Dear Friends Afar,
Hello hello. How are you? Has anyone received my lovingly written and posted replies to your emails? I’m not all that confident of the Uzbek postal system, but I have all of five minutes online a month and four of them go to the head office in Australia. The other goes to this bulk message so that I can say hello to everyone and babble a bit. Intimate, isn’t it? At the moment I’m meant to be downloading passenger lists from my email account but the internet won’t connect, so I am typing a letter on Word to be sent…someday.
Do you know that my official title is not tour guide but group leader? I’ll forward my business card immediately. Oh, I hear Dumbdowners’ (my company, euphemistically speaking) web site is up. I’ve yet to see it, but I hear it’s annoying.
It’s 10:20pm on the first night of a tour and my group has gone to bed. The group consists of 2 people—a Mr. Crabb who hasn’t arrived yet and Vivenne Callard, a 78 year old New Zealander with whom I will share a room for two weeks. I really should go to bed now as not to disturb her any later, but I am not tired yet. I’m in the manager’s office listening to a hotel employee spit outside the window near the entry below. I wonder if I will possibly get everything done tomorrow, as I need these passenger lists desperately (to learn Mr. Crabb’s first name, for one). I need to get a Kyrgyz visa, too. And of course, spend every waking moment minding Vivenne and Mr. Crabb.
Vivenne and I saw an Uzbek ballet tonight. It was quite excellent. Usually the ballet is Russian and usually Tchaikovsky, also quite excellent, especially for 600 som (pronounced soom), about 88 US cents. Vivenne was quite unnerved, as most tourists are, when we jumped into an unmarked taxi and bartered the fare to the theatre. They are unmarked only because they are not taxis, but men with cars on the road looking to pick up some som. Yes, it is safe. Yes, even for lone women at night (not too late of course). Yes, this is charming. Does it work this way in eastern europe? I’ve forgotten. It can’t possibly in Russia thanks to the infamous taxi mafia.
Anyway, since I’ve mentioned som, I’ll go on to note one or two of the many economic lessons I’ve learned here. Lesson one: Inflation in unstable countries is very high. This is a big problem for group leaders who pay exorbitant prices (by local standards) for group dinners (say two or three dollars per person) and spend precious moments counting som notes. It’s a big problem for anyone who has to count money, really.
Look at it this way: last year 200 som was a lot of money, or at least a lot more than it is now, so the government decided that it was time to make a note larger than the 100 som note, now worth about 14.7 US cents. They looked forward to 2000 and made a 200 som note, now worth about 29.4 US cents.
Yes, the largest Uzbek note is worth 29 cents. So, if I have a group of ten and people have a huge dinner and a drink the bill will be about $3.75, or 2500som. That’s a total bill of 25,000som. If my tourists have 50 or 100 som notes I will have to count about 250 bills to pay for a meal. It also means I have to carry a bag of money around with me. This is fairly common in developing countries. Next time: a lesson on the black market. I’m off to bed.