Friday, August 31, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Remembering Turkmenistan

Our guest this week is Heather Keyes. Heather now lives in New York City but spent a decade living abroad. She studied international health, spent several years working in international health market research, and now works in medical research, but has remained passionate about writing throughout her career. She believes she may hold some kind of exchange-student record (having been an exchange student in the AFS, Rotary, and Lions Club programs as well as having been a US Peace Corps Volunteer) and plans to write a book (or at least complete a short story) some day. The Tolkuchka market photos were taken by the friend Heather references in this blog entry (who prefers to remain anonymous online when permitted).

From 2000 to 2001, I lived in Lebap Velyat, in the eastern part of Turkmenistan. Before and since that time I’ve lived in New Zealand, South Africa, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Germany, though now I live in my home country (the USA). I’m not a big traveler—which surprises some given my history—but going places to work or study and spending multiple months or years is quite different to planning and taking trips, which is what I define as travel (at least in the sentence “I like to travel”). 
Tolkuchka Camel Market
I do not like to travel. I am (very) prone to motion sickness, I do not enjoy airports, planes, or buses, and I am terrible at (in no particular order): identifying what should be seen in/at a destination city; figuring out when a good time to visit would be; driving in a relaxed manner in any setting; altering my sleep schedule significantly; finding reasonably priced transportation; finding accommodation that isn’t overpriced as well as awful; picking restaurants that aren’t overpriced as well as awful; taking pictures; sending postcards; finding souvenirs that I or anyone would ever value; packing suitcases that don’t feel loaded with cement when carrying them; and being without filter coffee (or, as we call it back where I grew up in Minnesota: “coffee”). Because of these deficits—but also because I am well aware of the many interesting places that there are to see in our world—I am a major fan of this blog and I am grateful to friends of mine that indulge me with travel pictures and updates. I genuinely admire those who travel well and enjoy it (even though I know I’ll never be among them).

Tolkuchka Carpet Market
I spent the past weekend with a friend that I know from my time in Turkmenistan. We’ve now been friends for much longer than the time we spent there and many life events have occurred over this decade-plus of friendship. Nonetheless, when together, our conversations regularly take us back to Turkmenistan and this past weekend was no exception. As I rode the train (note the omission of train travel from my list of travel dislikes and deficits above) home to New York City on Sunday night, my mind was alive with memories from that time. As the week has progressed, those memories have spurred others, which have brought back even more.

Visions of camels and carpets and silk worms and mud ovens…that feeling of sinking your teeth into that fresh warm round bread or a ripe pomegranate… images of yurts, bazaars, flamboyant fabrics, and intricate embroidery… reflections on archeological ruins and nomadic peoples and history…memories of picking cotton and desert treks and spotting constellations in sky unimpeded by lights or humidity…thoughts of village parties and former colleagues (and even one former dictator) have been dancing through my head since my visit to my friend. I can feel the sun and the dust and that crunch of the salt underfoot when walking in (parts of) the desert.
Photo by Kerri-Jo Stewart
Re-remembering a place via a weekend of storytelling with someone ‘who was there’ was such a gift. The ability of the mind to collect and tuck away events as well as people, sites, smells, sounds, and stories astounds me. The ability of a friend associated with a time and place to access all those memories makes me grateful. I’m not sure that I’ll ever make it back to Turkmenistan, and I’m not sure that I need to, but something I will take from my experience there—and my experience this past weekend—is the greatest comfort that there is to the travel-challenged: a good adventure really can last a lifetime. 

So, go out and have one (or remember one)!


  1. Heather, I'm like you, travel for me means staying put for a while and getting to know the local culture. And I'm no good a planning. When I do plan a trip, I often end up scrapping the plan and just following my instincts, or the advice of people I meet along the way. Thanks for sharing your story with us!

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