I Dream in Central Asian
Istanbul is dark as I wait in the security line at Atatürk Airport, ready to board the flight to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The health services official tries to persuade me to take an oral Polio booster—I decline, telling him that I already have a lifetime immunization. He tells me that it wont protect me, and that I should travel at my own risk. As I hand my boarding pass to the Turkish Airlines official, she turns to her friend. She overheard me speaking Turkish.
“Finally, someone we can understand!”
I laugh. “I suppose so!” I know they’ll understand me on the surface, but not at the heart.
She tries to act serious. “Can you tell us why 200 people want to go to Tajikistan?”
I respond as respectfully as I can. “I’m not the one to ask—I gave up my summer vacation on the shores of the Aegean for three weeks in Dushanbe!” I can’t be certain as to what decision is worse—leaving the sun soaked beaches or rejecting the Polio booster.
The stewardesses are going down the aisle. “Anything to drink sir?”
“A vodka and cherry juice, please” I say, easing myself into the post-Soviet reality that awaits me by sinking into my narrow airplane seat.
“Is this enough?” she asks, smiling as she pours.
“A little more please,” I say smiling back. “After all, I’m going to Dushanbe”.
The cherry juice has been added for color.
“Finish this and I’ll make you one even stronger,” she says smiling as she hands me the drink, understanding every unspoken word. Staring at the drink standing on the Turkish Airlines napkin in front of me, I forget about the Polio.
The Arizona State Critical Languages Institute has arranged for all 21 of its students to visit the US Embassy for a briefing. I can’t imagine what its about, and neither can my roommate Kevin, himself a fellow graduate student. After the security checks we’re herded into a bland meeting room lit in the manner of hospitals, complete with lighted red “Exit” signs over the doors that must have been brought from America. I’m thinking that at least I now know where my tax dollars go—towards making a remote Central Asian embassy look as much as possible like a Wal-Mart.
Soon a diplomatic security officer enters, in order to—ostensibly—brief us on the security situation in Dushanbe.
“My name is [JM], the head of diplomatic security for Tajikistan. Well, actually, I’m the assistant head. My boss is currently skiing in Kazakhstan,” is how we are introduced. As if the southern accented pronunciation of “KA-Zack-STAN” isn’t enough, the thought of the “boss” skiing in the middle of the summer makes me feel safe—and completely content—with the United States embassy staff. Thankfully, [JM] goes on to fill us in on the security situation in Tajikistan. With Diet Coke in hand, he starts again in his southern-accented English:
“This is not the land of the free. This is not a democracy. This is a kleptocracy,” and then, grinning back to the ambassador, “But we’re working on that!”
The first thought that comes to mind is: “What exactly are you working on with that Diet Coke in hand?” I get my answer in a laminated card handed out to me, reading:
I am an American citizen, here by the invitation of your country. I do not speak your language. I need to notify the American Embassy that I was involved in an incident. Will you please help me to contact a government official or direct me to a telephone? My Government will greatly value your assistance to me. I need to call: 229 __ __.
The Tajiki was on the other side—even so I couldn’t imagine anyone giving a shit about the card. It sounded like Obi Wan Kenobi brainwashing storm troopers in Star Wars-‘these are not the Americans you’re looking for’. Mr. [JM] continues on, telling us that, among others, the club “Sim-Sim” is off limits to Americans.
“Last year an American went in and got in a fight. He stayed around a bit too long and by the time he left they were there waiting for him outside. They hit him with a full bottle of beer knocking him unconscious, and when he fell he knocked his two front teeth out on the pavement. Then they took him to the mountains and left him for dead.” I wonder if it would be rude to laugh.
“Stay away from the police,” continued Mr. [JM], “they’re just looking to have you buy the next bottle of vodka—keep the party going.” That was the kleptocratic element at work. Even so, I reason that partying with Tajik police wouldn’t be that bad.
Our conversation concludes with Mr. [JM] telling us that, if we fall ill, we will be taken to Kabul. I guess he had meant he reassure us, but the logic of it is lost on me—were we to be sent to a war zone for a stomachache?
That night we go to our host father’s sister’s house. In a bid to explain the differences between southern and northern Tajiki accents she compares the northern accent to, as she puts it, the way “niggers” talk in America. It is clear that she means no offense, and is quick to point out her affinity for the old Soviet system, where “all nationalities” and people were equal. Apparently the Soviet Union’s one victory over the American system, as moral as it was, still stands. They are still the internationalists, while us democratic Americans still struggle through the traumas of a racist past, despite what our current president may represent.
The next day after class I buy a canned gin and tonic from a supermarket on Rudaki, Dushanbe’s tree-lined main thoroughfare. Before I open it I ask the vendor if I can drink on the street—after all, I had listened to Mr. [JM] and had no intention of buying the next bottle of vodka—at least not at two in the afternoon. He reassures me that I can—“This is democracy!” he explains proudly, spreading his arms. When I tell him that it’s illegal to drink on the streets in the United States, he is dumbfounded, all his dreams of democracy crushed. Looking at his confused face, I realize firsthand that the US job of spreading democracy will be even harder than it seems. After all, the D-word has a different meaning in every country.
At night my roommate Kevin and I get our first of many German lessons. Our host grandfather proudly recites (for the first of many, many, many, many times) “Zwei jahre in Germania…. Tangermunde. Fransa Germania (explaining the border). Komondante!” We look at him like idiots. Our father explains to us that he is a World War Two veteran, and that he had been stationed in Germany. We don’t speak German, or his Russian infused Tajik. It is ok though, I understand him. We all wish we could have our youth back.
At night our fifteen-year old host brother takes us to Café Moscow in the Moscow Park. Young women walk by in clothes that would be more fit for the bedroom than a public park, but it doesn’t affect our host or his friends. They’re too young—or at least they pretend to be too young—to notice. Kevin and I let our eyes wander for a bit before we are invited to participate in a pool match. Its two on two, and the game is a variation on snooker. There are sixteen balls and the first to sink eight wins. Kevin and I soon realize that it’s harder than it looks.
The table is bigger than in American billiards and the pockets are smaller. More importantly, the balls have no colors, only numbers. Lenin would be proud—all balls are equal. After some time we fall behind 3-0. I miss an easy shot (and I blame it on the frustratingly narrow pockets) and our opponents come up. They scratch, but take a ball off the table anyway. Apparently, if the cue ball goes in, the ball it last touched goes off the table as well. At 4-0 we realized we are being hustled and call it quits. We decide to try our luck at table tennis instead . . .
Turkey or America?
On our fourth day I decide to try Café Merve, a Turkish restaurant written up in my guidebook. After some delicious lentil soup I have a conversation with the owner, who is from the eastern Turkish province of Erzurum. I ask him if, as the embassy man claims, Dushanbe is dangerous.
“You’re American right?”
“Well I’m using my American passport here,” I explain.
“Then they won’t even touch a hair on your arm.”
“And what about if I was using my Turkish passport?”
“Then they would have hit you once from the left, once from the right, and then thrown you out of this country,” he answers with a straight face.
Two Eight-Year Olds Watching Ice Age
Kevin is sick and in bed, so the job of entertaining our family is all mine. After eating a full bowl of yoghurt—a very difficult task for me—in order to not upset my host sister Sabina, she makes me watch Ice Age, dubbed from Russian into Tajiki. The parts that she can’t understand she asks me to translate and, when I exhaust my (rudimentary) Tajiki skills, we just sit and watch in silence. I stare blankly at the screen. We are two eight-year olds in front of the computer—her eight physically, myself eight linguistically.
After two weeks in Dushanbe Kevin and I convince two girls from our class, Emily and Jess, to come with us to the northern Tajik city of Khojand, the country’s second largest. The plan seems good for everyone. Our host mother wants us out of the house—a couple nights previous she had set the plates out on the table as if dealing cards in Las Vegas—and our host father wants to get out and see his brother-in-law. He says he’ll take us.
Our host father Khorshed drives us through the mountains, and the snow-capped peaks take me back to the days when everything was easier, in college in Boulder, Colorado. A ragged Chinese worker flags our car down and motions with his hands for food. He looks wretched, and all we have is a cigarette. He gratefully accepts it and we drive off, leaving him waving in the rear-view mirror. Khorshed explains that he’s a Chinese prisoner, sent here to build a tunnel through the pass. As we drive, we see more of them; one group forlornly eating a bowl of laghman noodles with a forbiddingly grey mountain sky as the backdrop. Kevin and I can’t help but laugh. They’re sent to Tajikistan as a punishment—while we paid for the privilege. Somewhere, there is irony in the situation. My mind is just too tired to search for it.
The Summer of Whores
After a nerve-wracking drive we arrive at the hotel recommended by our teacher—The Hotel Ekhshon. At first glance it isn’t promising—a group of youths stand sentry at the entrance to a darkened lobby, looking up to no good. The price is right—5 dollars per person per night, but it comes with a price. Khorshed whispers “Prostitutes” in my ear as we walk past a few young girls, their faces unrecognizable in the darkness.
“How much?” I ask out of curiosity.
“Ten dollars at most!” Khorshed says with a laugh, “But they’re dirty. Very, very dirty”. I don’t need any explanation. And soon, our room confirms the fact.
We have the three room “luxury suite”, with an antique television and air conditioner that is collecting mold in one room. The bathrooms have no electricity, and the third room is empty and in bad need of a paint job. We dub it the dance party room, in order to put a positive spin on things, and leave it at that. Khorshed and I leave and run the gauntlet through the whores and purchase the essentials: some vodka and food—eggs with (a semblance of) sausage.
In our room it’s a taste of American breakfast washed down with Tajik vodka. Just in case we had gotten too comfortable, however, the lights go out, leaving us in the dark with our vodka and everyone else with their partners for the night.
The next morning, after a trip to see central Asia’s largest Lenin statue (measuring up at 22 meters) we hop in a car on the way back to our hotel. After I tell the driver Ekhshon, he says “Fahishekhane”, or whorehoue. I give him a knowing look and stare straight out the window, while my companions laugh it off in the back seat. It was, indeed, funnier in the morning.
“We’re in Kyrgyzstan now!” Khorshed says excitedly, as he turns to me. I assume it’s a joke and laugh it off. “No, Really!” he says, gesturing to the crimson Kyrgyz flag blowing in the twilight from beneath a soviet-era building. Indeed, above a nearby shop it wrote “КИРГЪЗТЕЛЕКОМ”. Visions start running through my mind of a police checkpoint—we’d need a lot of vodka to explain our visa-less entry. Luckily we are out in ten minutes. The old Soviet road goes through a portion of Kyrgyzstan before rejoining Tajikistan. As soon as we are—relatively—safely back in Tajikistan, Kevin asks, sarcastically, as to whether we can count Kyrgyzstan on Facebook as among the countries we have visited. After a fierce debate in the car, the four of us conclude that, after the fear and confusion that we went through, we deserve to.
“The Black Pit of Konibodom”
I am feeling pretty good. After all, I’m going shot for shot with my host father’s brother-in-law and we are set to go onto the third bottle of vodka. But I need a bathroom break. I set out from our air-conditioned room—and the large flat screen TV that dominates it—into the warm Tajik night. I had been given directions to the bathroom and I dutifully follow them. One of the family members even proudly turns on the light for me. It is a really good thing that I’m not sober.
The light illuminates a room with a rickety wooden floor and two holes in the middle, with the remains of human excrement that have not hit their target, framing them. As if for an excuse to look away I turn back and ask which side I should use. Apparently, any side I that I wished. I was to make myself comfortable. Standing in the half-light, my task of hitting the target is made harder by the flies swarming around my head. I don’t want to look down for fear of seeing even more horrific things. At least I know what a fly is. ‘Why the hell do they even have electricity in this room’ I think to myself after working up the courage to look down, so as not to miss. I don’t want to add my waste to the already dirty floor.
In my vodka-clouded mind thoughts of falling through the wooden floor mix with thoughts of strange insects, even bigger than those I have come across in Texas—where everything is already bigger. They are not healthy thoughts and, finishing my business, I rush back to the living room—I need Emily’s hand sanitizer to erase the bacteria on my hands and the brother-in-law’s vodka to erase my memory. The third bottle erases the memory—but at a price. The next morning, I get an extended stay above the black pit—relatively sober.
Living On a Prayer
Khorshed wants to get back to Dushanbe fast. He throws our Mercedes Benz around the curves with abandon, paying no attention to the rocks randomly dotting the unpaved road. We whip around one corner, almost meeting a black Opel Vectra head-on. As Khorshed throws the large sedan around the curves, I feel the wheels slip and—sitting in the front seat—am treated with a beautiful mountain vista. We are closer to the clouds than we are to the earth that lies several thousand feet below the edge of the road that itself is just a few feet from the left side of the car. However, I reason, if Khorshed keeps driving like this, we will be closer than we had ever wanted to be from that earth so far below us.
I look back to see Jess, Emily, and Kevin frozen together in the back seat, their faces a picture of a stunned resignation to ‘what will be will be’. I grab Emily’s Ipod that currently is playing Dave Matthew’s Band’s Crash. I feel like we need a little something more. Finding that “something more”, I blast it. New Jersey’s own Jon Bon Jovi comes blasting out of the speakers across the mountains of Northern Tajikistan: Livin’ on a prayer/take my hand and we’ll make It I swear . . . The back seat erupts into laughter, while Khorshed’s face is expressionless. He’s concentrating on driving. I, for my part, am hoping we’ll make it, but I’m not so sure that I would go so far as to swear it . . .
The Summer of Whores Part 2
We had survived our adventures on the mountain passes, in a brothel, in Kyrgyzstan, and—above all (literally)—in the black pit. Suffice it to say, we deserve some relaxation. Where to relax in Dushanbe on a weeknight? Our destination is non-other than the bar at the old communist-era hotel, the monolithic Paytakht that dominates the city’s central square.
Kevin, Emily, and I choose the outside seating over the stifling smoke of the inside bar. I order a couple beers for my friends, a vodka and apple juice for myself, and a melon hookah for all of us before returning outside. As we sit waiting for our order, it feels good to let the cool mountain air of the Dushanbe night settle around me, knowing that I am, relatively at least, safe.
I think, ‘it’s nice to be able to sip my vodka, rather than down it in a shot,’ and I enjoy it—until, that is, our hookah arrives. As always, I am the one to start it and I place my mouthpiece (or hookah condom, as Emily and Kevin refer to it) on the hose and begin smoking. As soon as I start a lady in a tight-fitting red dress from the opposite table springs up and, within minutes, sits next to me and begins chatting through the smokescreen I create. This should have been the first warning.
Where am I from, and what am I smoking? Is it illegal? I reassure her it isn’t, but I understand the look of distrust in her dark eyes. She either doesn’t believe me, or doesn’t want to.
“Can I try?” she asks timidly. I accept, but not before placing a “hookah condom” on the hose—after all, when dealing with strange women in strange places, condoms of all sorts should be put on hoses of all types. I can thank Mrs. Staples in middle school health class from back in Providence, Rhode Island, for that piece of timeless advice.
“Is this how I do it?” she asks, with the hose in her mouth.
“Yes,” I reassure her, “Now just smoke it . . . like you would a cigarette”. At that she slips the hookah deeper between her lips, moving it farther into her mouth. This should have been the second warning.
I just laugh and look at Emily and Kevin with my best ‘what the fuck?’ impression. Kevin is shaking his head; Emily is desperately holding back her laughter. As we get to talking, the lady tells us that her name is “Jewel”. This, of course, should have been the third warning.
She lights up when she learns that I am from Turkey, and proudly explains to me that she lives in the Aksaray district of Istanbul, where she is a tour guide for Russian speakers. Anyone familiar with Istanbul, of course, can tell you that Aksaray is the drop off point for girls from all over the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the hub of human trafficking in Turkey. I’m done with warnings, I think. This is all I need to know.
As if to confirm my suspicions “Jewel” brings her friend over, another dark haired, dark eyed Tajik (at least I think she is) in an equally tight fitting black dress. Ostensibly, they are in Tajikistan for vacation. I speak Turkish with Jewel’s friend who, it seems, understands that there will be no money forthcoming from us tonight. I, for my part, keep sipping my vodka, just to make it interesting.
Jewel is talking to Emily, telling her that we should come to a party. Kevin sips his Baltika, seemingly amused by the entire event. A man comes up and says something to Jewel’s friend in Russian. At that, they announce their departure. Apparently, he too realizes that we are not worth the effort.
As if to top it all off, Jewel announces, “I do Thai massages and Chinese massages!” Her friend asks if I have a pen and paper. I take out my Stabilo and rip a page out of my Moleskin. Scrawling a number down on the gridded page she tells me, “Call, if you’re ever bored in Dushanbe”. We thank them and they leave, and it is once again the three of us, the hookah, and the Dushanbe night. It is as if it had been a dream. I can’t help but think, when stuff like this happens, who could ever be bored in Dushanbe?
New York, London, Paris, Milano, Душанбе?
One doesn’t think of Dushanbe as a fashion capital in any sense of the word—but, then again, how would “one” know? Most “ones” have never been to Tajikistan. For some reason, t-shirts emblazoned with written English phrases are popular in Tajikistan. Now this would not be unlike the West. That is, of course, if the writing were grammatically—and linguistically—correct. One of our program directors tells me about a women’s shirt she had seen, which—and I quote—wrote “I’m Best Juicy For You”. She immediately branded it inappropriate for women to wear. Her Tajik colleague, confused, asked her where it was inappropriate, up here or down there? I’ll leave it up to you to interperet where it is more inappropriate!
Another of my favorites is the ubiqitous “I don’t really want to be famous”. It is an emphatic statement if I’ve ever heard one—I don’t really want to be famous . . . unless, of course, you could figure out how to get me all those fast cars and beautiful women—but without the paparazzi. If the paparazzi are involved, I really don’t want to be famous (which, incidentally, is what I suspect the shirt meant to say).
A great moment for Kevin and I comes walking down the main thoroughfare, Rudaki, watching a “tough guy” flex his muscles as he walks past, so much so that they look likely to rip his shirt. Then again, from the fact that his shirt reads, “Everybody Loves a Jewish Girl”, it would seem that the shirt had not been meant for his build anyway.
As a life-long New England sports fan, I greatly appreciate the discarded championship t-shirts that can be found throughout Dushanbe. If I had looked hard enough, I no doubt could have found my alternate universe where the 2003 Red Sox actually won game seven against the New York Yankees, the 2008 Patriots defeated the New York Giants, and the 2010 Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Dushanbe, baby—a broken-hearted sports fan’s dream. Hey, its at least one reason to live in Dushanbe, is it not?
Why Did I go to Uzbekistan?
The sweat pours down my face. My green polo shirt is soaked in the middle of my chest. All I can think is “what the hell can I do?” My Prada sunglasses—lenses polarized for driving—rest on top of my hairline as I sit in an uncomfortable metal seat, the bad cop yelling at me in a mix of Russian and poor English whilst the good cop translates into Turkish. I’m in a small room whose only window, tinted to the degree that the outside is not visible, had been closed as soon as I entered. There is only room for a couple desks, a chair and a fan.
I made the poor decision of crossing overland from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan . . . and I also made the poor decision of not declaring the exact amount of cash that I was carrying into the country. It was a closed border to a closed economy, for all intensive purposes—there were only a couple trucks waiting in no-man’s land—and I was the only pedestrian crosser.
But hadn’t they told me in Tajikistan to not divulge exactly how much cash I was carrying? Then again, they probably didn’t count on all my belongings being searched, down to a conveience store reciept, in order to find seven-hundred dollars and one hundred and twenty Euros instead of the seventy that I had declared.
The bad cop stares squarely at my face, studying it. To him, I could be anything from a CIA agent to a drug runner. Do I understand what I had done? I guess. Do I understand that I broke a law and that, therefore, I would have to be punished? I suppose so. With a glint in his young eyes—as if to say you better be telling the truth or else I am going to make your life miserable—he wonders aloud if he searches my bag again whether he will find anything else? No, he certainly won’t—I almost convince myself that the five twenty dollar bills in the right pocket of my raincoat don’t exist. Do I understand that I have to write an official letter of apology? Yes sir.
I am handed an example apology letter, written by a poor Portuguese traveler who had come before me. Judging by the concluding sentence of his letter, he had lost 450 dollars out of the deal, as it had been “temporarily held”. I start by uncapping my blue Stabilo pen and going to work. I feel like an unfortunate soul from Return of the Jedi, bargaining for my life before Jabba the Hut. “I apologize to the Republic of Uzbekistan for making an untruthful statement on my Customs Declaration. I understand that I have broken a law of the Republic of Uzbekistan . . . ” and so it went on. For what its worth, I hope that my letter has become the example—I took the liberty to change a slew of grammatical errors in the sample.
As soon as I write seventy dollars in the area corresponding to the money that was originally declared, however, the bad cop stops me. A cold chill goes through my body. “Now what,” I think . . . images of Locked Up Abroad come to mind as I sit frozen, waiting for a response, my hazel eyes staring blankly into his. He waves the customs declaration in my face. My 70.00$ had been turned into 700$. Someone looked out for me and scribbled a dollar sign over the third zero. Now, only the 120 Euros were left undeclared. I immediately apologize.
“I’m tired,” I mutter and change my seventy to seven hundred and finish scribbling my “apology” as fast as I can, like a senior finishing a final essay on the final day of senior year.
My 120 Euros would have to be “temporarily” held, unless, of course, I choose to go to court. I explain that court is out of the question, as I had to get back to Turkey. It was of no concern to the bad cop, he immediately takes the crisp 100 Euro bill, folds it with the equally crisp 20, and in turn folds them both into a photocopy of my passport and apology letter, stapling the edges and imprisoning my 120 Euros forever at the Tursunzade/Denau border crossing. Better they rot here than I, I say to myself as the good cop walks in. He seems cheerful now that everything has been squared away, and it seems that I will be on my way.
But nothing is as simple as it seems, especially not in Central Asia. The good cop promptly takes the sunglasses off the top of my head and put them on. “Nasil?” he says in Turkish. How do they look? Had they been Aviators, they may have gone well with his moustache. But they weren’t. And they were mine. I may owe the guy thanks for not losing 630 dollars, but I still lost 120 Euros. And he wasn’t about to take my Prada sunglasses, of the polarized lens variety. I take a chance.
“They look better on me,” I say, laughing so as to diffuse any possible reaction. For some reason, it works. He laughs and gives them back to me. At that, the door is opened, and I am free. To my disbelief they let me out into daylight, after one of their cohorts notes something in Uzbek on my customs declaration, which would haunt me until I left. In the end, thankfully, it would prove innocuous—just official notes. As I stride out of the customs building I realize that “freedom”, as relative as it may be, has never felt so good. Later, however, in looking back at the ordeal I realize that, in fact, my situation was slightly therapeutic. Not once in the entire time that I had been in that room did I think about my own petty fears, of never meeting the girl I would fall in love with and marry. For me, it was a big accomplishment. It just took some good old Uzbek border guards to scare me witless—and, of course, rob me blind. But who is counting, right?
Two Hands on the Wheel, (One) Eye on the Road?
“Mashin hast . . . Mashin . . . Mashin miayad!” I’m yelling in Persian to the driver as our car swerves out of the left lane and back onto the right side of the road, where it should have been all along. We barely miss the Daewoo that had seemed destined for our front bumper. I breathe a slight sigh of relief, trying to make out the road through the cracked windshield. My driver had been driving like this all along, refusing to use the right lane, driving head on into oncoming traffic. This had been going on for the last five hours, since the border. I’m not sure how much more I can take. It was, after the customs ordeal, a classic case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. We still have about three hours until Samarkand.
I turn to my driver and ask him if he’s tired. He turns to me, his left eye rendered useless from what seems to be a cataract. All I can tell is that his pupil isn’t moving. And it wouldn’t be so far-fetched to imagine that it isn’t working either—after all, he insists on driving on the left side of the road!
“This job makes you tired—driving ten to twelve hours a day . . . but what can I do? I have to make my money somehow,” he says in his native Tajik. Suddenly, I feel for him. Even though he has almost killed me—literally—countless times on this trip, I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Life is hard—and to be fair to him, the woman and child behind me in the back seat are not affected by the trip. They have been sleeping for the majority of the time. It is just what to expect in Uzbekistan. I sit back, narrow my eyes, and stare through the cracked windshield, determined to make it to Samarkand in one piece, even if the car doesn’t.
Oh to be an American
“Sir, would you like to see a beautiful view of Samarkand from the top of a minaret? Ten thousand Sum!” A policeman solicits me to essentially bribe him to allow me into an off-limits portion of Samarkand’s beautiful Registan. Amongst the turquoise tiles of Timur’s empire, I am not about to bribe anyone.
“No thanks . . . It’s too expensive,” I say, laughing.
“What? You’re from America. Aren’t you rich?” answers the astonished policeman. If I spoke Uzbek, I would have told him that empires come and go—today I may be visiting the remnants of Timur’s empire as a citizen of the American empire, but who can tell the future? After all material wealth is transient, it is what empires leave behind that remains—to be exploited by corrupt policemen it seems—in the end.
Getting Back 120 Euros One Back Alley at a Time
“Dollars? Dollars? Exchange?” Men all around me wave rubber banded wads of Uzbek Sum, exhorting me to part with my dollars. Why not? The black-market offers forty percent more than the official rate.
“Forty dollars please,” I say to the one I trust the most—well, as much as I can trust from one look. He motions me to follow him as he leads me down an alley and into what seems to be a half-built store. The windows are being built, and shelves are being installed but there is nothing else. After leading me in he tells me to wait before running off, leaving me to finger the two twenty-dollar bills in my pocket. I’ve had too many interactions with Uzbek police as it is, and I’m hoping no one asks why I am where I am. Hell, I honestly don’t think I would be able to explain that myself. Central Asia, after three and a half weeks, has taken on a surreal feel.
After a couple minutes he comes back with a wad of money that is—like all money in Uzbekistan—kept together by a rubber band. Forty dollars makes 84,000 Sum. In Uzbekistan, however, the largest note is 1000. I traded my two bills for 84, count it, and stuff the wad in my pocket. Walking out, I wonder if I should have brought a fanny-pack.
Among the Faithful
I mill around outside Tashkent’s main mosque, waiting for my driver to complete his afternoon prayers. I am staying with a family friend in Tashkent who has a private driver. For some reason, however, the private driver took it upon himself to drive me everywhere, and not allow me to go out on my own. Except, of course, when he has to pray. I can’t eat—dare I say breath—without him watching over me. But, of course, it is an exception when it comes to religion, and especially during Ramadan.
Standing outside the mosque is—truly—the only time I feel like a true outsider in Central Asia. The disapproving looks given to me by bearded hajjs and skull-capped youths pierce my entire being. Sure, I am wearing shorts and am obviously not from Uzbekistan. But, shouldn’t these pious souls, as religious men, treat me with respect, as a fellow human being? Now, if I could get an answer to that question I would be able to forget about my money rotting in Denau.
Couldn’t I Have Just Gone to Italy?
The thoughts all run through my head. Why couldn’t I have just visited a normal country? Did I have to go to Uzbekistan? Couldn’t it have been Italy? Or why not France? I’ve heard it’s nice this time of year…and they have some sort of a tower. I turn the bottle of Baltika in front of me around to look at the label, sweating out my last few hours in Tashkent. It’s four in the morning as I sit in the airport cafeteria, waiting for my six am flight back to Istanbul.
I have no idea what to do about my customs declaration—I didn’t declare my mobile phone or Ipod and, if searched, I am liable to lose both essential tools of a twenty-first century life. But, I reason as I sip the beer, I deserve it in some way. I suppose it’s the price I pay for taking the roads less traveled. Looking at an Uzbek family sitting in front of me, I get to thinking that maybe I should just meet a nice girl, settle down, and go to Italy for my next trip. Then I laugh to myself as I flip through the pages of my passport. So many stories, yet no one to tell them to. Maybe its all better the way it is . . .
Quickly the Baltika erases such sentimental feelings and I focus on getting through customs. I lessen the amount of Uzbek Sum that I’m bringing out on the form, crossing out a previous entry. My form now looks like the bonus question on a high school math exam—many scribbles, followed by some numbers chosen at random. I was told that excess Sum would be taken regardless, so, subtracting the amount spent on beer and souvenir magnets—and the amount I wanted for my personal collection—it would come to around seven thousand. Only about three dollars and change stand to be lost if they choose to take it. And they don’t. In the end, I am left with nine ratty Uzbek bills . . . small compensation for the two crisp bills left in Denau but, in the end, you won’t find any regrets in me. I am going back, finally, to Istanbul.