The Ashgabat Gazette Issue 54

--Friday, 10 September 99--
The computers actually arrived yesterday! And today I got one for my interpreter so now we can make progress on the translation of my capital budget page templates.

Ed and I went to Macsim's around the corner for lunch. We both enjoyed our meals (salami pizza for Ed and donner kabob for me) but though they used to have beer, they no longer do. Bummer.

Geldey came by this evening as arranged. He suggested we go to a cafe and I said I liked the Iceberg and so we went. (Don't ask me how we negotiated this with his zero English and my .1% Russian.) We took a taxi there and the place was filled.

Above, the Iceberg Cafe. To the left is the shashlik and lula kebob grill.

Someone shouted "Orazov!" and we went over. We met two friends of his and sat with them near the shashlik grill under the loud speaker. Geldey explained that they were friends and that he worked and had gone to school with the older guy (38?) and that the younger guy (28?) was a friend of the older guy. I didn't get the names but everyone was friendly.

We were given the extra beers that Geldey's friends had ordered. I declined the shashlik they had on the table, indicating that I preferred to order the sublime (I didn't try to translate this) lula kabob that the Iceberg served. We ordered a round of beers, vodka and lula. I began to wonder if the evening would end with me blind drunk on the street so I took care to moderate my consumption of everything. I paid for the round (70,000 = $4.65) and did the obligatory "bottoms up" on the vodka.

Above, the grill at the Iceberg Cafe. On the left on the grill is the shashlik and to the right of that is a long line of lula kebob. Six months ago they would run out of lula kebob. Now they seem to realize that it is the best product they sell (other than locally made beer).

A "shot" glass here holds a lot more than one does in the States, so care is always advised. Another factor is genetic. I am convinced that everyone in the Russian empire who could not tolerate mega-quantities of vodka died out centuries ago. This left the gene pool with only people with an extreme tolerance of vodka. Americans do not come from this gene pool but, being Irish, I come from the nearest Western European gene pool equivalent. But this is no reason to be foolhardy.

Conversation was difficult but we managed. I complemented (I think) Ashgabat, the US, Iceberg beer, Turkmenistan, and vodka (while miming a fear of the last). They appeared amused and perhaps flattered.

We got along well since they respected the fact that communication would be minimal. The older guy asked me if I was interested in the five ladies at the next table. I did my best to seem happily married. Much laughter. Then the older guy seemed to invite me to his place. To the extent that I understand what happened, I got invited to someone's house on the 21st of the month (a week from Tuesday). The date is the only thing I am sure of.

The conversation was pleasant even if I grasped only one percent of it. When we parted, both guys insisted in kissing the back of my hand. I didn't know what to make of it. What can you say about this country?

--Saturday, 11 September 99--
I made a list of things that I needed and went to the Russian Market. I got shaving cream, matches, a kilo of Red Cow cheddar (55,000), and then ran into Ed, as I expected I would. I gave Ed half the kilo of cheddar and we chatted and shopped as usual. Ed was looking for a red wine and didn't find it and I wasn't looking for a wine but did find a semi-dry white wine which I bought just because any wine less sweet than very sweet is very hard to find here.

After Ed and I parted I began a search of the upper part of the Russian Market and in the second store I visited I found a salt and pepper set (along with a sugarer and a creamer) for 58,000 ($4). I came home and unloaded and then went downstairs to the nearest kiosk and got ten Efes and two Fantas.

After that I walked over to the Iceberg with four empty 1.5 liter bottles and had them filled with Turkmen beer. I then ordered two lula kabobs to go and took a cab back to my apartment.

I discovered from last night that Ed and I have been over paying for the informal cab rides we take. Ed had told me that he paid 3,000 to 5,000 but Geldey made it clear to me that 2,000 was the appropriate amount. This doesn't deal with the distance issue, of course.

Roustam's Going Away Party
Ed and I discussed what kind of party would be appropriate for Roustam and where to have it. We decided that his place is better than mine but that my former apartment was better than both. I offered to use my fridge to cool the beer and my freezer to make ice with the two trays that I had brought with me. We set the date for Saturday the 18th but this party needs a lot more planning.

The Government's Worry About Sects
I have heard that the government is worried about the proliferation of religious sects since independence. I have been approached by a Jehovah's Witness who works in the Ministry. Tall, blond, gangling, emaciated, an addict to something, perhaps Jesus, perhaps drugs -- the effect is much the same -- the Watchtower in his coat disguised like dirty French postcards, he tries to engage me in religious conversation. I keep moving.

There is also talk of Seventh Day Adventists, Baha'is, Catholics, and, gasp, Episcopalians! What is the government going to do?

So far the government's response has been to require registration of groups and to make that registration very difficult and to give positive encouragement to the nominal faith of Islam. Since independence, I know of three mosques have been built in the Ashgabat and another in Goek-Tepe but facilities are not the answer: the mosques are empty. "We took from the Prophet only what we could fit in our saddlebags" is a quote attributed to a pre-revolutionary Turkmen leader. It hints that the relaxed attitude about religious observance was not imposed by the Soviets but preceded them. So while there does not seem to be a risk here from fanaticism, there are well documented regional problems in some of the other "stans." And one should never forget that the southern border is Iran and Afghanistan.

The Stability of the Manat
Since my arrival the manat has show great stability. A dollar purchases either 14,600 or 14,700 manat. The amount varies from day to day but rarely out of this range. On my previous trip (September 98 to February 99) the manat steadily declined in value from 5,500 to the dollar to 17,000 to the dollar. After my departure it declined to 21,000 and then something happened and the manat increased in value to the 14,000 to 15,000 range where it has stayed for months. This makes for a boring graph but for substantial benefits to the people.

A Virtual Tour of Turkmenistan
© 1998-99 Joe Kelley