride for a prearranged price. In Balkanabat, the cost is 60 tenne anywhere in the city. In Ashgabat it depends on where you’re going in the city and how good a bargainer you are. Some people who stop make their living by driving their taxi and some people who stop are just picking up extra money or being nice. My host dad does this to pay for his cigarettes. People in Turkmenistan don’t travel the way Americans travel. To us, there’s nothing weird about hopping in the car one weekend and taking a road trip to San Francisco for example. There are adults in Balkanabat who have never left the city, even to go to Ashgabat. The most common car is the Lada.
Do you ever see American clothing brands?
Not really. Most clothes that aren’t made here are imported from China. There are knockoffs of Coach and Lacoste, etc. But most women wear koyniks (dresses) that they have made by a tikinchi (seamstress). They go to the bazaar and pick out material they like then take it to the tikinchi with instructions on how to make the dress. Volunteers actually do this too because we can design our own dresses. These are not the kind of dresses Turkmen women wear though. They wear full length dresses that cover at least their shoulders if not their whole arm.
How much do clothes cost to have made?
Mata (the material) can cost anything from 15 manat to 90 manat for two meters. Then the tikinchi fee is usually about 15-20 manat, but it can be more if you want a lot of yakka (embroidery).
How often do you get to talk to your parents back home? Aside from email.
If I know ahead of time that I’ll be in Ashgabat, I email my parents and tell them to call me there. We spoke on the phone maybe four times in the first 18 months of my service.
What do you miss the most about the US ?
Two things: independence and diversity. In the States, I was fully independent, lived on my own, had a career, etc. If I decided to drive solo to the Grand Canyon for spring break, I could without asking anyone’s permission or telling anyone. So it’s hard to have my every movement monitored.
I think one of the best things about America is its diversity. You can go almost anywhere and see people of different races and religious beliefs living and working together. You see all different styles of dress. You can hear people expressing differing opinions with confidence, yet being respectful to each other. In fact there are many newspapers or news shows that have a “point, counterpoint” column or segment. There’s nothing like that here. It’s all conformity and anything or anyone that is considered different is seen as bad. Seeing kids in their school uniforms makes me depressed. If, on the off chance a girl cuts her hair, she has to buy fake braids to wear to school!
I really miss the diversity of food: hummus, guacamole, wheat bread, bacon, real pizza, Chinese, hard cheeses, jalapeno chips, steak, broccoli, garden salads with Ranch dressing, fish (they have fish here but it comes from the Caspian, which is disgusting). I will stop there before I make myself depressed. I intend to gain ten pounds the first week I get back.