For sale: melons, gold teeth and camels

In Turkmenistan, weekly market trip is all the adventure shopper could want

Postcard: Central Asia

October 13, 2002|By John W. Kropf | John W. Kropf,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

With the wave of a meat ax and a smile, a young man in a bloody butcher's apron tries to entice me into buying a skinned sheep carcass. Careful not to offend, I smile and move briskly to the next stall.

This is the start of my Saturday morning shopping grocery shop at the Mir Market Bazaar in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Two years ago, I might have complained about the long lines in American supermarkets or the paralyzing number of choices of cereal. But after two years as a State Department official in the central Asian country of Turkmenistan, bordered on the south by Iran and the west by Afghanistan, I've decided when I return to the United States, I'll stop complaining. One of life's most mundane tasks, the weekly grocery shop, has become an opportunity for all-day adventure.

The Mir Market Bazaar is a concrete-slab floor the size of a football field sheltered by a high, corrugated metal roof. Underneath, a series of gritty stalls house attendants selling fruit and vegetables. Turkmen women in long gowns with colorful headscarves manage most of the stalls.

"They have bananas!" exclaimed my seasoned American escorts. There is not a regular supply, and I follow my mentor's advice and buy a bunch. A woman in a yellow headscarf with a front row of gold teeth offers to sell them to me for 84,000 manats (about $11 at the official rate, $4 unofficial). Gold teeth are common. Originally, gold was used out of dental necessity because of the practice of holding a cube of sugar under the top lip while drinking tea, but it has become the fashion to have all gold front teeth - or at least two.

During the late summer months, the Mir was swamped with stacks of dusty yellow melons the size and shape of footballs. Piled high to form small pyramids, they could be bought for less than 50 cents each. They were the tastiest, most flavorful melons I've ever eaten. As long as they were in season, my family ate them at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

At the back of the bazaar, a man in the hot sun is selling fish from the trunk of his car - no container, no ice, just fish in a trunk. He must have driven all the way from the shores of the Caspian Sea, eight hours away. The smell is incredible. Again, I smile and hurry away.

The scene at the Mir is in strong contrast to a modern Turkish-owned supermarket, the only one of its kind in Turkmenistan. It is a recent addition to Ashgabat, the capital, and for the few who can afford it, provides Turkish imports of food and clothes. The size of the store gives the illusion of variety. Inside, whole aisle sections are stocked with a single item such as cottonseed oil or kilo bags of sugar. Here we shop for laundry detergent. The leading brand is an Iranian product called Barf. We decide to go with a competitor, Bingo.

We also find Kellogg's Rice Krispies with the "Snap" character on the box saying something in a cartoon balloon written in Arabic.

Sign of an American

For comparison shopping on livestock, I travel to Tolkuchka Bazaar north of Ashgabat, a city at the edge of the Karakum Desert. I arrive in time to watch a camel suspended in the air by a Komatsu crane. His new owner arranged to have the braying beast lowered into a giant Soviet-made dump truck. If Marco Polo were alive today, this is the market where he would come to refurbish his caravan. There is no other market like it in the world.

This is my first trip to Tolkuchka. I am easily marked as an American because of my baseball cap and camera in hand. Two young women in yellow headscarves and full-length, red velvet dresses giggle as they pass, one of them pointing not so inconspicuously at me. Foreigners must think of baseball hats as part of an American's national headdress. From the attention I drew, I felt like I was wearing a red beanie with a propeller on top and a sandwich board announcing, "I AM AN AMERICAN."

I soon forget that I am a marked man and squeeze into the crowd headed into the bazaar's front entrance. With the mass of people and small front gate, the effect is like pouring a bucket of ants into a funnel. At the first stall, I decide to buy a Yurt band even though it is the first time I have ever seen one. It is a 1-foot by 90-foot wool strap used to strengthen the round tents of Turkmen nomads against the desert winds.

Using my disastrous Russian while trying to bargain for what I've arbitrarily decided is a fair price, I notice a small, mouse-like woman standing at my elbow. With her hair up in a traditional Turkmen way, covered by a canary-yellow floral scarf, she is no taller than my chest. She can hear my failing attempts to communicate in Russian. Using formal English textbook grammar, she asks in her soft voice if she can help me.

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