Daily Life in Turkmenbashy's Golden Age

Here are my notes from book Daily Life in Turkmenbashy's Golden Age by Sam Tranum

  • There was a pattern: I would come up with an idea without consulting any of my local friends or colleagues and attempt to put it into action. Locals would warn me that my plan wouldn’t work and I’d ignore them, assuming that their can’t-do attitude was rooted in laziness or apathy. Then, as I’d been warned, I’d run into obstacles and, instead of adjusting my plan to reality, I’d tried to bull my way through, assuming energy, persistence, creativity, and a can-do attitude was all it would take. In the end, I would accomplish nothing; I would have just worn myself out, puzzled the locals, and pissed off the government.
  • The most exciting part of each day would be choosing whether to get Thai food or Jamaican food for lunch.
  • “Never be afraid to try new things. Remember, Noah was an amateur and the guys who built the Titanic were professionals.”
  • Turkmenistan is the kind of place where women weave the carpets and men just sit on them and ask when their dinners will be ready.
  • I had not been part of that sort of crowded, boisterous family life growing up in eastern Massachusetts. My parents divorced when I was a child and I lived with my mother and older brother for most of my school years. We had a big house in the suburbs with plenty of space to live separate lives. We did not eat breakfast and dinner together every day, the way I did with the Plotnikovs. We did not spend each evening talking over the day’s events, strategizing about how to get through the next day’s challenges. When I was 16, I left home and my life tangled up in my family ended. I moved to Seattle and lived with a cousin, hoping high school would be less miserable there than it had been in Massachusetts. A few months later, I dropped out and left Seattle. I was more or less on my own from then on.
  • It was as if the United States suddenly disintegrated into 50 mini-countries, democracy and capitalism were discredited as viable political and economic systems, and China became the dominant world power. I could see how it would be a little disorienting.
  • He never seemed surprised, no matter how absurd things got. Maybe it was teenaged cynicism; maybe it was the result of living in Turkmenistan all his life.
  • “If they don’t want your help, don’t help them,”
  • “Why do you take everything so seriously?” he asked me, smiling. “Don’t let the undertaker make you so angry.”
  • It was good to be busy, to be around kids, who were not yet cynical, corrupt, and broken.
  • We have food, drink, security. What more do we need? Things are okay.
  • Teaching civil disobedience has its downside.
  • They didn’t believe that I had left a good job in America to come to Turkmenistan and teach kids for $80 a month. They assumed that either I had an ulterior motive or I was nuts.
  • Nearly everyone in Turkmenistan dreamed of secure government jobs, like the ones they’d had in the Soviet days: teacher, doctor, nurse, bureaucrat, postal clerk, factory worker, street sweeper, policeman.
  • I’d refused to follow the rules and the system had targeted me and shut me down. The worst part was, there was no one to fight back against. No police squad had burst through my door and dragged me off to sit in jail or be deported. The state bureaucracy had simply wrapped around me like a boa constrictor and squeezed until I was isolated, ineffective, and demoralized.
  • There weren’t even any police in the village. A month before I’d arrived, Döwlet told me, a man had been caught stealing. A bunch of guys had stripped off his clothes, tied him to a telephone pole in the village center, and left him there to be tut-tutted by passing grandmas.
  • “These fools think Turkmenistan is paradise because they’ve never been anywhere else,” he said once. “If they only knew.”
  • “When I see pictures of such beautiful places, I don’t want to live because I know I’ll never go there,” she said one day. “You’re so lucky.” “Yes,” I said, feeling guilty. “I am lucky.”
  • “Folk wisdom says that women live longer because they cry themselves clean. Men keep everything bottled up inside and it eventually kills them.”
  • The village was in an oasis. People had lived there for millennia. There wasn’t a square foot of earth that hadn’t been turned by human hands, or a single tree that hadn’t been planted for a purpose.
  • Turkmenistan wasn’t developing; it was degenerating.
  • “I don’t know what’s going to happen to us,” Döwlet said sadly, staring out across the field. I didn’t know whether he meant his family, his village, or his country.
  • As I waited through checkpoint after checkpoint, I was sorry I’d left Nurana and visited the other part of Turkmenistan – the ugly, absurd, fucked up, government-controlled part. I was pissed off for days. It took a long, sunny afternoon of sitting under a mulberry tree playing my guitar and teaching Döwlet a Woody Guthrie song while Kümüsh and Altyn gathered sun-warmed apricots and plums nearby, the smell of simmering plov drifting over from the kitchen, to remind me why I’d come to love Turkmenistan.
  • The pipe reached the Caspian shore at Krasnovodsk in 1986. The completed canal was 851 miles long, making it the longest irrigation canal in the world. It can take 30 days for water to travel from one end to the other.100 The Karakum Canal siphons vast amounts of water out of the Amudarya to quench the thirst of Turkmenistan’s cotton and wheat fields.
  • As we walked from his house to the bazaar, he told me about life in Turkmenistan during World War II: “The lucky ones ate grass; the rest starved.”
  • Then his friends Aka, Mehri, and Nastya drifted into the bar and joined us. We made the “oh, I haven’t seen you in so long” noises, and then I told them I was leaving for America so we made the “don’t forget to write, it’s been so great to know you” noises. Then Geldy walked me out. I gave him a hug and left.