NINE PLANES IN THIRTEEN DAYS”
Part I: Amsterdam and Istanbul
Yes, it took us five different flights to get to Turkmenistan. After leaving Detroit, we had stops in Chicago and Minneapolis, followed by the nine hour flight to Amsterdam. Arriving in the morning, we didn’t even know what happened to Tuesday – it disappeared. After checking in the the hotel in Amsterdam, we made our way to the downtown area on the tram. What a lovely city. We were very impressed with the bicycle lanes and the cleanliness. The day we were there, we toured the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank museum. The Van Gogh museum included over 150 paintings by the famous artist. The Anne Frank museum was quit impressive. We really didn’t know that the hideout was in Amsterdam. We thought it was in Germany. The hideout was much larger than we envisioned. Rather than being cramped into a small area, the hideout included two floors and about seven rooms. There was plenty of room, but little daylight. It’s hard to believe the family hid out for two years. We were able to walk up the same stairway, behind the bookcase, that the family used. It was a wonderful experience. One suggestion for anyone going – purchase your tickets on line. We were taken to the front of the line (the line was about two blocks long). Same suggestion for the Van Gogh museum. On our second day in Amsterdam, we toured the around the city in a boat. Almost every street in Amsterdam is on a man-made canal. The canals were not very wide, and there were many old bridges to pass through. Before leaving the city center, we had a wonderful dinner outside on the street, and listened to the street musicians. These are things we can’t experience in Montrose! That evening, we boarded another plane to go to Istanbul.
Arriving in Istanbul around midnight, we hired a driver to take us to our hotel. The hotel was located about two blocks from the “blue masque” and other very old historical buildings. When we arrived at the hotel, the clerk had a funny look on his face. He stated that there was a problem with our reservation, and that they didn’t have a room for us. That was the bad news. The good news was that he had us a room across the street. He was very apologetic, and offered us a free breakfast the following morning. The room was fantastic. After walking around the street (and getting lost), we finally retired about 3:30 am. The street was very busy at this hour, as there were many people at the bars and restaurants. The next morning we ate our free breakfast on the roof of the hotel, where we could see a panoramic view of the area. The waterway was fantastic, with lots of freighters. We toured the Blue Masque and the Sultan grounds. The Sultan grounds and palace were ancient structures, that included many buildings from the 12th – 18th century. After showering, we were driven back to the airport, where we continued on our trip to Turkmenistan. In just a few hours, we would see our beautiful daughter. We were very tired, but were very excited. Not many American’s have even heard of Turkmenistan, and we were three hours away from being there.
We had another full day in Amsterdam on our way home. This time, we felt that we knew exactly where we were going. The Saturday we were there, was a special day. This is the day where the women dress as guys, and the guys dress as women. The street was packed and there were many more “women” then “men”. It was a very interesting day, with lots of pictures. As most people know, prostitution and drugs are legal in Amsterdam. The “XXX” moniker on the city flag has nothing to do with the sex industry. It has more to do with a 15th century church symbol.
Part II: Asgabat
When we arrived in Ashgabat at 2:30 am, we were whisked through customs and there she was. What a lovely sight and a fantastic welcome. Abby was there holding a sign that said “Welcome to Turkmenistan”. After hugs and kisses, we ventured to the car and were driven to our hotel. After a little conversation, we all slept well. Turkmenistan offered us the opportunity to see many things. Below are some of our collective thoughts.
Asgabat is a beautiful city with numerous monuments and parks. There are many high rise buildings (reminding us of the condo’s in Florida’s coast). Construction was ongoing. Although there were many buildings, there weren’t many people. Safety was never an issue. Throughout the entire stay in Turkmenistan, we always felt safe. The local people are very friendly. Many times when they knew we were from America, they had many questions for Abby. Abby was the official translator. It was very interesting to hear her converse with the locals in their native Turkman language. The museums in Ashgabat are awesome looking, but unfriendly to tourists. After trying to visit the National Carpet Museum, we decided to not get ripped off by paying a high price. The one museum we did go into (in Mary), we were the only people in the museum. It appeared to us that the museums were for show only. Our trip to the bazaar outside of Asgabat was a challenging cultural experience. The bus ride was interesting – it was an oven. There were about 60 people on the bus with 20 seats. The bus was a very old bus. Dad dripped sweat all over the cute 12 year old girl sitting in the seat below. She was very friendly, offering him her school notebook as a fan. The day we went was about 110 degrees. At the bazaar, we saw many animals for sale (including camels). You could purchase anything, including clothes (including underwear), carpets, animals, food, household items, and appliances. The bazaar was located on the sand outside of town on about 20 acres. The “merchants” would lay down their carpet and sit on them on the ground with their wares. Abby and Judy bargained for the best deal on multiple scarves.
During our stay in Asgabat, we had the opportunity to have dinner with Abby’s school counterpart, Sedar and his family. They welcomed us like we were old friends. Mike tried the camel milk (don’t try it). Sedar and his wife made us a fantastic dinner. We enjoyed their hospitality.
One day, the carpet maker picked us up and we went to his house for lunch. His wife made a wonderful Turkman lunch with all the fixings. After lunch we went to the carpet store. Judy had been saving for her carpet for over a year. Today was the day. After much discussion, she selected a fine rug for the dining room and another one for the bedroom. Again, the hospitality of the Turkman people shined.
Leaving the beautiful city of Asgabat took us to a the village where Abby lives and teaches. It was like a step back in time. Abby’s host family is a simple, loving gracious family. They reminded Judy of her childhood, where there was a large family meal, then dad going off to work. At one point, mom went out back to milk the cow. There were chickens in the yard. We were made to feel as we were part of the family. When the vodka came out, Abby translated a toast. Judy enjoyed teaching the little kids some American nursery rhymes. Mike did his juggling act. It was a wonderful visit. We are truly great full for this family taking Abby in and making their home, hers.
There were stark differences between the “city” life and the “village” life. In the city, there are numerous fountains. In the village, there is no running water (yes – water is drawn from the well with a bucket and rope). The city has beautiful buildings and fantastic paved streets and roads. The village has buildings and dirt roads with many potholes. Even though there was the noticeable extremes, the village people appear to be very happy. The simple way of life, where the family sleeps together on a a raised platform (due to the extreme hot weather), appears to be embraced by the people. There was not one hint of negativity due to their living circumstances.
Part III: Mary
Onto the desert. The six hour trip to Mary was quite an experience. Some would call it the “road of death”. We can see why. There is no road in Genesee County that compares. Although our driver was very competent, we thank God for being with us on that road. At times we traveled 80 miles per hour, only to slow to 30 mph. The pavement and shoulders of the road were not very developed. It appeared that it really didn’t matter what side of the road we traveled on, as long as no one was coming and we would win the race. Mike continued to look for his driver education brake! They normally don’t wear seat belts in the back seat. Not Judy, she demanded to have seat belts. The driver quickly found them.
One thing stands out. The further out of the main cities of Ashgabat and Mary we were, the more primitive the transportation. At one point, we passed a donkey cart with a young boy controlling the reigns. As he was “driving” the cart, he was texting on his cell phone. Would have made for a very interesting picture.
It was amazing to see many of the ruins of the ancient cities of Merv and Mary. Some of the ruins dated to 2300 BC. After traveling six hours the previous day, we had another three hours into the desert. Once we turned on the “road”, all we could see was a “sand” road. For the last 25 miles, we saw no people. Mike was worried what would happen if we got stuck. It was only 125 degrees out. Although most of the time the heat was tolerable (no humidity and slight breeze), this day was hot. Mike had to go back to the shade about half way through the tour.
It was in Mary (day 4-5 in T-stan) that our stomachs began to disagree with us. The food was fantastic (lamb and chicken) and the beer was cold. For the last five days of our trip we couldn’t venture too far from the bathroom. It took us almost a week after we got home before we could keep food in us.
On one of the tours of ancient ruins, we ran into a group of teenage Turkmenistan girls (probably high school age). They were quite curious about us. After Abby started a conversation and they realized we were from America, they wanted pictures. All they could say in English was “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Mike was then known as Arnold to them.
Part IV: Conclusion
The anticipation of our trip gave way to the realities of the travel. The trip home included four planes (Ashbabat to Amsterdam to Minneapolis to Detroit). Nine planes in thirteen days.
The Peace Corps staff and PVC’s were awesome. A group of wonderful, competent young adults making a difference in the world. I’m sure we speak for all PCV parents that we are honored to have these young adults representing our families. Our thanks to Earl and staff for watching over them.
This is one trip we will never forget. Turkmenistan is a beautiful country, with lots to offer. It would be nice to see the improvements to the countryside in about 50 years. Our visits with Sedar and his family, the carpet purchase, and the visit to Abby’s host family were highlights of the trip. We had a WONDERFUL time with our BEAUTIFUL daughter. We cannot say how proud we are of Abby. She has grown to be a fantastic young lady. Thank you Abby for sharing your world with us!