20 Apr

My favorite walk takes me around the university campus, which neighbours our school. I find strolling there relaxing because it takes me away from the noisy streets and it boasts mature trees. Nukus, unlike Tashkent, doesn’t have abundance of trees and greenery. The widest stretch of greenery surrounds the most prominent governmental building in the city called, due to its color and significance, the ‘White House’ and, as it is the residence of the President of Karakalpakstan, the grounds are not accessible to the public. I can only cast an envious eye on it every time I go by and think, ‘What a shame. Too bad I don’t rule here!’ 

While walking around the university campus, I am often greeted by the students who probably think that I am a guest lecturer. The first week of teaching at our school was a real eye-opener. The level of respect the students showed us was unexpected, and a welcome change after teaching in Kuwait. “They seem almost unreal,” Dave observed that first week. And it carries on even as the students get older. The young adults I pass on the university grounds don’t have any reason to be nice; their grade doesn’t depend on me anymore. And yet, they nod, they smile, and they greet. Sometimes in Russian, other times in English. This level of respect and tolerance seems to extend to Nukus animals as well. Several times during my wanderings I have watched a dog calmly walking by a nearby cat. It is strange to me that they seem to co-habit so peacefully. 

Nukus dogs are free agents, and I often see them wandering around or relaxing. One sunny afternoon, I encountered seven dogs chilling on a patch of land with some green grass and flowers on it. It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a ‘dog park.’ All these dogs are street mixes, mongrels with no redeeming qualities besides their puppy-dog eyes and their ability to catch rodents. I had no idea that dogs are capable of performing this service, which is traditionally assigned to cats. And yet, one day, there she was, the dog I had befriended and named CD, because her territory seemed to be last year’s construction site near our school. The site had disappeared, replaced by the new University dormitory, but Construction Dog remained. I began feeding her occasional dinner leftovers and, one day to reciprocate, she brought me her fresh kill – a good-sized rat. “CD, this really is unnecessary,” I told her. But she would have none of it. Finally, I had to walk away, leaving her ‘present’ there. She was like a friendly neighbor who, after you had shared your freshly-baked pie, refuses to return your plate empty. 

It is very different in Tashkent. The dogs there are pure breeds and invariably accompanied by their owners, which is just as well, because they probably would not survive Tashkent traffic. Tashkent, just like most capitals, suffers from heavy traffic and the noise that goes with big city living. Life is a series of compromises and trade-offs. Sometimes it crosses my mind that living in a big city would bring more opportunities for entertainment. But I dismiss this thought very quickly. What entertainment? I laugh to myself. Almost all movies in Uzbekistan, no matter in which city, are subtitled or dubbed in Russian. There are precious few to watch with English subtitles. 

And I certainly do not miss the traffic jams and long commutes of a big city. It is a very nice change of scenery to visit Tashkent as tourists to catch the occasional dance performance or visit a museum. It’s so much easier to put up with the inconveniencies of big city living as a tourist. You know you are going home to a quieter place. I love that at night we can walk from the centre of Nukus to our school in less than 45 minutes. We could not do that in Tashkent. Not because of the safety reason, just because of the distances of a big city. Public safety is very high everywhere in Uzbekistan. This must be a novel concept for our South African colleagues. Coming from a country that is notorious for high crime levels, they must find it pleasantly refreshing that they can walk at night without worrying about their safety. But old habits die hard. I think of this every time I hear my South African neighbor across the hall bolting the door before going to sleep. Our rooms have doors that operate on electronic key cards. Once the door is closed it can not be opened without the card. Essentially, bolting the door is like a man wearing both suspenders and a belt. But I suppose, if I grew up in a country where you need a barbed-wire fence around your house and several Dobermans peeing on it to sleep soundly at night, I too would be bolting my door. 

The only home invasion I fear comes in the form of creatures with more legs than I have. Dave, who keeps his window open most of the time, has not been bothered by anything aside from an occasional mosquito. I, on the other hand, who keep the windows closed, opening it only for short periods in the morning and late at night, have had to fight for my privacy twice. 

I am a glass kind of a person. When faced with an unwelcome visitor, I use a glass to get rid of it. In theory, it’s quite simple. I grab the nearest glass and trap the critter underneath it. Then it’s just a matter of finding a sheet of paper to slide carefully under the glass brim. Thus captured I can walk outside with the jar to release the prisoner or just throw it out the window hoping the wind won’t bring it right back in. But the creature I spotted in my room one Sunday morning was a beast reminded me more of a Komoda dragon than a friendly little gecko. 

It was poised on the wall right above my bed. Did I really sleep with this thing above me? And for how long? went through my mind as I observed his transparent claws gripping the surface. All walls are covered with panels made of rough textile to muffle sound, so he had an easy task hanging on. 

Some people might panic and use a gun on the intruder. Others, more relaxed types, could sweep the critter off the wall with a broom and maybe deal with it later. And yet others might use a machete. The scene reminded me of one afternoon in Mexico when Dave and I were very young. At that time, we had been hitchhiking all over the Yucatan Peninsula on a shoestring budget. And that is how we ended up in a seedy hotel sweating under the ceiling fan, whiling away the siesta hours. From the corner of my eye, I noticed something on the door that could have been just a blood stain left by some unlucky traveller. “What is that thing on the door?” I asked, only mildly curious. It was hot after all. Dave glanced at the door and sprang into action with surprising energy for that heat. He grabbed the first thing that was handy. It was a machete which we had obtained in a fair trade the previous day at the bazar in exchange for our hatchet, which we had brought with us all the way from Canada. That’s how naïve we were. We travelled to Mexico with a hatchet and sleeping bags. Within days of our arrival, we had traded these for a family size hammock and machete in a local market. Dave, armed with the machete, started hacking at the door. The hotel was of the type that doesn’t get renovated too often so I imagine the slashes on that door are still there. And, most likely, so is the X generation of the VW Beetle-sized cockroach that, despite Dave’s valiant onslaught, got away. 

My immediate problem was that the beast on my wall in Nukus would not fit into any glass I owned. I slowly backed away from the wall, knowing full well if I startled him and he scurried into one of my crammed closets, I would never find him and would have to move out. In the washroom I had a plastic basin wide enough to accommodate my flipper-sized feet. That should work, I reasoned. The trapping of it went smoothly enough, but the baby Komodo dragon under my foot basin was not happy. I could feel him moving around looking for an escape hatch. And I had another problem. I started pounding on the wall between our two rooms, hoping Dave would get the message that I was desperate for his company. He did not disappoint me. He appeared in seconds wearing his gray T-shirt advertising ‘Touring Samarkand,’ that is long enough to cover, I was hoping, his underpants. After all, those few meters between our two rooms are public space. I am not exactly a Victoria’s Secret person either. I must have presented quite a sight standing there with my hair still ruffled from sleep, in my cotton nightgown that has seen better days, with my arm outstretched, the palm pressed against the basin bottom, keeping the rest of my body as far away from the wall as possible just in case the creature escaped. 

“What’s going on?” Dave sounded breathless. He actually ran, went through my mind, and I loved him for it. 

“I need to slide something underneath.” 

His “Oh,” did not sound very helpful. “Do you have something wide enough?” I pressed on. 

“I don’t know. I’ll go and have a look.” Dave appeared in a minute carrying with him a laminated Physics poster that teachers love to use to decorate their classrooms. Ever so slowly he started to slide the poster under the basin. The first thing that disappeared was String Theory. Quantum Gravity followed, and the deed was successfully completed when the last of Dark Energy vanished. I sighed with relief as the dragon flew out of the balcony, tossed out of the basin in a perfect high arc. 

On a different Saturday morning I entered the washroom with my eyes still not adjusted to day’s reality, and noticed something sitting on the washroom floor next to the tub. I knew instinctively that, once this critter got moving, I would lose any chance to capture it. I grabbed the first thing that was near me, which happened to be my faithful foot basin resting on the floor between the toilet and the tub. Without any hesitation, the basin flew over the creature. I left it with the critter trapped underneath and went for the poster that had served me so well during the lizard removal. But when I tried to slide the poster between the basin and the floor, I quickly realized that this creature was much too vigorous trying immediately to use any small opening to escape. I could almost sense his determination, I am not giving up without a fight. I needed to get a smaller diameter dish that would be easier to manipulate and something firmer underneath it than the flimsy poster. Searching the cupboard, I found a plastic container that would be just the right size. With my heart pounding I eyed the basin with its prisoner. I needed to perform the switch. One big basin for a smaller container. Would the creature let me? It’s now or never, I thought. With the blood rushing in my ears I lifted the basin, half expecting to be knocked down with the creature landing in my face. Luckily, the lightening speed switch went without a glitch. Through the transparent plastic, I was finally able to get a good look at the prisoner. If it neighed at me at that moment, I would not have been surprised, it was so huge. It looked like a miniature pony. After I carefully slid a thin cutting board under the container, I took it to the balcony. One last look and I tossed the biggest grasshopper of my life as far from the balcony as I could. It landed on the grass with an audible thump, and I quickly closed the balcony door on that episode. 

Some people might find Tashkent’s bright lights alluring, but I truly prefer construction dogs, super-sized critters and reasonable commuting distances. And it is just as well. Apparently, it is quite hard to get transferred to the cities such as Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent.

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