17 Feb

I take certain pride in the fact that, even though I have Google Translate installed on my phone, I hardly ever use it. After all, where’s fun in showing the taxi driver a chunk of a text if I could use the universal gesture that signifies money by rubbing my thumb and fingers together instead? “I need,” I would say with conviction and the appropriate gesture followed. Luckily, I am too old for it to elicit any inappropriate response. I also quickly add, “The bank is near Marakand,” which is the name of a well-known restaurant. It’s much easier to use restaurants as landmarks than street names – another proof that our brains are geared towards remembering pleasant memories of food much more than unpleasant or, at best neutral, memories of politicians or poets. 

Depending on my mood, the conversation that follows could be stale or invigorating. First, we would dispense with the unavoidable, “Where are you from?”. What usually followed would be, “How do you like Nukus?”, to which I always answered, “I like Nukus very much. The people are very friendly.” They seemed to like that answer because nobody had ever responded with an incredulous, “Really?” I always clarified that I lived in Nukus, to establish that this was not my first taxi ride here – so don’t try to stiff me. But sometimes they would try anyway. Luckily for both parties involved, they were always very gracious about it. 

One afternoon, I had to go to the bank. When we arrived, I asked my usual, “How much please?” “10,000.” The regular price is between 6 and 7,000 so I laughed politely and said, “Oh, no. Normally it is 6.” The driver took a pause at the sudden improvement in my Russian and said, “8”. I handed him seven one-thousand bills, which he counted, smiled and said, “Have a nice day.” I smiled back, “You have a nice day too.” 

That day I was in luck. There were only two people between me and the ATM. A young woman wearing a pair of jeans with a blouse tucked in was finishing her transaction. Her most outstanding feature was a set of perfect nails that made me wondered if it was a DIY or if she frequented one of the Beauty Salons that dot the Nukus landscape like mushrooms after the rain. Standing patiently behind her was an old man. And I mean really old; like he could have seen Genghis Khan in action. He wore a very ordinary looking shirt of nondescript colour and a traditional head cap. The Uzbek word for this head cover is hard to pronounce - takhya

These caps are the same shape for women and men and the shape might best be described as a baking form for a round cake. Both men’s and women’s are beautifully embroidered in traditional geometric patterns according to the region of residence. The lady’s takhya has a small tassel attached to the side of it. The placement of it is quite significant. The tassel on the left side advertises to the male population near her that she might be open to an introduction, since she is still single. The tassel on the right side signals “Leave me alone. One husband is already keeping me busy.” 

It pleases me to no end to see elderly people still wearing some traditional items of clothing. For men it’s often the takhya; for the women it may be the takhya, but more often it is a more practical colourful scarf. I don’t know why seeing it should make me so happy. It’s irrational. Afterall, when visiting France, I don’t expect to see Frenchmen wearing those blue and white striped navy shirts with buttons on one shoulder, their Gauloises hanging from their mouths. True, to see a beret would be nice, but my state of happiness does not depend on it. So why should it be different in Uzbekistan? Why should Uzbeks be more compliant to my foreigner’s idea of what they should wear? I do know what the traditional dress looks like. Not only from the museum, although that was instructional as well. Our students have vests and takhyas provided by the school for special occasions. And they don’t shy away from rich colors. The vests are often rich red or blue, their edges adorned by traditional Uzbek patterns. They make for great Kodak moments. 

The young woman finished her transaction and, before she was able to exit, the elderly man started to talk to her in Uzbek. Soon it became clear what was going on. The man didn’t know how to use his very new looking credit card and needed her help. The woman asked him for his PIN number, which the man shared without hesitation. She punched it in and asked how much he wanted to withdraw. At that point I fully expected the man to take control, but he told her the amount, patiently waited as she collected the money and handed it to him. It was so sweet. As I watched the entire transaction, I thought – there probably are not many places left in the world where I could witness this level of trust. We have experienced the same thing ourselves. Every time Dave pays for something with our credit card, he is asked for his PIN instead of being passed the machine to type it himself. 

I smiled what I hoped was an encouraging smile and held the door for the man as he exited the small room. The episode reminded me of my first time visiting New York. This was many years ago, when Dave and I still lived in Toronto and were still very wet behind the ears. Our friends had moved to NYC a few months earlier, and we jumped at the opportunity to visit them without the need to pay exorbitant hotel prices. Coming from sleepy Toronto to the Big (Bad) Apple, our friends felt it necessary to give us some words of advice before they let us loose to taste some of that apple. One was not to smile at anyone on the subway and possibly not even make any eye contact. “Some subway riders could mistake this as a challenge. The way you are not supposed to smile at a wild animal ‘cause your bared teeth could be mistaken for growling and a challenge,” Cody explained. I always thought Cody watched way too much Discovery Channel. But their undisputable several months experience living there did make them experts and us more cautious. Every time, before going out, Dave and I would divide our guard. “You watch the left side for any impending attack and I’ll watch the right side. That way nobody will surprise us.” And that’s what we did for our entire five-day stay … me walking the streets with my eyes peeled to the left, Dave to the right. To this day I have no idea what New York looks like to my right. Nobody attempted to mug us, nobody as much as asked for spare change. I remember feeling a bit slighted by the New York criminal element. Did we really look so uninteresting to them? What made up for it a bit was watching a couple of cops make an arrest. Something I had not seen before or since. 

In Uzbekistan I feel safer than in most places I have visited. It’s true that the big cities have quite a few policemen walking around, but it goes deeper than that. I often see small kids walking around with their not much bigger siblings, or even on their own. Nobody raises an eyebrow. My students were surprised when I commented how unusual it was for me. “It’s normal. Why shouldn’t they,” was their reply. Faced with this innocence I decided not to get into discussion about pedophiles, kidnappings and drunk drivers. I didn’t have the heart to tell them about the most recent kidnapping of an 11 year old, or a school shooting I read about only a few days before. Their English is getting better every day. Pretty soon they will be able to get their daily dose of horror from CNN and, once they access Fox News, their world will never be the same. 

With the young woman and old man gone, I was all by myself, with nobody to observe me silently turning my eyes to the heavens, composing a small prayer to get my money without any glitch. Far too often I have walked into the room with an ATM machine looking all promising, but I left frustrated and with no money. I punched in my PIN, entered the amount and waited in anticipation. Yes! The machine spat out the money obligingly but, when I looked at the screen, there was a new message. ‘The machine is temporarily out of order.’ I love the sense of jubilation I experienced. I was the last person to get the money from this baby for a while. Anybody coming after me will leave disappointed. Does that make me petty or just human?

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