Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Foreigners who broke the period of staying will be punished according to the Law"

Blogspot was blocked through all of Kazakhstan. Odd that all the supposed restrictive and totalitarian countries we traveled through apparently bore the rumor-mongering website no grudge as it was accessible. Even in Turkmenistan, the country where lazy engineers of espionage had torn away portions of our hotel wall to plant a microphone tap, Blogspot came up and laid itself bare on the internet for all to read.
In fact, Kazakhstan, on the whole, proved to be much less easy to travel through than had been anticipated, but I’ll get to that.
Ten days ago found Elliot and myself sitting in a train carriage ripe with the smells and sounds of a moribund jungle. The sweat dripped off nearby passengers, pooled with our own and rippled on the floor under the tread of stalwart border guards and the pack of drug-sniffing dogs that accompanied them.  The dogs, particularly the terriers, tended to swish through the sweat and the heavy fog of body odor, nosing under a seat here and a bathroom door there, darting through the haze like elusive jungle rodents. The condensation on the windows rolled down and plashed on the vinyl seats in a wet staccato. Once we started moving there was a slight breeze that we felt on our draining skin, all those pores of everyone on the train dilated and lapping up the cool night air at once, it was like being part of some gigantic organism, feeling its way through the milky edge of the Uzbek desert.
We met a grimy dawn at the Turkestan train station, a place so neglected by modern amenities that the peroshkis there went without potato, being nothing more than lumps of fried dough, like, as Elliot pointed out, the desperately poor ate in The Grapes of Wrath. I didn’t dare try them, for fear that between the sweat purge I had taken the night before, which had opened my body to a tingling singularity, and the darkling beads of oil, olestra and fat, gleaming like amber, like the stuff with which they coat fly paper that hung around the peroshki stand as wet and lambent shadows,  I feared that to cross from one such extreme to another would surely be risking death, or at least a severe cramp.
I did have a delightful instant coffee though and a cigarette, a bit damp and jostled, but fine.
We were accompanied to the mosque complex from the train station by young man who was miraculously totally drunk by six am.
“At kuda ty?” he nettled out the question from  the fetid, chlorine hell of a drunk’s binge mouth.
“America,” I responded. He didn’t answer as he had gone over to bitching about the marshutka driver’s attempt to make him put out his cigarette.
In the early morning sun Turkestan’s mosque complex was probably the most beautiful thing I have seen over the course of this entire trip. Dromedaries, rising from their hunches and shaking off the pale blue reflections of a Timurad lapis lazuli dome into the sienna dust of the cautious Ramadan desert.  
Shymkent, a few hours down the road, was home to the worst meal I have ever had to endure. A peroshki garnished, or rather, strewn with green olives. As it had been so long since I had had anything that resembled protein I had decided to augment my pauper’s meal with something a little more substantial. This I paid for by the greatest clash in taste since Orange Juice and Toothpaste that fought its way down my alimentary canal and then lie bubbling with discontent in my stomach for several hours, all of which were spent aboard a bus that, again, wrung our pores bone dry.
We set up with Almaty’s premier couchsurfer, a self-described aging hippy who seemed more bemused than annoyed at the hordes of unwashed youth that had taken up residence in his apartment, helping themselves to founts of hot water in his shower before dropping down onto his once white carpet like shit from a petulant cat. At least that’s what Elliot and I did.  
After a few days of doing absolutely nothing, or, rather, nothing while moving, which is totally different from, say, relaxing, we went up to the mountains that drag down into Almaty with two German girls who were staying with our permissible host.  This, again, was incredibly beautiful; at the end of July I was able to stand beneath a clod of something like glacial till and ice that had been undermined by the loose waterfall that broke over the top of it. The mountains, dark, seethed with the silence of millennia above the vernal fields where we walked, making the greens heavier somehow, as if all the grass had been born of iron long ago.
 We left Almaty a few days later to go see the fabled town of Dostoevsky’s exile, Semey. The bus ride to Semey, was 20 hours. As we had come to expect humiliation and agony to be part and parcel to these excursions, it seemed wise to drink  a few beers and even have a few shots of vodka before boarding the nearly window-less, airconditioning-less bus. This plan worked great for Elliot, who has a bladder like a pop-tent, but this mistake literally brought me to my knees before the driver around two AM, imploring, begging him to stop the bus before something inevitably burst.  I refused to drink anything the rest of the ride and, probably irreversibly damaged some of my internal organs by dehydrating them to such a degree, but, to not have to again endure the agony and the helplessness aboard a non-stop, bathroom-less bus was well worth it.
Back in Almaty, we decided to spend the night in the airport, not wanting to put out our gracious host another night, and, well, kind of anxious to leave after ten days.  In the morning we awoke, uncertain about using our Peace Corps passports when going through customs as we had been told they would expire after 30 days of our Close Of Service date. We had backup passports, but worried that two passports might look suspicious, after all, there really wouldn’t be such to say.
“Well, I, uhh, worked with a government organization, well, not really, it’s more of an independent thing.  So they gave me this special passport, that, although it says it expires in three’s years time has actually already expired. Why is the date incorrect? Uhh, well, it’s technically a government passport, oh wait look, I’ve got another one here. Why do I have two? Uhh…”
Luckily, it wasn’t a problem, at least the passports weren’t, the fact that we didn’t know that we had to register with the police after staying five days in Kazakhstan, however, was. 
Of course, neither of us knew anything about this, or we probably would’ve set about getting registered on one of the numerous days when we just slunk around Almaty. So, although I was uncertain of my passport I walked up to the customs agent with a smile and a
“Dobrei utra,” I said, trying not to let the three hours of sleep I had gotten in the terminal make my  voice sound too unpleasant.
“Hmmm,” was the non-committal reply given while the agent thumbed through my passport. A slip of paper dropped out, a slip of paper I didn’t even remember getting.
“Ohh, oops, must be some leftover piece of bureaucratic nonsense from Uzbekistan, let me just grab that since here in Kazakhstan such things are…”
“This is your registration, it needs to be stamped twice, yours is only stamped once, it needs to be stamped twice.”
“Oh, hmmm, coulda’ sworn that, the Lonely Planet, that is, the guide, said that when we arrived we were automatically…”
“Should be stamped twice, hmmm, you probably won’t fly today.” Here, as it would be with any traveler who’s thoroughly sick of a place and totally broke until s/he can pick up a money wire in Budapest, my heart fluttered, leapt up like a panicked hummingbird.
“I, uhhh, I didn’t know, I thought…please?” I don’t remember saying ‘please’ but I’m sure at some point it squeaked out in desperation.  The agent left, he conferred with Elliot’s agent who was obviously pondering the same dilemma in Elliot’s similar lack of the much sought-after second stamp. They left, they came back, they made phone calls, they opened doors and closed them, throughout the whole ordeal my heart shook my ribs, my temples pulsed and contracted, my legs nearly shook with fright. What would it mean? Two missed flights, our luggage gone on ahead of us to Budapest, talking with the police for hours and above all, being stuck in Almaty longer with no money toting around my monstrous bag in the heat of the day, before eventually getting a princely sum sent to me to bribe the authorities, to buy another plane ticket, two of them.  It was too much to contemplate. And then he returned.
“Ok, it’s ok, just get two stamps next time.”
“Oh, yes, SIR! Two Stamps! A whole passport loaded with them for you, all the stamps in the world if I could but bring them to you, my savior!” I thanked him all the ways I knew possible again and stumbled through security.
Elliot and I bought Champagne at the duty free. We chain-smoked until we got on our flight, thus ended our Central Asian trip.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Everything We Make is a Tunnel

“No,” the portly, overly made-up lady who has just walked onto the balcony says to me in a severely clipped tone.

“No?” I ask. “No what, no I can’t be on the balcony? Ok.” I walk back into the ‘hostel’ where we’re trying to get a room. I use the ironic inverted commas because this place doesn’t resemble a hostel or a guest stay, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a dingy apartment block on the north-west end of town, situation, quite conveniently, above a bunch of peroshki and shashlik stands. There’s a blown out door for an entrance and a broken tile foyer beyond that, but the lobby, or actually just the registration desk is up on the third floor. I have no idea what’s on the second floor. It looks like all the others but so far we’ve had no business there, and know no one else that has either. Perhaps people live there, just as, I suppose, people must live everywhere.

When I come back in the lady continues to glance at me in utter annoyance and repeats her mantra.


“No, no what? No room? You don’t have a room?” I say trying to draw the words out as slow as possible to prevent her from getting confused and repeating that word I’m beginning to loathe.


Luckily at this point Elliot steps in and begins to talk, in a light dropping cadence, in Russian with the lady. When they have finished their discourse, much less rude sounding than the one she and I had shared, Elliot, brusquely, shoos me toward the other end of the hall.

“She’s hungry, man. Let’s just get out of her way and let her eat; she said maybe there’s be a room in about an hour.”

We’d gone from an absolute ‘no’ to ‘maybe in an hour’ in a few words.

While we waited for the administration to dine a couple came up the elevator. Upon exiting they walked directly in the direction from which we had come, that is, toward the hungry and distraught woman. The woman, who stayed a ways behind the man as he registered, was wearing a skirt (leopard print) that covered about half of her ass and tights (leopard print) that were stretched so tight one couldn’t help but to imagine them running all the way up to her neck. She stood, perched almost, waiting for the man to return, near the elevator and slightly uncomfortable. Elliot and I continued to talk, trying not to put the woman out, trying not to make her feel over-observed. After few moments, the man came back with sheets under his arm and they pressed the elevator button and stood uncomfortably together for a minute before turning and dashing up the stairs.

“Hey, did they just take our room?” I enquired of Elliot.

“Yeah, but they’ll probably be done in an hour and then…,” he trailed off, considering what that meant for us should be given that room, in particular, that bed. Before we could allow visions of wet and crumpled sheets to heavily crowd our minds we were whisked off by the receptionist, who had, by this time, probably given up on eating.

She was, however, in a much lighter mood, and laughed at all of our quips, especially the one about the bathrooms being ‘nice’ when she showed the septic, dribbling bowls to us, in tiny tiled rooms reeking, so brightly, of ammonia a few seconds feels suffocating.

The pillows have suspicious stains, the mattresses look as though pestilence incarnate had knelt down and wept disease into them and those closets, they stand open and vacant spilling out their horrible stories unto us while we sleep, like the empty eye-sockets of a corpse.

But, to stay in such a place, this is a reason, if not the reason for travel, and this place is a vast, sweltering and respiring den of stories, and we’re happy to have a place on its hard and stained mattresses. After all, I slept fine last night and if nothing else, that’s worth 9 bucks.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Moonlight-paved Streets

The  other day while walking through the back streets (read: where all the locals live, Far From the Maddening Crowd,) of Samarkand I had the distinct feeling of my right hand suddenly dropping off and for a moment I seemed to be endowed with a phantom limb.
Uzbekistan, for the most part, has been surreal in this wise. We drove in from the border in a miniature marshutka, piloted by Elliot. To ride in a vehicle, driven by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer was an odd and liberating experience. It bespoke, with a certain finality, the absolute end of our careers as volunteers in Armenia, as driving there had been the most forbidden of off-limits activities. Even as we rollicked over the narrow streets I felt sure that we would be caught and deported, dishonorably discharged from service.
We arrived later that day in Bukhara, a quaint little Tamerlane-era burgh that seems to positively hum with the discussions and peregrinations of its myriad tourists; there are markets and mosques and medressas but all of them serve as a backdrop, there’s something almost unreal about them.  I think, perhaps my disorientation results from the fact that Uzbekistan is not the Central Asian panoply I expected. In planning this trip I had envisioned Elliot and myself walking through the narrow streets of citadels, the staccato rhythm of our footsteps accompanied by the brassy wail of the afternoon call to prayer through the siesta, and old men stretched out, asleep, on courtyard couches, like cats in the sun. I had the typical vision of dusty turbans, scimitars being raised in the bazaar and large black eyes, quiescent, yet intimating from the folds of a saffron yellow veil. In a way, I have found these things. The costumes of the women here and in Turkmenistan are beautiful, like vibrant blowing colors, and I have seen quite a few old men sporting finely clipped mustaches over dingy yellow beards that come down to the middle of their chests. Likewise, the institutions are all here, the azure and turquoise and beige, the desert infolded in the bluest sky, the silence of the mosque in the early morning, the sound of your breath echoing from the mihrab (the niche that faces Mecca) and the constant flight of pigeons, up from the street, from the minarets, like a storm of beating wings. But these things seem almost anachronistic amongst the gift shops and the supermarkets (though most of these latter are quite empty and the goods spaced widely on the altogether too-long shelves) and the entry prices and cameras.
I have no compliant. I do not feel at all let down, but these two realities, in stark contrast to each other, tend to exhaust the senses. In a place where one goes from an air-conditioned train station with scrolling electric marquees to an adobe goat kennel tended by an old man with baggy pants and a prayer cap in a span of five minutes, things tend to get a little jumbled and it’s not surprising that fatigue and heat and flies conspire with this environment to produce the feeling of limbs dropping off, unprovoked.  

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Silent Cities of the Mind

I didn't even hear the message, just felt Elliot grappling with me on the bright and humid streets of Baku, pulling me in for a hug.
"What?" I asked, "What'd they say?" The words coming out muffled by Elliot's amiable arm stretched over my mouth.
"We're getting on the boat today! Jonny, we're getting on the boat!"
I was too tired from the night before [Free Efes hats (Turkish beer) in a bar with the power out and a galaxy of flashing lights that I supposed to be some kind of dance club, but couldn't see enough of anything to be sure,]  to respond with all the enthusiasm I felt in regard to this news, luckily it was quite easy to drape my own sweaty arm over Elliot's back and just grin.
"It's about damn time."
Freshly aboard the ferry I had the worst shower I've ever had in my life. It wasn't really a shower so much as a dowsing with lukewarm ballast water that seeped from a twisted length of metal coil, of which I had to wrap around my shoulders to ensure that some of the water would actually drip onto my soapy midsection rather than the rust-broken floor. I really don't know why I even thought I'd be able to bathe in there. The room was really nothing more than a scant bathroom with a drain in the middle of the floor and some kind of conduit hanging out of the wall with no clear indication that it actually was able to bring forth any water.
Still, the shower helped to clean some of the Baku city-sweat and detritus off my body and I felt better as I walked above deck to try to get down a few words in Turkmen before docking. But, up there, riding over the Caspian, I can think of very few books that would have been worth looking at, indeed, if I even had the wherewithal to read anything at all, as the bluish-gold waters under the twilit sky soon bore all my attention away on innumerable choppy waves.
The heat from the nearby engine room curling the hairs in my nose and a juice glass full of 'chacha' [Georgian homemade vodka] cauterizing the cilia in the back of my throat seemed to lift my already light head off somewhere between Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan; it bobbed around, just above my body, like a hefty balloon, for the rest of the night while I listened to one last Georgian tamada make one last speech to world peace, and the Caucasus sped away beneath the hull bearing a Azeri standard in the middle of the night.
"Bistra, Bistra!" I awoke to the ship's steward standing in our cabin's doorway telling us to hurry up and get out of the room before the ship docked. As we had anticipated being stuck at the dock for an extra day (at least) we had brought a lot of food and water that still littered the cabin. We breakfasted quickly and shoved what was left of our provisions (mostly chips and beans) into our bags and made for the deck where the Azeri flag on deck was now reaching out toward the Turkmen flag on the dock, two shades of green whipping crescents and stars into the desert air.
Not expecting to actually be able to get into Turkmenistan without our tour guide present, Elliot and I left the customs line dwindle down to a few other stragglers before attempting to explain our foreign passports. We passed, without interruption, from one station to the next through the customs checkpoint, each agent saying 'fcio' [that's all] and waving us onto the next attendant, bored, but still in no hurry to stamp the request 8 forms for our entry. We paid our entry fee, gave names of hotels where we thought we might stay, and, suddenly, like a prisoner who suddenly finds himself outside of jail just after he has ceased to believe that he will ever be let go, we found ourselves, with our packs on, walking toward the city of Turkmenbashi, no idea what to do next.
As we were walking down the train tracks, it seemed like a forgone conclusion that we might make for the train station and to try secure a seat to Ashgabat, the capital. Once inside, I stood in a throng of long flowing dresses and headscarves, twisted Turkmen manat between waving fists, as if these people were trying to somehow punch the money to the tired-looking clerk behind the glass window. We weren't able to get a ticket, but it was just as well, as a call to the travel agency reported that if we were stopped at one of the numerous police checkpoints leading into the capital, which we most surely would be, we could be deported for not having a guide with us. rather than take the chance we decided to wait out the night in a hotel that required proof of money exchanged at the government rate, which meant walking across town and having a gun pulled on us by an uncertain security guard, who was apparently unaccustomed to seeing anyone come in the bank and proceed to the counter as if they had some kind of business there.    
We couldn't get a room, it was Sunday and the bank was closed. For the rest of the afternoon we wondered through the streets of Turkmenbashi, risking deportation to listen to Russian pop drifting up and down the otherwise quiet streets with each passing car, to visit a bar that didn't have anything and to eventually swim along side spindly ivory-colored snakes in the Caspian sea. By that night, with my underwear still wet from the swim we were getting into a cab outside the Ashgabat airport.
We were advised  to stay in our hotel for the night to avoid unnecessary problems, and ended up with a 100 manat bill (about 40 dollars) and a few prostitute propositions from the disco bar downstairs.
The next day I was able to wander through the ghostly streets of Ashgabat, or 'Poshgabat' as Elliot referred to it, where avenues and parade grounds stretched out under the aegis of a milky white desert sun and a haunting silence. White marble fountains gushed for the empty streets, white marble buildings glowered down on ziggurat-like staircases, the lawns were freshly clipped, the gold and dark-veined marble shown oasis-bright, but there was no one to be found except those employed to build more of it. The sounds of new construction echoed high above the city and with them, the pervasive feeling of wandering through the most elegant sepulcher ever constructed, and still being constructed, like, as long as the tomb was still being built, the person meant to occupy it would never die.
The next morning we were waiting for a flight to Mary, near the ancient city of Merv when I met with one of the apparitions I had missed the day before in Ashgabat.
The boarding area was quiet, as all of Turkmenistan has been, when the hush died down to a total silence, total save the tinkling of small and multifarious bells. I craned my head to see from whence to sound and silence had arisen to see before me a hunched figure escorted by a man in a plain dress shirt and tie. The figure (and I have to use this word as no amount of inspection could have possibly reveled to me what lay under this moving bulk of drapery) moved slowly, face, hands and feet totally obscured, almost stolen by the embroidery, amulets and fabrics that this figure labored under.
Escorted by her new husband this living wraith stalked up to the ticket collectors and was gone, save the sound of little bells tinkling down the hall, long after she had departed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Goal Posts

This morning I woke up on the balcony where we've been sleeping, I think it was the cat that woke me up, prodding my face, kneadning it with a little paw, but I actually can't remember if that was today or yesterday. Either way I woke up and the first call to prayer for the day was drifting through the chalky-pastel morning sky. It wasn't close or even broken by static because it's so loud that way I've heard it elsewhere, rather, it was indistinct, like it actually had to be listened for, as if only those listening for it, that is to say the pious , could have heard it. As it was dawn, and I've been feeling near-narcoleptic lately I fell asleep again shortly after it was finished.
I woke up again about 3 hours later to Elliot's alarm and the humid rays of the Caspian-saturated sun. It took a while to get moving, really because we didn't really have to be. There is nothing like a schedule or timetable for the ferry to Turkmenbashi. One simply shows up and hopes for the best. Today we did not get the best, or even the decent, but, it can only be hoped that tomorrow the port authority will decide some things need to be sent to Turkmenistan.
While we waited, after hauling our 30 lbs. packs across downtown Baku, Elliot and I alternately read and dozed in a nearby cafe, where the propritors have been incredibly kind, offering sweets with tea and not allowing us to pay for anything, even though we've now been there two days in a row, sweating all over their chairs and drooling on their tables. Today we decided to totally wear out our welcome by asking if they'd mind keeping our masochistically large packs in a closet or something. Somehow these people agreed to this bizarre request and now our load is greatly lightened as we spend another night in Baku, walking through the large, built-up, public consumption avenues and the narrow, dust-choked IDP alleys that snake between them, where kids play football between two homes 20 feet apart from each other and little girls will follow you down the street, unable to believe that you don't speak Azeri, but enraptured by the fact that you know your way around the English language to respond that you are feeling well and thank her for being so considerate to ask.
Tomorrow I will read in the sun without concentrating, drink more tea and watch the swaet salt dry on Elliot's shirt while we sit there, waiting for a boat and musing on the other side of the Caspian.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Old Town Torn Down

We had hot Turkish tea in a cafe next to the cargo boat port. It was late in the day and we'd already missed the boat to Turkmenbashi, if one even left that day. As we drank, the sweat rose, already sun-clotted from my pores, thick like sugar water and I began to nod off as I had been doing all day, mostly because we've been moving without a break for the last few days.
The Tbilisi airport was quiet in the early evening, we took a bus for free because no one as ever asked me to pay for a bus in Georgia, because I never have exact change.
Under the bright sodium arcs I skated through an empty parking lot to the sound of far off airplane engines.
The emptiness of the airport was solmem, almost reverant somehow. I read a little, listening to the suffle of automated advirtisements changing images and the soft broom drift of the peragrine cleaning lady, drifting from one corner of the concourse to the other, regardless of cleanliness.
Fell asleep around 12, using my shoes as a pillow and was awakened around 3 by a man tried, in poor English to explain the soviet period to some foreigners. I heard him say Brezhnev, and when they didn't understand who he meant he changed the antagonist of his story to Stalin instead. I chuckled a little and soon fond that I wasn't going to get back to sleep.
The night air outside the airport and a filmy cigarette, like garbage smoke almost, burning my throat and my tired eyes.
We landed in Baku shortly after we left Tbilisi, just enough time for a coffee (ersatz) and a few glances out the window, toward the ground I would've prefered to travel.
It's an airport, so there's really nothing there. High walls lining the highway back into town, huge apartment buildings and sculptures; Azerbaijan looks a lot like Turkey, at least in the capital there's not much in the way of  Typical Caucasian Effluvia.
Since then it's been the Uzbek embassy, sequestered like they all seem to be; a visa, a bus ride that lasted much longer than it should've; a cup of instant coffee; that tea I mentioned earlier and all of it done, beautifully, without socks on, just to remind myself that as I transverse a boring, overbuilt and grey town in the summer heat that I am on vacation.
The boat to Turkmenbashi isn't looking too promising, tomorrow we'll bring our stuff down there and make enough of a nuisance to either get a lift or get booted out.

Monday, July 26, 2010

How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World

I stopped and watched a toad leaping around a landscaped roundabout. The curb just a little too high for him to get over. He jumped and fell back down against the wet street where the sprinklers were still recklessly casting water.
I was out walking around, after ducking out of Tbilisi's central party hostel. Young travelers from all over Europe and America smoking and climbing up exposed staircases to the tune of MP3 player-piped disco music.
Later, I cut back through Old Town, probably 1 AM with an Australian philosophy student studying in Turkey. We talked about Peter Singer and his contradictory ethics. Elliot was waiting with a shot of vodka in either hand when I got back to the hostel. We still haven't paid for our places on the floor where we slept to the night sounds of still-padding feet and bathroom traffic in a dark house full of people.
The Azeri Embassy was closed Monday. We left the Tourist office walking quickly down the street, intent on booking a flight. Flying has never seemed very adventurous to me. I don't like to arrive in a new place without being gradually introduced to it, makes being there even less real. However, it seems that the shock will probably finally induce the realization that I've finished with the Peace Corps life. I haven't been on a plane since I flew into Armenia over two years ago.
Fly into Armenia. Fly in Azerbaijan, bordering Caucasian countries with the borders sealed, easier, they say, for the visas, more business-like that way, brisk, Baku business to which to attend.
The goodbyes have worn me out, and most of the people I said goodbye to have already arrived back in the states. By plane, while we, are still in Tbilisi, stowing our bags away, headachy and filmed with sweat.