Blogging in the Bahamas: Two Days Outta Sight

“Travel was the most comforting and illuminating escape I could make from the political chaos back home.” – Ben Rhodes, After the Fall (2021), page xv

I hadn’t planned on blogging while in the Bahamas. That was until I arrived and saw the drummer greeting passengers fresh off the plane. He looked like he had strayed from a wandering Marti Gras parade and wound up alone at Lynden Pindling International Airport outside Nassau. He was covered head to toe in a blue and yellow glittery getup, banging away on a large drum that may or may not have had to pass through airport security. It was like he was welcoming our entire plane of passengers even though we all weren’t necessarily traveling together. Everyone glanced at him judgingly while in-stride, likely not thinking about the time ahead when he would soon stop drumming and how quiet the gate arrival area would be without his banging. At immigration, the officer I faced first had me remove the leather cover covering my passport – standard procedure.

“Wat’s da purpose of yah visit?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” I couldn’t quite hear her as a band was now playing nearby. Why would the airport hire a band to play near immigration?

“Purpose of yah visit?” she repeated – her gum-chewing rhythmically unenthusiastic.

“Vacation,” I said. This was the same language used on the immigration form for new arrivals.

“You stayin’ adda ‘illcrest ‘otel? I nevah errda it.”

“It’s a hostel,” I said, pretending I had any authority in the matter.

“’Ow many nights ya stayin?”

“Two nights, ma’am.”

Stamp.

“Welcome tadda Ba’amas. Enjoyya stey.”

I walked to an information desk just to get a rough estimate on a taxi into town.

“‘ello sah,” the gentleman seated behind the info desk said.

“Hey, how you doing? Can you tell me how much a taxi is into town? I’m just curious.”

“Seven hundred and fifty-nine dollars,” he said slowly with a completely straight face, “an tree pennies.”

“Excuse me?” He repeated his exact figure just as slowly, this time enunciating even more clearly, down to the pennies.

“Is it far?” I asked, already knowing exactly how far it was. He broke character and let out a laugh.

“Brah! I am just trying to get you to relax!” He shouted to his colleague.

“Ey Jerry! Ow much dem taxi downtown braddah?”

“Taxi downtown $30!” Jerry shouted back.

“$30,” he told me straightfaced.

“Thanks,” I said. I left the desk and the airport and walked outside.

Driving into town felt great with green trees, tropical air, and reggae on the radio. But for some reason, it also felt odd at the same time. I couldn’t quite place what it was. The car was in good shape, the roads were smooth, the roundabouts organized, and the driver was chill as could be. What was off? I stared out the window for a moment, then realized that we were driving on the left side of the road. I revisited my brain for lessons on Caribbean history. Not much there. Was the Bahamas a former British colony? Territory? Protectorate? I realized I was completely ignorant about its history. The driver’s seat was on the left side of the car. Was that strange? I just sat, enjoyed the ride, and tried not to overthink. When I got in the taxi, the driver loaded the trunk with other people’s bags, but they were not in the car. I was alone. Did he take their bags out? Were they still in the trunk? Did he make off with a whole family’s collection of belongings? I really didn’t know. I tried not to think about it. And then it was visible – an enormously large cruise ship – possibly the largest I’d ever seen. I had read that the Bahamas was a popular cruise destination, but the size of the water-faring behemoth surprised me. It was larger than any building for miles. The taxi driver got a bit turned around while looking for the hostel. He hadn’t heard of it, which was fine with me. I wasn’t in any particular hurry. I called the hostel phone number, surprised to find I had service in the Bahamas. The driver spoke to whoever it was that picked up. They seemed to understand one another. I couldn’t tell what was being said, though it appeared to be in English. It was a vocabulary and vernacular that I was unfamiliar with.

We found the blue door of the hostel – basically, someone’s house that rents rooms with however many bunk beds they can squeeze in one room. I approached the house, entered through the old wooden blue gate, and immediately thought of Training Day, the 2001 film with Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke set in south/central LA. I smelled pot. A tired-looking, watery-eyed gentleman sat slumped on the porch couch outside, freshly baked from his recent baking session. He greeted me with a lifeless nod and a rumbling grunt. His dreadlocked comrade took my money and showed me to my top bunk inside the house. He had me sanitize my hands and spray by bag with some sort of sanitizing spray, so cleanliness and health/safety precautions were considered.

One of several future roommates was passed out on another bunk. He seemed as though he had been asleep for a while. It was mid-afternoon. I threw my bag down, and the porch-dweller proceeded to light up again outside on the couch, the smoke wafting into the house through the screen-covered open windows. I flipped through a copy of The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) by Paul Theroux on the bookshelf. Various books in various languages strewed its shelves, but this was the best find by far.

I had a walk inland in the sweltering humidity, got some lunch, and quickly retreated back to my room. I charged my phone while the owner and a guest watched the famous 1993 drama Menace II Society. I joined them for a few scenes, gunshots and all, then I headed out again, this time toward the water. I wandered down a narrow one-way street past abandoned houses and smashed-out windows. I was struck by the contrasts of poverty, neglect, and hardship against the mega super-duper yachts and overpriced restaurants along the spotless marina – the apparent discrepancy between those that have and those that haven’t. I observed one large, white, gleaming, and sparkling yacht floating fondly in the harbor. Along its side, its name was written in large silver letters: CUPCAKE. In the distance stood the enormous twin towers of the fading-salmon pinkish giants that make up the Atlantis hotel complex. It was by far the tallest and ugliest building on the island. I took my leave from the marina and headed west on Bay Street toward the tourist district, though most shops were closed by 6pm. I found myself on Shirley Street. After a few more cracked and crooked blocks, I noticed that there were no other pedestrians out whatsoever – a clear sign to me that maybe right now was not the best time to be outside alone. I turned back out of instinct and returned to the hostel to find the credits running for Menace II Society.

In the evening, I observed the strange practices of younger travelers at the hostel as they ignored one another and didn’t greet or introduce themselves. Odd, I thought, for people sharing the same roof and room. It was hot and humid in the evening. I went to bed thinking there would be no way I would be able to sleep, the fan spinning at snail-like speed. The air hung. Warmth sat, and sweat rolled. I waited until the moment in the middle of the night when I expected to expect the unbearable and find myself alone on the living room floor under the somewhat-functioning and more-quickly-spinning fan. Thankfully that never happened. I thought about the lovely hotel/homestay/Airbnb/accommodation that my wife would have found. I felt like I had failed in finding comfortable accommodation. I then remembered the many comments on various travel forums online that I had read: in the Caribbean, you get what you pay for. I shut my eyes while the fan crept along, and the light stayed on. Sunburned twenty-somethings rummaged around and made noise as they didn’t prepare for sleep. I had to smile silently and laugh at myself for the rather randomly ridiculous situations I sometimes find myself in.

“Do you wanna come out with us?” one of the twenty-somethings kindly asked.

“Oh, thank you,” I said. “I would, but I got an early morning tomorrow,” hinting at the fact that I would be up early and making an equal amount of noise to what they were making now. “You guys have fun, though,” I said. It was kind of her to invite me out with them. They left, and the room got quiet except for the bugs outside. I took deep breaths and wondered if sleep would come anytime soon. The twenty-somethings returned right on time – around 2:30am – making enough drunken noise to wake a hibernating bear.

I woke before sunrise in the morning to teach my online class in a time zone nine hours away. The rain came down as the sun rose, and little water droplets splashed through the screened open kitchen window. After the sun rose, I set out down the road toward downtown Nassau. Outside of the main tourist area, the city is in rough shape. After breakfast, I headed toward the central church, near which I met two gentlemen, one of whom quickly disappeared. The other ended up chatting for a bit. He read my t-shirt.

“Recycled Cycles? Wuss that?”

“It’s like a community bike shop,” I told him.

“Oh, thass coo, thass coo. And where might that be located?”

“Seattle, Washington. My hometown. You been there?”

“Yeah, man, I was up there years ago. I remember y’all used to have that basketball team up there. What were they called? The… the…”

“The Seattle Supersonics.”

“That’s right, that’s right. The Supersonics. Man, back in the day, I used to like that one player y’all had up there. What was his name? Man, he was fun to watch.”

“Shawn Kemp?”

“Shawn Kemp! Yes!”

“Number 40.”

“Yeah, man. I used to love watching him play. He was so good in his position, you know? He was really something to watch.”

“Sure was.”

“Hey listen, man, I’m out here living on the street, and I wanna buy some tea. Could you throw me a couple dollars to get some tea?”

“Yeah, man, I gotchu.” I gave him 5 bucks.

“Thanks, brother. I appreciate it.”

“No worries, man. Take care.”

I made my way through the straw market, then up the hill toward the GreyCliff Cigar Factory. Cuban flags and Spanish serenades adorned the walls, adding to the smoky environment inside the factory. When I first thought about what I thought a cigar factory might look like, I imagined an assembly-line-filled room with high ceilings and busy, noisy machines pumping and pressing tobacco around the clock. In reality, the GreyCliff Cigar Factory is just a room. It had about half a dozen workers slowly and carefully rolling huge meaty cigars. Each worker had their phone out in front of them with one video or another playing their favorite show or soap opera. They ignored me as I walked around and observed their work. One woman had a smoldering cigarette in an ashtray next to her phone while she rolled her cigars and half-watched/half-listened to the show on her phone. She puffed on her fading cigarette every so often, taking a brief break from her laborious cigar rolling. I left the factory to booming, cannonball thunder and flashes of bright, startling lightening. Then the rain came down. It poured. It dumped. It fell in buckets. I took shelter across the street in a building that happened to be home to a wine tasting room.

“Welcome to Ba’ama Barrels,” said the woman behind the counter. She had already started pouring wine into tiny, clear, plastic shot glasses. “Da firs shot free, den six shots fah five bucks,” she said. Really? The room was empty aside from her. I sat down. Three shots in, I was feeling it. Better than being caught outside in the rain, I thought. A bottle was only $7. I had nothing better to do, but I passed on purchasing a bottle as I could not take it back through airport security tomorrow, and I didn’t really want to drink the whole thing in the evening. The rain let up for a few minutes while I headed back into town. As soon as I got there, it started dumping again. I ducked into a cafe, grabbed an espresso, and waited it out. Some drunk people began arguing in the back of the cafe, so I left. The rain eventually stopped. I grabbed some lunch and headed back to the hostel, dodging splashes and sprays from cars passing through newly-formed puddles. During my walk, I found where the 12b bus – the one that went to the airport – was located. I found the loosely defined bus stop and the 12b parked with a few guys lounging inside, including the driver who had his bare feet up on the dash. I knocked on the tinted window before he pulled his feet back and slid back the sliding glass window.

“Yessah,” he said.

“Hey, you go to the airport?”

“Yessah,” he repeated.

“What time you leave in the morning?”

“Start 6am, go evry ‘af our.”

“Great. See you tomorrow.”

“Yessah.”

I chatted with one of the twenty-somethings back at the hostel before I took a nap. Turns out she wasn’t twenty-something at all. She was eighteen. I said I’d been 18 for eighteen years. She didn’t get it. I dried my shoes in front of the fan for a while, then headed back toward the marina for dinner. The evening felt more humid than the evening before. Apparently, the hostel owner had a policy whereby he would not allow tenants to turn on their air conditioning units until 8:30pm. I checked out early in the morning, meaning I just packed up and threw my sheets in a giant rubber bin in the entryway. I had breakfast in town and found the 12b to the airport. The driver had two oversized purple dice hanging from his rear-view mirror. One passenger had on a beanie. I had no idea how he was surviving in this heat and humidity with a wool cap covering his noggin. The Air Jordan beanie was too small for him; Jordan’s legs were stretched so tight around this man’s head that it looked like he was doing the splits in midair – a perfect 180-degree angle of his legs spread apart horizontally. He looked more like a flying gymnast than a basketball player. I was the only white person on the bus. On the way, people would shout “bus stop, drivah!” to get the driver to stop at the next bus stop. One thing I liked about riding the bus here was listening to passengers greet one another as they boarded. Plus, the bus was about 20 times cheaper than a taxi.

Going through airport security, I was stopped because I had a small (125ml) bottle of Haitian rum with me – a gift for a friend back state-side.

“What’s dis?” the security officer asked as he felt the side of my bag.

I pulled out what he was feeling. It was a small container of Lady Speed Stick – the only deodorant I could find yesterday.

“Deodorant,” I said. He felt again.

“No, dis. What’s dis?” Now he found the rum. I pulled it out and placed it in the gray plastic bin on the metal table in front of me. He picked it up and looked at it.

“125ml…” he mumbled. “Usually, we only allow 100ml trew e’ah.”

“Oh dear,” I offered, knowing all I could do at this point was play dumb.

“Next time braddah, keep it undah 100ml, OK?”

“Understand.”

“Das straight den.”

I boarded the plane, said bye-bye to the Bahamas, and flew back to Washington.

Chișinău or Never: Three Days in Moldova

“Moldova lacks much of what would make it obviously attractive to tourists.

– Rebecca Haynes, Moldova: A History (2020), page 15

Street art in Chișinău

When I write one of these now-rather-infrequent blog posts, they’re often a mixture of something between expectation and surprise, something novel, or something that gets my attention in a unique way that tells me, like a bell: I should really write about this. Often it’s something funny, quirky, absurd, bizarre, strange, or even sweet. Other times it can be even rather ordinary, but for some reason, I feel compelled to write about it, even if I might forget about it later, which I certainly do sometimes. Similar to my last few trips, I knew no one in Moldova and had no other reason to go there. Usually, I start these pieces by beginning at the beginning – setting out on foot (usually in the cold, dark, early hours of the morning) to try and catch a cab to the airport with varying levels of efficiency, speed, and grace. Then I’ll write about the drab, repetitive, and rather-mind-numbing process that is boarding an international flight in Tashkent. I’ll comment on the non-existence of orderly lines, the absence of anywhere quiet to sit, and the general dourness of air travel without the joys of sunlight, minus the occasional sunrise here and there. I usually write about that whole process of proceeding because I am just excited to be going anywhere at all. I wanted to tell myself that I wasn’t going to do that this time, except that I totally did that this time.

I will say that I was strangely over-excited to even transit through the Moscow airport. Russia, the largest country in the world, has always fascinated me and been high on my list, and not just because it’s big, nor because it forever looms in the background of many conversations in Central Asia. No; rather, I always dreamt that my first experience pioneering into Russia would be via the great Trans-Siberian Railway while romantically rereading Paul Theroux’s classic travel account, The Great Railway Bazaar, only with a charging iPhone and probably some Wi-Fi. Nevertheless, I was excited to even see the Moscow airport and potentially see a bit of the city, even if just for a day. I wanted to see Red Square, of course, and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, but what I really wanted to see was a statue of a musician born in Baku, Azerbaijan. Mstislav Rostropovich, arguably one of the greatest cellists to have walked the earth, has a statue in Moscow. A passionate and expressive artist, he taught at the Moscow Conservatory of Music for years. I have long wanted to visit his statue, not so much for the photo op, but more for the sense of completing some kind of musical pilgrimage that would be very meaningful to me. Not gonna lie – I’ll probably cry.

Let me back up. I didn’t even make it into Moscow. The week before my flight to Moldova, I visited the Russian embassy near my place in Tashkent, just to see if I could get my hands on a visa that would allow me to leave the Moscow airport – even if just for a few hours – and visit the city, ideally making my musical pilgrimage to see señor Rostropovich. I waited outside the embassy with a group of others for my name to be called. I passed through one checkpoint, then another, then entered a room that was a cross between a doctor’s office waiting room and an old defunct airport terminal. I waited for my number to be called then presented my documents without comment. I imagine the poor visa officer was a little confused as I was merely passing through the Moscow airport without even a terminal change. A man in a suit approached.

“Sir, you are not eligible for a transit visa in Russia as you do not change terminals in the Moscow airport. So, you do not go outside. You do not cross any state border so you not need a visa.”

“Yes, I know,” I said, “but I have a very long layover and I would like to go outside the airport and see the city, just for the day, if that’s possible.”

“Ah, you WANT to go outside?” He seemed surprised by this.

“Yes,” I said. “I would like to go outside and leave the airport, if that’s possible, just for the day.” He seemed to relax a bit.

“Look,” he said, his tone now changed, “now is not a good time. Even with a COVID vaccination and a PCR test, as a citizen of the United States, you will face problems. Now is not a good time for our countries. My advice is that you wait for the situation to improve before you apply for a Russian visa.”

“I understand,” I said. “Thank you.” He again expressed surprise, perhaps because I didn’t push back. But with that, I left. I would see Russia another day.


People that are familiar with my travel habits and preferences know that I enjoy visiting lesser-visited countries – little ones that few people I know have visited. I vaguely remember maybe one person who I somewhat knew once who may have been to Moldova, perhaps. I always like the idea of going to a new place and having no preconceived notions as to what to expect. This means that everything will be new, novel, and awesome, in the “there-will-be-some-awe” sense of the word. I’d heard that Moldova was both Europe’s poorest and least visited country. I wanted to educate myself a bit on Moldova before I left just so I would have some background information about the place before I arrived. I blazed through Stalin’s Asylum: Two Years in Moldova by A.A. Weiss (2018). This was probably my favorite book that I came across about Moldova. A classic Peace Corps story, I appreciated the author’s honesty and humanizing of his Moldovan counterparts, including his fellow teachers, community members, students at his school, and most of all, his host father. It made me reflect on my time in the Republic of Georgia years ago when I lived with a host family there and the drinking, eating, and celebrating we did together.

I tried Hostage to History: Travels in Moldova by Alhil Bakshi (2018), Lost Provence: Adventures in a Moldovan Family by Stephen Henighan (2002), and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis by Tony Hawks (2000) (not to be confused with the famous skateboarder). None of them did it for me. The Bakshi didn’t have a good kindle version (a problem when living in English-book-starved Uzbekistan). The Henighan was too pretentious and the Hawks too ridiculous. I settled on Moldova: A History by Rebecca Haynes (2020). A little more background information than I needed, but it was the best written, the most recent, and certainly the most informative.

“For Western historians and commentators, Moldova and the region to which it belongs have long been considered as part of Europe’s ‘periphery’. Cut off from the cultural and political influences that have created modern Europe, the area is often regarded as a backwater and little more than a curiosity.” (Haynes, 2020, p. 18)

Part of the reason I skipped the midnight travel intro in the dark depicting my short journey to the Tashkent airport was because it didn’t happen. For once, my flight occurred while the sun was up. My wife dropped me off at the airport, which was oh-so civilized and convenient. Strangely, the crowds at the Tashkent International Airport are far less on a Saturday afternoon versus three o’clock in the morning midweek. It was refreshing. I’d never flown with Aeroflot before and I’d only heard bad things, but I was curious to see for myself what the experience would be like. This was to be the first of four Aeroflot flights over the next four days.

Now, the thing about boarding a plane in Tashkent is that you have to be fast. You have to know where to sit, what is going to come next, and how long you will be standing in line. Pro tip: don’t carry and bag that you have to hold with your hand while in line because lines (“lines” – let’s be honest, they are blobs) last a long time. All bags should either be rollers or bags with a strap to sling over your shoulder. Example scenario: while you are seated in the gate waiting area, aurally observing the differences between the three languages in which the announcements are made (Uzbek, Russian, and English) an employee of the airline of your choice will come walking along. Everyone – everyone – will watch them as they walk and observe where they are headed. They will watch their every movement, whether they sneeze, cough, fart, or trip. Then, this observed airline representative will then open a door. The entire population waiting in the waiting area will then all stand up at the same time and begin moving toward the door to follow the aforementioned airline employee to wherever they are going (often this is also the same agent that checks you in for your flight). The now-open door, like a magic gate to the kingdom of Narnia, will cause a line (blob) to form and then immediately funnel, crowding the too-small open door, then squeeze through while noticing that the door could be opened more fully to more comfortably accommodate everyone more easily. The location to which the blob follows is simply down the hall a few meters, at which point the blob will freeze in place, with passengers now standing idly, usually with one or two too many bags in hand. Therefore, people are now all lined up, standing, many carrying or holding all their belongings, their impatience growing by the minute, clearly punctuated by exuberant sighs, the sounds of “ufff”, the clicking of tongues, and small intimate conversations held only by standing passengers waiting with nothing better to do than converse and/or complain (usually a mix of both) in commiseration with their fellow travel companions, most of whom they will likely never see again. Heavy, thick coats slowly become heavier, boarding passes begin flapping like fans even though it’s nearing the winter solstice, and weight gets shifted from foot to foot while the clock continues to tick. Cell phones ring and make noises. “ALO?” you hear. “What time does this plan take off again?” someone asks the crowd in general and no one in particular – basically anyone who can hear it. Answer: it’s written on the ticket. Plus, it doesn’t really matter. It will take off when it takes off. You are a passive participant in this process. Meanwhile, I’m the only one writing about the whole experience like this. It’s almost as if the process is designed to garner the most frustration and disappointment from expectant travelers. And it’s the same every time.

I didn’t see what all the fuss was about regarding being disappointed by or not liking Aeroflot. They seemed fine to me. They were no Emirates or Turkish, but they were certainly at least on par or a step above Uzbekistan Airways. The food was fine (couscous!), the flight attendants were friendly, and they even provided a reminder when three hours had passed for passengers to change their masks. They came by to collect old masks and provide fresh ones. I thought the airline was perfectly fine, based on my experience. No movies though; I guess that would have helped pass the time. Relatedly, what is it about the need for bored airplane passengers to watch the movies on the devices of their neighbors? Why do we do that? Is it a cat-like reflex or instinct to follow anything that moves? Do we think we are going to hear it eventually? Perhaps it is just something to do to take your mind off the monotony of staring at the back of the seat in front of you.

Preparing for the landing in Moscow, it felt like we were flying over an ocean of lights. I thought about other mega-cities like Mexico City or New Delhi. Was Moscow so big? I had no idea. Google: Moscow population. Answer: 12 million. Yep – big. Stepping off the plane in Moscow was like stepping into a walk-in freezer: 4 degrees Fahrenheit, dark, and windy with snow on the ground – piles of it gathered into huge white mounds. I followed the crowd off the plane and into the airport. I diverged from many of the other passengers as I split off toward the International Departures hall, following the International Transfers signs. I presented my documents, followed the path presented before me by those easy-to-follow red cloth tape barriers held up by those metal waist-high poles that every airport in the world uses to create a kind of human maze. I then entered a room that immediately reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was empty of all human life. Had I followed the route correctly? Was I supposed to be here? Am I getting in trouble right now in Moscow? I’m probably being watched, aren’t I? The only thing in the room was a giant luggage scanner that looked like it belonged on a 1980s Soviet space station. I quickly left the strange room, exiting through the only other exit via another large sliding door. Thankfully there was a human on the other side. She dryly checked my documents and gave them a slow, unenthusiastic stamp. At the gate for the flight to Chișinău, a man smoked in the restroom nearby. Smoking in post-Soviet restrooms is nothing new (Tashkent is famous for this), but there was no fan or air circulation whatsoever so the air was heavy with grey smoke wafting slowly throughout.

Flying into Chișinău could not have been more different. Instead of lights everywhere, the ground outside was black. I couldn’t tell if it was an ocean, thick cloud cover, or an extremely dense forest. Whatever it was, there wasn’t a light on in it. Perhaps it was just very foggy. The ground appeared out of nowhere and we hit hard when we landed. The first thing I noticed inside the Chișinău airport was the tourism board’s “Welcome to Moldova” #BeOurGuest hashtag. Echoes of the famous ‘Beauty and the Beast’ song, sung by the animated French candle, came rushing through my mind. I felt welcomed.

Moldovan immigration only asked me one question: “Moskva?”

“Da,” I said. Stamp. I was through. Couldn’t have been easier.

I changed some money, got a SIM card, and caught a cab to the center of town. I was tired. I watched the speckled lights on the hills in the distance flicker while I let the new-country smile naturally spread across my face. The young taxi driver bumped some Russian rap while we rolled into Chișinău just after midnight. I checked into my hotel room, one with wallpaper coving the walls with such inspiring travel phrases as “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” and “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I slept well.

In the morning I had breakfast alone. I’m pretty sure I was the only guest staying at the hotel. I set off on foot into the rain. It was pretty dead in Chișinău on a gloomy Sunday morning in December, although the city buses had Christmas lights on them, which I thoroughly appreciated. I crossed in front of the “Government House of the Republic of Moldova,” a big state-building. I took a picture of it then wondered if that was illegal. I crossed the street over to the Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity while “Baby It’s Cold Outside” was pumped into the streets from one of the local businesses. It was indeed cold outside. I popped into the cathedral to get a taste of the mass in progress. The place was packed. It can be a powerful and moving experience being inside an ancient building, surrounded by fellow people, listening to somber choir music, engulfed in gold walls and colorful paintings, raptured in elegant architecture. I stayed and listened and observed for a few minutes. Across the street, a blow-up Santa Clause figure beckoned with inflatable arms to potential customers streaking out of the cathedral to get on with their holiday shopping.

Inside the Cathedral

I visited the sobering and somber monument to commemorate the victims of the Jewish ghetto pogrom in Chișinău in the early 1900s. In fact, in Moldova: A History, Rebecca Haynes (2020) suggests that this may indeed be where the word ‘pogrom’ itself stems from, at least in the English-speaking world. Of this, she writes that “on Easter Day, April 1903 two days of violence began in Chișinău. A mob of around two thousand went on the rampage and caused fifty-one deaths (forty-nine of them Jewish). Hundreds were wounded and there was widespread vandalism and destruction of Jewish property.” She goes on to write that the Chișinău pogrom would

“prove to be a turning point in terms of the response of the outside world to the increase in antisemitic violence within the Russian Empire. The impact of the pogrom was greater than the effect of the Russian pogroms of 1881 and 1882 due to advances in printing and photography. Illustrations brought horrors of the pogrom, with its dead and mutilated bodies in makeshift mortuaries, to the notice of the wider world, from the United States to Europe to Australia. As a result of the antisemitic violence in Chișinău, the Russian word ‘pogrom’ (derived from the word ‘grom’ for thunder) was first used in the British press. ‘Pogrom’ entered regular English usage in the English language following further antisemitic violence in Russia in 1905 and 1906.” (Haynes, 2020, pages 135-136)

Monument for the Jewish pogrom in Chișinău

The rain was coming down pretty hard so I hightailed it back to my hotel. On the way, I stopped at a bookstore and picked up a copy of A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925), a kind of Soviet-Frankenstein story where a mad doctor puts the organs of a dog into a human and watches it come to life. I didn’t particularly enjoy his better-known classic, the Master and Margherita masterpiece, but this one sounded interesting. I opened the book to a random page and came across the name of a character: Filip Filipovich. I liked it already. “What is going on in this fair world? I guess it is too early to die, and despair is a sin.” (page 8)

If I had to pick a word to describe the day it would be the following: wet. It rained all day and all night. I went for a walk in the evening and was surprised by how dark the streets and sidewalks were. Cars splashed puddles onto the sidewalks as they passed, creating a kind of aqua obstacle course for pedestrians going to and fro. Thankfully there was a good heater in the room to dry out my wet garments overnight. I checked my step-counter before going to bed: 23,000 steps – almost 10 miles. Not bad for a rainy day. Tomorrow would be more of the same. The clinic where I was scheduled to get a PCR test in the morning was about an hour away on foot. I went to bed while the rain continued to beat down on the rooftops surrounding my room.

I woke to the soft sounds of splashing in the streets. Still raining outside, I thought. I looked into the possibility of taking a day trip to either Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognized breakaway state of Transnistria (not even Microsoft Word recognized Transnistria), officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic; or, to the Moldovan town of Ungheni near the Romanian border in the west on the other side of the country. I then of course fantasized about stepping across the Eiffel Bridge (built by the very same Gustave Eiffel who built that one tower in Paris) into Romania, possibly as far as the town of Iași. But doing all that and getting back to Chișinău would be a long day trip. I decided to put a pin in it and revisit the idea after I knew when I would get my PCR test results.

Outside, Chișinău was much busier on a Monday morning versus a Sunday morning. Cars honked, people were on their way to work, and there was a general bustle about the city that was absent yesterday. I walked. U2’s “Walk On” came to mind. I started humming. I made it to the city center when I realized that I had forgotten my passport. I needed it for the PCR test. I walked back and passed a sign listing the sister cities of Chișinău: Minsk, Belarus; Kyiv, Ukraine, and, surprisingly, Sacramento, California. On the way to my test, I popped into the Ciuflea Monastery just long enough to get splashed with some holy water by the priest conducting the service. He dipped a large paint-brush/small broom-type object into a bucket of rather smelly (holy?) water and began spraying the crowd as he walked around. I got a faceful of the putrid liquid and it did not smell good. The mix of chanting and signing continued while the constituents in attendance conducted mixes of crossing themselves with little bows of their heads. Later, a baptism took place where two screaming, wriggling and writhing kids were taken up to the altar while the church authorities did their thing. I left and made my way to my test, praying that the foul-smelling liquid I had just been doused with would soon dissipate and that I wouldn’t stink. After my PCR test, I went to the Voksal (train station) to look into the possibility of a train to Ungheni in the morning. Turns out the Eiffel Bridge is for rail cargo only, and I heard it was slow. According to the train station timetable, I would have three hours to spend in Ungheni. Train tickets were sold the day of, so I considered returning to the train station again in the morning to get a ticket. On the walk back to my hotel, I passed a selfie museum and wondered what the world was coming to.

Upon return to my hotel, I continued my research into day trips outside of Chișinău. I decided to try the trip to Tiraspol by bus instead. I thought it would be much more interesting and I liked the idea of visiting an unrecognized breakaway state. After considering the options to travel to either Tiraspol or Unghenia, I ended up deciding on Tiraspol because I actually just wanted to see it more. Though I generally prefer traveling by train over bus, I decided to take a bus to Tiraspol for several reasons. One, the train options back to Chișinău were few and occurred late at night, thus creating a nerve-wracking dilemma to catch my flight back to Moscow later that evening. Two, I found far more trip reports from travelers who had traveled by bus versus by train, so the journey was better documented, at least online, by bus travelers rather than train travelers. Three, it was cheaper and quicker, with more numerous and frequent departure time options. The “border” crossing into Transnistria didn’t sound too difficult, so I went with my instinct and decided on Tiraspol for the morning. The Eiffel Bridge would have to wait. In the evening, I went out for a walk. Three kids were poorly throwing a white Frisbee in the dark of an abandoned parking lot in the cold. Later that evening, I finished the book by Rebecca Haynes on Moldova (it was great) and started Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekov (1895). I checked my step-counter for the day before nodding off to sleep: 24,500 steps. In the morning I packed up, checked out, and set off for the bus station.

“Tiraspol?” I said to the first man I saw standing next to a minibus with Tiraspol written in Russian Cyrillic on a little sign leaning against the windshield.

“Go ticket casa,” he said in English, pointing to the cashier, “then bus go.” I did as I was told. The ticket was less than $3 for what was supposed to be about a ninety-minute trip. I settled into the bus seat while “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” by Elton John bumped on the stereo. On the way, more and more passengers joined the journey as condensation fogged up the windows more and more, distorting the view to the outside world. Passing objects became a fuzzy blur as the driver drove faster and faster toward the border of the unrecognized breakaway republic. We stopped at the security checkpoint and several other passengers got out. I approached the checkpoint window.

“Hello,” I said as I presented my passport.

“Hello,” the officer said. “Come back today?” he asked.

“Yes.” He punched some keys. I folded my hands while I waited. “Good luck,” he said as he handed my passport back to me. That was it. It took two minutes. He gave me a small registration slip that I assumed I should keep with me during my brief stay in Transnistria. The bus drove on toward Tiraspol. We first stopped in the town of Bender, a town just inside the “border” of Transnistria, which, of course, only made me think of the sarcastic robot character from the former TV show Futurama. The first thing we saw was a stagnant, decrepit old Ferris wheel sitting idly next to some weeping willow trees blowing in the cold winter breeze. We then passed a bunker dugout into a hill below the train tracks. Soviet hammers and sickles were everywhere, as was the red and green Christmas-colored flag of Transnistria. Guards patrolled empty spaces with weapons slung over their shoulders. Stray dogs roamed the streets. The Russian flag was also abundant, often alongside the Transnistrian one.

As soon as we reached Tiraspol, I changed my Moldovan money into Transnistrian money – a currency that isn’t recognized anywhere else in the world. When I reached the center, a guy approached me while obviously filming with his phone and asked in English, “excuse me, how can I get to the parliament?” I was thrown off by his phone and the fact that he was clearly filming me for some reason. That and the fact that he asked me in English.

“I don’t know,” I answered. I really didn’t. I was actually looking for the parliament myself.

“OK. Excuse me,” he said as he continued standing in place, filming me. I walked off rather perplexed, then I realized that I should have asked him where the parliament was. Was he a tourist like me? If so, then why was he filming other tourists as he asked for tourist sites? Was he an English student? He seemed a bit old for that. KGB? Perhaps, though too obvious and obnoxious. I wandered off wondering if I should attempt the same tactic with other passersby to find the parliament. Instead, I found the tank monument right across the street. I soon came to find that Tiraspol was not very big. Near the tank monument, I found Old Uncle Joe Stalin then crossed the Dniester river. A few fishermen were trying their luck on what looked like a cold riverbank. It was quiet. Walking back, I realized how ridiculously close I was to the parliament earlier when that guy filming me asked where it was. I almost hoped to bump into him again, film him, and say “hey bro I found the parliament. Yeah, it’s right over there. You can’t miss it.” Somehow I knew I wouldn’t get the opportunity.

Parliament building in Tiraspol, Transnistria

Not a lot going on Tiraspol, Transnistria. I walked around for a bit, took a few pictures, walked to the Vlint distillery to find some Cognac, but it was closed, so I walked back to the bus station, bought a ticket back to Chișinău, and jumped on board. I didn’t even have lunch. I wasn’t there for more than three hours, but I’m glad I went. What a Soviet throwback. On the road out of town, we passed a big billboard of a woman hugging a pastry. Leaving Transnistria, this time the checkpoint border guard boarded the bus, checking passengers’ documents individually. I was in the back of the bus and was last to be checked. I watched the guard approach as he checked everyone’s documents. I handed him my passport and the little registration form I had been given hours before. If I was going to be stuck in Transnistria forever, this is when it would go down. He looked at my passport, looked at the registration slip, looked at me, then handed me back my passport, taking the registration form with him. The bus rolled back into internationally recognized Moldova and functioning cellular service.

That evening, I rode the #30 bus from the Chișinău city center to the airport for 2 MDL, about ten cents USD. I exchanged the last of my Moldovan Leu for a small bag of Euro coins (they didn’t have any bills for some reason) with 23,000 steps on my last day – just over 9 miles. I usually end these things with some kind of description of what I see last, my last impressions, or the last movements of the trip. This trip would end with me looking out the window of the Moscow airport, looking upon the white, frozen tarmac below and the cold activity outside. Behind a sea of Russian Aeroflot planes, in fleet-like formation, another sea of snow-frosted trees stood quietly in the distance. They looked as though they had been sprinkled with powdered sugar, ready for the licking. I reflected on my trip, now complete, ended.

Baltic Bonanza: Latvian Lockdowns & Estonian Escapades

Escapade: noun
1. an act or incident involving excitement, daring, or adventure.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, Estonia

The Baltic’s were never high on my list. I wasn’t opposed to visiting them, but I wouldn’t have called them a prior travel priority either. Latvia is one of those countries that I knew next to nothing about. I knew a guy who went there once. There may be some famous basketball players from there. The TV show ‘Family Guy’ made a joke about Latvian athletes once. That’s pretty much everything I knew going into Riga. A guy I met in the Tashkent airport terminal saw that I wasn’t wearing a jacket.

“Hey bro,” he said casually, as though we were at a frat party in California, a common and somewhat annoying greeting among young Uzbek men who speak English, “it’s cold in Riga.” I appreciated the sentiment. This poor kid was worried I would be cold. What a sweetheart.

“Thanks bro,” I replied, mimicking the flat frat boy feel. “I’ve got a jacket in my bag,” I said, patting my trusty backpack. Uzbekistan Airways has a direct flight from Tashkent to Riga twice a week – Monday and Friday – a little over five hours. Why? I really can’t say. I had actually just returned to Tashkent from a very quick trip to Washington D.C. with an unfortunate vomit-filled layover in Istanbul. It was one of those whirlwind trips where I spent more time traveling than in the destination itself. Needless to say, I was already rather flight-fatigued before the plane left Tashkent.

But I was curious to see Riga. It is one of those places that had there not been a direct flight from Tashkent, then I probably would not have even considered it. How convenience often guides our decision-making. What would Riga be like? I excepted European but with a northeastern flair, whatever that means. Expectations, sometimes, can be worthless; I would see what I would see. Similar to my trip to Belarus earlier in the year, I knew no one there, had no concrete plans, and already knew before I left that I would enjoy it. I checked the weather in Riga: rain. I opened a map of Latvia and began zooming out. Neighboring countries were not that far away. Rom Riga, the Lithuanian border was less than two hours away by car, according to Google Maps. There was a direct flight to Tallinn, Estonia on Air Baltic that was less than an hour in duration. Could I make a quick trip outside Latvia while I was there? I began to consider it. The sun began rising steadily over the tarmac in Tashkent.

Leaving Tashkent

Similar to the aforementioned flight to Minsk, this flight was also full of men. I can’t say that the cabin smelled particularly good. I got up to use the lavatory mid-flight – not a mask in sight among the sea of snoozing male passengers I passed on my way to the loo. Landing in Riga, we were directed to a line that hardly moved. I must say, looking back, I was rather disappointed in the Latvian immigration authorities and their level of efficiency and friendliness. The line to the immigration desk was tense. People were getting turned back and chatting with others still waiting in line. Huddled and muffled conversations ensued. Eyes darted back and forth suspiciously. I approached the window and presented my passport and recently taken PCR test.

“What is this?” the immigration official asked, picking up my certificate like it was a piece of trash.

“Hello,” I said, already disappointed in where I assumed this conversation was going.

“What is this?” she repeated, as though I hadn’t heard her the first time.

“It’s my PCR test, ma’am,” I said.

“I don’t want it,” she scoffed, shoving it back through the too-small window opening. “You must take another test.”

“Excuse me?” Usually, I am polite with immigration authorities. This conversation was not off to a great start.

“I said, you must take another test.”

“Yeah, I heard you. I have a PCR test right here – the one I just gave you? – why do I need a second test?”

“You need a second test. Go over there,” she said, pointing to somewhere behind me, “and take another test.”

“Even if I’m vaccinated?”

“Ah, you’re vaccinated?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.”

I gave her my certificate of vaccination from the Tashkent International Clinic.

“What is this?” This sounded awfully familiar.

“It’s my vaccine certificate.”

“Where did you get it?”

“From the Tashkent International Clinic.”

“No. This is no good. You need a different—“

“Here,” I said, slipping my yellow World Health Organization booklet into her little slot, interrupting her tirade against anything with the word Tashkent on it, apparently. I usually don’t interrupt immigration authorities, but this woman was driving me bonkers. She looked the document over.

“Let me check with my manager.” Yeah, you do that. You go and check with your manager. I’ll wait right here. She was gone a while.

“This one is OK because it says Washington,” she commented after she returned. I did not offer the fact that I was the one who had written Washington on it in ballpoint pen, nor did I bring to her attention the fact that it was the exact same vaccine, lot number, date, and doctor’s signature as on the other vaccination certificate. I kept my mouth shut.

“What is your purpose in Latvia?”

“Tourism.”

“When do you leave?”

“Friday.” (I ended up leaving earlier than that.)

“Goodbye.” I snatched my documents and got out of there.

Europe has a distinctly European look. Maybe it’s just to Americans, but Europe looks so – how can I put this? – European. It’s clean – almost too clean. The cars are nice; the street signs are blue for some reason, and everyone dresses just a little bit better than folks back home in the states. I caught the 22 bus into town. It was fall outside, that much was clear. Yellow was everywhere, especially on the trees and on the ground. The traveler’s new-destination smile spread across my face as we rolled on down the road.

One of the activities advertised for tourists on a brochure posted in the hotel elevator included “AK-47 shooting”. Never done that before. I took a picture of the brochure taped to the elevator wall. I put my bag down in my room, admired the view of the yellow trees outside the window, and set off on foot. I enjoyed the contrast of aiming to get lost, to go wherever, while also being anchored to the map on my phone. I let my feet take me where my eyes wanted to go. I remembered hearing once that the brain craves novelty. It felt good to satisfy that craving. I was alone and I could go anywhere, do anything, see whatever there was to see and enjoy it, all without restrictions, COVID notwithstanding.

Riga

I stepped into a bookstore. Customers seemed to be lining up and presenting some sort of certificate on their phones, one I knew I didn’t have. Obviously, I was denied entry, but I enjoyed the beautiful walk along narrow cobblestone streets, awkward under American feet, with thin little sidewalks that couldn’t hold more than two people side by side. That evening, I was woken up by my neighbors loudly talking. For some reason, I immediately thought of Modest Mouse’s song “Paper Thin Walls,” the opening lines of which are famously, “These walls are paper thin and everyone hears every little sound.” I rolled around Riga for a bit in the early morning. “Early morning” – it was almost ten o’clock but the sun still seemed to be rising. It was cold – almost freezing – and the old cobblestone streets were practically deserted. Riga is very yellow in October with yellow on the leaves and yellow in the trees. It was like I could physically feel my body switching into Fall mode – an inner changing of the seasons within one’s self. Ducks splash-landed on the canal that runs through the middle of the city – a half dozen at a time, making gentle streaking splash sounds as they landed together. The city was otherwise quiet. Birds chirped. A leaf blower hummed in the distance, and the gentle low rumble of a trolley grew slowly before dissipating. It was peaceful and I didn’t have anything urgent to do. I walked through the yellow leaf-ridden parks along the canal and over low-lying bridges that were god-knows how old. The concrete paths had all already been leaf-blown. I sat on a bench in the sun and opened my book. “In the end, history is never just what the people who experience it say it is.” – Michael Eric Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, page 55.

Park in Riga

In addition to “AK-47 shooting”, another activity included on the tourism brochure in the elevator included “real tank riding”. I considered calling and asking if I could combine two of their advertised activities: “real tank riding” and “AK-47 shooting”. Maybe I would get a discount. A picture-perfect postcard to send home. I will say that traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic was more eventful than I had expected. Tests here, passes and QR codes there. It was a lot. Plus, Latvia has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe. Due to rising cases and low vaccination rates, the government was planning to go into lockdown the day before I was scheduled to leave. Great. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in Riga, so I booked a flight north to Tallinn, Estonia on Air Baltic before the lockdown would begin. I had no intention of being locked down in Latvia. On my second day in Riga, I came across a statue that caught my eye. Why exactly? I really can’t say. I looked up and thought, man that guy looks familiar. I looked at the name below the figure: Mirzo Ulugbek, the famed Uzbek astronomer, known for his discoveries in the solar system and his astronomical astronomic achievements. I texted my wife: “Look who I found!” along with a picture of the statue and smiley emoji. She replied: “Awesome!” followed by one of those emojis with stars for eyes. Fitting, I thought, for admiring a world-renowned astronomer. Mirzo would have definitely approved.

More Park in Riga

Uzbekistan Airways has canceled flights before when the country of departure was under lockdown. Turkey, for example, experienced this back in the spring. I wasn’t going to take the risk of getting stuck in Riga, so I hightailed it north up to Tallinn. I would figure out a way home from there. The ride on the 22 bus from the center of Riga back to the airport was pleasant, offering views of simple Latvian neighborhoods that were not as prevalent in the center of town. It wasn’t raining as hard as I was expecting. At the Riga airport, no one looked at my passport – no one at check-in, no one at security, and no one at the gate. I could have been anyone. I couldn’t believe it. I guess those are EU Schengen zone borders for you. I think the saddest thing I saw in Riga was a metal shoehorn chained to a metal inspection table at airport security. I did not use it. The flight to Tallinn was quick. I arrived at night, jumping on the tram to the center of town. I then walked quickly through the rainy cobblestone streets uphill to the 500-year-old building that is now the St. Olav Hotel. I liked Tallinn immediately – old and stony. I had a bite at an Italian restaurant near the hotel. On the stereo were all the old Sinatra and Dean Martin classics that used to play at Casa d’Italia back home in Seattle. I felt right at home with the chef yelling in the kitchen, the waiters running around semi-frantically, and the red wine flowing. I looked up the longitude and latitude of Tallinn. Turns out this is the farthest north I’d traveled. Surprisingly, Tallinn, Estonia is farther north than Juneau, Alaska by one degree.

Tallinn Town Hall

In the morning I woke to the sounds of seagulls. I wandered around with the good feeling of knowing that I had the ability to get as lost as I pleased while still having the security anchor of a map in my pocket. I walked where I pleased, turned where my eye caught and didn’t give it a second thought. I missed wandering. It was good to wander again. I came upon some graffiti that read “don’t waste your time or time will waste you”. There were more tourists in Tallinn. I didn’t see as many in Riga, or perhaps I didn’t notice. If Riga was yellow then Tallinn was grey but in a beautiful old and stony/medieval sort of way. A lot of my photographs in Tallinn are vertical due to the attempt to try and capture the huge, towering church towers that jutted upwards from the narrow lanes around. The COVID situation was visibly better in Estonia. I learned later that the flight to Tashkent from Riga on Uzbekistan Airways had been canceled. Good thing I got out of there when I did. Tallinn made me want to see more of Scandinavia. I booked a flight back to Tashkent through Helsinki and Istanbul.

Old Town Tallinn

The flight from Tallinn to Helsinki was one of the more interesting flights I’ve been on. I wondered why it had taken so long to check-in. I noticed that there were very few passengers sitting at the gate with me. Must be an unpopular flight, I thought. The half-dozen of us boarded a bus that took us past all the big planes to the end of the runway where there was a very small prop plane waiting for us. A murmur passed through the bus as the other passengers shared surprised looks with one another. We walked up the three fold-down steps to board, threw our luggage in the back, then took a seat in one of the seven rows of seats. I sat in the front, seat 1A, right behind the pilot and copilot. I could have spit on them, they were so close. There was no barrier separating the cockpit from the cabin – no toilet, no drink service, no safety video that no one would not bother to pay attention to except to see how it might be either entertaining, amusing, or perhaps slightly different from any other airline safety videos. The pilot welcomed us by just talking – we could all hear him easily. “Hi folks,” he said. “Little windy today. May get a little bumpy up there.” He sat down and the propellers started up. It was intriguing to be able to see into the cockpit. It made the flight feel more interactive in an inactive kind of way. Taking off we immediately slid around off the wet pavement. It was windy and we got up high quickly, Tallinn waving goodbye from below. Usually, I read on planes. I had my book in my lap but I didn’t open it. I was too excited. The flight was short – 20-25 minutes. It was also loud. I watched the pilot do his thing the whole time. It was fascinating to watch his hands and fingers switch buttons, levers, and dials naturally and seemingly seamlessly. He was obviously very experienced which made me feel good and safe.

Our plane

Hats off to Finland and the Helsinki airport with the sounds of birds chirping in the men’s toilets. Very nice to piss to the sound of birds chirping. More airports should take up that practice rather than pumping out over-produced and over-consumed soulless pop music. The Helsinki airport was great – stylish, simple, clean, ambient, and it had clearly taken passenger’s needs and comfort into consideration. It made SeaTac look like a dumpster fire that had been hosed down then left out to dry in damp air. On the last flight home from Istanbul, I revisited the photos I had taken during the trip, streets I had wandered. The Baltics don’t disappoint. Riga and Tallinn are both beautiful cities in their own right. It was refreshing to get a European vacation like this for a few days. I secured the nose adjustment on my mask, pulled my eye cover down over my eyes, and turned on my noise-canceling headphones, making me completely numb to any and all outside stimulation. I drifted off – the last sight in my mind’s eye being the clouds over the water off the windy northern coast of Estonia.

Oh Boy, Belarus: Minsk in March

I walked outside into the cold Tashkent morning, only to find the streets deserted – a taxi nowhere in sight. Really? I thought. I thought taxis were everywhere here. With my right hand slightly extended outwards into the road – just enough to flag down a passing taxi; just enough not to get it lopped off – a white car flashed its lights through the foggy mist hovering above the cold concrete. It rolled up with its passenger side window already rolled down.

Dobre utra,” I said. Good morning. It was 5 AM, still dark, and the already annoyed-looking taxi driver in a thick black skull cap didn’t say anything. He didn’t respond to my greeting or give any sign that I existed, other than having stopping. He reached to turn down the radio that I couldn’t hear playing.

Aeroport?” I tried.

Kakoiy aeroport?” he volleyed back. Which one?

Internatzional,” I sputtered, assuming that internatzional was international. Stupid. Then he did something I’ve seen few taxi drivers do here: he rubbed his thumb and index fingers together, signing the internatzional signal for cash. Usually they just ask skolka? How much?

Dvatsit,” I said. Twenty – meaning twenty thousand Uzbek so’m, roughly $2 – too much, locally, for the distance, but it was cold, dark, early, and there were no other cabs around, all of which we both well knew. He then did something strange again. He just stared at me for a moment. He didn’t nod. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t do anything. He just kind of froze in place with the car running, white exhaust rising steadily into the frigid scene. I was confused, almost dumbfounded. What? I thought about asking him if he was alright, but then he looked at me as though he was trying to strip me of my mask and see what was underneath. After an awkward few seconds, he gave a slight nod. I opened the rear door and sat down in the back, my pack on my lap.

As we reached the airport and I began walking through security, I thought about the title of a course I’ve recently been offered to teach at a university here: Language and Power. According to the university, “this course considers the relationship between language and power, particularly in the way global languages like English enable populations and societies in positions of power to protect their … interests.” Usually I try my best to greet people in my shitty Russian or my even-shittier Uzbek, but approaching the security personnel outside the airport, I didn’t feel like it. The course title and description kept repeating themselves over in my mind. Interests?

“Morning,” I said as I handed my passport to the first of several security service persons I was to soon meet on my way to the gate. The gentleman in green mumbled something in response while handing me back my passport. Language and Power? I approached the check-in counter and handed the kid behind the glass my passport. He punched some keys on his hidden keyboard.

Minsk, da?” he asked.

Da.” Damn, I felt fluent. I’d said two words in Russian all morning and already it was inflating my head. I proceeded to immigration.

“Meester, please take off mask,” the immigration officer instructed. I obliged. He looked at me as though he didn’t like the look of my face. He stamped my passport and I went through the gate he controlled with the push of a button. Three paces later, there was another gentleman, perhaps checking to make sure that the previous one had done his job. I handed him my passport. He opened it, looked at it, then handed it back to me. The dance of international travel continued as the last and final passport-checker standing firmly between me and a hot Americano sat behind a counter, dressed in full COVID getup. I handed him my passport. He simply mimed for me to pull down my mask and show him my morning mug.

Inside the terminal, the sun began to break through the windows and spill onto the white tile floor while darkly-dressed people made long, stretched shadows with their bodies. I checked the weather in Minsk: snow. Awesome. There was a call for the flight to Minsk, and immediately everyone on the flight stood up and walked toward the gate at the same time, scrunching together to wait in a crowd. The crowd shuffled, funneled and bottle-necked, slowly and rockingly through the delicate blue line markers.

Onboard the aircraft, the Uzbekistan Airways instructional safety video played for five and a half minutes. The video included sand-ridden caravans trudging through the desert, bustling bazaars filled with do-it-yourself oxygen-mask trials for children, and menacing-looking night-time yurt camps with mysterious open flames guarding their entrances. Sultan-like men dressed to the nines atop Bactrian camels strode slowly through the desert, fastening square metal seat-belts. Life-vest demonstrations took place atop sand dunes in front of what is left of the Aral Sea. Roll-up wooden overhead compartments simulated the plastic ones onboard, while ancient tombs at night showed the way for guiding nighttime floorboard lighting. Guards atop towers went for a smoke break, only to have an ominous genie/flight attendant blow in, scold them, then disappear again into sand and into the atmosphere. I noticed the second time around that the English version was dubbed, though the now-English-speaking genie/flight attendant lip-sync’d along to the safety instructions. Magic.

The airline has really taken unabashed ownership of the whole ancient Silk Road theme – floating genies and all. Perhaps they should. Who better than to do so? I’d always been curious about the airline’s logo – a double-mast ship. Strange, I thought, for a double landlocked country with a dried-up Aral Sea and otherwise few navigable waters to speak of. I was told it would be four and a half hours to Minsk. The flight was full of Uzbek men. Was Belarus a popular country in which to work? I thought. Following my trip, I later found out why. Turns out, with the Russian border closed, Belarus was the back-door for many Uzbek migrant workers to get into Russia.

Prior to travel, my friends had asked me “why are you going to Minsk?”

“To check it out,” was my reply.

“Do you have friends there?”

“No.”

“Do you know anyone there?”

“Nope.”

“Do you know what you’re going to do there?”

“Not really.” They looked at me like I was from Mars.

“Is it even safe in Minsk?”

“I think so.”

“Didn’t they have a bunch of large, sometimes violent political demonstrations and marches last year?”

“Yes.”

After take-off, a non-genie flight attendant handed out immigration forms. “Attention: Please be advised that according to legislation of the Russian Federation foreign nationals entreating the territory of the Russian Federation are to be registered at…”

The Russian Federation? Wait, what? Did I get on the right flight? Am I going to Moscow right now? I thought about asking my neighbors where we were going, just to make sure. Instead, I continued reading.

“…at the local registration office of the Ministry of the Interior at the point of destination within 3 working days upon arrival or within 1 day in case of stay at a hotel or other organization rendering accommodation services.”

Damn, I gotta get registered tomorrow, too? Fuck.

“According to the legislation of the Republic of Belarus…”

Whew!

“…foreign nationals entering the territory of the Republic of Belarus are to be registered at the local registration office of the point of destination within 5 working days.”

Well, I’m only here 4 days, so maybe I can skip the whole registration business. I asked my neighbor for his pen and scribbled in my details in the smallest immigration form boxes I have even seen. A guy behind me then tapped me on the shoulder, asking if he could look at my form.

Sure pal, I thought, please feast your eyes upon my full name, date of birth, nationality, passport number, purpose of visit, hotel location and duration of stay. I think he just wanted an example to look at. Little did he know that was also the guy who only recently thought that we were possibly going to Moscow as of two immigration form paragraphs ago, so perhaps the joke was on him. Something between a ruckus and general pandemonium erupted in the cabin as passengers clambered over seats and tray tables to look at each other’s form, assuring conformity in immigration form completion. As we approached Minsk from the air, passengers rolled and reeled to look outside at the white frost-caked ground below. It looked cold. Upon touchdown, the cabin broke into applause, as though the whole flight had been a performance, the pilot a firm-hatted conductor of a flying symphony of international transportation. In traditional Central Asian style, passengers began getting up and opening overhead luggage compartments while the plane was still taxiing.

Inside the airport, I saw a sign that said VISA. I headed for it and spoke to an official on the way. More to make conversation than anything else, I asked, “do I need a visa?” knowing perfectly well that I did.

“What is your nationality, sir?”

“American.”

“Do you know about our new policy?”

“Um. No?”

“All foreign nationals must stay for at least 10 days.”

News to me! I headed for immigration. I placed my passport on the counter after watching an official scrutinize a passport with what looked like a monocle. The official behind the glass wouldn’t touch my passport until I took it out of its leather case. She said something about Brazil and I couldn’t really hear her very well. I kind of ignored it, or at least communicated that I had no idea what she was talking about. She asked something else about Ukraine. What?

“Tashkent,” I said. STAMP.


I boarded a bus to Minsk. Outside the airport there was a graveyard of old, discarded planes. One of them – an old Aeroflot plane – had the flag of the former Soviet Union on it. I felt like I was going back in time as the bus drove through the surrounding forest. Indeed, I had heard that if you want to try and take a look into what life was like during the Soviet Union, visit Belarus. I listened to an elderly couple behind me on the bus chit chat and make jokes with one another. They kept giggling and laughing as though they were in the back of a comedy club. I looked out at the snow-caked ground and patched forest thinking how great it is that even though we all speak different languages, we laugh in more-or-less the same way. I listened to the old man laughing and his companion giggling as small Belarusian villages and towns began to pass us by. The snow outside looked like powdered sugar – like someone had sprinkled it all across the country and forgot to sweep it up.

The first thing I did in Minsk was jaywalk. After doing so, I realized that perhaps I should watch my step, as no one else seemed to be jaywalking. I later looked up the penalty for jay-walking in Belarus and found an interesting piece on Literary Hub by contributor Sonya Bilocerkowycz, author of On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine (2019) and winner of the Gournay Prize. In her piece, Jaywalking in a Dictatorship, she writes, “No matter how late I was for a meeting, or how far away the cars were, I never jaywalked in Belarus. The street could be empty, but in Belarus you do not judge such things for yourself. You wait on the little green man. You walk when he gives permission… It was a kind of micro-play, a mini theater of the absurd on every street corner. Based on what seemed like reasonable metrics—time, distance, human agency—it would have been logical to cross the road, and yet we did not do it. As a Belarusian acquaintance put it, “You can get arrested for that shit.” In Belarus, an alternative logic directs even your minor actions. The logic of dictatorship.” While I was in Minsk, I didn’t see anyone jaywalk. That’s not true – on my way to get my PCR test days later at the state medical college, several kilometers outside of the city center, I saw two old ladies cross a residential street without little-green-man permission. They ran like they had robbed a bank.

After realizing that I should try to blend in a little more and not jaywalk fresh off the bus from the airport, I headed down Karl Marx avenue while I downloaded the Cyrillic script keyboard into my phone. Looking up, I realized how much space there is on the sidewalks. I began to feel like a dog in a park with the inclination to run around just for the sake of running around. I didn’t, for the sake of trying to blend it, though I did admire the city’s beauty and cleanliness on my walk from the bus station to the hotel. That fresh feeling of freshly arriving to a new place, a place where you don’t know anyone and it doesn’t matter – it filled me and filled my lungs, propelling my every step. Remnants of the former USSR were everywhere – busts, statues, monuments, murals outside metro stops. I felt like I could hear the Beatles singing, Back in the USSR, when really I was humorously humming a post-Soviet rendition of Lou Bega’s Mambo #5 to myself. “A little bit a Lenin in my life, a little bit of Stalin by my side, a little bit a Karl Marx’s what I need, a little bit a Khrushchev’s what I see, a little bit a Gorbachev in the sun…” I thought back to other conversations I had had with friends before arriving.

“What are you going to do in Minsk?” they asked.

“I dunno. Walk around?”

Walk around I did. 6 miles the first day, 7 miles the second day, 18 miles the third. Getting my PCR test was a bit of an adventure. I left my hotel around 6:30am when the sun was still rising over the city. It was that time of morning when it was still dark and the city lights were still on from the night before. Along the way, those lights went off around 7am and the city plunged back into darkness while the sun slowly rose in the distance. The city seemed deserted. One thing I noticed in Minsk is that cars don’t honk. It’s quiet. Compared to Tashkent, the streets are a library. I headed off toward the clinic over frozen over-passes and under freezing under-passes. The Soviet buildings and remains made me feel like I was in 1984. It was fascinating to see old Soviet murals outside of the metro stations.

The directions for the PCR test clinic site said to approach the designated address, then “go through the barrier.” Vague. What kind of barrier are talking here? A wall? A barbed-wire fence? A moat, perhaps? It turned out to be an open gate. Looking back, getting lost in Minsk was a blessing in disguise as my Russian language skills got significantly better. I think my Russian got better in 4 days in Minsk than is has in 4 months in Tashkent. Overall, I found Minsk a very picturesque, well-groomed and appearance-friendly city. It’s beautiful, clean, and great for walking, even in March when it’s freezing and snowing.

In the end, I did exactly what I had set out to do: walk around. That’s pretty much it. There wasn’t a dish or cuisine that I was dying to try, nor was there a particular sight or church or square that I had heard about previously. I think I only knew of one other person I previously knew who had even been to Minsk, and I wasn’t even too sure about that. I wouldn’t say there is a lot “going on” in Minsk, but it is pretty and off the beaten path, so to speak – a great place to practice your Russian if you are in the market.

On my last morning, I boarded a bus back to the airport, and just like that, the trip was done, finished, syo. At the airport, I approached the immigration counter and put my passport down.

Dobre dyen,” I said. Good day.

No response. She grabbed my passport with a slap and began flipping through it.

“Take off your mask.”

I did.

“Look at the camera.”

I did that too.

“You came from Tashkent?”

“Yes.”

“You work there?”

“Yes.”

“You were all this time in Belarus?”

“Yes.”

She flipped through my passport with a flip flip flip. STAMP.

“Bye bye.”

“Bye bye.”

And with that, I said bye bye to Belarus.

Foreign Yet Familiar: Tashkent, Take Two

“To return to a place you know after being somewhere else is to see the familiar with fresh eyes… For me, half the magic of travel is returning to some version of home and noticing all the odd details rendered invisible by familiarity.” – from Open Mic Night in Moscow, by Audrey Murray (2018)

It was late September when I returned. The smell of roasting somsas sweetened the air. Triangle ones, woven ones – some as big as your fist. I inhaled deeply from inside the worn taxi with the window down – smells familiar and comforting, like a warm, welcoming blanket of sweet perfume, beckoning nostalgic nostrils.

The thing about returning to a foreign place is that I find myself ever comparing my present experience to my past ones. It’s distracting. I find that it takes away somewhat from fully being present. On the other hand, perhaps differences are seen more starkly with time away. The building that replaced the former fenced-off pit across the street from my old apartment, for example, now seems enormous, perhaps because there was nothing there previously. I notice new shops, new signs – things that weren’t there before but now seem common, regular. What else have I missed? I wonder. It can be dangerous to be constantly comparing one’s previous experience to the present because they can never and will never be the same. Indeed, this expectation that some things never change is false, yet it is so easy to fall back into, like a comfortable but quick-sand-like Lay-Z-Boy of experience and forgotten familiarity.

The challenge, I suppose, is to move forward, to accept past experiences as entirely what they are – past – and leave them there, in their home, their place of burial and rest. It’s been done literally millions of times before, so now should be no exception, even as Tashkent is an exceptional place. The pandemic helps point out differences. Indeed, they are written all over people’s faces from ear to ear, hiding whatever emotion the nose and mouth may convey. But this is the same everywhere, almost, so its impact is more-or-less universal, constant. I notice things I had forgotten: the white plastic doors that are seemingly in every public building; the ebb and flow and rhythm of Tashkent traffic; the way the barber leans me forward over the sink, face-first, face-down instead of backward like a baby in a bathtub; the way men’s bathrooms always smell like someone has just smoked inside.

But Tashkent is changing. It has changed. I can see it – new buildings, new shops, even a sense of protest has miraculously appeared quietly on street corners. A taped paper poster on a street lamp – a large red X with the word TEMPORARY written in large red Cyrillic script beneath seethed with the sentiment of dissent – something I didn’t associate much with Tashkent before. Unsure of its exact meaning, I saw several of them along Shota Rustasveli boulevard.

I spoke with a woman and told her of my upcoming travel plans to Navoi. “Navoi?” she asked, “why’d you want to go there? There’s nothing there,” she said, providing a textbook flat-face expression. There’s always “something there” somewhere. The only things I knew about Navoi were that it was an industrial city, it was named after the famed Persian poet Alisher Navoi, and that scores of Uzbeks had told me that there wasn’t much there. My trip was to prove them wrong. Familiar sights greeted me in Navoi: scarf-wrapped heads walking down the streets, colorful Uzbek atlas fabrics draped around women in said head-wrappings, and a big plate statue that was actually a fountain. Navoi didn’t have the mythical and mystical draping that surrounded other infamous Silk Road sites such as Samarkand and Bukhara – fewer pre-Islamic architectural giants domed here. But that’s not to say there was nothing to see in. One had to only look a little closer.

Navoi, Uzbekistan

Our train arrived in the evening when darkness hid the town from view. In the morning, cool crisp air greeted us with pleasant sunrise. We visited a traditional chai hanna (tea house) for lunch, one which decided to cut air conditioning costs by placing one air conditioner between two rooms and simply cutting a hole in the dividing wall so that the unit could serve both rooms. “Uzbek engineering,” my Kazakh friend joked. One of my favorite things about travel/being abroad are the random encounters, the things you cannot plan, buy or arrange on the internet. I was sitting outside a stinking outhouse when some boys next door spotted me through a hole in the wall. I had just puked my guts up from too much shashlik when these kids began shouting Russian things my way.

“Brat! Kak…,” then something about where you are from: At ku da?

“Amedika,” I said, easing up on the hard R-sound.
“Amedika?”

“Da.”

They hopped over the wall, one after the other, like little lemmings. The leader washed off his hands as best he could before greeting me. They had been covered in dirt – caked in it. I asked their names. The tall one answered proudly, the middle one answered timidly, not budging from his arms-crossed stance, apprehensive. The little one shouted his name proudly, beaming. None of them wore masks. I tried with gestures, twisting my hands to ask so what are you doing over there?
Working, I assumed they answered. They made work out gestures. I peeped through the wall and saw from whence they had come – a construction site. The little one couldn’t have been more than ten.

Did you have lunch yet? I again asked with my hands.

“Nyet,” they chorused, sharing their heads, “soums nyeto.” They turned their empty pockets inside out to show the lack of lunch money. It was 3pm in the afternoon.

“Brat, piva?” the tall one asked – do you want a beer? More of a suggestion than an invitation, given the fact that they had just told me that they didn’t have any money for lunch.

“Nyet, spasiba,” I tried – No, thank you. The leader wore a hat. He was the chatty one, peppering me with questions I didn’t understand, answering charades-style to my questions he thought he understood. If I hadn’t been on the clock I could have joined them for a beer. While the conversation would have been minimal, I would have enjoyed both the company and the anonymity.

Dyas later, in Bukhara, the taxi ride from the train station had a throwback Russian pop beat on the stereo. I asked my colleague what the repeated refrain meant. “They cannot chase us,” he told me. The taxi driver, with two big thumbs up, asked me, “Mr. John, OK?”

“OK.”

“No problem?”

“No problem.”

“Life’s good.”

“Life’s good,” I repeated. I smiled as I looked out the window.

We walked through the slim empty streets, navigating our way in the dark to our guesthouse. Bukhara felt both bigger and smaller than Navoi – smaller in size but bigger in culture and history – a giant of the ancient Silk Road. Navoi is an industrial city, while Bukhara is more vibrant, humming and abuzz with ancient patterns, fabrics and garments. I noticed my Uzbek language listening skills improving; the taxi driver asked my colleague if it was his first time in Bukhara. The kush xilibsiz gave it away, I guess – welcome.

I saw a guy begging outside Korzinka, the local supermarket. He kept washing his face with his hands in prayer, over and over again, as if his face were so dirty he could never rinse from it the imaginary filth. Over and over again he kept repeating this gesture with small thousand-soum notes sticking out between his hardened fingers. After multiple washings, the car which he was targeting stuck a bill out the window. He grabbed it, clumped it with his small collection of other worn bills and continued the ritual, only to return to his bench under which a stray cat aimlessly circled.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

The tower of Bukhara – the famous symbol of the city – was alight majestically like a big pre-Islamic Christmas tree, only prettier. Higher up, a crane above the city had five letters written on it in giant white lights: DREAM. At the Bukhara bazaar, sellers were handing out goods: nuts, fruit, sweets, tastes of tea in little white cups. I tried the best halwa I’ve ever had – it melted in my mouth, raised my eyebrows and put a spring in my step. I got a kilo of nuts, half a kilo of dried apricots, a bag of herbal tea and two round loaves of freshly baked Bukharian bread for 70,000 Uzbek soums – less than $7.

On the road back to the Bukhara train station was a broken-down donkey cart – a lone boy sat cross legged on the concrete, bent over a collapsed cart with the harnessed donkey standing patiently waiting for him to finish. The sun descended slowly as white cars whizzed by determinedly.

On the train, I was seated to a rather portly gentleman – Alisher, apparently – who carried with him not one but two mobile phones. He was on one or the other – or, at least, he tried to be – for the duration of the train ride. Phone service kept cutting out in the vast expanses of desert so his calls were heavily peppered with shouts of Alo?! Alo?! The baby his wife was carrying across the aisle was quieter than he was. He made sure to slurp every sip of his Nescafé. Why was I so annoyed with this guy and his loud banter on both of his endlessly ringing devices? Was it his voice? His slouching posture? The fact that his wife wasn’t wearing a mask and seemed proud about it? I think I was just tired and irritable. Being surrounded by a foreign language can be exhausting, but I didn’t think that was it either. I couldn’t quite place my finger on why this guy bothered me so and it bothered me further. I slurped my own Nescafé and let it go, trying to practice the old Looney Tunes mantra: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

I’m glad I did. Toward the end of the ride, the train lights came on and the train stopped short of Tashkent. Why? I have no idea, but it was then that Alisher produced a phone charger – he must have needed it after all those failed call attempts, I thought. He reached under the arm rest between us and plugged in his phone. I had no idea there was an electrical outlet there. I made a noise – a kind of upward rising “huh?” sound – indicating that I was surprised to find an outlet there. Indeed, I was – I had been wondering where one might be. Alisher noticed and giggled a happy giggle, his round belly bouncing with his chuckle. He gave me a cheery, rosy smile – his stubbly cheeks scrunching up below his baby-blue face mask. My heart melted. I scrunched my own cheeks right back at him. We charged our phones, side by side, in peaceful regenerative silence. The train continued forward, cutting through the night. His wife handed him the baby from across the aisle. The child fell asleep immediately on his slowly rising chest while he gently patted her back. I looked out the window and breathed a little more deeply.

Days later, the train to the town of Pop was slower. I was pleased to find the four-bunk cabin deserted and all to myself. I opened the window to let the fresh air in and listened while the old Soviet-made train creaked and groaned back and forth as it left Tashkent. Golden poplar trees flashed by, showing off their autumn glow, creating a kind of flashing striped effect with a brilliant turquoise blue as the background.

Before we left Tashkent, I had asked a woman about the Fergana Valley. “It is a very special place. It is more Uzbek than most of the rest of Uzbekistan, more traditional. More than half of the country lives there and many of our artists – poets, singers, dancers, writers – come from there. My mother says there is something special in the air.” I was curious. “You will be welcomed into people’s homes,” she said, “and asked to stay the evening.” Pop was a mix of golden hues – yellow, golden brown, soft greens – all welcoming in their texture.

“The cornucopia yielded by the Fergana Valley was for everyone to behold.” – from Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue: Travels in Central Asia, by Fabrizio Soggetto (2020)

Fergana Valley

What came on the stereo in the taxi from Pop to Namangan? “Candy Shop” by 50 Cent, of course. We bumped that shit while a runaway donkey with cart in tow and no two-legged supervisor in sight entered the roadway as if on his daily commute. Men in camo were everywhere and the taxi driver flew. No one passed us. In the town of Shohidon, boys in doppa hats rode Chinese-made bicycles along the dusty road while men in the same hats strutted by, swinging black plastic bags.

In Namangan, we passed a huge sign in a hillside that read, Namangan (heart) You. In the hotel room, there was a yellow pointed arrow, like a cautionary traffic sign, pinned to the ceiling, pointing in the direction of Mecca. “Kaaba” it read, as if to guide viewers – “this way”. I didn’t see a prayer mat. The Fergana Valley was known across Uzbekistan to be traditionally more conservative, thus the increasing number of doppa-topped heads by the many men meandering the streets. I sent a photograph I’d taken to an Uzbek friend of mine.

Namangan, Uzbekistan

“This is an amazing photo!” she replied. “Everything is great about it: the old car, the old license plate, the doppis, the bread!” The following morning, I woke in Namangan to the call to prayer, an uncommon if impossible aural experience in Tashkent. The call was soft and distant but distinct in its timing. I fought sleeplessness to stay awake and listen. That evening, my friend asked for directions from a passerby and the responder immediately shook his hand before even saying hello. Not the best quarantine etiquette, but demonstrative of a polite and civil citizenry. Namangan was hilly. It felt different. I was surprised to see how busy and populated it was. It was a side of Uzbekistan I had not yet seen.

In the morning, our taxi driver kept whispering to himself alhamdoliallah and bismallah. He had a crescent moon and prayer bead set hanging from his rear-view mirror. I’d seen taxi drivers wash their faces in prayer when passing mosques – perhaps we were passing mosques I couldn’t see. He asked my companion where I was from. When he learned I was from America he, mask-less, leaned over with both hands outstretched and shook my hand. After the trip, he wouldn’t take our money. I tried to sneak 10,000 soums into my right hand when I went to shake his, but he caught it and didn’t go for it. He tenderly gripped my forearm instead. My colleague told me that he said we are doing nice work, helping teachers, so he wouldn’t take our money. We had lunch at the Istanbul Café, where the slogan was Asylum of Taste.

Days later, we rolled into the city of Andijan at night. I looked at the bright lights of the city flash by and smiled, feeling victorious somehow, reaching a corner of Uzbekistan that I had not previously reached. At the hotel, the receptionist gave me the WiFi code: jeero, jeero, jeero, jeero, fibe, fibe, fibe, fibe. At the hotel restaurant, a dozen young men stood around loitering and hanging out. None of them wore masks. I was greeted by a young boy that worked there.

“Asalaam waliakum,” I said, right hand over heart with a slight nod/bow.

“Salaam waliakum,” he greeted back with the same gesture, smiling sheepishly. He later approached my table after I had ordered.

“Excuse me, mister,” he stammered, “where are you from?”

“I’m from America,” I offered. He kind of froze for a minute while standing in place.

“Amedika, but you speak Uzbek language?”

“Yo’q ake – but I like the Uzbek language. It is very nice.”

He beamed. He even blushed a little bit. I overheard as he ran over to tell the other restaurant staff about the foreigner from Amedika. I pretended to read and not overhear. He returned.

“Do you have any souvenir or photo from Amedika?” Sadly, I did not. When I asked for the bill, it seemed as though the name of meester djon had already made the rounds through the restaurant staff. I went back up to my room and found a blue pen celebrating 50 years of the English Language Fellowship Program. I returned to the restaurant and gave it to him along with my card, which, in the Cyrillic alphabet on the flip side, read djon, just like the mustard. I gave him the pen and my card and told him to call me anytime he wanted to speak English. “Sank you, meester djon,” he said, bowing low.

Between Andijan and Fergana, we stopped at the famous Chuntak Chai hanna, a beautiful old restaurant that overlooked the lush Fergana Valley. Men sat shoeless in vibrant divans, basking in the cool afternoon while sipping hot tea and lounging. They looked comfortable. During our meal consisting of 800 grams of plov, a boy came around with a smoking ball and chain, much like a little Uzbek pope. He showed up and stopped at our table, waiting for a bill to be plopped onto the smoking fibers decaying in his pot. I had never seen this custom here yet and I was curious how the money didn’t burst into flames immediately.

“This smoke, it is good for COVID,” my colleague said.

In Fergana, we had more osh, or plov, at a chai honna. Men in the establishment were making comments about the fact that women were in our party. Apparently, women are not typically seen or encouraged to visit chai honnas. We sat on a comfortable and colorful divan together, devouring delicious plov, tea, achu-chuk salad, and a new mystery dish I hadn’t tried yet.

“Mr. John, this is fat. It is from the butt of sheep, but it is very tasty. Don’t mind the smell – the taste is very delicious,” my colleague told me. I ate sheep ass.

Chai hanna art in Fergana

In Margilan, we had lunch at the Anor Family Cafe. I washed my hands in the entrance and there seemed to be a young, almost under-age waiter boy for every customer in the place. One boy followed me to the sink and ripped out three paper towels, ready to dry my hands. He shifted his weight back and forth from foot to foot as thorough he was a seasoned short-stop, ready to take a grounder headed his way. He handed me the towels very quickly. All the young waiters had little black plastic walker talkies clipped to their hips. Every time they passed by our table, hands over their hearts, they would ask if everything was ok.

“This is real Fergana hospitality,” my colleague replied. They offered to cut up a pomegranate we had brought in. I drank coffee out of a pentagon-shaped mug while men slowly pedaled on heavy Chinese-made bicycles while traffic whizzed by. At the Margilan train station I noticed a room designated for breastfeeding women translated as “the mother and child room”.

From the train station in Margilan, Uzbekistan

The 6-hour train chugged along as it exited Margilan, taking us eastward back to Tashkent, heading straight into the fading sunset ahead, the golden trees even more royal as they bathed in the sunset’s fading light. Fields of pomegranate trees – pomegranate being a symbol of fertility in Uzbekistan – passed us by behind rows of poplars, creating a sunset strobe light effect that spread a smile across my masked face. It was a whirlwind tour around Uzbekistan. I was exhausted but I was also happy to have returned to a place that had welcomed me so. Uzbekistan is not where I am from, but it is beginning to feel more like a home, however loosely defined. I have become more comfortable with the balance of life here and my place in it: the known and unknown, the communicable but not, the foreign yet familiar.

Overland to Shymkent, Kazakhstan

The only thing one hears when slowly surfacing from the underground depths of the Olmazor metro station – the last station on the red, Chilanzar line – is the sound of hard footsteps on the stone walkway, horns honking from the street above, and men shouting.

Samarkand! Samarkand!” they yell, doing that which perhaps they know best.

Navoi! Navoi!” they scream, extending the latter syllable to a long ‘E’ sound. It’s a little disorientating upon first sight – who are all these men and why are they shouting so much? But they are just doing their job, or rather, that which they believe their job to be.
Samarkand, brat?” I’m asked repeatedly as I make my way across the deserted street.
Nyet, spasiba,” I reply, looking rather sullen as it’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning. Touch me and we will have a problem, the inner, personal-space-conscious American in me thinks to myself irritably. One can feel the eyes of others growing in number upon one’s person, bodies drifting slowly toward the approaching traveler; nothing to do but forge ahead and choose to either respond to the touts or to ignore them completely.
The bus station, or avtovoksali, is a desolate place, huge in its grandeur but empty and barren in its contents. More hard footsteps, seldom in their number, echo off the stone floor, rising up to the high ceiling and back down again, creating a kind of aural accompaniment to the vastly grey visual spectacle. It feels like a mix between a prison and an abandoned, cancerous library, decaying before society itself. Little sky-blue plastic seats sit alone in the enormous room, offering temporary rest to travelers who are only going to soon sit again. Outside the sky brightens and the mob of white cars begin to fill the wide Tashkent streets, just like yesterday and the day before that. I wait on the stone steps leading up to the station entrance.
“Sir, you are passenger?” a sweater’d man in camo pants asks kindly, smoking a cigarette.
“Yes sir,” I reply.
“Please,” he says, gesturing for me to board the large white Silk Road Bus, as its exterior is labelled. I had him my ticket and in return he hands me an ungrammatical migration card for the Republic of Kazakhstan. “Foreigners who broke the period of staying in the Republic of Kazakhstan incur for administrative responsibility,” it read. The sole passenger on the completely empty bus, the sweater’d man decides – in a well-intended attempt to be hospitable – that it’s a good idea to play some bad English music. I sit and warm my cold ears with the palms of my hands and look out the window and think that this is just about right. The bus left the station and I was the only passenger on board. Much like the empty bus station we had left behind, the seats around me were also empty. I thought about waste of space, watched the crowds outside the passing bazars grow in number and listened to music to drown out music as we slowly exited the millings-about of early morning Tashkent. David Bazan’s “People” from his Strange Negotiations album (2011) came on quietly at first, then the chorus burst to life, surprising me, bringing a rock-and-roll morning smile to my tired face. “But now you’re selfish and mean, your eyes glued to a screen and what titillates you is depraved and obscene; and I know that it’s dangerous to judge. But man you gotta find the truth and when you find that truth don’t budge until the truth you found begins to change, and it does, I know. I know. When you love the truth enough you start to tell it all the time – when it gets you into trouble you discover you don’t mind, ‘cause if good is finally gonna trump then man you gotta take stock and you gotta take your lumps or else they trickle down into someone else’s cup below, you know. I wanna know who are these people.” I listened to it on repeat all the way to the end of the country.

At the border, naturally, I was told to disembark and was escorted to a drab building where my bags were put into a scanner. I was then encouraged by the bus driver to skip to the head of the immigration line, much to the disagreement of the patient others who were standing in a clumped, clustered line. I’d be pissed, too, if some foreigner suddenly decided to skip the line, but such was the reality I found myself in. Uzbek authorities flipped through my passport with furrowed brows, trying to make sense of either its contents, me, or both. I was led outside back to the bus where a woman was having her dog search the bus. The dog didn’t seem interested; it kept running out of the bus to go roll in the grass.
“Hello,” she said as her dog sniffed around.
“Hello ma’am,” I said.
“You’re from?” she asked in the common, central Asian fill-in-the-blank style.
“America,” I said.
“Oh America. Very nice country,”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re going Kazakhstan?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“How many days?”
“Four ma’am.” I had already got my exit stamp, so I wondered why this woman was grilling me. Maybe she just wanted to make conversation. The dog ran off again toward the grass and began to roll around in it carelessly.
“Crazy dog,” she said. I laughed and so did she.
The bus drove a few meters ahead to the next checkpoint on the Kazakh side. I disembarked again and again handed my passport over to another uniformed man in a box. The page flipping began anew.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“John,” I said as a reaction more than anything else. Nailed it. Another guard approached and wanted to make conversation, so the official one ceased.
“You go Kazakhstan?” he asked.
“Yes sir.”
“You diplom?” he asked, meaning diplomat, I guessed, pointing at me.
“No sir. Teacher.”
“Ah teacher,” he approved. My passport was handed back to me and I went into another building. The place was empty and quiet with large posters in Russian on the walls.
“Meester John,” a smiling, quick-footed man said as he approached rapidly. He spoke in the tone of a used car salesman about to make a sale; “please,” he gestured, still smiling, escorting me to a long wooden table where I was to empty my bags. I began taking my clothes out of my backpack, scattering them all over the table as if it were my bedroom.
“Clothes?” he asked.
“Yes sir.”
“OK, OK,” he said and told me to pack up. That was fast. I was led outside to the final passport-page-flipping station. A man in a blue, furry pill-box hat took my passport and the page-flipping began once more.
“John Seempson,” he pronounced aloud slowly as he looked up at me. He looked back down at my passport and said something under his breath in Uzbek to the bus driver standing next to him. My gaze shifted around.
“He say me he like your name,” the driver told me. “He say he like zis Seempson TV show.”
“Thank you,” I said stupidly, as if I had anything to do with it. The page flipping continued, as did the slow pronunciation of all the country names listed in my passport – “Eendia, Bee-et-naam, Lah-ohs.” I waited.
“Vot zees?” he asked, now seeming irked, his brows slightly furrowing into perplexion. I looked at where he had stopped his page-flipping – a blank page. There was nothing there. Why was he pointing to a blank page? Was this a joke?

“Benjameen Frahn-kleen?” he asked with a rising tone. I exhaled.
“George Washington,” I corrected him, blinking. He had stopped on a blank passport page with Mount Rushmore on it and had perhaps wanted to test his American history knowledge. I relaxed. He tilted the passport slightly along with his noggin to get a better look at it. I watched him then decided to say something.
“This Abraham Lincoln,” I pointed out, trying to encourage him.
“Aabra-kham Leen-cohn,” he repeated, pleased, not looking up. His hyper-ventilating German Shepard security dog was running infinite circles around our little lesson, drooling all the while, leaving little drops of thick dog-saliva on the pavement.
“Thomas Jefferson,” I pointed, now trying to bore him and get on with my journey. He slowly, almost sentimentality, ran a calloused finger over Tommy’s face etched in mountain stone. The wet-tongued dog barked at nothing. The guard looked up then looked back at my passport. He looked at me then back at the passport again. He seemed to stare at it for a minute, as if he wanted to continue on with our brief history lesson. I wondered how many Americans crossed this checkpoint each year.
“OK,” he said, folding the passport shut as he handed it back to me, looking away. I got back on the bus and we drove to Kazakhstan where the roads were smoother. The driver and his assistant chatted together sporadically in Uzbek as the seemingly ordered and smooth roads stretched out before us. It was quiet.
I flipped through my freshly-stamped passport to see the new stamps. I found myself looking at the blank pages, too. Some of them are quite picturesque, depicting natural scenes of the Pacific Northwest with bears, mountains and salmon, Hawaii with swaying palm trees around Diamond Head Beach Park, Texas. Others like Mount Rushmore and the cracked Liberty Bell were also detailed – eye-catching, almost – especially given the glimpses I had seen of drab-looking Kazak passports, though theirs had a bright turquoise-blue cover. I wondered: maybe these border patrol officers were just looking at the pictures in my passport and not the stamps at all. Maybe they were simply interested to see some official images of America; they wanted to take their time flipping through this little blue picture book.
We arrived to Shymkent more quickly than I had anticipated. The rolling hills outside the city were a nice welcome to a new place. At the bus station, as I was getting a return ticket back to Tashkent a few days later, I was trying to communicate to the ticket agent behind the counter that I wanted to return on Friday. I was not being very successful as the ticket agent was growing rather irritated with my lack of Russian communication skills. I certainly couldn’t blame her. A woman leaning casually on the counter nearby who had been witnessing our interaction spoke up and helped me out. She was also getting information for a ticket to Tashkent in a few days’ time.

“Thanks for your help,” I said.

“No problem,” she said. I was hungry and alone in a new city so I asked her if she had had lunch already.
“Not yet,” she said, “you?” Off we went walking down the streets of Shymkent in search of caloric sustenance.

Akmaral had been an English teacher for a year and had recently left her job to pursue a dream of cycling across Kazakhstan. She cycled for four months before she ran into health problems that sadly cut her trip short. Staying with a friend, she had been in Shymkent for about a month, so she knew the city a little bit. She had recently been working as a translator for a large oil company in West Kazakhstan; she showed me pictures of the region and it looked stunning. The pay at the oil company was better, she said, and she didn’t have to deal with unmotivated and needy students. Translating allowed her to be more mobile and spend more time on her bike, which is exactly what she wanted to do. She said Kazakhstan was great for cycling because much of it was so flat. Over soft, savory pancakes, pink steamy borsh and shitty instant coffee, we shared couch-surfing stories together while it began to drizzle outside. After lunch, at the ridiculous Chuck Norris Bar, we watched awful Chuck Norris movies back-to-back while we dubbed improvised dialogue to their predictable scenes, drinking pint after pint of bubbly Kazakh beer over smoked cheese strips.
In the morning, snow was gently falling on the puddle-dotted streets while jacketed pedestrians briskly shuffled their way down the cracked sidewalks. On the wall, in the large red-chair-filled conference hall of the South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical Institute, read a bold, gold-plated inscription for all to be seated under: “Feeling of patriotism is of top importance.” – N. A. Nazarbayev. I wondered: was it the feeling of patriotism that was of importance or the actual patriotism itself? Could one feel patriotic without actually being patriotic? Whatever the answer, the feeling was of top importance, according to Kazakhstan’s one and only president since their independence in 1991.
Thursday morning brought lightly dusted snowy streets and blue skies. It had snowed overnight and the snow had stuck, leaving a slight trace of whiteness on the ground, the sun now reflecting off it from above. In the afternoon, I met T, a twenty-nine-year-old Hungarian traveler, freelance English teacher and aspiring motivational speaker whose dream was to see all the countries of the world by the time he reached the age of thirty-five. I forgot to ask him how many he had left to go. He said he was very interested in conversations around controversial social issues in Kazakhstan, trying to get his students to discuss them and not have a sweep-it-under-the-rug attitude.

“I’m preaching about the low-budget traveling,” he told me over coffee at the posh-looking Traveler’s Coffee in the center. “My goal is to become a motivational speaker and encourage people to travel. To be honest, I’ve been starving to have a normal conversation where I don’t need to worry about my English.” T had a bachelor’s degree, but no IELTS certification. One thing I liked about him was that he kept using the word “heaps” to mean “a lot of”, which I’d never heard before. When we discussed tourism in Kyrgyzstan, for example, he said, “oh yeah, heaps of travelers go there for tourism, heaps.” I found it both hysterical and strangely endearing at the same time. He told me a bit about his experience in Shyment since arriving in November last year.

“People here ask me all the time if I can teach IELTS. I don’t even have IELTS certification! But they think that just because I’m a foreigner from Europe who speaks decent English I can teach IELTS.” I was curious about what he did in Shymkent.

“So you teach privately?”

“I’m like a freelancer. I go to language centers and say, ‘Hey I’m a foreigner. Do you have groups?’ It works well,” he said. I nodded, stirring my Americano.

“So you freelance at these language centers?” I asked.

“Yeah exactly. I do my own stuff. I have my own Facebook and Instagram page. Most of the clients are English teachers trying to improve their English.”

“So you do online stuff too?”

“I want to shift it to online – I just started now. I have the first client from Moscow – they are Kazak. Here in Kazakhstan, online teaching is not popular, not at all. I don’t know why. They believe in personal contact – probably because of this bureaucracy, you know, you always have to shake hands.” I asked him how he hoped to continue his online teaching in the future and how that would help him to continue traveling.

“Once I’m able to shift $100 or $150 per week online, I’m going to stop everything and just travel twenty-four/seven because that will enable me – because I’ll just need mobile internet – and that’s sorted. Of course, I need to spend some time to figure how to manage all that stuff, but that’s the ultimate, so I can devote all three hundred sixty-five days to traveling. Right now, it’s six months’ work, six months traveling in my life – I have no reason to complain at all. Online would be the future, the next step.” A part of me was envious of T. Here was a guy who had decided to dedicate his entire life to travel. He wanted to visit every country in the world – quite a goal – but he was entirely serious about it. I admired his dedication to something I was also passionate about. He seemed to view money as just paper that allowed him to keep traveling. He commented on challenges in Kazakhstan as a place for someone like himself to conduct business.

“I was thinking of running my own business, something like that, so after a while just take off and hire someone, but there is no person I can trust here. This is not a place where you can leave your business. If you want to take Kazakh nationality, you have to drop your nationality. You cannot buy a house as a foreigner, unless you have a residence permit and stuff like that. It’s insane how much they try to concentrate the money.” I told him that I was interested in learning more about Almaty as I’d be visiting next month. He mentioned the differences between Almaty and Shymkent in the English teaching markets for foreign teachers. “Almaty, the market is already filled,” he said. “Here,” he said, pausing to look around, shaking his head, “there is no market.”

That afternoon, as I thought about my conversation with T, I had lunch at a restaurant that, in its efforts to seem posh and hip, tastelessly blasted crummy instrumental music that belonged more appropriately in The Legend of Zelda than in a restaurant. The lone trumpeter outside on muddy Ilyaev Street – sweetly serenading shoppers with a beautiful cover of Sinatra’s “My Way” – did a better job of filling space with meaningful music. He stood in the mud, his boots caked on the bottom; a rusty trumpet case lay discarded beside him, resting against the trunk of a snow-filled tree. Downward-looking, sidewalk-staring walkers shuffled by quickly without perhaps even considering the immense beauty that was being projected into their city streets. Were they not grateful? Did they not like the music? I didn’t see anyone give the man any Kazak Tinge.

In the evening, I met Aidana – a PR executive for a bank in Almaty. She was in town on a business trip, she said, and she was interested in gender differences and disparities in Kazakhstan. She told me about the double standards of personal relationships in Kazakhstan over pizza.

“In Kazakhstan, men are alpha. The girl’s first aim is to birth children – I can’t understand. In Kazak families, men have more opportunities than women. Girls should be quiet and humble; their first aim is to have a good marriage with a rich guy, and if you can’t marry until thirty, they say that you are old. But men can marry any age, anytime; and some guys who are in religion, they can have two wives, but they can have if only they have money.” She seemed to have some criticism of relationship norms in Kazakhstan.

“But our women in Kazakhstan are very progressive, because we have the demographic situation where the number of men is lower than women; most of our women can work, have a job and do something. They can get educated. I think we are not so traditional like Uzbeks and Tajiks. We are not so much in religion, something like this.” We discussed politics for a bit and I asked her about her president.

“We wait. It’s very sad to say, but really, he’s so old. He don’t want to give someone a chance. Always – how to say? – he close his government ministers in – how to say? – I can’t remember, my English so bad.” She seemed to suddenly forget what she was talking about, or she chose not to finish her sentence. I tried to help her finish her thought, but she didn’t seem to want to. Was she nervous about being overheard? At the time, I didn’t think so, as there was no one nearby to hear her, but she stopped in such a way that it made me wonder.  Finally, she said, “In Kazakhstan, if you have powerful parents, you can do anything that you want.” Then she said something that made me pause; “but I think people anywhere is people. They similar.”
In the morning, seated in a park near the bus station, I heard, from a nearby mosque, the call to prayer come alive over the city, blanketing it in sound. Later, I witnessed a group of Kazakhs break into song and dance in the middle of the park. It was a frigid sunny Friday afternoon and the sounds of what sounded like an accordion wafted peacefully over the park, accompanied by clapping and jolly male voices singing together in unison. A giant blue flag of Kazakhstan received a gust of wind, almost as if coming suddenly from their collected breaths, waving frantically and triumphantly over the Shymkent cityscape in the distance. The park seemed empty, but perhaps that’s only because it was so big. It would have been difficult to make it look or seem full, but the merry musicians did a good job of filling the park with life, stomping and shouting “opa!” occasionally to cajole the music along spiritedly. At the bus station, I had a piroshky and a cup of tea in a cold, bright concrete room with plastic furniture. A group of chatty Kazak girls dressed in dark colors sat at a nearby table; they held their teacups with two hands as they sipped their beverage quietly. I read my book in the sunlight and thought about people in some of the places I had seen that may, perhaps, never change.
“The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove.” – Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (2015), page 385
Leaving Shymkent on the bus, I thought about the people I had met: Akmaral and the randomness of our meeting; T and his tattooed traveler spirit, inspiring in me a greater desire to travel more spontaneously and fearlessly; and Aidana – her willingness to discuss Kazakhstan. I began listening to David Bazan’s “People” again, the second half of the second verse getting stuck in my head: “Who are these people? If I’m honest with myself at all, these are my people. Man, what else can I say? You are my people. And we’re the same in so many ways.” Outside Shymkent, on the way home, I realized how I had spent much of my time on the way here writing. It helped pass the time and was less mind-numbing than listening to music – more engaging, thought-provoking and reflective. I switched seats from the aisle to the window, letting the bright sun hit my tired body. I tipped my cap back ever so slightly and let the sun hit my face as I looked out the window, watching the birds soar smoothly above the rolling green southern Kazak hills.

Murakami by Bus: Bangkok to Hanoi

“I’ve had that kind of experience myself: I’m looking at a map and I see someplace that makes me think, ‘I absolutely have to go to this place, no matter what.’ And most of the time, for some reason, the place is far away and hard to get to. I feel this overwhelming desire to know what kind of scenery this place has, or what people are doing there. It’s like measles – you can’t show other people exactly where the passion comes from. It’s curiosity in the purest sense. An inexplicable inspiration.” – Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2011), p. 370

IMG_3826Cities, I’ve found, often look different from above than when immersed in them, walking their streets, at eye level. At night, from above, cities glow in a way that ground-walking men and women cannot understand – an image that is postponed to us until we are airborne. I looked down upon Tashkent in the evening and saw the various colored lights, wondering which ones had shone upon me previously. For some reason, I rarely remember leaving Seattle from the air, but I always remember arriving – the act of arrival. I remember the mountains and the city I know better than any other, tracing roads I’ve traveled countless times, recalling memories. Calcutta, I remember leaving – the Hooghly River winding through the city, the Victoria Memorial like a post-colonial stamp upon the city’s British-heavy history. Thinking of these past departures, I knew I would remember leaving Tashkent for the first time by air. I tried to find familiar roads and monuments but was unsuccessful in the stretching darkness. I didn’t know the city well enough yet, but I knew that I would feel as though I did upon arrival again in two-week’s time, if only to give myself a brief sense of pleasure. An old colleague of mine in Bangladesh once told me that a city never really feels like home until you return to it from somewhere else. While I have left Tashkent several times, I have not left Uzbekistan for the last three months. Perhaps it will feel more like home when I get back in two weeks. Perhaps not.

For some reason the airplane erupted in thunderous applause when we touched down in Bangkok. Were people not expecting to land? I’d never been on a flight that began clapping upon landing without a previous fear of some storm, turbulence or other airborne threat. In line to go through immigration, I opened Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84. “If you really want to know what’s happening here and now, you’ve got to use your own eyes and your own judgement.” (p. 8) I looked up in line and saw vacationers in shorts, sandals and tank tops, ready for their beach getaways. A young girl in line next to me saw the size of the Murakami book and asked me what I was reading, an occurrence that was to happen several times throughout my trip. I told her what little information I knew of the author and book, trying to humor her and give us both a break from the mind-numbing tediousness of the forwardly-inching immigration line.

“Don’t you like English literature?” she asked, defending her state education.

“Sure,” I said, “but this author is really interesting.” She held the big book I handed her and almost dropped it, catching the attention of her mother standing next to her. “Do you like to read?”

“Oh yes,” she said, smiling. She pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “I love English literature.”

“Very good,” I said. “What are you reading now?”

Hard Times,” she said. “Dickens.” I thought about the title.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Not really,” she confessed. We both smiled. The immigration officer called me forward.

“Nice chatting with you,” I said. “Enjoy Dickens.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said respectfully. I stepped forward and waited while Thai immigration looked me over. “I move, therefore I am.” (p. 41)

I was heading north, but first I needed to sleep for a little bit. I found some padded benches in the basement of the airport and crashed for a few hours, only to wake up and read a sign in red above me that read “Please no lying down on the benches.” I took the metro to the Mo Chit neighborhood where I caught a public bus to the bustling Mo Chit bus station. The stub the bus attendant gave me was smaller than a postage stamp and twice as thin. I wandered around the humming bus station for some time as I searched for the ticket office for Nong Khai. I was glad to be out of the international airport and far away from the tourist ghettos. The bus station was near howling with people coming and going, some sitting and chit-chatting, snacking on unfamiliar Thai foods wrapped in plastics. As I bought one of the last tickets for Nong Khai, the saleswoman told me that the bust might up to four hours late. That seemed really late, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I had no plans – I didn’t even have a hotel reservation.

“No problem,” I told her. “Things would simply take their course.” (p. 56)

I had four hours to kill so I sat down on what I found was the only available two square feet of free floor space in the station, nudged between a bag of trash and a concrete wall. I opened my book once more. “These people are your nameless friends for just a little while.” (p. 115) A boy sat down near me; his black duffle bag read: “Every day is Friday.” Today was, indeed, Friday. Aboard the bus, waiting to leave the station, a boy boarded and began handing out snacks on behalf of the bus company. Little stick-like crackers were trapped inside a tiny plastic sauce container, all sealed with an orange stripe that read “for you”. Fifty minutes late, the bus went backward before it went forward. While the bus plunged its way along the high overpasses of Bangkok, I looked out over the cityscape and again thought about cities at night and how things are less visible. It’s not that one can’t see a city at night – one just sees a different side or part of it. I thought about my last trip to Southeast Asia with my old roommate in Bangladesh and how we took night busses across Myanmar to save on accommodation costs, leaving us feeling restless and miserable in the surprisingly cold mornings. Given the ambiguity of our arrival time, who knew when we’d arrive to Nong Khai. In the middle of the night I woke to find a giant Buddha statue across the highway from a steamy refinery, puffing away, heaving heavy breath after heavy breath of smoke into the air. Buddha sat still.

The first glimpse of morning was a pink and orange horizon over a green canopy of trees and grass. It seemed bright compared to the dark night we had just driven through, but in reality, it was feint. Thirteen hours into the journey we passed a sign for Nong Khai, Thailand: 87 kilometers. After Udon Thani there was a red, octagonal stop sign on the road; written in Thai, it looked as though it read RUN backwards. Arriving into Nong Khai, I was bombarded by touts with “Hello Sir! Where you go? You go Lao? You Lao visa?” I ignored them and their offers for what may or may not have been a legitimate Lao visa. I jumped into yet another bus over the friendly-named Friendship Bridge and let the uniformed border guards put the visa in its place. In Vientiane, Laos, I met John, a 68-year-old western Australian who told me that his take on Seattle was that it was a city of high aspirations but low effectivity or efficiency. He said he thought the same principle applied to its people, so we chatted for a while. He’d spent seven years in India, ten in China and some time in Afghanistan, all years ago, so he had some stories. He had several empty tall bottles of Beerlao in front of him and a far-off look in his alcohol-infected eyes. “There were people in the world who wanted someone to talk to – about anything, no matter what.” (p. 217) It was nice to chat with John, even if just for a little bit, especially after I’d been, more or less, publicly silent for the last couple of days, aside from asking how to get from one place to another or where the toilet was. I was also glad to know that I would sleep in a bed that night and not a chair.

IMG_3847I liked Vientiane immediately. It was quiet, sleepy, interesting, warm, and just busy enough to keep a lone traveler occupied but not annoyed or overwhelmed. Paint scribblings on the wall of my room read: “Dream until your dream come true.” I looked at my outdated map of Laos and thought about dreams, then went for a walk along the boulevard adjacent to the calmly flowing Mekong River. Preparations were in place for the evening’s New Year’s celebrations, complete with waist-high explosives that would later propel applause-rendering firecrackers high into the night sky. No one was manning the control booth to which the explosives were connected. Couples and families were out, observing the pre-festivities, strolling with the setting sun. A lonely woman sat on the ground weaving together colorful string puppets and smiling little creatures that were no larger than a few inches long. I walked past booth after booth offering fresh fish, seafood and vegetables. The food looked inviting.

Sabaidee,” a soft voice said to me. I turned to find a smiling young girl in a black shirt that read Sorry, I’m gay.
Sabaidee,” I replied. She smiled. Both of our hands were pressed together lightly in respectful greeting.
“Please, weo-come,” she welcomed.
Khop-jai,” I said, thanking her, but I had no plans of stopping.
“Bee-ah Lao,” she tried at last, advertising the nation’s lousy lager. I smiled and reflexively put my right hand over my heart, forgetting that I was no longer in Tashkent. Nearby, I found a working couple shin-deep in muddy water, plastic bags in hand, scanning the shallow Mekong waters for little fish. I passed by a temple with orange-clad young monks scattered about, sweeping, cleaning and doing various household chores. I felt out of place, almost intrusive, but then I realized that I was neither the first or last white guy to wander into a Buddhist Temple in Vientiane. I looked up and noticed the blue sky. “The air was startlingly fresh, and a stillness filled the surrounding space. It was a stillness so profound one had to adjust one’s hearing to it. The perfectly clear sky seemed to soar upward, and the warmth of the sunlight gently touched any skin directly exposed to it.” (p. 164)

“Excuse me,” one of the hairless monks said, “you English?”
Namaste,” I said, gluing my palms together for a few seconds, “yes English,” I said, hoping for further conversation. It didn’t happen. Instead he simply showed me his Apple iPhone open to a Google Translate page. I looked at it. “We all find peace in the world,” it read; “some find it sooner than others.”
“Correct?” he asked.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. He smiled a shaved-headed smile, bringing out the brightness of his orange robe. “Photo?” I asked, touching my camera. He blushed then quickly stood to pose with two of his fellow monks.

IMG_3803New year’s was a loud affair with firecrackers blowing up in the streets, setting off car alarms with people dancing in circles like worshippers around nighttime bonfires. Santa-hatted Vietnamese girls bopped in the streets to poppy electronic dance music, their ball-ended, red and white Santa hats bobbing to the beats. I wandered around Vientiane the following day, not looking for anything in particular. I came upon one of many temples that scatter the small and walkable city. Its gates were open so I stepped inside. No attendants or dogs greeted me so I helped myself to walk around and enjoy its calm environment, stepping on large brown crunchy leaves that had fallen but had not yet been swept away. The bright colors of the temple walls, sides and railings contrasted sharply with the natural tones of the earth, the old trees sheltering statues of various Buddhas, some clothed in orange fabrics circling their waists. A school stood next door and I could hear the chatter of rambunctious children shouting and hollering in the nearby playground. Some were still in classes, though they seemed to be doing little. One boy was near the window and saw me approach. He ran over and said hello, waving a little hand. I said the same. He put up his hands in a respectful namaste, his arms and elbows resting on the window sill. His eyes peered out on either side of his clasped hands, giving the middle of his face a line that was soon torn apart when he ran back to class.

IMG_3865In Vientiane, I met Nuy, a friendly woman who had been working for the government’s Ministry of Science and Technology for ten years. She showed me around the city, pointing out some of Vientiane’s landmarks and places of interest, one of which had a sign on its green lawn: “no passing a grass”. We had coffee at a café near the city’s main boulevard, parallel to the Mekong River.

“Do you travelling to Laos?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a nice place.”

“Ah, good you like.” We sipped our Lao coffees and discussed Luang Prabang, the old Lao capital. “Luang Prabang is nice. I like there and visited many times,” she said.

“Really?”

“Yes. You will like it. Small city. Peaceful and beautiful. People is friendly.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Did you book the accommodation? Any things I can help please tell me.”

“Oh thank you,” I said, “very kind of you.” I told her that I would probably just find something when I got there.

“Yes you can. Hope you have a good time and enjoy Luang Prabang.” If Laos had a friendly meter it would be off the charts.

IMG_3834My friend Dan described Vientiane as “a great place to lay low for a few days.” Lay low I did, reading, strolling, visiting temples and eating more than my fair share of delicious street food. But leaving Vientiane was bittersweet, too, though I was excited to continue north, my final destination still undecided. I boarded a sleeper bus to Luang Prabang with a sign that read “please don’t steal the blankets”. This was the first bus I’d boarded where everyone was required to remove their footwear before boarding. Little plastic bags were supplied upon entering so that passengers could carry their shoes and sandals on board, keeping the red padded floor clean and presentable. The sleeper bus seats reclined a near-180 degrees (165, I guessed), so they were significantly more comfortable than the chairs I rode in on. But ever since arriving in Laos I had been put in a rather euphoric state of mind. I would consider my situation and then this huge grin would immediately appear on my face. Sometimes I just couldn’t help it. It continued throughout my time in Luang Prabang, despite its being overrun by tourists. “She brought a positive attitude to just about any situation once she had made up her mind to do so.” (p. 409)

At 1am, the bus stopped at a roadside shack where passengers disembarked and fed on snacks, sodas and other empty calories. Dazed, I disembarked and stumbled toward the dwelling to see what was for sale.
“Sandwich?” I asked the apron’d salesman.
“No sandwich,” he said, “ice.” Did I hear that right? I furrowed my brow.
“Ice?” I asked, confused.
“Ice ice,” he repeated stubbornly, removing the grey metal lid from a steaming pot of rice. “Ice and soup,” he concluded.
“Oh, no soup,” I foolishly said as though I were the one selling it. I imagined the rest of the conversation in my head as I made my purchase: I’ll just eat a can of Pringles, instead. Thanks. There was water on the bus windows in the morning as we entered Luang Prabang, evidence that it had rained during the night. It was colder and cloudier, too – weather I hadn’t packed for. I met Paul, a lean German university student studying philosophy and economics who was on his way north to China. “It’s such an interesting country,” Paul told me, “and it’s so you-gh,” mispronouncing ‘huge’. We shared a tuk-tuk to town, followed by bah minh sandwiches and Lao coffee by the brown, slowly flowing Mekong River. The sun hadn’t risen and there was a kind of grey morning mist in the still air.

IMG_3899“Boat trip? One our-ah, two our-ah,” riverside touts touted one-hour and two-hour boat trips as we sipped our early morning coffees. It was 7am and the town was surprisingly awake. Paul and I shared simple pleasantries that travelers often share together, then we parted ways and I walked around town for a bit in an un-showered state, searching for accommodations. Physically, I’d call Luang Prabang a nice place, but I’d never come back during peak tourist season. Like locusts, tourists, such as myself, seemed to come in and consume everything in their path: coffee, noodles, space, time, cheap goods from China, etc. Aware of my participation in this consumption, I thought of the orange-robed monks who would walk the streets in the morning, collecting alms, carrying on the heritage and 700-year-long tradition that propelled the UN to knight this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Did such labeling only further propel the tsunami of seasonal tourism? I wondered. I’ve heard that it’s the people that make up a place, not the place itself.

IMG_3941Florence was from Florence. An Italian woman of Nigerian descent, she lived in Paris and had been traveling the world for roughly nine months. We shared drinks at a café and asked each other questions about places of the world we had either visited, lived, or had hoped to. She told me about the northern town of Phongsali and the villagers she had met there – elaborately dressed Hmong with no shoes and nothing but dirt paths to traverse for their commutes. She introduced me to Colin #1 and Colin #2, two expats who worked at an organization called Big Brother Mouse, a strangely named organization that attempts to promote literacy and healthy reading habits among the local Lao population. I visited their center and got to speak with some young Lao students who held an impressive command of English, given the amount of time they told me they had been studying. I was inspired by Big Brother Mouse, as their mission seemed genuine and their approach intentional. Apparently former President Clinton had recognized the organization years earlier at the Clinton Global Initiative in Asia as a major change-maker in literacy promotion in Laos. I told a friend how impressed I was from just one visit to the center.
“So you’ll be moving to Laos?” she asked sarcastically.
“I don’t think so,” I chuckled. “Laos is great, but I couldn’t handle so many tourists all the time.” I was excited for Xam Neua as I hadn’t met anyone who’d been there before. Colin #2 said that he had always wanted to go.

Little wooden benches lined the platform of the Luang Prabang bus station. They were smooth from years of asses caressing their tops, polishing them in a way that only asses over time can. There were no buses in sight, so at first I thought I was in the wrong place.
“You be here three o’clock,” the bus station attendant told me, “then bus come I tell you, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed with a nod.

Bad Top 40 music blared from across the street. Dogs with their noses to the ground pranced around the dirt looking for trash and other things to eat. One had a roll of duct tape in his mouth, but the top of the roll obstructed his vision, causing him to swivel his head constantly and crash into things. As had been my experience most of this trip, most of the people waiting in one place for more than five minutes were staring down at their phones, necks and backs hunched over like modern, 21st century human gargoyles. I was glad to escape the cultural clutches of the tourist-heavy presence in Luang Prabang. I’m sure it’s a nice quite place every other time of the year. A young backpacked kid next to me had on a stylish looking jacket that read, between the shoulder blades, “Even the devil, once and Angel”. I asked myself what it could mean. “These days, not understanding anything had more or less become the normal state of affairs for him. This was not a new discovery.” (p. 441)

IMG_3939I grabbed some grilled fish and rice before the bus journey. The fish sat open-mouthed, almost drooling into the hot smoking charcoal below, roasting away. I got up to pay for the meal and continue waiting in the open-air terminal.
“Ten thousand,” the sandal’d woman said. I began flipping through flimsy Lao Kip notes, numbered in their thousands, not so differently than Uzbek Som – roughly eight thousand to the dollar. The woman went to the back of the little shack and made some noise with pots and pans. She returned to take the money I was handing her.
“Fifteen thousand,” she said. I gave her my best flat-face and looked at her kid lying on a tattered lounge chair nearby, playing on a cracked phone in an Angry Birds t-shirt. He looked up and smiled a dentist-needed smile, soon laughing away. “The more I think about it, the less I seem to understand, like my brain is a tub of tofu past its expiration date.” (p. 1,006) Only northeastern Laos was in front of me.

IMG_3934The bus wasn’t a bus at all, but a minivan. I boarded after removing my shoes, putting them into a clear little plastic bag, and was immediately asked by the elderly woman sitting next to me, without words, to remove the plastic wrapping from the top of her water bottle. Her hands and fingers were so knobby from what looked like advanced arthritis that she couldn’t open it herself. I satisfied her request and tried to not pay attention to the crying baby on the lap of the young mother in front of me. The van wobbled back and forth as it exited the station and I thought about the white emergency vomit bag I swiped from Uzbekistan Airlines last week, knowing that the only words I would speak for the next fifteen hours would be “Xam Neua?” and “toilet?” “Not speaking for a long time makes the muscles around the mouth grow slack.” (p. 956)

I leaned my head back on the headrest and tried to enjoy the surprisingly moderately-volume’d (for now) traditional Lao music coming from over the van stereo system. At night, the only light visible was the passing street lights; otherwise, car headlights flashed and the dim glow of people’s faces, like moons, glimmered as they stared into the images reflecting off their lifeline-like phones. “All that was there was a feeling of being in motion…It didn’t matter when or where this was. All that mattered was this movement. Everything was fluid, and a specific meaning was born of that fluidity.” (p. 960) After having been banged around the back of a van for 4.5 hours, we pulled over for a break at 2am. Maybe the driver was tired of singing to himself to keep himself awake. Clouds were intertwined with the dark hills in the distance, creating the rather ominous landscape through which we had passed. Standing around the van, killing time, a woman said “tree more hours” to no one specifically. I hummed a reply. “Maybe four,” she added. At that point, it didn’t matter. It was the middle of the night and we were travelling the windy hills of northeastern Laos. All I could do was continue waiting, thrashing around the back of the van with every turn. “The flow of time wasn’t uniform anymore, the sense of distance uncertain.” (p. 1,067)

Fourteen hours after leaving Luang Prabang, we reached the very pleasant town of Xam Neua. “He wished he could just go to bed and be fast asleep. He could continue this process in the morning. No amount of additional thinking would bring him any clarity now.” (p. 798) It was dark and cold and I didn’t have any idea as to what the layout of the town was like, but I was glad to be there. While I didn’t like it immediately, I did like it in the morning after some rest and a shower. No one in my guesthouse spoke English; they didn’t have a map, and I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the city. It was great. “It is the place where he is meant to be lost.” (p. 574) I wondered out in the direction I was told the city was in and grabbed some soup. This was a much smaller town; I walked by the market and saw a sign that read “say yes to life and family and say no to drugs.” There wasn’t much going on in Xam Neua.

In the market, lots of little rubber banded plastic bags were lining the counters, all filled with the same contents: special spicy sauce only found in Xam Neua, I was told. I walked along the river and got more looks from locals than I had previously. No “taxi?” No “tuk-tuk?” No “boat?” Just screaming hellos from waving children from across the streets, some of them clutching their mothers on the backs of mopeds as they leaned into turns. The hills surrounding the town were draped in green, as if someone huge had laid down a thick green forestry carpet, covering the area. I walked back to the bus station on top of a hill to get a ticket to Hanoi for the following morning. Walking back, I was asked for money directly for the first time in Laos. A young guy came running after me down the hill in sandals shouting “ey!” I turned to see what was up. He started making all sorts of gestures, rubbing his belly, making it pretty clear what he wanted. I gave him a bill but he seemed to want more. I walked away and he didn’t follow. I passed a karaoke shack on a hillside where a screeching voice extended outside, echoing through the hills nearby. I looked inside and saw Laotians crouched on yellow crates of discarded Beer Lao bottles. The music was deafening. I stopped off for a Beer Lao at a roadside shack near the bus station. Watching the woman tending the shack, cooking chicken skewers over a charcoal flame, I realized that I’d be leaving Laos tomorrow. I sudden wave of nostalgia and sentiment swept over me. It had only been about a week, but it had passed quickly and I felt as though there was still much of this country unexplored.

IMG_3836I realized, remembering my bus trips in Himachal Pradesh and Assam, India, that I generally prefer traveling to rural areas. Rural life, often, is more interesting, in that it often gives better glimpses into what a country is like day-to-day, how much of the population lives – plus it’s often prettier from a scenic standpoint. While there was nothing to do in Xam Neua, I also appreciated it tranquility. In the evening, as the sun slowly set over the hills outside town, three little children hopped over a concrete barrier opposite the strangely named Many Cafe. One of the monstrous munchkins held a small fake plastic AK-47. They ran across the street towards me, checking for cars, and entered the café. Was this a fake holdup? They purchased some pastries and left. I sipped my coffee when Nuy messaged me from Vientiane.

“Good evening, John. How is there?”

“Hi Nuy, yes it’s beautiful here. How are you?”

“I’m doing well. Xam Neua must be beautiful and cold. I have never been there.”

“Yes it’s beautiful and rather cold in the evenings.”

“But better you have jacket. Take care and enjoy travelling there.”

“Thank you, Nuy. Nice to hear from you.”

That evening I had dinner at a place with a red napkin dispenser on the table that read “everything goes well.” “In the present situation, you don’t want to move from where you are now.” (p. 1,108) In the morning, I left my guesthouse without saying goodbye to the staff. “Goodbye,” she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived there.” (p. 532) I just put the key in a small wicker basket and walked up the hill to the bus station. Xam Neua was the first place I’d been where the bus station offered the best view in town. After the sun rose, I boarded the bus to Hanoi. I was the only passenger for some reason; the driver didn’t even shut the door as we left the station. We left Xam Neua. And I didn’t see any white people. “But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically.” (p. 1,138)

IMG_3976We swerved through little village after little village with colorful laundry hanging out to dry in the damp, humid air. The scenery of northeastern Laos is really beautiful: hilly, green, not populated. On the bus, I thought about the relationship I often have with bus drivers as the only foreigner on board. They will remember me, but we won’t say anything to each other, really, except the name of our destination, followed by a question mark. If I had to give a moniker to the drivers on this trip they would be the following: “Short Tie”, “The Quiet One”, “The Singer”, and this one would quite simply be “Honky”. We reached the border about three hours after leaving Xam Neua. I handed my passport over to the woman manning the checkpoint, dressed in a green uniform, adorned with red pins.
“Hello,” she said without emotion.
“Hello,” I replied. She flipped through the pages of my passport with quick-moving, nimble, experienced fingers. I walked some fifty meters to the Vietnam entrance building down a kind of driveway.
“Hello,” another green uniformed man said.
“Hello,” I said. I handed over my passport again. This time they had computers. After some key-punching, the man seated behind the large wooden desk called out my name, even though I was the only one in the room.
“John Philip,” he said, computer-like. I stood up and received my passport. Leaving that office, another uniform asked to see my passport. I handed it over. He flipped through it, checking the stamp that was placed mere seconds ago.
“Okay,” he said.
“Toilet?” I asked. He pointed around the corner. Above two doorways were written WC Nam and WC Wu. There were no pictures.  I walked into the one marked Nam, saw a urinal, and deduced that Nam was Man backwards. Outside, I got some food on a metal tray: tofu with something inside and white rice. After lunch I saw my bus mates smoking something out of a wooden bong-looking instrument. Naturally, I walked over. I thrust out my chin as to ask “what’s that?” No sooner had one bald man loaded a bowl and handed it to me, lighting it swiftly. I hit it. I assumed the brown bag of contents on the table was merely tobacco, it being at an international border checkpoint and all. It went straight to my head. I sat down, had some tea and waited for the bus while my bus mates listened to Lao news on their phones. It was hot. I watched a four-legged dog hobble around on three legs while other dogs fought in the rough gravel. The men sipped their tea and smoked cheap cigarettes. I flipped through my passport and found the Lao visa with a new stamp on it: USED. The roads on the other side of the border were immediately better: paved, smooth and much more functional. Honky took full advantage of the opportunity, flying around blind curves with a hand on the horn all the while. I decided to give the bus attendant a moniker too: Tonky. Honky & Tonky worked together as a team, addressing situations as they came up, like when the door would randomly open on its own during transport. Honky would shout to Tonky, who was often asleep or dozing off, then Tonky would jump up and shut the door with his bare feet, soon settling back to rest.

Coming down from the northwestern Vietnamese highlands, I looked across the bus aisle to see my bus mates staring out the window. We were all looking at the same scenery, the same beauty with a kind of mesmerized expression in our gaze. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and probably had very little in common in terms of our lifestyles, we all looked upon the majestic hills with similar awe, staring, as it were, into the simple beauty of nature. “I’m sure I’ll be able to understand the meaning and purpose of this incident sometime in the future, Tengo thought. What I have to do now, in order to make that happen, is to record this moment in my mind as clearly and accurately as possible.” (p. 683) “Don’t Fear” by Maps came on through my headphones as we passed the ill-named café “Cooffee New Star”. Hours later, we stopped at a small town where I was quickly whisked off the bus and directed to board another one. I was immediately confused. Was this bus not going to Hanoi as I’d been told? Honky and Tonky aggressively gestured for me to get on this new bus asap, so I did. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly that upon boarding the new bus I collapsed in exhaustion. We stopped hours later for a break where it was significantly colder. I ordered some food and foolishly sat down in a small puddle of red sauce waiting for me on a metal stool. I rolled into Hanoi with a big red stain on my ass, thirteen hours after leaving Xam Neua.

IMG_4104Hanoi was freezing – colder than any weather conditions I was expecting or prepared for. I exited the bus station to a windy night, soon to find a friendly guy in glasses smoking a cigarette at the city bus ticket counter. I held an address on a piece of paper in my hand and he looked at it. He repeated the street name to himself several times, as if recalling a distant memory. He walked over to the nearest bus that was parked nearby, rapped on the door and shouted the address at the shoe-less driver with his bare feet resting comfortably on the dash. They exchanged some words in Vietnamese and I soon boarded the dark bus and listened to the two men while they chatted. “So he always kept his mouth shut. He kept his ears open and listened closely to whatever anyone else had to say, aiming to learn something from everything he heard. This habit eventually became a useful tool.” (p. 990) The bus dropped me off less than two kilometers to my accommodations. The bus fare was six thousand Vietnamese Dong – less than a quarter.
The following day, I met Dung at Xofa Cafe. She was the owner and she said they had been operating for two years, 24 hours a day. She had a beautiful cafe and I told her as much. She blushed and said thank you, hoping that I would enjoy my stay. I commented on all the books she had on her shelves around the café and she told me to help myself. She said that she couldn’t meet with me right away as she had a work-related meeting. I told her that was fine as I had my book.
“Oh what are you reading?” she asked – one of my favorite questions. I pulled out the Murakami from my bag and gave it to her. “Oh Murakami!” she exclaimed, “I love him.”
“Me too,” I said. She had to go, but I enjoyed my coffee outside, despite the cold, where there was a feint whiff of marijuana nearby. I liked Hanoi for its craziness, but I also missed the peacefulness of Xam Neua.

I didn’t see as much of Hanoi as perhaps I should have; however, I seldom feel the need to see a place any more or less than any other person. I walked the streets, sipped the coffee, ate the food, saw the people, heard their words, dodged the mopeds and breathed the air. While I didn’t check off all the main tourist attractions on some make-believe checklist, I did enjoy my time. I enjoyed the tiny plastic street stools that looked like they were made for elementary school children. They reminded me of small, low hanging urinals in elementary schools that grown men have to awkwardly squat or bend down to use. Upon first glance, these stools would be assumed to be for children, yet adults sat in them day after day. The city reminded me of other big, dense cities: Calcutta, though the traffic was not of rickshaws and old yellow cabs but of masked moped riders, circling around each other ad nauseam. Mexico City for its density, the sensation that the city went on forever, though I knew this to not be true.

IMG_4093I wandered around the city for several days, eating its food, smelling its smells, hearing its sounds. But on my last night I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my trip would soon come to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was because I’d wandered into a strange bar full of white people singing along to Toto’s 1982 hit “Africa”. Whatever it was, my journey was coming to a close. Hanoi is an amazing city. Traveling here from Bangkok overland by bus was well worth the journey.

On the Air Asia flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok, I looked around the cabin, noticing the clever slogans developed by someone clever, glorifying capitalism, consumerism and consumption. “Shopping is cheaper than therapy”, “Travel is the healthiest addiction” and “In shopping we trust”. I wanted to vomit. I finished the Murakami’s book just where I had started it two weeks earlier – Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting, but then again, neither was that of my trip. Perhaps that was the beauty of it – you had to get to the end of it to see what it was like, what was there. Flying back into Tashkent that evening, I was reminded of the beginning of my journey just a mere two weeks ago. From above, Tashkent looked the same. Its lights still shone, its layout hadn’t changed, and the Uzbeks on the flight around me all sounded as they did fourteen days ago. What had changed? Perhaps I had. With 1,700 kilometers, 1,300 pages, four buses, three countries, two weeks and one hell of a trip, I was finished.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 7.17.14 PM“He knew, too, that it would take time for him to acclimate himself to this new world that had come upon him. His entire way of thinking, his way of seeing things, the way he breathed, the way he moved his body – he would need to adjust and rethink every element of life. And to do that, he needed to gather together all the time that existed in this world.” (p. 1,278)

After I got back to Tashkent I was asked, “So what would you have done differently?”

“Nothing,” I answered immediately.

“Really?” she asked surprised.

“Really.”

 

The Overnight to Urgench

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world… A hundred reasons clamor for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.”

  • Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), page 2

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The old Uzbek man sat idly as I entered the cramped train compartment. His little white beard contrasted sharply with his black jacket and the dim, dank surroundings of the train innards that smelled continuously of burnt metal.

Assalaam walaikum,” he offered.

Salaam walaikum,” I repeated in the common Uzbek way, not switching the greeting. He began spewing out a machine-gun fire arsenal of incompressible Khorezm-dialect Uzbek that I’d never heard before, ending with “hm?” as if to ask what I thought of his brief oratory. I smiled awkwardly and showed him the bags of food I had brought aboard with me. Thanks to the astronomical kindness showered upon me by one very kind student who met me at the station, I had some home-cooked food for the journey.

Harasho,” the old man said and contently folded his wrinkled hands together over the jacket covering his belly. He removed the winter cap wrapping his bald head and rubbed it gently, his dry hands almost scratching against his scalp. He ran his hands down his face onto his beard and muttered a solitary “Allah” to himself. Younger people I assumed to be his relatives came in to check on him, exchanging quick greetings and questions, asking him if he wanted any tea. He said no and soon the train began moving west toward the tiny western region of Khorezm, our eventual destination near the Turkmen border. He lifted his hands up into prayer and mumbled a short but what seemed to be heartfelt prayer, perhaps asking God for a safe journey across the country, slowly washing his face with his hands afterwards. He turned toward me and chuckled, followed by a gurgled “yaxshi,” then we were on our own in near silence, heading toward a land I had never seen. Our silence became constant as we sat and breathed, letting nothing more than time fill our brief existence together. Something I’d always appreciated about old people is that they know how to sit still and be quiet. This man was clearly well-versed in the elderly art of being elderly; he let out an emphatic sigh and I looked out the window as the fading city lights of Tashkent got further and further away.

* * *

This was the first Asian train I’d been on where tea was not served to you. Instead, there was a communal hot-water basin at the end of the car, one heated by orange-ember coals where passengers would take their own mugs, fill them with steaming hot water and return to their cabins with a soon-to-be refreshingly warm beverage. I noted to bring my own mug on my next overnight journey. I returned to our cabin with a hot cup of water only to have the old man’s hand thrust inelegantly into my crotch. He was reaching across the aisle for his bedding and didn’t see me enter the cabin. It was then that I finally realized that he was blind; his long white walking stick, now visible, stood lonely in the corner. He muttered an innocent “opa!” and humbly took the bedding and blanket which I happily handed him. Another thing I like about old people is that they go to bed early. The cackling laughter emitting from a louder, more boisterous cabin down the hall echoed through the train as my comrade lay his head down to rest. The bright hall light shone through a crack in the door but it didn’t bother him in the slightest. I sipped my tea and he slowly snored restfully. A little boy no more than four years old played with an empty Pepsi bottle in the hall, banging and shouting his way to adulthood.

I looked outside into the black night around us only to find a stream of orange glowing sparks flying high above the train top, disappearing into the thin air that was immediately behind us. Like a prickly waterfall that wouldn’t stop, the sparks kept flitting and fluttering about, almost dancing in the cold night air that was choking the train with low desert temperatures. I switched off the dim cabin light, laid back on my upper bunk and listened to the boisterous tittering of Uzbeks caught in emotional conversation, laughing and shouting as the slow-moving train rocked its way, back and forth, further westward.

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I woke at 2am to find a new cabin mate in our now very hot and musty room. I went to use the toilet and found the train stopped at Navoi. For some reason the toilets were locked, so I asked some shirtless men playing cards in the nearest cabin what the deal was with the toilets.

Ruski?” one asked me.

Nyet,” I replied sleepy-eyed, “ingliski.

Ah,” he said, as if it helped. He thought about how to reply, his friends drunkenly watching him with half-lidded, bloodshot eyes. Their cabin stunk of vodka and looked like a four-bunked bar, sunflower seeds littering the dirty floor below their socked feet. He finally decided on making what I assumed to be the sound of the train continuing: “taka-tak, taka-tak,” then, he gestured, the toilets would open.

Besh minute?” I asked.

Aha!” they all agreed in a drunken, chorus-like unison and laughed. “Rahmat,” I said and returned to wait by the smelly toilets. Then, like out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, two waddling, blanketed women approached and asked if the toilets were occupied.

Yok, but…” I started, fumbling with languages, making the Asian X with my forearms to indicate that something (the toilet) was closed. The women looked at each other in surprise then one tried to open the door. Sure enough, it opened right up, leaving me in the hall flat-faced and flabbergasted, needing to urinate even more.

It wasn’t until ten minutes before our surprisingly early arrival that one of our cabin-mates decided to share the fact with me that he spoke English. The usual questions ensued: where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you like Uzbekistan? What do you think about our mentality? The friendly man, however, would not allow me to get my own taxi upon arrival into Urgench. He insisted that I join him, along with his jolly colleagues – Uzbeks covered in dark, furry winter clothing, puffy with padding – on a tour bus that was headed for a local hotel. They told me they wouldn’t mind dropping me off at the Merkez Bazaar where I was to meet my friend Peter that afternoon. I was reminded of what hospitality on a nearly incomprehensible level feels like. On their tour bus, I sat in the back and didn’t try to blend in. Someone began calling roll, flipping through a clipboard of papers, checking off names as they were called. At the end, someone yelled out, “and meester John!” The old ladies in the front caused a slight commotion as they all turned around, craning their scarfed necks a discomforting 180 degrees. “Assalaamwalaikum,” I said and put my right hand over my heart. The bus erupted with laughter at the displaced foreigner. They dropped me off as they said they would, setting me off on my way.

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That evening, Peter and I went to a local watering hole to enjoy 30-cent draft beers, salty carp and a bad Turkish soap opera, all in the fading heat of a struggling electric space heater. Peter told me of his amazing trip around the United States in a van years ago. He mentioned cities, towns and national parks that I had never even heard of. He spoke of the rich experience he had, meeting Americans who were just scraping by, struggling to make ends meet, yet being supportive and friendly to a traveler who was simply interested in seeing his country. Through his tale, Peter inspired in me a long-since considered desire to travel and see my own country. Having spent time abroad the last several years, I wonder about the prospect of seeing North America as an adult. His story reminded me of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, only without the dog. As the evening came to a close, a large gentleman with a baby face approached our table and sat down to join us.

Uterin, uterin,” I said, gesturing for him to sit down. Sat down he did. His large frame took up most of the bench and dwarfed my own six-foot one.

Salaamwalaikum,” he boomed. We returned the greeting and I ordered him a beer. We exchanged series of greetings, gestures and slaps on the back, leading to only more of the same, all drowned in the piss-colored beverage that we poured down our throats over and over again. At one point, the goliath pulled out a ball-point pen and wrote a number on the palm of his hand, showing it to us. Peter and I looked at each other in confusion and then looked back at the man. He quickly flashed two raised eyebrows and a full-house of gold teeth, flat and small. His little hat, seemingly small, sat lopsided atop his thick, neck-less head. His beady eyes skirted the room, suggesting something somehow sinister, then he blinked. He paused. He was a pimp and he wanted dollars. The number on his hand was five.

The following day Peter and I went to Khiva, the historically walled city that is always last on the trifecta of the great Uzbek tourist cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. The taxi driver that dropped us off didn’t have a pen handy, so he wrote his phone number in the dust on the trunk of his car so that we could call him later. Khiva was stunning.

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The train back to Tashkent was a little more noise-filled. There were no blind old men in the cabin this trip. Indeed, my cabin-mates were three track-suited, gold-toothed, sunflower-seed-spitting Uzbek gentlemen who were under the impression that if they yelled their questions in Uzbek at me louder and louder then I might begin to understand them, maybe even answer them. Needless to say, it was a contrast to the trip out to Urgench. At some point, I pulled out my headphones and put on Holocene by Bon Iver, a song that I had not listened to in some time, but one, like many songs, helped pass the time. I had a lot of it: 18 hours. I listened to the music and wrote in my notebook and watched the muted gestures of the gentlemen take their shapes as I lay on my bunk, content, lost in a sea of sound that they could not, for the time being, penetrate. The night outside could not have been blacker. Later, free of headphones, they asked about my impressions of Uzbekistan, America and its current “leader”.

“Uzbekistan, kak?” one shouted. How’s Uzbekistan?

“Very good,” I said, giving a thumbs-up.

“America, kak?” I stuck with my original answer, hoping for diplomacy. “Very good,” I repeated, thumb still raised.

“Uzbekistan very good. America very good. Kak?” he asked, perplexed. To be fair, this was a well-rooted question: how can both of these nations, as you say, stranger, be “very good”? I would have been happy to engage in such a conversation, but given the language barrier, I found myself lacking patience.

As if on cue, a gentleman came by the cabin with a blue plastic basket of alcohol: beer, vodka and another bottle of something I couldn’t identify. “Piva? Wodka?” he asked no one in particular. I got a beer and my cabin mates a bottle of vodka, the first of several. If I couldn’t engage in political conversation, then I would certainly do my part in collective drinking, hoping the questions would wane. Little glass cups provided by the railway service appeared and shots of vodka were poured after shots of vodka were poured. As a toast, I said something in English they didn’t understand and convinced them that it was something substantial, meaningful and worthy of a toast simply by looking them in the eye and raising my glass slightly along with my eyebrows. We tried to open the cabin window but it wouldn’t budge. It got hot. I was reminded of my time in Georgia, looking happy while men debated who-knows-what in a seemingly impenetrable language. Smiling, nodding and pretending that you knew what you were talking about when toasting were necessary in keeping up the pleasant-and-agreeable-foreigner persona. Cheap cups clanked, vodka disappeared and I soon stopped caring about things I had cared about upon boarding the train hours previously. The night faded into what could have been a desert mirage – blurry, disorienting and befuddling – descending into a state which I did not understand. But my friends wanted to talk.

“Trump, kak?” one asked.

“Trump ploha!” I shouted with a big thumbs-down, inspired by the vodka that had been emptied into my innards. I barked off a colorful variety of various vocabulary words that they never understood, stringing together a set of stinging explicatives. They seemed to have caught on to the disgust in my eyes, the anger in my stare, the disappointment in my face, the embarrassment in my heart. While they were witness to the vocal American, I was also, at the same time, witness to something much simpler: a train ride. The way the elderly man rubbed his fingers together in conversation, the way he hummed repeatedly throughout with his comrade to communicate understanding or sympathy, and the way the wife-beater’d gentleman next to me poured shot after shot of increasingly repulsive vodka all reminded me, quite simply, that I was here, on a train. One comrade, the most boisterous originally, had fallen. Sleep had found him more quickly than the rest of us, and I envied him. Another bottle of vodka arrived. The cabin attendant concealed it in his pants pocket, covered by his white waiter-like apron. He placed it upon our little cabin table and it was soon opened. It was then that I knew that I was in for a long night. Perhaps that’s what I wanted. But the trip would be long with or without vodka. After all, eighteen hours is eighteen hours. I crunched on sunflower seeds, as they did, perhaps to see how they tasted, perhaps just to try and fit in.

The vodka disappeared at last, and I inserted the remaining headphone into a naked ear, slipping into a kind of drunken musical haze that would see me home. The music enveloped my senses, drowning out the Uzbek conversation around me, almost muting it. I laid down to sleep. I half opened one eye to blurrily see the Uzbek men still chatting away. I wondered how long they would do so, but I realized that it didn’t matter. I thought about how I would never be them and they would never be me. I let the drum-heavy music infiltrate my ears.

Eventually my cabin-mates were asleep. Surprisingly, I had kept up with their drinking habits, perhaps granting me the long-awaited reward of sleep. But with the unfamiliar silence I didn’t know what to witness, what to observe. The calm was an unfamiliar guest, entering and occupying the space like a ghost. In the middle of the night I woke to more blackout, my head pounding. I went to the corridor to get some fresh air, cupping my hands against the frozen window to see the wind-swept desert, lightly dusted with snow under a half-crescent moon, silent in its vastness. I wondered if there were other foreigners on the train. I held my open palms up to the frozen window and let the layer of ice on the window melt, leaking water on my hands which I rubbed soothingly against my hot, throbbing forehead and neck. It felt good. I returned to my cabin to snores and open-mouthed yawns as I settled back to rest.

In the morning, light streamed through the window curtains, slowly destroying the night it had previously ignored. I clumsily disembarked after shaking hands with my cabin-mates, gentlemen I was sure never to see again. Their hungover grins told me that they enjoyed our ride together, as I had. It was a sunny day in Tashkent and the platform was bustling with tired, wobbling people carrying bags of all sorts, heading to their next destination. I slowly walked the gauntlet of hissing taxi drivers, preying on passengers, repeating their vocation like broken records. I exited the station, put on my sunglasses and walked home with my jacket slung loosely over my shoulder.

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“Sometimes you feel yourself weightless, thinned. You draw back the curtains (if there are any) on a rectangle of wasteland at dawn, and realize that you are cast adrift from everything that gave you identity. Thousands of miles from anyone who knows you, you have the illusion that your past is lighter, scarcely yours at all. Even your ties of love have been attenuated. Dangerously, you may come to feel invulnerable. Your fear only your failure to understand or to reach where you are going. Sometimes you are moved by a kind of heartless curiosity, which shames you only on your return home. At other times you are touched, even torn: but you move on.”

  • Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), page 114

Three days in the mountains: Sun, Blizzard, Sun

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I woke agitated on Saturday. I think I was just nervous. I didn’t know my hiking companions well, and it turned out that it would get the better of me later in the trip. We met at the Maxim Gorky metro station in Tashkent at 8am where we boarded a shared van with our huge backpacking bags, placing them on our laps all the way to Gazalkent. I tried to make conversation with one of my companions, another American, but the pink-hatted Uzbek woman between us made sure to express her disinterest in our conversation by plugging her ears and clicking her tongue. We didn’t talk long. In Gazalkent, we met Mahkmut, our driver who would drive us up the windy roads toward Chimgan. We rode the two-person chairlift higher up Mt. Kumbel where we were given sweeping views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, the natural border with Kazakhstan.

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With the sun on our faces, we hiked up to the top of Mt. Kumbel where there is an old weather station, one that looks like a giant Soviet golf ball atop a mountain, ready to be teed off. There were a few men manning the station and they agreed to let us stay for the night, letting us help ourselves to their kitchen, TV, tiny sauna and extra warm single beds. We cooked soups, broke bread, shared greetings, sang songs and woke to complete white out in the morning. The inner-kid in me imagined that school would be cancelled, that it would be a day of snowballs fights and snow angels. Clouds had rolled in and there was probably a foot of fresh, feather-light snow on the ground. We had a hearty breakfast and headed down the mountain, seeing two-fifths of our party on their way. Then Viola, Andrey and I continued on our way through what would be the worst hiking conditions I’ve ever been in. It snowed all day; it was foggy, and we got lost several times, which made me rather nervous. There was no trail to follow as it was covered in thick snow and Andrey obviously didn’t know where he was going, which didn’t set my mind at ease.

Sometimes the greatest challenges, when hiking, I’ve found, are mental. They are within one’s self, all in the mind. While there was much to “worry” about, I told myself, I also understand that “worry” serves no utility. It’s theoretically useless. It doesn’t “do” anything but put one in a bad mood and make one irritable. Try as I might to overcome these mental challenges that hiking often offers, I don’t always succeed. It was cold, we couldn’t see anything, and we obviously had no idea where we were going. But Andrey had been in these mountains before, so I just had to trust him. I didn’t feel like I’d known my companions long enough to put in them the level of trust that was necessary for me to overcome the mental battles that I was waging within my head, but I also didn’t have much of a choice. Perhaps this was the conundrum that I was most frustrated with: I had no choice but to trust my way-finders in conditions that I was not comfortable with. It’s not like I could just turn around and go home.

We reached what Viola called “an apple garden,” our home for the evening. It was a windswept plain that had a few frozen trees in it. We found a lone tree and began to try building a fire with wet wood in windy, snowy conditions. We had trouble getting the fire lit, to say the least. The wood was frozen and the wind kept blowing out the matches that Andrey would light with this shaking hands. The panic in me made me want to run screaming down the mountain. After some teamwork using our bodies as windscreens, we got the fire lit after several candles and a technique that I had not seen before. Andrey would light the candle then shake the hot wax all over the fire bed, creating a kind of pit in which the fire could grow. The heat coming from the red flames felt life-saving. I pitched my tent after clearing a patch in the snow. I removed my wet clothes only to let them freeze overnight. I got in my sleeping bag at 5:30pm and didn’t get out until 7:30am the following morning.

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I woke to rustling and grunt-like speech from my groupmates. “John, there is a beautiful sunrise,” Viola said. She wasn’t kidding. The sun was touching the pink tops of the mountains on the other side of the valley. They sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I felt like we’d won the weather lottery. I grabbed my frozen camera, turned it on and was surprised when it actually worked in such cold conditions. My fingers felt frozen buy I kept clicking away, glad to see the blue skies above us. We made another fire and dried out our stiff, frozen clothes. We made hot coffee and a hearty stew, both of which helped make me feel like a human being again. I dusted the snow off my tent and packed it up. We headed down the mountain in shin-deep snow, making fresh tracks, ducking under snow-covered trees that would rain down snow upon us when we ruffled their branches. Later, we came across a stable and apple orchard where there was a guard on duty. Dogs barked and howled as we approached, alerting the cheerful attendant of our presence. There were about ten different little puppies there, all of which were pretty damn cute. The guard welcomed us and introduced us to all of the little dogs running around shivering. One didn’t have a name yet, so Andrey quickly suggested one: “John! Zis one name John!” And so it came to be.

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The guard explained to us how to get down the mountain, following the tracks that he had only recently made himself. We bade him farewell and followed his advice. It was a mental massage to be on some sort of trail, knowing that someone had been this way recently. We eventually found a road and called Mahkmut. He picked us up in his clunky Lada and drove us back to Gazalkent along the snow-strewn mountain roads. His car stalled several times, delaying our trip just a bit more, but I really didn’t mind. I was just glad I didn’t have to sleep in a frozen tent again. We got a shared van back to Tashkent where I had a therapeutic hot shower, one I had dreamed of only hours previously. I unpacked my wet bag, let the smell of campfire fill my apartment and wondered when the next hike would be.

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Cock-fighting in Yangiobad

“That’s a big cock,” Seth said.

“Sure is,” I replied.

“Have you ever seen one so big?”

I thought for a moment. “Nope.”

“How do you think it got so big?” he asked.

“No idea,” I said flatly, staring. Men were milling about, stroking their cocks. “Where are we?” I thought.

“Did you know they are distant descendants of velociraptors?” Seth asked.

“Really? I didn’t know that.” I blinked twice.

Men were crowded into a thick circle behind the Yangiobad Bazaar on the eastern outskirts of dust-blown Tashkent. Some had prize-fighting cocks in their arms, like beaked babies, and stroked them slowly.

“You ever seen a cock-fight?” I asked Seth.

“Nope. You?”

“Nope.”

The Yangiobad Bazaar, located past low-laying buildings, can be found past tree-lined traditional Uzbek neighborhoods known as mahallas. I told an Uzbek friend of mine where Seth and I were going.

“Why you want to go there?” she asked. “Who adviced you?” Another friend told us to watch our wallets. Wandering through the seemingly-endless supply of stuff, junk and (arguably) rubbish, we passed stalls selling old Soviet war medals, worn vacuum cleaner parts, rabbits, clothing of all sorts, and even a half-size violoncello that needed some serious repairs. We drifted through congested lanes clogged with merchants, buyers and stocky men pulling heavy carts as they yelled for people to get out of their way. It was the closest I’d felt to India since being in Uzbekistan.

We approached the encircled men around the ready-to-fight roosters, trying not to act too conspicuous, not knowing whether or not anyone would care if we were there. I folded up the collar of my jacket; Seth turned his maroon Gophers cap around. The cock-fighting pit was below a concrete slab, behind a row of darkly dressed and downward gazing men. Others stood in the sawdust-covered pit, creating a ring with their bodies in which the cocks being stroked would fight. It was easy to pick out the two men whose roosters would fight as their eyes shifted about uneasily. One man breathed in and out big breaths of anxiety as he stroked his shifty-eyed cock, clenching and releasing his jaw-muscles in the process. A little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight years old wandered among the crowd and gathered filthy bills of Uzbek so’m from standing onlookers.

I held up my camera up over the heads of the crowd, hoping that I wouldn’t get yelled at. No one paid any attention. The cocks were released and began pecking at one another, wrapping their long necks around each other, occasionally fluttering up into the air to try and claw each other with their feet. The feathers on their necks would ruffle as they stood off in the middle of the arena, encouraged by smoking men. They stood erectly as they danced around, occasionally stabbing the other with their sharp beaks, drawing blood. A woman passed the outskirts of the crowd selling fried food. The place stunk of urine and sweat and fine sawdust clouds floated up into the sun-streaked air as men swatted them away. I looked about the scene and asked myself if this was a place that I’d ever like to return to.

Was the fight entertaining? No, but I’m not someone who enjoys watching fights for pleasure. It just never appealed to me. But some of these men were in it to win it; clearly they had money involved as the place became tense soon after the fight began. A grungy referee of sorts regulated the match, making sure the cocks obeyed all the cock-fighting rules, whatever those are. Seth and I left after about ten minutes, at which point we’d decided that we’d seen enough. We left, passing tied up cocks with their heads wrapped in rags.