Tuesday, January 10, 2012

tuesdays not in turkmenistan: explaining the place

People often ask me what it's like in Turkmenistan. I was also asked the same questions about Congo and Gabon, though I was back in the U.S. less often so I was also asked questions about those places less often. It's perfectly reasonably to be asked about Turkmensitan. After all, most people have never been, will never go, and never hear about it in the news. I offer what I am sure are woefully inadequate answers describing terrain (mostly desert), government (autocratic), language (Russian, Turkmen), religion (moderate Islam), and economy (oil & gas revenue) while never being able to quite convey the essence of the place. People also often ask about the food, probably because the times I am usually around other people are for meals. The food is food.

In all fairness, I think my answers are not so bad. I offer you up this challenge. How would you describe your home i 4-5 sentences? For starters, how would you even conclude what constitutes your home? The city, state, country, region, time zone, county? Now imagine describing the essence of that place (or all of them) to someone totally unfamiliar with all aspects of that place. It's really hard, isn't it? If you think it is easy, then you are probably leaving out hugely important pieces of information or have made lots of assumptions about how similar your home is to the home of the stranger who wants to know about yours. You can describe the who and the what and the where. But the real essence of a place is in the why. That's where the cultural and historical context of a place and how it come to be the way it is are found. And that why is also what is so hard to properly understand while you visit and live in places that are not your home.

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