Monthly Archives: July 2000

ode to anwar

After waiting through a minor delay, when Valery’s colleague careened over a huge fender in the road and punctured the gas tank, I had a good idea of the new group. After Valery patched up the tank with some chewing gum and a stick, we continued over the mountain pass into the Ferghana Valley. It wasn’t a great way to begin the tour but they became acquainted with each other and the merciless Uzbek sun.

On our way into the valley, we stopped for tea at a Chaikhana (teahouse) on the side of the road. As we refreshed, a lovely young man came by and greeted us.

“Hello Dear Guests, I am Anwar, your guide to Ferghana Valley.”

He and I were extremely suspicious of one another at first. I don’t book a local guide for that day of the tour, and I wanted to know what he was doing there—and would I be expected to pay him. I suppose that he was suspicious of me only because I was so quizzical and unimpressed.

Not because Anwar Khairullin isn’t impressive. He works hard, dresses well (a real achievement when Ferghana City is home) and is delightfully charismatic.

He started coming around to me when we were at a potter’s home, about the third hour into his impromptu tour. I asked Rustam, the potter, why he and Anwar spoke to each other in Russian, rather than in Uzbek. Rustam explained that it’s because he is a Tatar and Uzbek is not his first language. Anwar overheard and seemed charmed that I’d bothered to attempt conversation with Rustam in my shockingly poor Russian. Since that moment, Anwar grew increasingly affectionate.

I warmed up to Anwar and his not-quite-fluent English skills about an hour later, when he told me how he taught himself English. He started in the tourist business as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. He spoke no English, but taught himself by immersion, by spending months at a time having to communicate with tourists solely in English. I was impressed. That’s how I’m trying to learn Russian (without classes, I mean, not as a porter in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan) and it’s not easy. In fact, it is more difficult because I am expected to speak largely to Australian tourists in English. Much to my chagrin, total immersion via non-English speakers isn’t exactly an option. Not yet anyway.

So why was Anwar there? It was a business move. He works for the usually inept Uzbek tour company that my Australian tour company uses to book certain services—like our transport to Ferghana. More profitably, he works as a freelance guide. Knowing that his biggest competitor (& Mario’s favorite) works at the hotel where we stay, he met us en route to pitch his services for the next day. Clever; It worked.

And I have no regrets—he’s a great guide. He’s quite an entertainer and presents himself to the tourists as what he thinks a good Uzbek man should be. It’s quite entertaining for me because between his monologues, he talks to me gamely, and drops the facade.

He gives the tourists what they want: a good Muslim boy with offbeat explanations for Uzbek custom. At a local museum, when he pointed out the pounds of heavy, jangling jewelry that Uzbek women once wore, he described them as an ancient security system, “So that men could hear where their wives went.”

Robbie, my favorite tourist, muttered to her husband, “Hmmm. Seems more efficient than checking the odometer.”

Fabulous.

The tourists don’t hear that Anwar is not ethnically Uzbek. He, like Rustam, is a Tartar, and his closest ancestors migrated from Kazakhstan. Nor do the tourists hear that he is an atheist. Nor that men from the East, like him, make very good babies with women from the West, like me. He said this in Russian, so I had to consult his dictionary twice, screw my face up a few times, and wait until he pounded my knee and doubled over in laughter to be sure that he said what I thought he said.

What would his wife say about that? Yes, yes, of course he’s married, and they have a four-year old daughter. Anwar is thirty-two, though I first thought he was about twenty-eight. His wife would expect and accept the infidelity, but I doubt that a genetically diverse baby would be greeted with open arms. Men here are only allowed one wife, but many, many lovers. Monogamy is not practiced here, not by men.

Incredibly, I find Anwar’s direct approach refreshing because he’s fun and I like him. He’s up-front and he takes no for answer in good nature. Time spent with him is amazing. He behaves the way American men must have fifty years ago. The lines are incredible—references to the moon and the starts, the whole works. I just can’t believe that he thinks I’ll buy this stuff, but he earnestly does.

“I can’t find where your passport saying you are married or not,” Anwar commented after snooping through my passport on day one. Before I snatched his to snoop in turn (all Uzbeks have to carry passports locally so that they can be thoroughly harassed by the Militsia), he announced, “My passport says that I am Jewish. My mother is Jewish.”

His mother and sister live in Rego Park, Queens, in New York City, about a ten minute subway ride from my last apartment. Anwar has no desire to move to the US and seems extremely annoyed that his mother and sister have decided to emigrate.

“If I lived in New York, I would never have the chance to have such a beautiful woman in my car,” Anwar spewed.

“Sure you would. All the time. You’d be a cab driver,” I quipped back.

His point was correct though; he has a great job. In Uzbekistan, tour guides make hard currency. This makes them wealthy, by local standards. On a good day, Anwar can make four times the average Uzbek’s monthly income. He also gets to travel a bit, meet lots of interesting tourists, and come on to them. I wouldn’t move to New York either.

The clock is ticking. In less than two hours I will meet the two Norwegians and begin the next tour. I still have plenty to say about Anwar, Gulnara, and assorted others, but sadly, they will have to wait.

Today I changed dollars into cym with my favorite guy who tends the bootleg music kiosk outside of the government department store. He gave me 720 to the dollar, forty-five over the official rate!

On the way there, I had an interesting conversation about American politics with my Azerbaijani driver. The gist of it was that he quite liked Jimmy Carter and wasn’t it too bad about the way the Iran thing worked out. Funny, that’s the second time this week I’ve heard praise for Carter.

the mail-order bride

500 som note uzbek moneyThe 500 cym note is out on the street! This takes the largest Uzbek note up to a value of almost 75 cents (recall that it was the 200 cym note, worth about 30 cents). I don’t have any yet, but I saw one this morning on the seat of a taxi. It’s very pretty; much prettier than the new USD$5. I first saw one of these a few weeks ago, handed to me by an Australian woman in a hat maker’s house a few hours north of Ferghana (i.e. the middle of nowhere).

When I got home to Gulnara’s last night, Nasibulla was ironing all the sheets. It took him well over an hour, heh heh. I was impressed.

“Isn’t that Rufshan’s job?” I asked.

“Rufshan is resting” he replied. He’s actually resting up in the mountains, much too far away to iron the linens, lucky boy.

Somehow I doubt that Victor irons, concerned though he may be about the plight of women. A little background info on Victor: He’s thirty-eight, Russian, long- blond-haired, fluent in English and somewhat obsessed with America. The only time he can’t be reached by mobile is when he works out. Shopping and America seem to be his passions and he is as devastated by the recent western good price hikes as we guides are (if not more so).

He’s also amazingly efficient and generous, though I am impudent enough to question his motives. I’ve known him since April; if you’ll remember, he is the manager of Hotel Tsorbi in Tashkent. Admire the Soviet-issue wallpaper on the hotel’s office walls, where I wrote most of the bulks. Fancy Victor’s Levi’s outfit. Thanks to Mario, I had the same one. Victor had many but I wore mine almost everyday.

The first month after we met he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, talk to me if Mario wasn’t around. Rather, he’d just stare, gaumless. I wondered if he’d ever been forced to deal with western women before (my analysis of his behavior was quite off, though I still have no idea what the reasons for it actually were).

Slowly, slowly he accepted my presence and before I knew it, his life story came tumbling out.

“My grand-grand-grandfather was a very rich merchant on the Volga river. His son, my grand-grand-father, fled Russia (around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, though he neglects to include that bit of information) to Samarkand, where I lived most of my life.”

Victor had a life-shaping, somewhat mythological sort of argument with his father at age sixteen because he enjoyed “American ideas—I even followed the Voice of America. I was the only boy in my class with long hairs.” It didn’t go over well in his school for children of Communist Party members. This was back in, say, 1978, before Perestroika, when playing with American ideas was quite rebellious in the Soviet Union, even for a teenager.

So, Victor was sent off on his own to prove himself. And so he did. Although I’ve heard this story a few times now, I always expect some sort of tragic father-was-wisked-off-to-Siberia-to-pay-for-his-young-son’s-treason or father-died-before-they-could-happily-reunite ending sort of ending, but no. That’s where he ends this particular story each time: “And so I did.” I guess he figures the rest is obvious. He proved himself a man by somehow making a bunch of money. Everyone is happy and all is forgiven in marvelous Samarkand.

Victor moved to Tashkent a few years ago while working for a German company. His family (a wife and two kids) followed him a year later. “Things here are better for my wife. There are better cosmotological services for her here.”

I forget how the issue of women’s rights first came up, but I believe it was when Vic told me the plight of his twenty-six year old friend Nastya, enslaved in Montana.

“It was her dream, to go to America. I just wanted to help her.” So begins the explanation of his very bizarre part in making Nastya a mail order bride.

When Victor and Nastya found an interested American man via the internet, V wrote letters and emails to him pretending to be the nubile Nastya, who doesn’t speak much English. Then he paid for her plane ticket to meet the guy in St. Petersburg. Upon meeting her prospective husband there, she wasn’t too impressed but figured he wasn’t too bad and hell, it was her chance to make a dream come true. That was one year ago.

Now everyone is upset. And Victor can’t figure where it all went wrong.

He introduces the topic as if his friend is locked up and abused in some isolated mountain house in Montana. But when offered information on domestic violence centers and women’s shelters he admits that, “Well, it’s not physical abuse. But it’s mental abuse and at times very bad—she calls me crying. But they’ve moved to a city now, as she requested, and maybe things will get better.”

At first I was horrified for the girl, but after little probing into the matter, I am horrified by everyone involved. It seems that being “locked up” is partly a result of her inability to speak English—she has no one to talk to and nowhere to go—and partly because her new hubby expects her to stay and home and do housework all day.

“Yes, he said from the beginning that he wanted a traditional wife and that American women are very selfish and unmarriageable,” Victor explained, “but things are different for women in America! I thought she’d have an American life! She shouldn’t be expected to stay home all day and do housework! Men in America are different than men here!”

I pointed out the errors in V’s logic. Errors that I needn’t point out again here. (Need I?)

The story becomes more involved and bizarre. Nastya has a six-year old daughter (from a previous marriage) with her in Montana. On several occasions, Victor attempted to DHL Nastya birth control pills from Uzbekistan (mailing drugs abroad is a very complicated process, for obvious reasons) even though “They aren’t having sex because it just isn’t any good.” Although she finally received the pills and although the newlyweds aren’t having sex, Nastya is now pregnant.

You have guessed, I am sure, that this is American girlfriend #1. Victor likes to present her as his cousin, as he did to an American aid worker who stayed in the hotel recently. She is now back in the States trying to help poor Nastya out (and not far, it seems, from becoming Victor’s American girlfriend #5. Victor told me today that she is mailing him some copies of The New Yorker). Let’s not be silly. As Victor happily confirmed, Nastya is no innocent little cousin.

I think the other three girlfriends are Peace Corps workers; I haven’t the strength yet to ask. My only information about them is that they are “obsessed with these ideas of women’s rights.” This is obviously why Victor is so concerned about these ideas himself. But more on that another time.

If I ever purchase furniture again, I plan to buy a $8000, comfy, posture-perfect chair to undo some of the damage I have done in my travels; the Soviets really knew how to torture. Of course, six months later I will sell the chair off in a mad rush at a tenth of its value, only hours before departing to an obscure country in pursuit of more discomfort.

Note: Before posting bulks about Victor, I asked him to read through them to make sure that he wasn’t offended and didn’t mind them being posted. He wasn’t, but did have a few corrections.

Gulnara & Nasibulla

So I complain, do I? It keeps me sane and entertained, though the locals do an even better job of it. Yes, and even some of the tourists, but let’s talk about them another time.

I’m at Hotel Tsorbi now and Victor has already had a go at me. “So, did you get your work done yesterday? Wake anyone up?” He knows damn well I did. He claims that he’d promised use of the computer (and the couch) for the night because one of the 17 year old girls wanted to write her autobiography. Oh, that explains everything. And here I thought they were all made up on a Saturday night for less literary reasons.

When I have no tourists I do not stay at the illustrious, internet accessible Hotel Tsorbi, but at Gulnara’s Guesthouse in the old town.

Gulnara Karimova is possibly the best person in Uzbekistan, though her husband, Nasibulla (at left), is also quite worthy of note. They have a big house with a large, decadent, lush courtyard. It’s heavenly respite from grimy Tashkent. Gulnara is one of those angels who convince me that some women actually do enjoy housewifery. She’s up at dawn and in bed after midnight and seems to work every moment between. Rarely does she go out, other than to Chorsu bazaar down the road.

Each morning she makes a huge breakfast spread (breakfast is one of the four English words she knows) and is prepared at any moment to serve hot tea, fresh bread, homemade jam or whatever else I fancy. “Melon? Melon?” In addition to housing travelers, she and Nasibulla feed and entertain groups of up to 40 tourists with dinner and traditional Uzbek music and dancing. Yes, she does my laundry too, though she doesn’t like to iron (luckily Rufshan, her 19 year old son, does).

The other guides (all guys) call her old, but I doubt that she’s much over 55. She has a big, comfy, babushka look about her and she’s always, always smiling.

The guys love her as much as I do and no doubt wish she had daughters (the perfect Uzbek woman, she has only two sons).

One wall of the courtyard has a little window that opens (and shuts) onto her neighbor’s courtyard. Gulnara can stand there for hours talking to her friend through the window-it’s the most excellent sight. One day I took many, many photos of her there. I hate that I must wait until autumn to see them.

When I have time between tours, this is where I stay. One morning after I returned from a tour, Gulnara came to me after breakfast and handed me a small plastic package with something black inside. I thought, “Oh heavens it’s a bra; she’s upset I don’t wear a bra to breakfast.” But she looked more concerned than chastising, and began a very long, very fast explanation in Russian. The words I understood were ‘sorry,’ ‘flowers,’ ‘iron,’ ‘white,’ ‘hot,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘okay?’ (This was back in May; now I am sure I could understand at least ten of those words.) The gist of the matter quickly dawned on me. I reassured Gulnara that there was no problem and thanked her profusely.

The package held an extremely small silky pair of black underwear. A few weeks prior, she accidentally burned a hole in my white flowery unders with her iron and while I was on tour she found me a much sexier replacement. I still can’t get over it.

Later that day I went to Hotel Tsorbi because a new tour (the Tourist Nancy Nightmare Tour, actually) began that night. I’d left laundry there to be done and asked the manager (Victor) to see that it be placed in the room I’d not yet checked into. When I arrived, there was a note directing me to my laundry, which had been left in his office-my unders all neatly ironed, folded, and left waiting on the desk. Fabulous!

Updates: The black marketeers have learned they need a higher rate than the gov to get business. The black market rate is up to 700.

Tashkent Plaza has changed their prices to cym; Levi’s has not. Perhaps it’s time to ditch the jeans and start wearing make-up.

Next time: the story on Victor, his wife, his American girlfriends, and his concern for women’s liberation. “What can I do to help?”

Just got word on my next tour: only two clients, Oeyvind & Gunda. They’re Norwegian. The fun begins Saturday.

the gownless evening strap

Where are you? Are you listening to the Backstreet Boys? Hopefully not. Peaceful internet use is very, very difficult to come by here [Tashkent]. At the moment I’m in the back corner of a shopping center where an impromptu internet center has been set up. On Friday I was forced out by the oh-so-hip computer geeks’ ability to blast Pink Floyd from their Samsung Syncmaster computers. It didn’t quite drown out Alanis Morisette on the Muzak piping behind. Could I think? I’m lucky the ingrate slurping on his pen next to me is not drooling over porn, like the pervert to my right on Monday.

Two computers away, there is a freak Texan yelling at two Uzbeks who stare blankly at the computer screen with him as he leads a thrilling campus tour.

“This is the weight room. And this? This is our football field. It’s, like, much bigger than this now because we are improving the goal lines (keep in mind that American football is not followed here in Uzbekistan and must be about as interesting to the uninitiated as Bridge. Hey, wait a second, doesn’t a football field have to be a standard 100 yards?) It’s awesome man! This new building is where you can take classes on real estate and retail sales and I, like, walk from here to here, man, it takes about 10 minutes. Now let’s go to the big 12 sports page!” Unbelievable. Who on earth sent him here and why?

This morning I woke at six to sneak off to Hotel Tsorbi across town. The manager there (Victor. I might as well introduce him now) lets me use the internet as I wish. The only problem is that there is always someone who wants to use the machine, and so sooner than later, there’s someone whistling and tapping behind me, in wait of a turn.

This is why I was up at six. I reached the hotel at 8:30 and the Victor’s car was smack in front (why? Shouldn’t he be readying for church with his wife and kids?) The key was in the office door but when I knocked, no one answered. On the second try a girl answered, clearly fresh off the fold out bed. Her female friend glared from behind and Victor, thank heavens, was nowhere in sight. I said in Russian, “Excuse me, I want internet” and gave them 15 minutes to clear out. I felt keenly entitled only because I’d begged permission from Vic the night before.

So, like girls accustomed to being told what to do, they cleared out and I had two beautiful hours of peaceful internet use. Victor left me wondering, once again, exactly to what extent the Hotel is used as a brothel. I’m certain all hotels here are (recall my notes on prostitution a few months back), but I’d love to think otherwise. The waitress and the cook in the restaurant are on 48 hour shifts; two days on and two days off. The services offered clearly extend beyond beef stroganoff and a smile-but I don’t want to believe it. I’ve become quite fond of the staff in the past few months and hope like hell they aren’t subjected to the monsters that stay there (my tourists are the least of them).

Around noon, an office employee showed up and sulked around until I got off the internet and came here. Sigh. At least the Backstreet Boys are the only offenders at the moment; the Texan left.

The tourists.

My worst were crammed onto one horrible two-week tour. I hated them. I don’t know what the trick is; I can’t make people (the tourists) like me. I’ve stopped trying (you doubt I tried? I tried). Some groups just love me. And others? Don’t. I do nothing differently. Guess I have to chalk it up to a personality thing. Better yet, chalk it up to their lack of personality. Thankfully I’ve had only one bad group, but my stomach still gurgles at the thought of them.

Before leaving Tashkent, where the women on the streets wear no clothes, to take my group to Ferghana, the most conservative, Islamic part of Uzbekistan, I asked them to take note and please cover up. When we arrived in Ferghana, we were greeted by two guides: the charismatic Anwar (whom you will hear more about later) and his trainee Victoria. The woman was about 20 and she wore what my group called a gownless evening strap. Appropriate garb for guiding us around the Islamic Valley in midday? No. I was quite taken aback; in Ferghana, this just isn’t done. In Ferghana, women wear clothes.

Later, I commented to Tourist Marcy, wasn’t it quite funny to be met by a young, naked tart after my pleas for decency from the group?

Marcy stared at me and said in a most stern, offended tone, “I really see nothing AT ALL funny about the treatment of women in Uzbekistan.”

Um, okay Marcy. I’ll just keep my mouth shut. This sort of charmless discourse went on for two weeks. Two weeks without relief.

Environment update: Titanic is on the Muzak. This takes me back to Bangkok in ’98 when I spent a week alone in a hotel room, suffering from giardia. I talked to no one; my only company was CNN, the only TV station in English. A Larry King Live interview with Celine Dion aired every six hours and is pretty much permanently engraved in my memory. She’s a nice girl, that Celine. Pretty name, too.

I think I’d best go!

the uzbek black market

It’s about 2,000,000 degrees here and thank heavens I have no tourists to faint in the heat. My currently scheduled tour has been canceled because no clients signed up. Yes, yes, yes this means two weeks off! You can’t imagine my delight. A rest is needed to balance my flora anyway.

This wouldn’t be a bad job if it were two weeks on two weeks off. And, crikey, it would average out to a legal workload.

My last tour was a lovely one, although I’m still a little peeved that I wasn’t tipped. How is it that my favorite group yet didn’t tip me? Oh yes, because they are Australian. But before I tell you about them, I want to catch up on that economics lesson I promised you. It’s high time, as the government moved last week to wipe the black market out entirely.

200somnoteThere are two exchange rates in Uzbekistan, the official rate and the black market rate. The official rate is about 230 cym to $1 USD. The black market rate hovers around 680 cym–the riskier the source, the higher the rate. So, you, a happy tourist, would be insane to exchange at the official rate because you would have to change $100USD at the official rate to obtain the same amount of cym that I get for $34 on the black market. The risk really isn’t that high if the source is known. For example, if I run around the bazaar and change with strangers I’ll never see again, I may get an excellent rate of 720, but as the notes are impossible to count inconspicuously (this is after illegal, so I can’t sit outside and count 72,000 cym note by note without arousing some attention), I may not receive all my cym. Nor will I never find the changer again. At the other end, a happy tourist could go to his trusty tour guide (who can obviously not escape) and receive a solid rate of 600 cym to the dollar.

In the middle, where I get my rate of 680, are people of all sorts: the cashier at the opera, the gift-shop attendant at Hotel Tashkent, the guy who tends a bootleg music kiosk outside of the government department store (my favorite). It involves a little ducking into dark rooms and what-not, but that’s all part of the fun. Or it was.

The most excellent aspect of all this was the pricing on western goods (the outfit I’m wearing now for example). The goods are priced in US dollars. So, a pair of jeans at the Levi’s store is about $87. Expensive, if I pay in dollars. But the store is required to convert prices at the legal, official rate of 230. So the pants are 20,010 cym. Now, I take my cym acquired at a black market rate of 680 and buy the jeans. 20,010 cym at the BM rate means I’ve only spent US$29.43. Not bad.

The favorite store of the Dumbdowners guides is Tashkent Plaza, where up up market colognes & cosmetics were really really cheap. A Helena Rubenstein lipstick was $9 after the conversions. Ahhh. The job does have perks!

Until last week. It was rumored to happen soon, but we all hoped it was only speculation. Last Tuesday the government quietly raised the official rate to 675, higher than the black market rate, which had fallen to 650 due to the rumors. Yes, this means we have to go to banks now. I hate banks. There’s still a black market because Uzbeks keep their savings in USD (due to rapid cym inflation) and because it’s still illegal to change cym into dollars (give that a month or two).

The worst of it, you’ve probably realized, is that Levi’s and Tashkent Plaza are required to convert prices at the legal, official rate of 675. This means that $87 jeans are actually $87. Sigh. So much for the perks. At least I have a week off!

Now that the lesson is over, I’ll tell you about all my favorite Uzbeks and tourists. The characters here are unbelievable. Today an old Uzbek guy who gave me a ride to the center of town told me that I was the first American ever in his car. When I got out, he asked to kiss me on the cheek! Heh heh. I let him, of course.