I am here to meet my mother-in-law for the first time. I stand atop a soft Scottish Hill and wait for her to beckon me. A freezing February wind makes its way under my scarf and a cold current runs from the base of my skull down the highway of my spine. I have been looking forward to meeting her for many years and neither the cold nor the eeariness of the place will deter me from being in her presence. The grass is frozen and makes a crackling noise, like burning twigs, as I walk to our meeting point. I step on someone's memories, I trip on someone's son, I stand casually above someone's first love. I am here to meet the mother of the man I love.
I find a spot on one side of the garden and wait for her. I know she is small and frail looking like a feverish little girl. I know she is thin and anything can blow her away unexpectedly: her children's laughter, Connie Francis, other people's pain, love, and the song A Whiter Shade of Pale. I know she is scattered here where many years ago her children offered her ashes to the wind.
A visitor left a bouquet of wild urchins on a bench. I devote my attention to one flower in particular. My husband's mother is now a lavender urchin.
"I would have loved you," I tell her.
A kinder breeze which seems to come all the way from the Gleniffer Braes brushes past my face. A caress maybe. I think it is her way to tell me, "I would have loved you too."
No place in Ashgabat encapsulates the philosophy of the country's most recent rulers as Independence Park does. It is an extravagant rectangle comprising about 1,000 acres of concrete, marble, water, monuments, statues, and non-native pine trees whose objective, according to the previous president, was to turn the harsh desert summers into cool tropical seasons. The pines have gone through cycles of plant-water-die-replace-die again-repeat, since the construction of the park back in 1993, two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is magnificent and over the top. It is a testament to the vanity of the rulers, a self-indulgent display of unthinkable wealth. It is obscene and therefore, by far, my favorite place in Ashgabat.
On one side of the park is the Ruhnama, The Book of the Soul; a massive green and pink monument sitting atop a giant fountain mounted on a mechanical device which no longer works but when it did, it opened the cover every evening at 8 pm and a recording of a passage was played and projected on a TV screen inside the book. The Ruhnama is a 400-page blend of history, philosophy and the over active imagination of its author, former president, Suparmarat Turkmenbashi.
On a different end rests the Independence Monument, but locals know better and they refer to this modern Gothic-gone-terribly wrong memorial simply as, The Plunger. It's over 300 feet tall and surrounded by eight massive waterfalls lit with neon strobe lights in every color of the rainbow, then some. It is the kind of art that makes you go, wow, scratch your head, do a double take and wonder WTH! It's fantastic. The Plunger is further guarded by larger than life bronze and golden statues of protagonists of Turkmen history and literature, all of whom carry flagposts and either swords, books or both. At the base of The Plunger in two little cabins a couple of young Turkmen guards stand post 24-7. They look tough, stoic even, but their baby faces covered in acne betray them. They don't move, don't blink, don't make eye contact and in general seem unaffected by the freezing wind blowing in their spotty faces.
Across the park stands a five-sided structure inside which is the Altyn Asyr shopping mall. Needles to say, each side of this pentagon doubles as a raging waterfall with plaster dolphins, golden statues of naked nymphs, and rabid-looking eagles spewing water through their menacing-looking beaks.
I could go back to the Pentagon every day. Especially to the 6th floor where a restaurant-night club-mirador overlooks every corner of the city of Ashgabat. It's decorated in black and white, more black than white, which gives the place a halloween-esque hue, another attempt at shabby Gothic that didn't make it past shabby. They serve ridiculously over priced food and drinks worth every penny they charge.
I'm not sure why it's called The Golden Age Shopping Mall because the only shopping one can do is at the restaurant. Well, the shabby Gothic restaurant and a vending machine on the first floor. It's not a just a room with a vending machine inside it. It's another touch of cute, a confirmation of what I have suspected from the beginning: that in Ashgabat you ought to judge the book by its cover, because the cover maybe the only thing there is.
There are no restrictions, no rules that I know about, banning women from driving; Yet, I haven't seen a single woman behind the wheel.
The streets are eeriely quiet. No sirens. I haven't heard a police car or ambulance zooming by, blaring their sirens.
I'm sure there are traffic accidents and people being rushed to ER's. Where? Is the question.
No one blows their horn. Are Turkmen ever in a hurry? Frustrated? Anxious to get anywhere?
Do street cleaners ever rest? They sweep the streets with their two-feet tall brooms whether the weather is good (above freezing) or bad (in the single digits)
Young women wear their hair in two long braids. They cover their heads after they get married. It is a twofold process: their long hair is tied in a bun which they cover with a semi-cylindrical cardboard device that looks like a fez. Then they wrap the whole thing in colorful, flower-patterned scarves. The result is a woman two inches taller and loads of added grace.
I have yet to see a gas station in Ashgabat. I have been told they are on the outskirts of the city.
It is not uncommon to see children in the street...alone, crossing streets, playing in parks...unattended.
Chilik...it's a code of behavior, it is the social contract by which Turkmen society abides. It is their essence, the tenent that lauds modesty between the sexes and disapproves of public displays of affection--even between husband and wife--the one that reinforces nationalism and therefore makes complaining about their political leader unpatriotic. Chilik represents Turkmen sobriety and dignity and would take a foreigner a life time to understand the intricacies of this stric unwritten conduct code.
The local bread, chorek, is considered sacred and because of this, dirt does not adhere to it; therefore the five-seconds rule always applies to chorek.
Young hip boys wear extremely skinny jeans with a twist: they seem uncomfortably tight around the calves and the knees, then explode in a bombastic, Aladin-type bubble around their hips. It is a hybrid between Cristopher Columbus and a MC Hammer look. Can't touch this.