Monday, September 27, 2010

Samarqand, Uzbekistan

Bonjour, Hallo, Hola, Ni Hao, Salam Aleikum…

I am (still) in Samarqand, and have been picking up bits of French, German, Spanish (refresher), Mandarin, Arabic, and other languages including Hebrew, Uzbek, and Russian, from all the travelers here. I have been staying at Bahodir’s for the past week or so, and am currently planning on leaving tomorrow (the 28th). At $6 a night including breakfast and unlimited tea, honey (it’s SO good) and watermelon, this is by far the best deal I will come across in Uzbekistan, so I figure it’s financially strategic to spend a disproportionate amount of time here. I’ve also loved meeting so many people (still no Americans, and all are relatively much older—but they’re cool) and getting to know them over the course of a few days. I’m following my friend Leslie’s advise to stay still when I find a place I love!

For the first few days I was still recovering from my bout of bronchitis, which I think I may have passed on to several Germans here… whoops… so I took it pretty easy, only doing one thing in the morning and then chilling at the hostel in the afternoon. Some hostels have a good vibe for hanging out, and some don’t exactly encourage fraternization. Bahodir’s definitely has a good vibe. Some of the things I’ve been “doing” are…

1) Getting an astrology lesson from a 50-year-old British free spirit. Apparently, as an Aquarius, I am humanitarian, creative, unique, individualist, independent, and a bit stoic/stubborn. The world is about to enter a phase of revolution similar to the events of 240 or so years ago (American and French revolutions).
2) Visiting a paper-making workshop outside the city. This is the only place other than Il Papiro, the papermakers in Italy, where I have witnessed the process of marbleizing paper, and here I actually got to try my hand at it. I went with a group from my hostel, and the tour itself lasted about ten minutes including discovering a few dozen types of livestock across the various buildings and open spaces, and then we sat around drinking tea, eating basil and a rock-hard sweet that everybody tried passing off to each other, and trying to communicate with our Uzbek hosts in very limited Russian/Uzbek. I learned the Uzbek word for friend- “doost”- here, which brought my grand total of Uzbek words to… five? Asal is honey (this is crucial to my existence here), rakhmad is thank you, sum is the currency here, kasa is still ticket (has been in Poland, Ukraine, and here), tea is chai.
3) Attempting to sneak into every major monument and old building here without paying. This is usually quite a successful activity. It’s almost as though the authorities here want you to be able to enter without paying. There are multiple back entrances to the mosques, the Registan, and the mausoleums, which are actually completely open in the back so long as you walk through an old cemetery to enter. We make fun of the tour buses that bring in massive groups of English and German tourists just to see isolated sites at full cost and stay in overpriced hotels.
4) Eating vegetable dishes from the bazaar nearly every day for lunch (lately I’ve been too lazy to walk the quarter mile to the bazaar for lunch, so I live off the watermelon, honey, and scraps from other people/the refrigerator). Though definitely not the most sanitary, I have yet to get sick, so it’s all good. I’ve also been sampling some really good Uzbek fruit, like soft yellow figs, pomegranates, apples, strangely shaped super-sweet grapes… this is almost as good as the fruit bowls in Thailand!
5) Walking around the old town and old Jewish quarter, of which seemingly nothing Jewish is left. It was interesting, however, to be walking down narrow dusty alleys filled with playing children, walking couples, and chatting off-duty, teal-uniformed policemen (there are more policemen here than nearly any other country I have visited), and suddenly come across an empty, relatively well-maintained park with a brand new monument, complete with grammatically-incorrect English plaque, to Karimov. The government clearly had to bulldoze an old neighborhood to make way for this useless display of power.
6) Going to an Uzbekistan club football match. I do not know football, but I know these teams suck. Samarqand’s team, Dinamo, was playing the team from Qarshi, near Afghanistan, called Nafaz, I think. I was one of maybe three women in the whole stadium of hundreds of people. A ticket cost a bit over $1 (open seating), a t-shirt $2, but no liquids (water, beer, coke, whatever) were permitted to be brought or bought in the stadium, so the two Germans, French guy and local couple (a host family for one of the Germans) I was with had to subsist off of ice cream and sunflower seeds. It’s a hard life.
7) Immediately after the football match, we joined up with the rest of the Germans and nearly everybody else staying at our hostel (including no less than 40 other Germans, 34 of whom were traveling together on some sort of “geography” business and insisted on playing the guitar every morning, right outside the dorm, at 6am-bad hostel karma) to go to a concert of Die Toten Hosen, a German rock band from the 80’s on tour in Asia that randomly decided to play in Samarqand. Two Germans and a Belarusian working in Tajikistan on a German development project had come up for the weekend specifically for this concert. Policemen yelled at people for cheering standing up at the football game, so we were a bit concerned about the police at this concert. However, the police did not seem to have the authority to control the Toten Hosen themselves, who ended up shirtless and singing from in the pond on which the pavilion’s platform hung out over.

I’m reading Chris Guillebeau’s The Art of Nonconformity on my phone, The Wild Things by Dave Eggers (my own book), Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (a friend’s book), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (a book donated to the hostel). I also read my new friend Emma’s PhD thesis proposal on the use of music to reinforce nationalism in former Soviet States—really interesting and relevant to past CA classes on colonial/post-colonial Africa, modern middle east, etc.
As I recently wrote a friend of mine: One month out, and I’m having a very good trip so far. A lot of good experiences and learning and living. I love the freedom, independence, choice, and the time I have given myself. My friend Ben, who is also taking a gap year involving several interesting jobs/internships, travel, and more, told me that one major reason he decided to defer college for a year was because quite often we get stuck on a treadmill in life, mindlessly moving forward from one thing to the next, and at every opportunity it is important to take the time to break away from that treadmill and do something different.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why travel is an important experience, because before I left my brother Alex asked me why I was going, and the best answer I could come up with was “because I want to.” A lot of it has to do with the people you meet in the hostels and on overnight buses and in airports. As Myung, a wonderful Korean woman I met here in Samarqand said, it is more than coincidence when you meet somebody here; it’s like a small miracle. You can literally walk up to anybody you see, not just in the hostels- on the street, at a restaurant or cafĂ©, at the bus station—whether they appear to be a traveler or not, and because you are a traveler, it’s like you have permission to talk to anybody about virtually anything—astrology, politics, visas, bathrooms, malaria, the two words that best describe Massachusetts (I said “not Bush”), jobs, languages, whatever.

Another part of the benefits of traveling is the appreciation for daily necessities and experiences. Every time something goes well, or works—whether it be navigating your way to the proper bus as the bus station, or the fact that the toilet flushes—you appreciate it so much more. At home, you get used to things working, but every time something works out, you can appreciate it, feel the luck, celebrate the success, feel proud of the accomplishment, understand the tiny miracle that it is. It’s conscious living. My friend Dan had a teacher at City Term that has a blog called the Don’t Know you Don’t Know Zone, the idea being that there are things we know, things we know that we don’t know, and then the vast majority of things, which we have no idea that we don’t know anything about. This teacher wrote about how travel exposes you to the DKDK zone more than your typical daily life, and stretches you because of this.

Going to find some internet so I can post, now! Happy near-October!


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