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.