UZBEKISTAN: You Gotta Be Pushy a.k.a. The Uzbek Style Queue

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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.

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