The latest news from Turkmenistan from Sharon Sugarek.
January 24, 2004
Dear friends and family,
Hope you had a nice holiday season and that the New Year has been
good for you. All is well here and I guess I have been doing a bit of
globetrotting since my last update.
I went to Thailand for two weeks in December; it was delightful. I
was able to convince our Medical Officer to go with me (It wasn't
hard!). She and I spent ten days on the beaches of Koh Lanta, a
beautiful island in the Andaman Sea. It was quiet, not too crowded and
there wasn't a lot to do. It was a perfect place to just get away
relax. Walked on the beach a lot and did a little snorkeling. Read
lots of books and generally lounged about! We did go and ride on an
elephant. It was an interesting experience! Their gait is rather
lumbering and comfortable but I really had to hang on when we were
going down slopes! It was great fun!
Then we spent four days in Bangkok, which is a huge, busy city with
lots of traffic and noise. But I enjoyed that as well. It has a
Skytrain that allows you to get around without getting in the
automobile traffic and there are water taxis that go up and down the
river. Between the two we never took regular taxis. Went to the Grand
Palace, which was quite interesting, also saw the Emerald Buddha (very
sacred to Buddhists) and went to another temple that held a huge, gold
reclining Buddha. The last night of the trip, we went to The Oriental
Hotel to have dinner and see a performance of traditional Thai dances.
It was quite interesting and enjoyable and I highly recommend it if
anyone ever gets to Bangkok. Also I saw three movies, had a couple of
really American good dinners and enjoyed a trip to the grocery store.
So it was a terrific break.
With 90 Volunteers, we are as busy as ever. But I an enjoying getting
to know the new PCVs who are dedicated and working hard to adjust to
their new surroundings! Since we require everyone to live with a host
family for six months, they must all become part of their host
families. That can be challenging when the PCVs are not yet fluent in
Turkmen or Russian. But they are doing just fine. I hope to start
doing some site visits in the next couple of months. Meanwhile we are
planning for Peace Corps Day events on March 1 and starting to think
about the next group to come in September. With the Federal budget
such as it is, it will be a tight year for Peace Corps and we will be
tightening our belts as mush as we can. However, Peace Corps never has
much fat in their budget so this will hit pretty hard. But I guess
Peace Corps is all about doing more with lessor with nothing-- in
many cases. I know it will be challenging as we look for ways to do
the things we need to do with less funding. Guess if it were easy they
wouldn't need the staff!
I am starting to think about the end of my tour. I have been here 19
months and I have 11 months left on my contract. It is hard to
believe;it seems like I just got here yesterday. I still have lots of
things left on my list of things to do and see while I'm here in
Turkmenistan. Some are in the country and some are in nearby
countries. For example there are a couple of nature reserves here that
are supposed to be very interesting. Hope to visit them in the spring.
Since they are in restricted areas one never knows about getting
permission to go. But the local tour companies seem to be able to
handle getting permissions. Plus there are still things I haven't
gotten around to seeing and doing right here in Ashgabat just because
I kept thinking that I have plenty of time! You all know how that
We have had a bit of excitement in the last couple of weeks here.
Probably the biggest news was that the Turkmen government has lifted
the requirement for Turkmen citizens to obtain an exit visa to leave
the country. As many of you might know, most countries regard
preventing citizens from traveling freely as a huge violation of human
rights. And there has been a lot of pressure on Turkmenistan to lift
the exit visa requirement. So now Turkmen citizens are freer to travel
outside their country.
With respect to more mundane matters, I recently learned that there is
a new shop in Ashgabat that sells good cheddar cheese and fresh bread
from England. And today I actually found the shop! Good cheese is
hard to come by and good sandwich and toast bread is also hard to find
here. The second big piece of food news is that someone here has gone
into business making peanut butter. These will be tremendous news for
the Volunteers. We have a number of vegetarians but there really is
not much available in the way of nutritional vegetable protein here.
So peanut butter will be a great addition to their diets. From
everything I hear so far, it will be affordable for them.
One of the perks of living here is our central location and cheap
airfares! So last weekend two of us went to Dubai in the United Arab
Emirates for the weekend. It is only a 2 ½ hour flight from
and US citizens do not need a visa. It is a city built in the last
30-35 years so it is very modern, clean and pleasant. And it has
gorgeous beaches. It is an amazingly diverse place with all kinds of
people from all over the world. We stayed at a hotel in the city
across the street from a nice park, near to shopping and movie
theaters. It was also a short taxi ride to most other places. Dubai
has an interesting history museum inside an old fort and we saw the
remnants of other old structures that predate modern Dubai.
My impression is that before the mid 1960's they did not have
it was a fairly poor country. With the discovery of oil offshore,
things changes a lot. Today they are aiming to become the
entertainment and vacation destination of choice for the region and
the world. They are building lots of expensive hotels, shopping malls
and amusement parks. We really enjoyed the weekend and are planning
to go back in May if we can. It was just a little too cool to swim
when we were there and we would like to go back to the beach. The
place is impressive because the development seems to be thoughtful,
the city is very clean and very safe and again we enjoyed movies, good
food, and a nice grocery store as well as people who were friendly and
happy to see us. We did not make it to the Camels races but may try
to go if I make it back there in May.
Some of you may have caught the 60 Minutes segment on Turkmenistan a
few weeks ago. The crew was here last June! But it finally made it
onto US TV this January. If you saw it, you have an idea now of what
it is like here: a challenging environment to say the least. But at
the local level where PCVs are working, the people are happy to have
So that's about it for this update. I am always delighted to hear
you about what is happening back home. But I have to admit I am not
going to miss the endless political campaigning that has started in
earnest now. So have a great 2004. And stay in touch.