The Militsia guy stopped me because of my shoes. At least, he thought I was local because of my shoes. The anguish of carefully thought out shopping/packing plans came quickly to naught when my comfy new slip-on sneakers started to cut my feet open while breaking them in at home. By Tashkent, the wounds were too swollen to subject to the sneakers, so I had to wear heels about all day (like most of the women) or my flip-flops (like the remainder of them), purchased long ago for 99 cents on 103rd Street so that my toenails could dry after a pedicure. You know I picked the flip-flops.
I made my way through Chorsu bazaar on the way back to Gulnara’s to buy some first aid tape for my feet. The outside stalls are mostly clothes and stuff like calculators and rat poison. Most of the food is sold inside large domes where it’s slightly cooler, yet a few people were hawking perishables outside in the heat. A young girl handed me a skinned chicken and inquired, “Want chicken, girl?” In Russian, dyevoshka, which means girl, is used constantly as a greeting, to get one’s attention and so on, for females up to wrinkled prune face age. It is then replaced by babushka (grandma, stress on BA). I don’t find it sexist or annoying. It’s one of the many things I can’t apply my cultural rational to because it is simply something else. It is not ‘girl’ in the American sense. To take offense in another’s culture when none is intended is offensive. When I can’t accept or understand, I have learned to let go. It isn’t easy.
A few hours later Nasibulla would tell me that the economy in Tashkent is so bad that most only have the money for meat once a week, whereas it was afforded daily four years ago. Perhaps that’s why they were targeting me, the foreigner in Uzbek-fashioned footwear. I shuddered at the chicken, thinking thoughts better suited to my vegetarian friends, when a boy shoved a large shank of warm, greasy, fat-laden lamb in my face and informed more than asked: “Meat you NEED, girl.”
“Oh man, oh man I do not need that, will not eat that,” I noted to myself in a haughty tone, thoughts moving from my veggie pals to of all the illnesses I’d managed to pick up last time I was here. I bought a beer to take back and continued on home to ready for Bukhara.
Once at Gulnara’s, I called Alisher (the ceramist from the flight) and told him which wagon I’d be in on the train. Then I packed a small bag for Bukhara, showered, chatted with Gulnara and Nasibulla, patched up my bloody feet again, and rushed off to the train station with Nasibulla.
The train was already at the Tashkent station, so I left Nasibulla, looked for my wagon, climbed aboard and found my bed. I sat there in the heat taking pictures when an Uzbek guy of about 30 came into the coupe, settled in and began chatting. Hmm. With all of the high recommendations for the overnight train, not once did it occur to me, or was it suggested, that traveling alone might be a concern. This, I hoped, was evidence of my comfort level in Uzbekistan rather than of sheer idiocy. Yet there I was, alone in a sleeper with an Uzbek guy, an Uzbek guy, I’d soon learn, who was a policeman. This was less than reassuring. The Uzbeks have, for legitimate reasons, as much trust in their police as do the friends and family of Abner Louima. Where, I wondered, was Alisher? Would he and his son make the train?
As we rolled out of Tashkent, my new roommate kept talking to me, asking about my family, my age, my income. I tried to suss him out. He seemed a family man and sincere, but the restrictions placed on a family man in Uzbekistan are quite different than those in the States. And the unfortunate reputation of western women as fully and happily available could encourage him to believe that raping me in the wee hours of the morning might be to our mutual benefit. Should I somehow change to a sleeper with women? Hell. I sat, waited, and sussed his character some more as he opened two paper-packages with hot dogs inside and offered me one. I’d eaten at Gulnara’s and wasn’t about to take, but he wouldn’t eat in front of me unless I ate too. He just didn’t feel right, he explained. I just didn’t feel right, as I again politely refused (if one can, in fact, politely refuse food in this culture. I’ve yet to manage it, but he was the perfect guy to practice on).
If he doesn’t feel comfortable about eating when I do not, surely he will not feel comfortable about forcing sex on me. Correct? Things were looking up.
Hunger won over manners and, with an apology, he dug into the hotdog. As he ate, he decided he wanted the door closed and asked if that was okay. No, no, it was not okay. I think that we need the air from the hall, I explained, the thought of being locked alone in the sleeper with him most unpleasant. And my friend might be looking for me, I added. I was still hoping for Alisher, though it was over an hour into the trip and looking grim.
I shut my eyes for a rest while my bunkmate ate, but he kept talking to me, asking how old I am, how much I make a month, how many kids I had, where my husband was, how I liked Uzbekistan, etc. I’d finally decided he was harmless when he asked me to accompany him to the dining car to drink vodka. My eyes shot open and I glared at him, “No, no thanks.”
Gentlemanly Muslim men do not ask lone American women with whom they will sleep in a small room to drink vodka with them.
“How about beer?”
“No, no thanks. I don’t want beer.” This was a lie. I could have used a beer. I never got about to drinking the one I’d bought in the market earlier.
“Come on, let’s go drink. It will be fun.”
“Ummm. I don’t think so. I don’t sleep well after I drink. No thanks.”
He settled on getting us tea. Rather than let the terror settle in, I started to plot how I would switch cabins without offending him too greatly. I’d just shut my eyes to analyze the situation when I a booming “Annochka!” shook us both to attention. Alisher!
“Annochka, are you hungry? We are going to go for dinner in the dining car. Please come and join us!”
I jumped up and gave Alisher a kiss on each cheek. “Let’s go!” Alisher grabbed my bag, stashed it in his coupe a few wagons down, and we went on to the dining car for dinner.
(I later found this funny link with pics of Alisher and Hillary Clinton, on her visit to Ghizduvan.)