Friday, October 26, 2012

I'm not Tajik

I decided not to accompany my group up the steep steps to the ancient stone fortress, instead I sat comfortably in the shade of the ticket sellers stand and chatted it up with them.

I was very glad for my decision when the engine sound of two large buses meet our ears.  These buses were filled with tourist from the eastern part of the country seeking adventure in the ‘wild west’.  This adventure for them included, matching hats, a tour guide with a flag and megaphone to instruct their every step.  As they waited for their tour guide to buy the tickets two of them spotted me.

“Look at that one” she said pointing directly at me (not so rude in their culture, but very rude to the Uyghur side of me).  “I have never seen a Tajik girl wearing glasses”.  She lifted her million dollar camera with the three meter long fancy lens on it and started to gesture at me for permission to take my photo.  I couldn’t help but sigh a little as I nodded my ascent and sat up a little straighter.

As she fettled with her camera, focusing the lens and attempting to capture my big nose in all its glory ( a physical trait I do happen to have in common with Tajik people) I could help but ask:
“You do know I am not Tajik right?”

Her friend recovered first from the shock of the fact I spoke their language.  “What minority are you?”
“I’m not, I’m a foreigner from Canada.” I answered, wishing I had kept my mouth shut.

Soon she was motioning for five of her other friends to come and jump in the picture with me, and the poor Tajik girl I had been sitting talking too, whose culture they had travelled al this way to learn about, sat ignored on a bench in the back.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Buying Jade

There is rive famous for its jade.  Everyday people wade out knee deep in the water searching the stony riverbed for jade and other precious stones.  The men then set up stalls after stall along the road bartering with tourists and selling their most recent find.  These men are known for working together day in and day out standing shoulder to shoulder arguing on each other’s behalf about how authentic the necklaces are with the untrained eye of the shopper.

My latest tour group and I stopped to admire the stones, without any real intention of buying anything.  In fact some of the group hadn’t even brought their money with them since shopping wasn’t on our agenda.  One of the women picked up a dark emerald green bracelet and with ease slipped it on her wrist.  After admiring it for a time she was disturbed to discover it took a little more work to get it off.  She pulled and tugged and twisted before their piece of jewelry finally popped off.  However, it did so with such force that it slipped through her fingers, bounced off the table and went crashing to the ground.  He husband retrieved it quickly, but there was a small scratch on the surface.

Seeing the damage done the husband bravely admitted that now they had to buy it.  I asked if they had found out the price before trying it one, which sadly they hadn’t… I don’t really know the price of Jade nor how to judge its quality.  Since the damage was already done the seller could name any price and I would have no idea how exaggerated it really was. 

He seemed to know it too.  “I would never sell that bracelet for less than $500 USD,” he said. 

I laughed.  There was no way we were paying that price.  I asked the cope how much money they had on them.  When all pockets were turned inside out the totally only added up to about 7 bucks.  I knew that was way too little to come with as a counter offer, so I checked my own wallet.  I had about $75.  (While to be honest I had a lot more.  In the front part of my wallet I had $75, hidden in the zippered pocket behind I had another couple of hundred that was already ear marked to buy our bus tickets home that night). 

 I showed him the seventy five in my hand “This is all I have, big brother” I said with a pitifully forced quiver in my voice.

He scoffed and complained that he could have sold it to some unsuspecting tourist for $700 dollars and that I was just out to cause troubles.  

At this point I had a decision to make.  I could match him angry word for angry word, letting my voice join his in rising to an emotional frenzy.  I often call this getting my fight face on.  Arguing with vengeance for what I see as my right.  If I had one this all his buddies would have taken his side and it would have escalated into an intense me verses them situation.  Or, I realized, I could become vulnerable and try to win him over.

Those of you who know me well know I am not much of a crier, I also don’t often resort to tears as a means to get my way.   But desperate times call for desperate measures.  I held out the $75 dollars a little further in my shaky hands and with a weak voice I entreated him again.  “This is as much as I can give you.  I don’t know what else to do.”

Other men started gathering around us to see what all the fuss was about.  They looked from my pale face and moist eyes to his stone cold stance.  Lying between us was the offending bracelet.  Some of them picked it up to examine the damage… I heard them muster under their breath that it was a good quality one.  “Oh dear,” I thought “now comes the time when they all gang up on me.”  My tears were getting to be a little more real by the minuet.  

The seller nodded that the damage and reported for all his friends in disgust that I was trying to pay $75 dollars for something he could easily sell for almost $1 000.

“There is nothing I can do”  I stated again weakly “I have no solution.”  To my surprise many of the on looking Uyghur men sided with me.  Some of them even put their fight faces on and jumped over the table so they could stare down the seller more intently.  Since I now knew that it was high quality jade I asked some of the others how in our group how much money they had.  Between all of us we collected $160USD, way more than I would ever spend on jewelry from a road side stand, but by this time I looked at it more as stopping a riot and avoiding being dragged to the police station. 

 The crowed had grown to over 50 men by this time.  They were taking sides against each other.  Thankfully the majority of them seemed sympathetic to my plight. They yelled at the seller:
“Look at her, you are making her cry”
“She is a good girl; she wears a head scarf and everything”
“She’s learned out language”
“She says that is more money that she makes at her job in a month”
“Have pity”
“And you call yourself a good Muslim; you ought to be ashamed of yourself”

They grabbed the money out of my hand and started forcing it into his.

“No,” he said, weakening slightly.  “I would have tried to sell it for $1 500.”

The next thing I knew men all around the circle started digging into their own wallets and pockets and adding money to the pile.

The hard hearted seller lost face in light of his coworker’s generosity to me.  I have no idea how large the total pay off sum was, but the seller was forced to accept the offering and reluctantly shake hands with my biggest advocate.  

One of the men laid the slightly damaged bracelet in the palm of my hand with a brotherly “Don’t cry, it’s all okay now.  You guys can go” 

As I backed away I put my hand over my heart and repeated again and agian " Thank you.  Thank you all.  Thank you big brother. Thank you God.  Thank you.  Thank you."

Friday, October 19, 2012

If Allah Wills...

“Where you from?” the bus driver asked.  It was almost midnight and our bus was stopped at some obscure spot along the desert highway.

I gave a curt reply as I continued to exercise the pent up kinks and knots out of my weary arms and legs.  

“Canada, huh…Do you have buses like this with beds on them?” He asked as he almost lovingly patted the beast of a vehicle in his care.

“Not that I know of” I said “I’ve certainly never been on a sleeper bus in Canada”

At this point you could almost see the wheels in his head spinning and turning and contriving a plan. 
“Are there roads longer than 500km in Canada?”

“Of course, land wise it is the second largest country in the world”  The second I said it I regretted my hasty words.  I could tell they had only fueled his wild dreams.  He was in full on scheming mode, making plans faster than the old plodding bus he drove could every dream of travelling.

“Someday, if Allah wills, I will open my own sleeper bus company in Canada and be rich”  This village man declared with resolve.

I translated from my travel companions as we climbed on the bus. “Ugh” we all struggled to keep a straight face and not scrunch up our noses in distant at the strong stench that greeted us upon embarking.  The smell came from to many people, stuffed in too small of a space, for way too many hours. “There is a few things he should improve before introducing this transportation to the west, like ventelation”.  The group had been joking for the last few hours that the only thing worse than B.O is ten people’s B.O. and the only thing worse than ten peoples B.O. was the twenty smelling feet that came with them.
 We ran into our next forward thinker a few days later at the museum.  The older security guard guy who was responsible for unlocking the doors and turning on and off the lights quickly learned I could speak his language.  He followed me around from one display to another peppering me with questions and distracting me form admiring the old coins, cloth and tools.  His line of questioning felt very familiar.  “Where are you from?” Is that a rich country? Is it easy to get there? Are there lots of jobs” He started pointing to traditional Uyghur elements around the museum.  “Do you have this or that in Canada?” 

He was literally taken aback when he learned that we didn’t have nan in Canada.  It seemed impossible for him to believe that a society could survive much less advance without a nan stand on every second street corner selling hot fresh bread.  That’s when he made his declaration “If Allah wills, I will open a nan stand in Canada and become rich!”

Later that day we stopped outside the bazaar for a refreshing cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.  The man operating the booth stood proudly beside his juicer.  Drops of the bright red liquid liberally sprinkled all over his face and clothes, the whole effect made him look like he had been in a fight with blood stains on his clothes.  We all picked up our sticky glasses to toast our great day, when the mad started the familiar line of questioning.  He seemed pleased to learn that his particular line of work was unique in the west.  Before he could declare his intention of moving and getting rich I slammed the empty cup on the table and motioned for my guest to keep moving.  Turning around slightly I watched hi straighten up our used cups on the table and pour fresh juice into them, never even pausing to wash or rinse them between uses.  “No wonder they were so sticky” I thought to myself trying hard not to guess how many people had likely drank out of it before me.  Instead I laughed to myself  “If Allah wills he should move to Canada and learn how to wash dishes.” 

Sunday, October 07, 2012


When winter comes and I am forced out of my comfortable sandals, I most often go reaching for a pair of traditional cloth shoes.  These old school craft of shoe making now come in tons of fun and Asian trendy sort of styles (Yes, I have seen leopard print ones).  Think similar to modern day Toms, but the art of cloth shoe making has been around for centuries and is  perfected on this side of the world.  You can still see old ladies sitting on the squat stools by the side of the road, hand stitching the materials together.   They are the prefect, lightweight, fall footwear for all the walking I do.  In fact last year while we were opening our business we learned that there is one of these shoes stores located within a block  of all of the government offices we had to visit.  Shoes shopping became both a celebration for getting another step in the process done, and a consolation when we failed.  

If you haven’t guessed by now I am constantly singing the praises of these shoes.  Comfortable.  Durable. Affordable.  Cute.  I will brag about them as long as the sun shines in the desert.  But even here in our dry climate we do get rain occasionally.  Rain here tends to result in swimming pool size puddles on the roads.  Rains and cloth shoes do not mix.  You can ask my cold, damp soggy feet from last night, how much they enjoy squishing and sloshing around for hours in freezing water holes with zero protection.  Maybe what I need to do next time is tie bag on my feet to protect my shoes they same way guys take care of their doppas.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

She is No Beauty School Drop Out

Our third roommate left last week to head back to her hometown.  She was a Uyghur girl who had come up to the big city to study Uyghur wedding hair and makeup with the hope of opening he own beauty shop.  She ended up finding a school close to our home that specialized in  hair and makeup.  Every day the students would stand outside the school and try to entice women to come in and let them practice on them.  Both my roommate and I grab a friend and went on separate occasions to have our makeup done.  Wow, just getting done up gave me a lot of insight on what a Uyghur bride goes through.    

Traditionally at a wedding the bride is suppose to keep her eyes down and look a little sad at the thought of leaving her family.  I always marveled at the demure look of the girls here,  their shy upwards glances, and their straight faces .  At home the bride is normally smiling from ear to ear, greeting all of their guests in the eye.  Now I know it is not just culture that keep a Uyghur girl form acting this way… it is the ton of makeup that weighs he eye lids down.  

When I went in I told them I was going to a theater performance that night, they all agreed that meant I didn’t need the full out wedding look.  Instead I only got one set of extra long fake eyelashes with several coatings of mascara on them.    I also had scotch tape on my eye lids to help achieve the double eye lid fold – which is crazy since I am westerner and I naturally look like that.  Maybe some of you don’t know the Asian obsession with having a double eye lid.  Many people have surgery done to create this effect of having a small crease above their eyes.  For those who don’t want to go to such drastic measures a small piece of tape can be placed on you upper lid which causes the skin to fold over on itself.  People with my culture background are born with this added skin above the eye.  But even though I have a double lid, my beauty consultant student felt it necessary to accentuate it by sticking two pieces of tape on. The tape had to be covered over with several layers of foundation, eye shadow and glitter.  By the time all the eye makeup had been applied I could bear look up if I wanted to.  My eyes felt so caked and heavy that I had trouble fully enjoying the theater show.  No wonder brides look down, their eyes hurt too much to do anything else. 

In one afternoon I was wearing more makeup that I have cumulatively in my whole life, and they had gone easy on me since I was just to a performance.   No wonder when my roommate look at pictures from my brother’s wedding she asked me if the brides in my country don’t wear makeup.  The idea of a simple, natural look that still even vaguely resembles your original state is unheard of.  

After her classes finished our house began to take on the feel of bridal Barbie’s’ glittering paradise.  She was out daily shopping for wedding dresses (she bought eight or nine of them to rent out), bridesmaid's dresses, tiaras, necklaces, veils, fake flower bouquets, wedding car decoration,  and anything else that sparkled.  The office in our apartment became over run with supper huge hoop skirts- the type that doesn’t even fit through the door way and hair products.   Finally all of it got stuffed into several large bags and dragged to the bus station.  While I miss having my roommate around, I have to admit it is nice not to be finding glitter in sticking to every fiber of the carpets, or bobby pins and fake eye lashes lying abandoned on the coffee table.