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  • Writer's pictureGreg

Trending in Turkmenistan

My books, unfortunately, are not sold in Turkmenistan, and so imagine my surprise when Dana and I get in a shared taxi in the remote city of Mary and a woman points at me and says, “You! Househusband? Book! Gregory!”

“That's right!” Dana says. “He’s Gregory!” She's in the backseat with this stranger, because in Turkmenistan a gentleman doesn’t ride in the back of a shared taxi with a lady if he can avoid it.

I’m dumbfounded. Only once before was I recognized for my very minor celebrity in public—in a favorite coffee shop in my own neighborhood—and I’m certainly not expecting it in a cab in a sleepy regional capital halfway around the world.

With unbridled exuberance, the woman shakes hands, and, before we can delve, we’re at her stop. She pays the driver her five manat (twenty-five US cents), waves a frantic good-bye and is on her way, leaving Dana and I to wonder.

Ancient ruin
Greater Kyz Kala - Merv

“Well, that was bizarre,” I say.

“Looks like you’re trending in Turkmenistan,” Dana says.

Dana and I are in Mary to visit the nearby ancient Silk Road site of Merv. Before the Mongols steamrolled into town in the thirteenth century and wiped it off the map, Merv was an important crossroads, one of the most populous cities in the world and home to a multicultural panoply of scholars and glitterati. Today, a good guide can interpret the ruined structures and other archaeology to give the visitor a sense of the city’s former grandeur. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

We’re also in Mary to visit Mary’s American Corner. The US government operates three of these in Turkmenistan to promote mutual understanding and provide information about US history, culture, educational opportunities, etc. The corner in Mary has a small library, internet access, free English classes and dedicated local employees. When the American embassy learned Dana and I planned to visit Mary, they asked if I’d stop by and teach a short creative writing class.

A woman reading to a group of girls.
Dana at Mary's American Corner

On the appointed day, I speak for two hours to the world’s friendliest overflow crowd of adults and children about writing, the US, how I met my future wife on a dare, and so forth. I raffle away a single copy of Kept: An American Househusband in India. When the winner claims her prize, her mom grasps my hands and grins; it’s the woman from the taxi. As Dana and I prepare to take our leave, a boy of maybe ten says, “It is an honor, Mr. Gregory, to receive your distinguished author visit in our city of Mary in Turkmenistan. I will not forget this day in my life.” Neither will I, kid. Neither will I.

After posing for countless selfies, Dana and I flag down a taxi to take us to the airport. We climb in with some giggly teens on their way to who-knows-where. At the airport the security folks take one look at us—I’m wearing Dana’s cowboy hat—and escort us directly to the departure lounge. I offer to exchange hats with a cop for a photo; he demurs. A Chinese man ostensibly working for China National Petroleum Corporation chats us up for a bit.

Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 757
Turkmenistan Airlines Boeing 757

As usual, we’re last to board. We walk the length of the aisle under the curious gazes of a planeful of locals. I spy our two seats in a row of three, where a young Turkmen woman awaits her fate with us.

“Poor thing,” I whisper to Dana. “Looks like she got the short straw.”

“Better let me sit next to her,” she says, as if I have cooties or something.

We’re BFFs with this woman by takeoff. “I simply must tell you,” she says earnestly, “how happy I am to sit near you. As you approached, I prayed to God, ‘Please, let them sit next to me.’”

That’s heavy. I feel a great sense of responsibility to be charming. We meet her mom across the aisle, our neighbors in front, in back. We’re offered snacks. We’re so engaged in delightful conversation during our short flight that we’re on the ground in Ashgabat before I remember I’m afraid to fly. Thanks, lady.

Back in the capital, I'm asked to teach public speaking and creative writing at the embassy’s American Center to teens who are part of Turkmenistan’s award-winning Technovation Girls cohort. I’m terrified; I tried teaching teens in Texas once and found an unruly thirteen-year-old’s twenty-one-year-old boyfriend waiting in the parking lot after school to teach me a lesson.

Fortunately, my experience here differs. The girls are eager, respectful, diligent. Their writing is hilarious, exciting and remarkably creative. Their speeches are heartfelt, confident, entertaining. And did I mention they’re doing all of this in English? I’ve studied Japanese, Spanish, French and Russian, and yet every single one of them already speaks and writes English better than I know any foreign language. I desperately want these girls to run the world when they grow up. In fact, I want them to start now.

Akhal-Teke stallion
Akhal-Teke Stallion

Meanwhile, my buddy Susan summons me to her office. Susan let us borrow her car before ours arrived in country, she got me a ride on one of Turkmenistan’s famous Akhal-Teke horses, and she’s terminally chill. She asks me to give the keynote address at Turkmenistan’s second-annual Go Viral Fest, a two-day confab with expert sessions on business, media, culture and technology. I’m in, of course, because I’d never say no to Susan and because, as Mom once put it, “Greg doesn’t mind being the center of attention.”

I enjoy myself immensely because the audience laughs at my jokes, my pathetic Instagram following doubles overnight, and, as usual, Mom was right. - g

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