UZBEKISTAN: “Can I Please Go Through Your Trash?”
I sat at the kitchen table one morning, drinking coffee with home-made almond milk that made it a little gritty. Eyes resting in a non-focused stare, letting thoughts meander through my head.
Suddenly, a sharp loudspeaker voice cut through the air. It was a male, monotone voice, coming from the street. It was slowly approaching. I couldn’t discern the words quite yet. But it stained my morning sun-filled bliss. It sounded somehow ominous.
My easily flowing thoughts now took a sharp turn into my doomsday brain track and all I could think about were catastrophe movies like Outbreak or The Day After. I imagined a military truck slowly inching through our neighborhood and the loudspeaker voice calling out:
“Everybody out. On the street. Mandatory people count. Out of the house. On the street. Everybody out.”
I got up and my German Shepherd lifted her head, gauging if she would have to follow me somewhere. I walked out into our walled-in front yard.
Feeling my dog’s fur in the back of my knees, I felt re-assured and peeked through the gate’s peephole.
From the right side of my view I saw an ancient Moskvich, creeping on the street. A huge loudspeaker was attached to the roof and an opened trunk revealed an enormous bag. As the car rolled past me and to the left, I could finally discern the words from the megaphone.
They were selling potatoes.
It was yet another reminder of the Uzbek entrepreneurship. The people found any way to make money, be it by driving through neighborhoods selling potatoes and carrots, undercutting the bazaars’ rates or pushing old-timey wheel barrels offering you their home-made brooms.
I sometimes bought milk out of a questionably cleaned plastic jug from a lady who would walk by, calling out in a voice worthy an opera singer:
“Molokoooooooo!”, always bringing the last couple of “o’s” up a little bit so much so that she sounded almost as if she was warning you against something.
Perhaps the fact that the milk just left a cow’s udder not even 24 hours ago, refrigeration was expensive and what was that thing you called pasteurization??
One day though, as I slammed my house gate closed, since that was the only way to make it work, I turned around to face the street and saw an elderly man, dressed in a faded blue dress shirt and black pants, his wrinkly hands resting on a handle of an old cart with several differently sized bags attached to it.
I took a couple of steps and realized he was standing still, right by the trash bag I put out the night before for collection. I saw that one of the smaller bags in his cart had various food items in it. I glanced a half-eaten apple, a scrap of bread and a can with a leftover something.
He peered at me with his remarkably clear blue eyes that contrasted with his deeply tanned face covered with a few days’ worth of stubble. His gaze seemed sad and tired and a bit alarmed. In perfect Russian, he asked me:
“Can I please go through your trash?”
And he pointed to the black trash bag that I knew was filled with vegetable peels, empty containers and my dog’s poop bags.
I stood there, and for a second, my voice got caught in my throat. I found I couldn’t hold his gaze anymore, and as I replied ‘of course’, I felt deeply ashamed.
I felt ashamed and embarrassed that this man not only had to go through people’s trash, but he felt the need to ask if he could. Did the food scraps in his bag come from another’s trash too?
I lowered my head and walked to the supermarket. The irony of this meeting didn’t escape me as I walked into the new, air conditioned store, and pondered over which kind of products I was going to buy. At the same time, this man was sweating on the street, in front of my house, going through my smelly trash, wading through old and spoiled items, and sadly, probably finding something he could use.
I stood in the store, the wire shopping basket dangling in my hand, empty. The butcher and the cheese lady watched me quizzically from behind their counters. A couple people bumped into me as they rushed by to satisfy their own shopping needs.
I knew that most locals would probably tell me that the man was surely an alcoholic and brought the poverty on himself. That he was a bad person and deserved to live that way.
Maybe he did.
But what if he didn’t?
Who was the right entity to judge?
And was judgement from others what ultimately decided people’s fates?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. But I had to get out of the store and the display of so many items none of us really needed. So I quickly bought what I came for and went home.
The trash bag in front of my house looked emptier and was neatly placed and tied closed in the same exact spot where I originally put it.
I never saw the same man again.
But since that day, I can’t help but have a flash of that incident rush through my mind almost every time I throw something away.
Would he need that?
Could he use that?
And I still feel embarrassed that someone else actually lives off of what I throw out.
UZBEKISTAN: You Gotta Be Pushy a.k.a. The Uzbek Style Queue
It started when we boarded the Uzbekistan Airways flight. It seemed that the announcement informing all passengers that the bus was ready to take us to the airplane, came with a simultaneous electric shock in everyone’s seat. About 100 people got up en masse and promptly created a large cluster by the stairs leading down to the bus.
My husband and I found ourselves surrounded by an ever moving and shoving horde of people, wielding carry-ons the size of a dresser, assortments of colorful plastic bags filled with duty free loot and wearing a wild expression, dark eyes wide and darting around with mouths slightly ajar in an adrenaline filled rush.
As we approached the aircraft, I hoped that the bus driver would only open the front door of the bus so that we could file a one-person line to the steps of the plane. None such thought and luck. All three bus doors hissed open at once and people spilled out on the tarmac, rushing towards the stairs. Once again a large cluster formed by the narrow entry and people nudged me from behind with their hands and shoulders as I stumbled over the extended wheeled carry-ons in front of me. I felt breath on the back of my neck and could hear various people’s nasal and throat clearings.
As I was about to step on the first step, a middle aged man hopped up from my right side, effectively cutting me off and I got to enjoy the aroma of his cigarette and grilled meat soaked clothes. He was so close to my face; I could have probably given you an exact thread count of his jacket. I swallowed annoyance and willed my heart to slow down. I had a feeling this was only a start.
We have now lived in Tashkent for close to six months and the line skipping and cutting off became a daily certainty and routine. It is a puzzling habit contradicting the almost religious observance of letting older people and women sit in a full metro. Men of all ages would jump up at the sight of any woman or any older person to allow them to sit. It is a startling gesture when I think of the way these same men acquire their blue plastic tokens in order to ride the metro.
Each metro station has a “Kassa” where one can buy metro tokens to enter the subway. The transaction is a word-less, silent exchange of money and the appropriate amount of tokens. The girls working at the Kassas are quick and efficient as much as their faces are completely devoid of a smile. You slide the money in through a half moon shaped opening and they slide the tokens out to you.
Every single time I go get my tokens, my sense of order and lifelong politeness training kicks in and I stand back, waiting for a moment of lull to get my tokens. I watch the people swarm the Kassa from all directions, hands poised with the bills flapping in the subway breeze. Sometimes there are two or three hands, waiting right by the opening, their owners leaning in on tippy toes, just so they can get that token now.
After a while, I snap back to the Uzbek reality and with a sigh I realize I must push and be shoved to get my token. I plunge in and hand outstretched, I gauge the minute details of the various hand distances, calculating when I can execute my swoop. The chance presents itself and I step forward and thrust my hand out. Alas, I miscalculate the distance and a young man in his 20’s snakes his hand under mine and gets the plastic blue treasure first. I oscillate between a blood boiling rage and a crazy Jack Nicholson in The Shining laugh. I sigh and finally manage to push my way in the half moon and get my beat up token.
Last week I waited on the street in front of a small bakery for the bread to be pulled out of the oven. I faced the little closed window through which I was going to do my transaction, money ready in my hand. I watched the baker pull the golden loaves from the rustic light blue stone oven and slide them on the ancient looking wooden table, covered with linen cloth. Despite myself, I felt saliva gather in my mouth.
The baker reached for the window and at the same time I saw a woman approach from my left side. I shifted my feet, took a breath and got ready for my usual:
“Zdrastvuyte, dve pazhalsta.” Hello, two (loaves) please, to get my bread.
Nevertheless, the woman swooped in, her right arm with four one-thousand sum bills outstretched. As in a flawlessly coordinated operation, she managed to push her money in the baker’s face in the same move as he opened the window. She said something in Uzbek to him, he took the money, slid four bread loaves in a black plastic bag and handed it to her. This whole transaction happened inches from my face. As she waddled away, I barely managed to say my spiel and receive my long awaited fare.
You’d think I’d be used to this by now and deal with it accordingly. It all depends on the day. On a good day, I stand back and let the locals engage in their oblivious push and shove. My breathing is calm and I am simply grateful my home is in a country where this behavior is unacceptable. On other days, I get ragingly mad and deliver eat shit looks that are met with a wide eyed, non-comprehending stare. On those days, I take every opportunity to push my way in, talk over someone else and get my way. It’s the only approach I know in order to keep my small world in balance and not go insane.
A Different Kind of Advent Calendar a.k.a. The Countdown to My PET Scan
I never had that cool Advent calendar with chocolates behind each paper window as a kid.
I just watched the dates change to double digits, then blend into the twenties, until finally Christmas descended like a soft pine smelling cloud full of excitement, lit up candles, pastries, and mysterious boxes under the tree which mostly bore my name.
As I got older, Christmas became a day to get things I needed anyway. Merging into adulthood, it morphed into a long-awaited time off work.
Then came July 2012 and May 2013. Eye melanoma and breast cancer.
Two diagnosis within 10 months of each other, combined with a recurrence of the first cancer, mangled my perception of time.
Since then, my life was no longer divided into seasons, holiday vacation countdowns, days off work or other celebrations.
It reduced itself into anxiety and despair filled segments of time, length of which was dictated by surgeries, PET scans, waiting for their results, biopsies, waiting for those results, MRIs, blood work, days till chemotherapy, days till I felt better after chemotherapy, days till next chemotherapy, weeks till another eye ultrasound, months till next PET scan.
Days. Weeks. Months.
Seasons changed unnoticed, Christmases melted away uncelebrated, birthdays blew by unmarked. When my phone rang, instead of feeling a jolt of excitement at who was calling me, I spiraled into an abyss of anxiety, my heart pounding, throat closing up in anticipation of more bad news.
And now, here we have another Christmas and another New Year’s. Another set of time segments. But mine don’t end on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve. Mine end on January 11 in NYC and January 13 in Washington, D.C. Eye check and ultrasound and a whole body PET scan.
Despite my best efforts, I am slowly whirling down the black hole of anticipation, down the hungry coil of anxiety, of the worst case scenarios, of the what ifs.
I frantically try to guide my brain, forcing it into mindfulness and relaxation and imagining happy places. I fill my lungs with slow breaths, counted breaths, deep breaths, conscious breaths. I distract myself with work. With cooking. With staying awake until my eyes water.
But it’s not working. The cancer fear has poked its way out of the shadows of my memory, and now its head is too big to stick it back into the hole.
It grows. Every day. It inflates like a hot air balloon with some mad man keeping the gas on full throttle. It advances like a dark tsunami. It’s swirling closer and closer like a sandstorm.
And it won’t be over until mid-January.
Do I lose my eye? Will there be recurrence with no treatment available? What about metastasis? I recall my eye doctor telling me the odds for recurrence are 25%-40%. Than, the nasty little voice in my head whispers the inevitable truth that the chances of a successful treatment of melanoma metastasis are next to nothing. How long do I have? And what about the other cancer?
I cross the days on my desk calendar with red exes. My eyes widen as the December days advance. I dread the time when they reach the twenties. I am terrified of when they spill over to the New Year.
I will stop crossing them as they reach double digits in January.
I will be too frozen with fear.
UZBEKISTAN: Let There Be No Oxygen, a.k.a. the Russian Workout
“Raise your step today”, said my Russian gym teacher and pointed to the stepper we used at the beginning of each leg class.
I hesitantly turned my stepper over and slowly pried away the grey risers. My gym teacher lost her patience, marched over and quickly attached them to a position that was even higher than I planned on doing. I turned my stepper over and stared at the nearly 40cm obstacle spreading before me.
Shortly after we had settled in Tashkent, my friends and I had joined one of the very few local fitness clubs. The only customers at our location were foreigners, including many Russians. The membership fees were on par with the US rates so I imagine this limited the clientele quite a bit. We had decided to ease our way back into the gym world by attending some of the classes.
What we did not count on was the local belief in the wickedness of fresh and, God forbid, cool air. Every morning when we arrived to the gym, we found the air in the main weight room heavy with aromas of various sweat secretions of several steroid induced looking men, paired with a hot stream of air coming out of the heaters located around the room.
“The gym must be maintained at 25 degrees Celsius!” Was the rule of the Russian thumb. That translated into 77F. I found using the cardio machines more of a workout for my red blood cells and how good they were in carrying as little oxygen to my vital organs as possible.
Once, sweating profusely, I asked one of the trainers who hung around the gym, to turn on one of the many stationery fans attached around the perimeter of the room. He looked at me quizzically, raised his eyebrows and shook his head, not grasping what I wanted. I added hand motions for a fan and for turning things on, using different Russian words to describe what I wanted, all the while walking towards the fan. Finally, it clicked in his head, and, though reluctantly, he turned the fan on. My face was hit with a beautiful breeze of air and I closed my eyes in relief. I snapped them back open when the breeze changed into a faint puff because he turned the fan on the lowest speed possible.
The class exercise room, where our leg lessons took place, had the heater set at 31 Celsius (87.8F).
The trainer turned the music on so loud I felt like I was in the first row at a rock concert. I watched her tap the remote control button higher and higher, the digital display for the volume climbing well past 50. I glanced down at my raised step and dread came over my body.
The lesson started. The trainer tried to scream the changes of the movements over the music to no avail as we flailed through the warm up exercise. Five minutes later, my forehead covered in sweat, I looked back at the heater with its evil red “on” light. I couldn’t help the impulse to shake my head.
The aerobic portion of the class continued. We started jumping forward and backwards over the step. Since mine was raised so high, I found it impossible to step backwards without twisting my body and looking where I was going. The mad pace of the songs didn’t help either.
Finally, even the trainer thought that the room may be too hot and went to the back to turn the heater off. I did a double take and signaled to my friend:
“Holy shit, she actually turned it off!!”
The lesson continued and even though the room had plenty of free weights and weight bars for each person to use as their abilities allowed, the teacher insisted on doing a workout with body resistance only. This would have been OK, even better than weights, if she actually showed the lower and higher level of each exercise. Instead, she settled into a manic pace of high reps of the most advanced exercises I know, screaming over the music:
“Ah-deen, dva, tri, cheteere…” One, two, three, four… “Come on, girls, let’s go!”
Our eyes bulged with effort, rolling around as she stopped doing the exercise herself and walked around the gym, adjusting our postures into the impossible perfection of the movements.
One song ended and as we grabbed for our towels to wipe the waterfall of sweat from our faces, she yelled:
“Grab a weight bar!”
Finally, I thought, we would do some normally paced exercise where I could maintain a good form. My joy was short lived. She instructed us to lay the bar on the floor and we started a never-ending session of jumping back and forth over the bar.
The temperature in the room with tightly closed windows kept climbing and the oxygen levels kept dropping. My vision darkened a little and I slowed the pace of the jumps. I heard as if through a pillow the teacher’s voice slicing through the music:
“….six, seven, eight…again! One, two…..eight, AGAIN!”
I lifted my eyes off the ground and my head spun. I felt my heart speeding up faster and faster and my breath getting caught in my chest despite the asthma medicine I used earlier. My throat felt tight as I attempted to keep jumping. My armpits were slick with sweat, my body covered like if I stepped into a downpour. The wail of the decibels crushed me to the ground.
How many of these sets have we done already? The last rational section of my brain signaled through my rising panic.
And then something happened.
Maybe it was that last portion of my sanity, maybe it was my self-preservation instinct.
My body gave up and I couldn’t lift my legs anymore. I stood there frozen, hearing the counts like through a fog. The heat and used up air in the room swirled around me. I felt the sting of tears in my eyes. I couldn’t even do a simple exercise. I was THAT fucked up. Was it the cancer that did this to me? Would I have been able to do this had I not been sick before? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I just couldn’t do it. I looked around at others, who, while visibly struggling, were still doing it.
I grabbed my inhaler and ran out of the room. I don’t remember coming down the two sets of stairs and crashing through the doors of the cloakroom. I ran into the bathroom, slammed the door shut and sunk to the floor.
I gasped for air while heaving with sobs, tears running down my face, my body convulsing in self-pity of my very first real anxiety attack. The tiled tan floor of the bathroom glistened indifferently, cooling my hands and legs.
Several minutes later, my breathing returned to normal and I just sat there, shoulders slumped, tears flowing over my cheeks. I felt tired and angry and sad.
I felt like the cancer won again. It had lurked in the back of my brain for any opportunity to peek back out and that day it won. It overwhelmed me with its negativity, its strength and its malice. I felt like I failed.
I failed to hold up that barrier against the fear of recurrence that gnawed at my conscience every minute of my life. I failed at keeping the bad thoughts at bay. I failed at stopping the panic that had consumed me ever since July 3, 2012. I failed at not letting my anxiety affect my life. I failed at a simple exercise. I cursed my body and its low red blood cell counts, its low platelets and its messed up chemistry after chemo. How long was this going to spill into every activity I did?
I got up and washed my face, sticky with sweat and tears. I looked at myself in the mirror, water dripping into the sink below, my nose red, cheeks and forehead blotchy, lips swollen. I wiped my face with a scratchy paper towel, took a deep breath and opened the door. Nobody else was in the cloakroom. I walked around the lockers a few times, taking deep breaths.
I came back to the class. The trainer signaled over the shrieking of the music if I was OK. I nodded. Somehow, on the way back up the stairs to the class, my sorrow transformed into anger, and I used this jolt of resolve to march over to the window and open it. A breeze of fresh, oxygen filled air hit my face. I turned back to the class glancing at my mates, gesturing if that was OK. They all nodded with various degrees of approval. I didn’t care. I looked at the teacher.
“Challenge me.” My eyes said to her.
She didn’t say anything. I felt the bounce of a small victory.
I finished the session by doing exercises on the floor, which, though overly advanced once again for our class, were adaptable if one decided to ignore the pace screams of the teacher. I was able to calm down so much, I didn’t even care when several minutes later, the teacher walked over to the window and closed it again, saying:
“Very dangerous. When we exercise on the floor. Cool air. Aw-chen ah-pasna. Very dangerous.”
Christ, I thought, I wanted to punch her in the face. But I didn’t care. Those few minutes of my small victory changed the air in the room enough to be able to finish the exercise in peace.
I never took another class again. Except for Zumba. Because we actually have a teacher who likes to breathe and doesn’t mind the, God forbid, 65 degree outside air flowing into the room.
UZBEKISTAN: The Little Green Running Man and Why Are All the Cars White?
I thought I knew how to cross a busy city street. I grew up in a city and have been crossing streets since I was 5 years old. I lived in New York and in D.C. I was fine.
Then I moved to Tashkent.
Tashkent’s roads are either huge boulevards with at least six lanes of traffic going each way or small crater and pot hole filled streets with variously made and sized speed bumps. I once made a mistake of riding in a friend’s car on my husband’s lap and by the end of the 5-minute trip my head probably bumped out a new shape in the car’s roof.
The first week my husband and I were in Tashkent, we needed to cross a wide boulevard, or yo’li in Uzbek. We found what resembled a crossing, which meant a break in the cement block barrier that separated the traffic directions. We could have braved the non-official crossings and crawl over the barriers like the locals; however, we decided for what we thought was a safer approach.
We stood at the edge of the road, cars whizzing by at what appeared to be highway speed. Suddenly all tiny cars braked to a halt, their drivers leaning forward with the momentum, their rearview mirror decorations swinging violently. We glanced up to the semaphore and saw the familiar green man implying we should walk. We briskly crossed the first half of the road and stepped on to the second half. This was only about 6 seconds into the green man appearing.
Suddenly, the green man started rapidly moving his LED legs. We were about half way through the second half of the road. Abruptly, the little green running man disappeared. At the same exact moment, all tiny white cars lunged forward, their drivers’ wild dark eyes reflecting their faraway destination.
We found ourselves stuck with three more lanes of traffic to cross. Cars were accelerating all around us, swerving, honking. For a moment, we just stood there stunned, not sure if we should run back to the middle or push forward. We instinctively grabbed each others’ elbows and jumped and weaved our way across the three remaining lanes.
There were some streets where the little green man ran from the start. If we saw that, we knew we had less than 10 seconds to cross the road.
Sometimes the semaphores didn’t work at all. I learned that with my friend on our way to the gym. We needed to cross a busy road right next to a large traffic circle. We approached, and to our horror saw, that the light was broken. We stood indecisively at the edge of the road as the cars hurried by.
Suddenly, a car in a lane closest to us slowed down and stopped. The driver honked and was furiously waving his hand for us to cross. This was nerve-wracking because we weren’t sure drivers in other lanes were going to follow suit. Nonetheless, we needed to cross the street so we stepped in. The only condolence was that we knew that Uzbek law said that if a vehicle hits a pedestrian, it is always the vehicle’s fault. We managed to run across the street safely.
Two months of doing this and now I am not as scared and go into traffic like the locals. The cars will stop or veer around. I hope.
Veering brings me to another interesting observation. Apparently, traffic lanes are not something to be followed here in Tashkent. The way the traffic flows is the way of least resistance. Meaning that if there is a spot, you take it. If that means driving ON the line, it’s fine. If that means passing a car with an inch or two to spare, it’s fine. If that means honking and pushing your way to a place you want to be, it’s fine. I dread the day I sit behind the wheel here. Unless I am in a tank and can disappear in case of an accident.
I already mentioned the metro police a couple times. Now that I have been here longer, I have been checked more times than I can count. It is always a combination of backpack or a bag search, followed by an inquiry if I am a tourist, followed by a request for a passport. If the police feel extra bored, they follow up with questions about where I am from and verifying my name. But it’s all good because I have nothing to hide besides my stinky gym sneakers and a sports bra. And they salute me in the end.
Finally, one last interesting thing on the traffic theme is the almost complete lack of colored cars. I would say 90% of the cars are white and are a Chevy Spark. At first I was perplexed and thought that maybe the government only allows certain colors but then I was educated that white is the cheapest color and you can’t see dust on it as much as on colored cars. That’s not to say there aren’t any hued vehicles. The Russian car Lada comes in all sorts of colors from pea green to deep blue to yellow and orange, beautiful red or brown. It kind of reminds me of this Noam Chomsky quote:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
In other words, if you want a colored car, you will only be given Lada, but hey, you can have ANY color you want.
On that note, having grown up riding in one, I hope I never ever have to drive it here. Stay tuned for more from Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
UZBEKISTAN: “But, Officer, These Are Just Cinnamon Sticks!”
Three weeks after our first plunge in the Chorsu bazaar, we decided to try it again. This time, we used the correct metro exit and once again were assaulted by the bright sunshine and dry heat reaching mid-90s.
Chorsu bazaar consists of several large areas, each serving a different purpose. There are the little walkways or one could say – narrow streets – that resemble a frantic anthill. Covered, but open air halls display every produce and spice imaginable. Large glassed-in room houses ovens and bread stalls where doves fly in through the top open windows and swoop in to steal bread crumbs left behind. A big blue dome covers a meat market.
We decided to walk through the ant hill first. We stumbled on the uneven pavement, ditching the street vendors that set up their shops smack in the middle of the stream of people instead of the side of the street, we ignored the outstretched hands offering the latest fashions, and we weaved around people stopping to buy a shashlik. The medley of faces, flowy colorful clothes, squinting eyes, beaded brown foreheads, kids sprinting among the grown-up’s legs, and the smells of grilled meat and spices made our heads spin.
My sunglasses started to slip down my sweaty nose and my shirt stuck to my back. My husband, usually able to withstand a lot more heat and chaos than me, looked at me and said:
“Well, I had just about enough of this, do you wanna go see the dome?”
I breathed out with relief. We would save the anthill for next time.
The blue dome was the meat dome, as we found out when we walked in. Meat, bones, animal carcasses and butcher knives stained with blood laid on blocks of marble that served as cutting boards. The combination of the smell and the prior implied death paired with a sighting of an undisputable head of a horse, laying skinned and lifeless at one stall filled my eyes with tears. I felt heavy as if all the animal souls hovered over the milling people and vapors of their own flesh, gazing at all of us with sad eyes.
We emerged on the other side of the dome and walked up the steps to the vegetable and fruit market. We were somewhat familiar with that portion of Chorsu so we, more successfully than last time, bought the veggies we needed. We also ended up with an extra kilo of cucumbers.
The reason why was the unsurpassed salesmanship of the vendors. We walked up to one middle aged guy, grinning at us with a wide gold capped smile. I greeted him, pointed to the tomatoes and said I wanted three kilograms. He said:
I said: “No, three.” And raised three fingers in the air.
He made a face like Are you sure about that and tilted his way sideways a little.
“Yes”, I said firmly, “Three. Spasiba.”
As he waited for the scale to settle, he reached over to his cucumber basket, pulled one cucumber out, snapped it in half, threw one half in his mouth and thrust the other about an inch from my husband’s mouth. My husband had no choice than to grab it and taste it. The vendor nodded at me to go ahead and taste it too. I obliged, crunching on a delicious cucumber mixed with sand that covered it and we couldn’t wash off.
“OK”, I gave in, “A kilo of the cucumbers too.”
The vendor beamed and as we were walking away, he handed me a small red apple and said:
“Padarok”. A gift.
It was my turn to beam and say: “Spasiba balshoe.”
We finished our shopping by buying a bunch of cinnamon sticks tied with a colorful thread because we planned on using the local apples to make our own apple sauce.
We walked back to the metro, sun in our backs and made our way down the stairs and through the glass doors. At every metro station was a policeman or two with an airport like wand, checking people’s bags and scanning for metal or anything that could be a potential bomb. At the Chorsu metro stop, there were two police officers, probably because of the bomb that exploded outside about two weeks prior. They wore dark green uniforms and saluted every single person they wanted to check.
We approached as usual, I showed them my small shopping bag filled with bananas, dried apricots and spinach. My husband took off his backpack and the younger policeman of about 25 dug through, looking in each black baggie. He waved his wand over the bag and no beep sounded.
As my husband started to close up his bag, the older policeman leaned in and reached in the backpack again. He pulled out the stack of cinnamon sticks we just bought not even 15 minutes before that.
“What is this?” He inquired, carefully turning it in his hand.
Our eyes widened. In his hand, the cinnamon sticks looked very similar to a bunch of fuses. Oh God. Did he think we had a part of a bomb?
I searched my brain for how to say “cinnamon” in Russian and of course couldn’t figure it out. I attempted at saying it in Czech with a Russian accent. It only produced a deeper furrow in the older policeman’s eyebrows.
My husband tried to gesture to smell it and then made a grating motion as if one would grate the sticks into powder. We would have probably lost in Charades because no one got it. I said in Russian:
“It’s for cooking baked things.” Why couldn’t I be more eloquent, I cursed myself!
Still holding the cinnamon sticks in his hands, the police officer asked:
“Where are you from?”
“Seh-Sheh-Ah”. I used the Russian acronym for USA.
“Amerika?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Are you tourists?” He asked.
I glanced at my husband. He nodded.
The policeman turned the sticks in his hand, smelled them again and said:
“Do you have your passports?”
We both whipped them out. The older guy checked my husband’s and the younger guy checked mine.
“You are a husband and wife?”
My head started swirling with the worst case scenarios. I couldn’t help it. Would they take both of us or just my husband? Would we end up on CNN as the latest example of things going wrong? What would the prison look like? Would we emerge years later, pale and toothless like Papillon? What if a roach crawled in my ear like in Brokedown Palace? What about our dog? Would she die a slow and painful death at the house, forgotten?
“OK”, I heard through the fog of my tale spinning brain. “Thank you.”
My eyes focused on the older policeman. He was saluting us, handing back our passports.
“Enjoy Tashkent.” He smiled.
We walked down the stairs to the platform, not speaking. Then we looked at each other.
“Were you scared?” I asked my husband.
“Hell, yeah”, he said, blinking his eyes.
We sat down on the bench and waited for the train to come. I sighed with relief. I would not have to eat worms in a prison and sign confessions in a language I didn’t understand.
UZBEKISTAN: Tashkent Bazaars, Hard Goat Cheese Balls and a Mountain of Basil
About 15 hours after we landed in Tashkent, my husband and I and a friend who offered to show us around, emerged from the subway at the Chorsu bazaar, one of the oldest open air markets in the city. The sun beamed like a million watt bulb. The beautiful blue sky was cloudless and the street was uneven and dusty.
To the immense amusement of three Uzbek boys, who, without any hiding, watched our every move and hung on our lips for every English word uttered, we oriented ourselves and made our way to the vegetable and fruit section of the bazaar.
As we weaved among people, I heard a distinct singing, coming and going with the ripples of the wind. As we got closer, I saw a middle aged woman, guiding by the elbow about an 80-year-old lady in traditional Uzbek, flowy clothing, who was blind. The blind lady sang what I could only interpret as some kind of an Arabic or Far East song. As they passed us, my head swam with the eeriness of the time and place wormhole we went through less than 24 hours ago.
Armed with our school obtained knowledge of Russian, we plunged in, wanting to stock our pantry. After a couple transactions (peaches, lettuce, onions), it became clear that either our Russian sucked or everybody spoke Uzbek only. We kept getting quizzical looks, answers in Uzbek and had to resort to animated gesturing, pointing, and finger counting. I was fairly certain of what I was saying in Russian, so I contributed it all to the fact that we were possibly the only “westerners” in the market and that most merchants there were from Uzbekistan’s country side where Russian was spoken very sparsely. With sweat sliding down my back and jet lag telling me it was really only 3 AM, I started to feel deflated.
And then I saw the dedushka with his babushka who had a pile of dark blue blackberry looking berries on a wooden table, next to which stood an old timey metal juice press. She would grab a handful and throw it in, and he would catch the dark velvety liquid in a bottle. I mustered up my damaged Russian speaking ego and said, in Russian:
“Can I buy a bottle of this juice?”
And to my enormous joy, not only did dedushka understand, he replied, and I understood too! I bought the biggest bottle of juice he had (which was only about the size of a large Worcestershire sauce bottle) and we proceeded to have a conversation (!) about where I was from and when I arrived.
Before we left, we walked by two large tables, saddled with various sized, off-white, smooth, perfectly round balls. Four men stood behind the tables and as soon as my eyes wandered in the balls direction, they started gesturing and extending their hands with smaller balls in them, enticing me to come closer. As if by some magnetic force, I stepped up to the table and one of the men crushed one of the small balls between his fingers and handed it to me.
For a brief moment, I panicked, not knowing what to do. Was I supposed to smell it or eat it? Was this soap or cheese? Or was this something completely different? I took the crushed ball and brought it up to the area between the nose and the lips. I took a deep whiff. It was cheese. I put it in my mouth and tasted one of the best flavors in a long time. Four sets of dark eyes hung on my facial expression. I smiled. As soon as I did that, one of the men whipped out a clear plastic baggie and asked how many and which balls I wanted. I bought six grape sized balls. Everybody was happy.
Two weeks later, my husband and I alone, ventured to another bazaar in Tashkent. This one was called Oloy in Uzbek or Alayski in Russian. It was in a different part of town and also featured copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. When we arrived, we first did a fast walk through, trying to ignore all the calling and enticing.
Despite our pace, a teenage Gypsy girl approached us begging for money. She was very persistent and marched alongside us despite our attempts to shake her off by performing moves that any football player would be proud off. In the end she grabbed my arm and tried to pull me towards her. I whipped my arm out of her grasp and firmly said No in Russian. She took a few more steps with us and then gave up. Maybe I should have given her something, maybe not. But for some reason I got another eerie feeling, but not a good one this time.
We ended up buying 27 different items: onions, potatoes, spinach, basil, lettuce, radishes, garlic, lemons, limes, pomegranates, oranges, avocados, nectarines, bananas, apples, raspberries, strawberries, rosehips, honey with the comb still in the jar, red peppers, eggplant, arugula, beets, squash, saffron from Iraq, peppermint loose leaf tea and a spice wheel. All fresh, all organic, all tasting like heaven.
When we were getting the basil and spinach, we stood by a row of three different vendor ladies, each selling the same assortment of vegetables. We veered towards one, and as my husband was picking the basil bunches, the other ladies were calling me:
“Devushka! Devushka! Posmotri…” And pointed to the vegetables they had.
I felt bad and decided that we should split our purchases, Robin Hood style. So we ended up buying basil from one, spinach from the other and radishes from the third. Everybody was happy again.
When we got home, we spent several hours in the kitchen, peeling, cutting and preparing the loot for the freezer so we could enjoy all this beauty when the winter comes. I must have pinched of the biggest mountain of basil leaves in my life so far and we both tasted the best nectarines ever.
Every day now when I open our kitchen pantry cupboard, I smell the tea leaves and think of the Oloy bazaar.
UZBEKISTAN: All Humans Aboard!
On the day of our flight to Tashkent, I woke up with a giant headache. I wasn’t sure if it was because of all the crying I did the day before when I left our dog at the pet shipper, or because of the beer and wine I had, trying to suppress the thoughts of our dog at the shipper.
We packed up all remaining toiletries and lined up our luggage, crossing our fingers it passed the dimension and weight restrictions at the airport. While trying to deliver all of them into the lobby of the hotel, we got momentarily imprisoned in the hotel elevator that operated only after swiping the room keys. Both our keys only produced a red light and the elevator stood still. We stood in it, pressing the “open door” button to no avail. The elevator started magically moving only after my brain whizzed through all of the worst case scenarios possible, including us missing the flight and having to pee inside the elevator.
Instead of relying on the somewhat incompetent clerks at the hotel for a taxi, I thought I would outsmart everyone and call an Uber, saving us a lot of money…I thought.
One shiny black Suburban, a suit wearing driver and an EZ pass zip-through the traffic of DC, we swooped in the one and only remaining spot for unloading at the Lufthansa airport curbside. We tipped the driver and after a minor struggle with the pay-for luggage carts, we rolled in the airport hall. I checked my phone and saw an email from Uber. Smiling, I opened the email, only to have my mouth drop open at the $146 charge. Insert wah-wah sound.
After we successfully checked all of our bags in, we were funneled through the fastest security check I have ever been through. I mean – I didn’t have to take my laptop out, I didn’t have to take off shoes, nothing. Later, we strolled through the airport and saw the boarding of the flight that our dog was booked to travel on to Frankfurt. I wanted to call out to her: “We are here! Don’t be scared!” And wished I could have reached through the thick window pane and the belly of the plane and pet her one more time.
A couple hours later, we were boarding another Frankfurt bound airplane. The flight went surprisingly well even though I sat in the middle seat. The stranger on my left was a small, older lady, who struggled with every gadget, including the lamp, the headphones and the recline button.
To my immense surprise and relief, no one in front of us reclined their seat. I spent the 7-hour flight watching Taken 2 and Hot Pursuit, which were perfectly interrupted by meal and snack services. The flight attendants were all German, pretty and looked like the make-up ladies in the mall.
In Frankfurt, our next task was to figure out how to get the boarding passes for the Uzbekistan flight since they were not issued to us in D.C. I found a German brochure called something like “The Transit” and as I was squinting, deciphering the German words and sentences for any semblance of what we should do since there wasn’t an Uzbek desk/gate, my husband calmly slipped in front of my face the English version of the same brochure he picked up from the same stand.
On the way to the Uzbek flight gate, I collected all my nerves and checked the tracking status of our dog. If everything went according to the plan, she should have been in Frankfurt as well. My hands shook as I connected to the internet and typed in “Lufthansa cargo tracking”. A window popped up and I entered her shipment number. I held my breath. A page loaded and, thanks to German accuracy and preciseness, I was immediately able to tell that our dog did indeed make it to Frankfurt and was received at the pet hotel. For the second time in 24 hours, my stomach unknotted itself and I started breathing again.
The English brochure told us to just go on to the Uzbek flight gate and get our boarding passes there. The girl at the desk was nice and reminded me of Selena. She checked our passports and typed on the computer. A couple seconds later, two boarding passes shot out with such force that they flew out of the machine and on the floor. As we were about to walk away, I asked:
“Are we next to each other?”
The girl gave me a quizzical look.
“I mean, like, are we sitting in seats that are together?”
She reached out to look at the tickets and shook her head. My husband and I looked at each other.
“Well, could we sit together?” I asked.
She proceeded to type again and, this time catching the boarding passes before they landed on the floor, handed me two tickets that were indeed for seats next to each other.
“OK, thank you.” I said, watching her as she gazed at me with what I interpreted as a still not comprehending look of why I wanted this change to be made.
When the time for boarding the plane arrived, we experienced for the first time what we were told to be prepared for with the Uzbek culture: the very much reduced or practically non-existent personal space.
We were all told to go downstairs and board a bus that would take us to the airplane. After standing back, trying to fit in some kind of a line, we realized that this concept was not getting us anywhere, so we plunged in and rubbed shoulders and pushed bags until we were seated in our seats on the plane.
After the plane took off, I remarked on how empty it was. Only about half the seats were taken. And precisely because of this fact, I was even more perplexed why the gate girl wouldn’t seat my husband and me together. Another mystery for me was that fact that we had a third person in our row of seats even though there were several completely empty rows of seats all over the plane.
The guy that sat next to me (I was in the middle again) had so much cologne of a mysterious smell on that my eyes watered and I coughed several times. I tried to breathe as little as possible but when I started feeling the first tickle of asthma, I leapt out of my chair, crawled over my husband and walked in the back of the plane where two of the flight attendants took up the entire back row of 2+3+2 seats.
I asked in Russian:
“Excuse me, is there a way my husband and I could switch seats and go sit somewhere else. There is a man with a very strong cologne and it is making me sick.”
The girl lifted her eyes and said:
“No, all of these are occupied.”
I glanced around the empty seats next to her and wondered when the airline rules changed that flight attendants sat in regular customer seats. Since I already hadn’t slept for about 24 hours at that point, I just nodded and started to walk away, when she added:
“You can sit in any other rows if you want.”
I got back to our seat and just ended up switching my chair with my husband because by then, other people also figured out that the seats are empty and took them up accordingly.
During the snack and drink time, I noted with curiosity that a lot of Uzbeks (or at least I assumed they were) ordered tomato juice and a coke. At the same time.
I spent the rest of the flight watching badly dubbed movies until I finally searched my way through to the movie about Stephen Hawking. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing but I watched it anyway to pass time.
When we landed at 9:30 PM Tashkent time, we realized we were the only plane to land for many hours and probably the last one that night. Everybody was ready for us and the processing was surprisingly painless. We were whisked away and through the lit city to our house while driving around monumental buildings, huge parks and Uzbek flags everywhere because we just happened to arrive during the Uzbekistan’s Independence holidays.