Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Turkmenistan
- 1 Communications
- 2 Housing and Site Location
- 3 Living Allowance and Money Management
- 4 Food and Diet
- 5 Transportation
- 6 Geography and Climate
- 7 Social Activities
- 8 Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
- 9 Personal Safety
- 10 Rewards and Frustrations
Few countries in the world offer the level of postal service considered normal in the United States. Mail has taken as few as two or three weeks to arrive in Turkmenistan, but it can take longer, especially around holidays. Some mail may simply not arrive. However, postal service has improved immensely in the past couple of years.
Your address while you are a trainee (your first three months in-country) will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
U.S. Peace Corps/Turkmenistan
PO Box 258, Krugozor
Central Post Office
It is a good idea to write Via Istanbul after Turkmenistan, otherwise the post can go through Moscow and this reportedly adds severe delays.
During training, your mail will arrive at the Peace Corps office and be delivered to you by the training staff. During your first few months in-country, the absence of mail may be discouraging, so you might want to suggest that family and friends write to you even before you leave the United States.
Once you are assigned to your permanent site, you may have mail sent directly there or you may continue to have mail sent to the Peace Corps office if you wish. For larger items, padded envelopes are safer than boxes. Note that it is standard procedure for packages to be opened and inspected at the central post office. Therefore, we recommend that you not have irreplaceable or valuable items sent to you, as they can mysteriously disappear in transit.
Volunteers and staff traveling back home often offer to hand-carry letters to be mailed once they arrive in the United States, so you may want to bring a supply of U.S. stamps. While this is a great way to deal with the uncertainty of international mail service, you should not rely on this method, as it is a favor and your mail could sit for weeks in the Peace Corps office.
We strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from Volunteers, so advise your family and friends that mail service is sporadic and that they should not worry if they do not receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, the Peace Corps’ Office of Special Services in Washington, D.C. would notify your family.
Advise your family and friends to number their letters sequentially for tracking purposes (this will help you tell if letters are missing, though they may arrive out of order) and to write “Airmail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
Long-distance communication via telephone is available but can be unreliable and expensive. Although Turkmenistan has direct-dial overseas access in some areas, in most areas international calls (except those to other CIS countries) must be booked through an operator. If you are calling from outside Ashgabat, it may take longer to get a line and your conversation may be cut off after 15 minutes or so. The current rate for calls to America is approximately 20,000 manats (about $1) per minute. Communicating by phone within Turkmenistan may also be difficult at times, and sending a telegram, while not instant, may be more reliable. It is important for your family and friends to know that they should not expect to be able to reach you by phone quickly.
Cellphone availability is extremely limited and very expensive for a Peace Corps Volunteer. In addition, most of the people Volunteers live and work with do not have cellular phones.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Peace Corps/Turkmenistan has three computers with Internet access solely for use by Volunteers and limited use by trainees. Prior to being given access, Volunteers must sign a statement agreeing to abide by all rules and regulations governing the use of Peace Corps computers. Although the Peace Corps does not provide e-mail accounts for Volunteers, you can set up free accounts with providers such as Yahoo! and Hotmail.
Most Volunteers do not have access to e-mail on a routine basis. It is a good idea to explain this to your family and friends so that they do not worry if they do not hear from you often.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps/Turkmenistan requires that Volunteers live with host families for the first three months of service to better understand the cultural context within which they are living and working. Host families receive training in safety and security support for Volunteers and in issues of American diversity and values. Any change in host family or move to an apartment or home after the required host family stay must meet Peace Corps safety and security standards and be approved by your program manager in advance. In some communities, it may not be culturally appropriate to live alone, particularly for women (of any age).
The Peace Corps’ approach to safety is based on the premise that Volunteers are safest and most effective when they are fully integrated into their communities and have gained the trust and respect of the local people. Before making site assignments, the Peace Corps considers site-specific information, input from host country sponsors (i.e., local schools, hospitals, or health facility directors), and trainees’ skills, abilities, and special concerns (e.g., medical, health, and safety). This careful matching process aims to place Volunteers at the sites most in need of their type of assistance in the hope that this will result in a positive, rewarding experience for both Volunteers and the people of Turkmenistan. The program manager and program assistant are responsible for finding initial housing for Volunteers in coordination with host country site supervisors.
Living Allowance and Money Management
Volunteers receive four types of allowances. When you become a Volunteer, you will receive a one-time settling-in allowance in local currency that is roughly equal to one month’s living allowance. It covers the cost of buying basic household items for your permanent site.
You will also receive a living allowance in local currency, deposited regularly in a local bank account, to cover food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals.
The amount of the living allowance is based on the local economy at your site and may vary by region. The amount is reviewed at least once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. You are likely to find that you receive more remuneration than your host country counterpart or supervisor.
You will receive a vacation allowance of $24 per month of service. Finally, you will receive a quarterly travel allowance to cover the cost of transportation, lodging, and meals while traveling for official purposes (including program-related travel, medical travel, and travel to required trainings and Peace Corps events). The amount is established by the administrative officer and is site-specific. Extraordinary expenses above this allowance will be reimbursed on an individual basis.
Most Volunteers live comfortably in Turkmenistan with these four allowances. Volunteers are strongly discouraged from supplementing their income with money brought from home, as they are expected to live at the economic level of their neighbors and colleagues. However, many Volunteers do bring money to spend while they are on vacation and as there are many interesting places to visit in the region, you may want to consider this.
Credit cards generally cannot be used in Turkmenistan (except, for instance, when purchasing airline tickets from foreign carriers or for getting a cash advance at the Turkmen Central Bank), but they are handy for vacation travel outside Turkmenistan. Another option to consider is a pre-paid debit card for use during travel. Traveler’s checks cannot be cashed in Turkmenistan at this time.
All Volunteers set up local bank accounts either in the capital or at the branch nearest to their site.
Food and Diet
Staple foods are available throughout the year. Imported foods are increasingly common, though they may not be the American or European brands you are used to and they are expensive.
Chicken, eggs, and milk are available but somewhat expensive. Meat can always be found, and fish is fairly common. Sour cream and locally made white cheese are available in most markets. Imported cheeses are becoming more widely available but are costly.
You will find an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as melons, grapes, pomegranates, and the ubiquitous eggplants, in the summer and fall. In the winter, you can generally find potatoes, cabbages, carrots, onions, spinach, garlic, apples, mandarins, oranges, and peanuts. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and bananas are also available in the winter, but they are expensive. Grains, nuts, and dried fruits (e.g., apricots and raisins) are always available, as are fresh herbs like red basil, mint, chives, dill, cilantro, and parsley. Markets in more rural areas tend to offer fewer items year-round than do markets in cities.
The traditional Turkmen and Russian diets rely heavily on rice, meat, and fat. Dinner is usually the largest meal of the day. Schools serve inexpensive snacks to students and faculty.
Commonly served beverages include hot tea (both black and green), mineral water, compote (boiled and preserved fruit juice), and alcohol (i.e., vodka, cognac, beer, and locally produced wine). Champagne is often served on festive occasions. Western-style beverages such as Coca-Cola, Fanta, and boxed juices are available.
Strict vegetarians may have difficulties adhering to their diet while in Turkmenistan because of the heavy reliance on animal products in the local diet and because of the constant social pressure to eat—and eat a lot. Your host family, for example, may be hurt if you refuse to eat their food. In addition, the meaning of vegetarianism often is not understood. Do not be surprised to hear someone say, for example, that a soup is “vegetarian” even though it was made with a meat broth or that a rice dish is suitable because it was prepared with less meat on top.
You will have to take charge of your diet within the context of your host family’s expectations. (This applies to all Volunteers, since most Turkmen do not share American views of what constitutes a healthy diet.) The Peace Corps/Turkmenistan staff can help explain your situation to your host family and can help you develop a strategy for maintaining your diet.
Traveling within Turkmenistan can be challenging. There are inexpensive daily flights to most regional capitals, but it can be difficult to get a ticket. Most Volunteers take trains, taxis, buses, or marshrutkas (minivans) to travel from one city to another. On the whole, public buses are adequate and inexpensive. Likewise, taxis are affordable and readily available. For your safety, Peace Corps recommends that you carefully determine the safety of the vehicles in which you ride as many vehicles are old and in disrepair. Guidance will be provided during training on how to do this.
Geography and Climate
Turkmenistan is situated in the southwest of Central Asia. It is located north of the Kopet Dag Mountains, between the Caspian Sea in the west and the Amu Darya River in the east. Turkmenistan borders Uzbekistan in the north and east, Kazakhstan in the northwest, Iran in the south, and Afghanistan in the southeast. Slightly larger than California, the country has an area of 195,200 square miles (488,100 square kilometers).
The entire central region (four-fifths of the country) consists of the Kara Kum Desert, one of the largest sand deserts in the world. Its major rivers are the Amu Darya (aka Oxus), which flows north through the eastern region of the republic and empties into the Aral Sea; and the Murghap, which flows south into Afghanistan. The Kara Kum Canal, whose construction began in 1954, carries water from the Amu Darya to arid central and western regions that have no significant natural waterways. The canal is one of the main factors contributing to low water levels in the Aral Sea.
The average temperature in January is 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-4 degrees Celsius). The average temperature in July is 104 degrees F (40 degrees C), and can reach as high as 130 degrees F (50 degrees C) in the southeastern Kara Kum. Precipitation is slight throughout much of the country, with average rainfall ranging from only 3.2 inches (80 mm) in the northwest to about 12 inches (300 mm) in mountainous regions. Most rain falls in the winter and spring, so the hot summer months are dry.
Social life is quiet in Turkmenistan, though there are many bars, cafes, and restaurants in Ashgabat. While the places frequented by the small expatriate community in the capital are well above the means of Peace Corps Volunteers, local establishments are reasonably priced. There are a few theaters in the capital that present live plays and folklore productions. A few cinemas and a few DVD bars exist in Ashgabat and some other cities, and they sometimes show Western films dubbed into Russian. While drinking is permitted in Turkmenistan, public drunkenness is illegal. Some Volunteers will find the issue of alcohol consumption to be one of the most difficult to come to terms with during their time here. The people of Turkmenistan lose respect for those who become loud and obnoxious under the influence of alcohol. The Peace Corps also has strict policies about alcohol consumption.
Outside the capital, night life is more limited. The people of Turkmenistan find entertainment mostly through private parties in their homes. Their hospitality is genuine, and you will be invited to many homes after you become known in your community. Special occasions such as birthdays are often celebrated with lavish dinners. Some Volunteers have found it challenging dealing with the constant pressure to consume food and alcohol (usually vodka or cognac) at social events, including meetings with work supervisors and counterparts.
Because of the lack of Western-style diversions, many Volunteers become prolific readers or take up hobbies. The Peace Corps/Turkmenistan office has a large library of English-language books left by past Volunteers, and book exchanges and referrals are a Volunteer tradition.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
The people of Turkmenistan take pride in their personal appearance. To gain the acceptance, respect, and confidence of Turkmen co-workers, it is essential that you dress and conduct yourself professionally, whether at your workplace or visiting the Peace Corps office. Dress standards for foreign aid workers are generally conservative and modest. Women are expected to wear casual skirts or dresses at work (except during physical labor), and men are expected to wear long trousers for activities other than sports or labor.
Out of respect for the Turkmen people and culture, Volunteers are not allowed to display body piercings (including nose, tongue, eyebrow, and navel rings) and tattoos during their service. Men are not allowed to wear earrings or have long hair or ponytails. If you do not remove your body rings and cut your hair before you arrive in Turkmenistan, you will be asked to do so before we place you with a host family during training. Adhering to these rules is a test of your motivation and commitment to adapting to your new environment. If you have reservations about adhering to them, you should consider the level of flexibility required to be successful Volunteer and reevaluate your decision to serve in Turkmenistan.
We do not mean to be unduly harsh. We simply want you to understand that how you behave and dress will not only influence the local people’s attitude toward you but reflect on both the United States and the Peace Corps. You can lose respect in the workplace by acting or dressing inappropriately.
And because the culture tends to be an indirect one, Turkmen are unlikely to tell you when they think you are doing something wrong. Their reactions may come in more subtle ways, such as lack of consideration for your ideas, mistrust of your professional abilities, or excluding you from certain activities.
You will receive an orientation to appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during pre-service training. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest and thus must be sensitive to the habits, tastes, and taboos of your hosts. You need to be aware that any behavior that jeopardizes the Peace Corps’ mission in Turkmenistan or your personal safety cannot be tolerated and can lead to “administrative separation,” which is a decision by the Peace Corps to terminate your service. The Volunteer Handbook contains more information about the grounds for administrative separation.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Turkmenistan. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction in Turkmenistan is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and some people you work with may be hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. Some of the factors that contribute to the low level of motivation on the part of the counterparts involve difficulties with the government, which tends to view foreigners with suspicion. Even simple projects can be difficult to get permission for and counterparts may be hesitant to be seen as contributing too eagerly to projects of which their supervisors may disapprove. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your counterparts with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. However, Turkmen are hospitable, friendly, and warm people. The Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Turkmenistan feeling that they have gained much more than they gave during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.