21 Jan

“Dave, what’s a hippodrome?” I queried my all-knowledgeable husband. He did not hear me right away over the running water, giving me a few seconds to play with the word. Drome sounds like a dome and it’s for hippos, so maybe it’s an enclosed Zoo. My guesswork was interrupted by Dave. 

“Some place with horses.” 

“Really? Horses?” As a good wife I have no reason to doubt my dear husband. But as an independent, emancipated woman who, courtesy of the currently favoured Political Correctness movement, can choose from several personal pronouns when referring to myself, I am free to double check if I am so inclined. So, I did. Professor Google told me that indeed ‘hippos’ means ‘horse’ in Greek. I further learned that ‘potamos’ is the Greek word for ‘river’ and, therefore, a hippopotamus is a river horse. Looking at the picture accompanying the short linguistic lesson, it’s hard to believe that anyone could mistake the gray mass on thick legs for a horse. But labeling the creature happened before the advent of eyeglasses, which could explain a lot. The things one learns when having too much free time. 

Two days prior to the mysterious ‘hippodrome’ message, we had started the first part of our first Christmas micro-break consisting of the three-day Christmas weekend. The Uzbek government believes that school-teachers don’t need any winter break. Unlike the students, who enjoy a nice two weeks off between terms, the teachers are expected to stay in school and further educate themselves. Our second micro-break was to be the New Year long weekend, which we planned to spend in Tashkent. Learning all about the Greek origins of ‘hippodrome’ could be construed as furthering my linguistic ability, so I considered myself covered for that morning. Several days later while having dinner with a colleague I asked her how she understood the word hippodrome. “Well, sounds like something to do with hippos?” I immediately felt better. 

The mystery word was used in a What’sApp message from someone in our small Nukus expat group called Antonio. ‘On Sunday afternoon at Hippodrome there will be some traditional games.’ No more details provided. I figured Antonio must be a recent arrival in Nukus because I had not met him yet. The last get-together with several Nukus expats was at Thanksgiving dinner and he was not there. Being fond of French- and Spanish-sounding names, I would have remembered a name like that and most likely the person attached to it. 

‘Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day) is my modus operandi. “Let’s go. Whatever it is, I am sure it will be interesting,” I said to Dave after pondering the message, and then added. “Maybe. Somewhat. I am sure.” 

Russians, just like the French, don’t have any use for the letter ‘h’. Thus, hot dog becomes ‘khot dog’ and the kids here, like everywhere else, love ‘Garry Potter.’ When on Sunday afternoon I told the taxi driver to take us to the ‘ippodrome,’ he nodded without hesitation. “The place must be well known. I am surprised we haven’t heard of it until now,” I told Dave, who sat next to the driver, no doubt trying to figure out his bearings. I didn’t even try. My orientation sense is non-existent. After years of being mad at myself for getting lost so easily, I have finally accepted it and, in fact, embraced it. After all, I am the one getting a lot more ‘steps’ when learning about a new neighborhood the hard way - walking the streets, sometimes in circles, unintentionally. But all steps count, as my phone’s fitness app tells me. On those occasions my phone is happy, which makes me happy in turn. 

The driver reached the outskirts of Nukus, not too far from the airport, and continued onto a dirt road into the middle of nowhere. After a while we started seeing cars parked along the side of the road, but no buildings anywhere. The number of these seemingly abandoned vehicles kept increasing until we reached a flat sandy area with hundreds of cars parked in the middle of a dirty, dusty plain. We even spotted a small building with bleachers. Apparently, we had reached the mysterious hippodrome. It turned out to be a dirt track for horse racing and other horse related activities.  We left our taxi and began walking towards what, far in the distance, appeared to be the hub of activities. I hate walking on dirt or sand. The whole of Asia is a continent of spitters. Most people here smoke and spit profusely. This is where my verdant imagination works against me. I can practically see all the particles of spit floating around.  Mostly it’s men, but I do see the occasional woman spit as well. When that happens, it always brings back a memory from my childhood. One day while walking alongside my mom, I spat.  Mom’s disgusted look spoke volumes. There was no need to spell it out, but she did anyway. “Terrible! If you continue like this, you will never find a boy. You will never get married.” What an amazing thing to say to a twelve-year-old not yet interested in boys. Hmm, so that’s what one has to do to escape the yoke of marriage, I remember thinking. 

After walking for a few minutes, in my case gingerly trying to avoid the really fine sand that I worried contained the most spit spores, we reached the crowds. Hundreds of mostly men lined the track, occasionally being controlled by organizers on horseback and militia on foot. Their task reminded me of Sisyphus and his proverbial boulder which kept rolling back. The crowd retreated somewhat each time they were gently forced to back away from the track, only to surge forward again as soon as some new activity unfolded. Without any even semipermanent barrier such as a simple rope, the organizers’ task was futile.  Dave and I stood at the back of the thick line made up of the spectators. We were balancing on our toes trying to see over their heads to watch what was unfolding on the track when one of the men noticed us. When he realized we were foreigners, he began instructing the men in the crowd to make way for us and, before we knew it, we were standing in the front row. Suddenly we were in the perfect spot to take pictures and enjoy the show. The first act we caught tested the horsemanship of a group of young men. After an organizer placed a white object on the ground, a rider galloped towards it at full speed and attempted to lean down to pick it up. Each success was marked by the crowd whooping and cheering. One rider accidentally slipped from his precarious position and ended up running a few steps still holding on to the horse’s neck. The crowd rewarded him for getting back in the saddle by going wild. 

The most memorable part was an event that featured young couples. They were all dressed in traditional wedding garments with the brides’ gowns flowing behind them as they galloped away pursued by the grooms on their own steeds. The sight reminded me that, in Central Asian history, kidnappings for marriage were not uncommon. In one of my lessons, I talked about bride kidnappings with my students. They assured me that it is a thing of the past, that it has been illegal for a very long time and, when it happens nowadays, it is staged by both parties as a part of the wedding tradition and, like everywhere in the world, for a Kodak Moment.  I was very glad we had that discussion because, several months afterwards, I actually witnessed one and was able to enjoy it without worrying that I should be calling the local equivalent of 911. I was sitting in my favorite café, sipping a cappuccino and looking out onto the main square. The table I favour is right by the window, which gave me a perfect view of the street. There was no way not to notice when ten guys gathered in front of the café with their smartphones ready. A few minutes after their arrival, a car pulled up with a man who emerged from it armed with an impressive looking camera. The stage was set. Next door to the café is another store. I watched as two young women emerged from it and started descending the few steps to the sidewalk. At that point a car pulled to the curb, a young man with a friend jumped out and ran to the pair of young women who, by that time, stood on the sidewalk looking around expectantly. It was funny to watch. The bride didn’t even pretend to protest as she practically leaped into the car. All of this while the camera was rolling. The car with the young couple left, leaving the group of young men and the cameraman behind. They were standing around chatting and smoking when an old woman half their size and hunched over approached them. I was curious what else I was going to see. The woman talked to the young men for a bit and then swept her hands down with her palms facing her face. They did the same and then they gave her money.  A few days after witnessing this exchange, I asked my students what the gesture and the money changing hands was all about. “The old woman is a Gypsy. She gave them her blessing and they in return gave her some money,” they explained matter-of-factly. 

Some traditions are benign and some are contentious. Often enough they are entertaining. When Jess was in 1st grade our family spent a year in the Czech Republic. I was finishing my Master’s degree online while Dave was pretending to take interest in some minor home improvements. Dave is a wizard with computers and technology. He is like a marriage counselor to estranged circuit boards and programs, helping them talk to each other again. But give him anything cruder, such as a hammer or a saw, and he is a danger to himself and his surroundings. Those were trying times, deciding on a regular basis what I valued more; a non-leaking faucet or a husband with ten fingers intact. 

When Easter rolled around I explained to Jess that, traditionally, Czech men and boys from the neighborhood come by wielding ‘mrskačky’ – braided willow twigs adorned with colorful bows. They use them to smack gently household women on their bums. All the women need to do to make them stop is offer either colored hard-boiled eggs or sweets and in the case of adults a shot of booze. An easy bribe, one would think. How this tradition is related to the resurrection is anybody’s guess. A 6-year-old can be very perceptive, though, in seeing all the injustice in this arrangement. So, you will beat me and I will give you sweets? Jess would have none of that. She insisted that she joined the men to walk around the neighborhood collecting sweets. We played the ‘we are just the dumb foreign visitors’ card, gave Jess her very own ‘mrskačka’ and off she went with Dave.  At the end of the day, she had enough sweets to last her to Halloween, and we had enough hard-boiled eggs for a substantial egg salad. Watching the ‘bride kidnapping’ reenactment, I wondered if any young woman ever dreamed of reversing the roles like Jess did and kidnapping a boy she had her eyes on. The event that followed the grooms chasing the brides on horseback was a regular horse race. The jockeys were all young men, some no older than early teens. They displayed a variety of riding styles and enthusiasm, from ‘jockey’ to ‘farmer,’ making it enjoyable to watch. But, in my mind, nothing could trump the earlier events we had been so lucky to observe.

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