On the Great Silk Road
I had never heard of Uzbekistan, but I felt so guilty for being alive that I just wanted to work somewhere, anywhere.
I realized that I had been duped by the Peace Corps pamphlet when I met my fellow volunteers. Not only did they bring jeans and boots, stacked in giant suitcases in the lobby of the hotel in Philadelphia, but also sleeping bags, tents, canteens, electronic adapters, power surge protectors, boxes of Cliff bars, laundry detergent, and bags of nuts. And a whole lot of good sense. That wasn’t the only thing that made them significantly more prepared for Uzbekistan than I was. Most of them already knew about the land and its problems, and most importantly had read the biblical authority on Central Asia, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. I had bought it, at least. In fact, that was one of the books that took up half my suitcase, but I read the first chapter where Hopkirk describes the slaughter of British diplomats by the Amir of Bukhara, and instantly closed it in fear and hadn’t opened it since.
The fact that going to Uzbekistan terrified me is an understatement. I had never heard of Uzbekistan before I was assigned to work there, so one of the first things I did when I got my assignment was to open a world atlas. To the north, it borders Kazakhstan (which I had also never heard of), to the east Kyrgyzstan (nope) and Tajikistan (doesn’t ring a bell), to the west, Turkmenistan (hmm, that sounds like the other T–stan) and to the south, Afghanistan (oh, I know that place! That’s where Osama bin Laden is hiding out in the Hindu Kush and…plotting to destroy the democratic world…oh.). In 2003, the U.S. Air Force had a strategic base in Karshi, Uzbekistan, which was important in coordinating attacks on Afghanistan, but I didn’t know that at the time. I knew that Uzbekistan was an Islamic nation, and the post-9/11 media convinced me that its citizens wanted to kill me. At 23, I wasn’t ready to die. I should not have listened to rumors like “It’s legal to rape women in Uzbekistan” that I would hear from fellow University of Arizona classmates, which is not entirely true. Instead, I should have read all the testimonials that the Peace Corps sent me to calm my fears and tell me I’m doing a great service to humanity and the United States by making this step, but I only read a few bits of advice here and there like “Don’t sit on the floor in public spaces,” “Wear skirts that go below the knee,” and “Read Peter Hopkirk.” In addition to the other difficulties of reading Peace Corps literature, the acronyms are daunting: at IST the PCMO asked me if I could give a seminar on Hep B prevention for the HCNs. I was afraid that I’d read something that would terrify me, like a modern-day Hopkirk slaughter, and I’d back out, which I didn’t want to do. I just had to join the Peace Corps. I just had to.
A brief note here about why: In 1998, I had a car accident. I was ejected from a car traveling over 100 mph, and airlifted to Tucson Medical Center with massive head injuries, collapsed lungs, and a broken clavicle. I was in a coma for about a month, or maybe a little less. For a few weeks, I was in this fuzzy, half-conscious state that the doctors called “semi-comatose,” so I’m not quite sure of the boundaries. In short, I was in the rehab hospital for an entire summer recovering from a paralyzed right side; double vision; impaired cognition, language, and speech; and other residual complications from a traumatic brain injury mostly sustained in my left frontal lobe. My short-term memory was detrimentally affected, and I have no memory of the week preceding the event. To top it off, I was the sole survivor in an accident that killed two of my best friends, and the survivor’s guilt that I battled every day would make my other injuries seem like a scraped knee in comparison. My world became so insular, so personally marked by tragedy, pain, and loss that I couldn’t breathe anymore. I just had to get out. The endless questioning of God (why did I live, why did I live, why did I live) honestly grew so tiresome that one day a voice in my head screamed “Stop,” quieting the other chatter and issuing this brilliant answer: I survived so that I could join the Peace Corps, naturally.
Peace Corps service was a little over two years, which I thought an adequate amount of time to mend my psyche and save the world in the process, which I thought was what the Peace Corps did. My uncle had served in Ecuador in the ’60s, where he, among many of his world-saving accomplishments, built a bridge that made travel more efficient in a remote Quechuan village. I thought I could do that, too, so I eagerly began the application process back in Arizona. As to be expected, my unusual medical history hindered the application process. Before I had made it even as far as Philadelphia, I had to request numerous hospital and therapeutic discharge papers to satisfy the Peace Corps’ bureaucratic appetites. I was originally assigned to work in Eastern Europe, leaving in June of 2003, but I wasn’t approved by the deadline. I thought my medical history would prevent me from fulfilling my service, the thought of which just made me a complete mess, and hence began the Summer of the Emotional Gravitron (SEG), sucking everything from the center of my being: I donated most of my worldly possessions to St. Vincent de Paul, traveled to Ireland to visit my friend and took a swing with her through Norway to meet my distant relatives, where I drank too much akuavit, and incidentally lost my underwear in the Arctic Circle.
When I returned to Arizona, I didn’t stay with my family in Sierra Vista or Douglas, but stayed in Tucson at my boyfriend’s house. He was an astronomer and spent most of his time doing research on Kitt Peak, so I would spend my days alone studying the Uzbek Cyrillic alphabet and three commonly asked questions that I just couldn’t wrap my mind around: “Qaerdansiz?” (“Where are you from?”), Charchamadingizmi? (“Aren’t you tired?”), “Turmushga chicgansimi?” (“Are you married?” for females). Since my injury, all languages were challenging and required extra effort to comprehend, but I had been passionately studying them in the hopes of healing my brain. Before learning Uzbek, I had studied Italian, French, Spanish, Norwegian, and Russian. I loved languages — I was truly awful with them — but I loved them. When Uzbek arrived in my life, I was determined to learn it well, but it was the most difficult language I had ever studied. Not only did Uzbek have consonants and vowels alien to my English tongue (and larynx), the suffixes of its verbs — the part of speech that always ends a sentence — indicate who the subject is, whether the verb is negative, when the sentence is a question, and if there are any prepositions of place or direction. It’s backward from the English orientation. I’ll verbally diagram the question “Charchamadingizmi”: charcha is the word for tire, ma negates it, ding makes it the past participle, giz makes “you” the subject, and mi makes it a question: tire not –ed you are? Charchamadingizmi should not be confused with charchadingizmi (without the ma negation; it has a totally different cultural connotation that I don’t think I ever figured out) or charchading (“You’ll be tired.” I would hear this often when was doing something in an inefficient way) or charchamang (“Don’t be tired” — the Uzbek equivalent of “Get off your lazy ass”).
But I had finally made it to the staging event in Philadelphia and there simply wasn’t any turning back. My roommate in the hotel had been a dancer in the San Francisco Ballet long before joining the Peace Corps. Her name was Diana, and she looked like the quintessential volunteer: tall and lean, with boots and a straw hat. In second-hand skirts that were noticeably too long for me, I looked like a person who needed a Peace Corps volunteer’s help: I was short and chubby, still with ever-so-slight impairments in balance and spatial orientation. Diana told me two months into our service that when we were studying together as part of our training, she didn’t think I would make it past the first week in Uzbekistan.
“Why was that?” I asked her.
“Among other things,” Diana said, “you seemed very hung up on your boyfriend in Philadelphia.”
“Ah, that.” But that wasn’t entirely true. My boyfriend was hung up on me; I spent all of my three nights in Philadelphia not going out with other volunteers and comforting him on the phone instead.
“Please come home,” Mike begged. “I’m reminded of you everywhere.”
“It will be OK,” I said. I got embarrassed that Diana could hear all our whining, so I went down into the lobby to talk to Mike the evening after I left. “I just need to complete my two years of service and maybe I won’t feel so guilty all of the time.”
“You always say that. Why do you still feel guilty?”
I never felt guilty before May 23, 1998. That day, Stacey, John and I were driving at dusk to Tucson on Interstate 10 when we had a single-car, roll-over accident. None of us was wearing a seat belt and we were ejected from the vehicle. We weren’t drinking, we weren’t on drugs — we were just happy, I suppose, speeding down the interstate a week before high school graduation, with invitations to state universities and colleges for the next academic year. While I was comatose, a messy battle in the courts ensued to determine who was driving. My medical bills had quickly reached the limit of what my insurance company would pay, so someone had to pay, either my family or someone else’s insurance company. We were traveling in Stacey’s car, and she and John were romantically involved, and though there was some brief debate over whether or not I was driving, I was considered the third party. Since John had had a history of reckless driving, in the end, he was determined to be the driver. I’ve read the physicist’s reconstruction of the accident scene since then, and according to him, our car was attempting to speed past a semi at 104 mph, lost control, and flipped end-over-end three times into the median. He determined that I was in the back seat and fell out the back window on the second or third roll. My friends went out the windshield and died. But memory validates experience, not a physicist, no matter how glittering his credentials, and my memory is gone, its dying embers stamped out by the impact of bone and asphalt. The accident was my fault, somehow.
My relationship with Mike had its problems, but all in all, at least he recognized this need to serve in me and he stopped putting up a fight: “What do you want to do there exactly?”
“What do you mean — what do I want to do there?”
What did I want to do there? Why, I wanted to save the world — that’s what the Peace Corps did, right? That’s why I lived, so I could join the Peace Corps and save the world. My technical assignment was to teach English.
After that phone call, I went up to my room, took a shower, and had the worst night’s sleep I had ever had, which would become the first in a month of Worst Night’s Sleep (WNS). I tossed and turned, and went into the hallway to reread Dunn’s book so I wouldn’t disturb Diana: “The signs are clear:// the drooping wings, the shameless thinking// about utility/ and self. It’s time to stop.” I finally left to the workout room, where I did 10 intense minutes on the stair-stepper before I realized that I was exhausted after all. I went back to my room and passed out
In the morning, I met my compatriots, all of whom seemed adequately off their rocker, which simultaneously comforted me and made me jealous because they were so much cooler than I was. We played an ice-breaker in which I was introduced as the Poetry Editor from Arizona (PEA), which was true but come on, this was the Peace Corps! I wished the organizers had picked another title out of my amazing list of credentials so that I could compete with the Fire Fighter from New Mexico (FFNM) or the Fencing Champion from Chicago (FCC). I had also written a poem in Italian that won first prize. The rest of staging consisted of a lot of group meetings, introductions, and activities. At some point I remember role-playing a lion in a skit and I bit someone’s leg off, but those three days in Philadelphia blur together in a jumble of sounds and images: lectures, statistics, questions, the movement of hurried pencils and the swift sound of graphite against the page, the Liberty Bell, reassuring words over the phone to a man who didn’t want to let me go. And soon after, we were flying to Uzbekistan.
We arrived in the Tashkent airport well after 1:00 a.m., and waited for what seemed like hours until everybody got their luggage. The Tashkent baggage claim only brought one piece of luggage down at a time, and it would slowly make its rounds on the conveyor belt until someone claimed it; then another piece of luggage would come down and be circulated in the same (slow) fashion — it was like the whole airport was stuck in this quarter-the-speed-of-normal-speed time warp. Later I would discover that the whole country is like that, from mailing a letter to shopping for food in the bazaars, but I came to appreciate Slow and Lazy Uzbek Time (SLUT), and I’m still adjusting to the American pace. Everybody was exhausted, but nobody could sit down due to the absence of chairs; sitting on the floor was not only culturally inappropriate but would also give you the shamol — literally “wind” in Uzbek, the cause for all physical ailments. One can also get it by not wearing a hat or drinking cold water. If I got diarrhea, I got the shamol. If I pulled my hamstring, I got the shamol. If I got a pimple, I got the shamol. I must have gotten the shamol about 400 times in Uzbekistan, and the first time I got it was that night. In the Istanbul airport during our layover, I had wanted to brush my teeth and the worker told me that the water was safe so I used it. Come to think of it, I didn’t speak Turkish so maybe she had said, “No, stay away from that water! If you ingest it, you’ll be up night after night with green diarrhea!” Gross.
We arrived by bus to Umid Gulshani, a sanitarium located in Qibray, about a 30-minute drive from Tashkent. We were to stay there for seven days to readjust to the new culture and food, and consequently the bacteria that wouldn’t show us any mercy until it ripped our bowels apart. We attended language classes and seminars on topics such as disease prevention and cultural awareness. After a week, when the Peace Corps Language (PCL) effortlessly dripped from our lips and we found ourselves jabbering on about HCNs and PCPs and LPIs, we were sent to our first host family’s house, where we would live for the next three months of our training.
When I met my host parents in the sanitarium cafeteria, they both introduced themselves in English as chemists. Ilhom was shorter than Zarya, and had grown a belly smaller than the bellies sported by most Uzbek men. Zarya was taller, big-boned, strong. I took one look at their faces and instantly knew that their lives had been marked by tragedy. Besides the fact that part of Zarya’s right cheekbone was missing and she was blind in her right eye, something about their exuberant voice when they first met me, about their grabbing my shoulders with such urgency and saying “This is our American daughter!” told me, their voices resonating with grief’s intimate knowledge, voices that even in utter happiness were never far away from anguish.
Ilhom refused my offer to help him with my luggage — which after seven days had increased in items to include a water distiller and four large Peace Corps books on health, safety and teaching English — and loaded them into a silver BMW. We were going to their home about 20 minutes away in Ulugbek. Ulugbek, a suburb of Tashkent, is a very popular name for Uzbek males and places alike, it being the name of the famous astronomer and ruler Ulug Beg, who recorded the positions of over 1,000 stars and calculated the sun’s meridian. Poor Ulug Beg. I think the man really wanted to lead the peaceful life of a scholar, but he was the grandson of Amir Timur, the man whose insatiable blood-thirst enabled him to reuptake the reigns of Ghengis Khan (from whom he claimed heritage) and kill lots of people, expanding his empire from modern-day Turkey to Kashgar in China, and hence Ulug Beg was forced to uphold the Timurid dynastic tradition. Those heartless Timurids: He was assassinated in a coup organized by his son just two years after ascending the throne in 1447. I had heard that Amir Timur built a pyramid out of 70,000 human skulls from people his army beheaded, but he is unquestionably celebrated in Uzbekistan. When one of our Pre Service Training (PST) leaders, Aziz, gave a lecture on Amir Timur, he praised him as a ghazi, a warrior of the Islamic faith: “He conquered the barbarians.” In most public Uzbek schools, posters on the walls proclaim the glory of two men: Amir Timur and Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s current dictator.
Uzbekistan had been under colonial rule for 120 years, first by tsarist Russia and then by the Soviets, and hence subjected to honor Russian heroes. The streets, parks, and metro stops honored Pushkin, Lenin, and Maxim Gorky, so when the Soviet Union dismantled and Uzbekistan became independent in 1990, why not celebrate Amir Timur, that strategic genius who overcame a physical deformity (in the West, he is sometimes called Tamer the Lame — he had a clubbed foot) and made Uzbekistan a glittering tourist attraction with gorgeous architecture, particularly the seat of his capital, Samerkand? Samerkand is a gem of a city, its most famous site being the Registan, the heart of Samerkand where Amir Temur was to have his court (he died before its completion). Registan means “sandy place” in Persian because sand was scattered throughout the courtyard to soak up the blood of Temur’s victims after they were publicly executed. The courtyard is surrounded on three sides by madrassas, decorated with the blue and turquoise mosaics of so much Islamic architecture. The truth is that many tourists come to Uzbekistan specifically to see Samerkand. Why not regard Amir Timur with prophet-like grandeur? In addition to renaming many streets and metro stops in Tashkent and dismantling the capital’s giant statue of Lenin after it became independent, Uzbekistan erected the grand Amir Timur Museum, celebrating his life and conquests under a blue dome that’s surrounded by a vast expanse of green, with table-top chessboards and impressive statues, one of Amir Timur on horseback.
On our drive to Ulugbek, we passed Qibray’s bus station, and I studied the scene outside: people pushing with heavy bags, men cooking shashlik over an open-air fire, women selling non, peddlers pushing Russian vodka and other contraband. When we reached their house, Ilhom honked the horn. A girl came out to open the iron gate and we drove into the courtyard. After we took my belongings into my room, I met the daughters — Gulchiera, who was six; Gulnoza, who was eight; Zamira, who was 12 and had a long scar underneath her right eye; and a niece, Zuxera, who was 16. I took note of them as they began spreading an outside table with the night’s meal of osh, the Uzbek national food consisting of rice, carrots and cumin, shorva (soup), non (round bread) and pomidor salat (tomato salad). Zuxera, the niece, was older and taller than the rest of them, significantly darker and with large, seductive eyes. Zamira’s two-inch scar made her even more pretty, I thought; she had a very wide face with large eyes and curly hair. With her straight brown hair in a short bob, Gulnoza looked like the perfect tomboy. And Gulchiera, well, Gulchiera looked like the most fragile little thing I had ever seen — thin and wobbly, with a front row of baby teeth rotting near the gums. This may have been a blessing or a curse, but the family knew a little bit of English. Ilhom, a chemistry professor at the Polytechnic Institute in Ulugbek, was the most fluent, Zamira was studying English, and Zarya constantly repeated a command with “Eating, eating!” that night at the dinner table. We talked about America and Ilhom told me that he had been to Chicago. Gulnoza, who I was told wanted to be a dancer, started dancing for us and I was persuaded to join her, my imbalance boldly on display. The family probably thought it was a new American dance, and they rolled over with laughter.
On my first night there, I didn’t ask and I don’t remember what prompted the conversation, but Zarya told me in Uzbek and with hand gestures what happened to her face. This is what I understood: Four years earlier, the family was in a car accident. Il hom mangled his foot, Zarya shattered her cheekbone, Zamira suffered facial lacerations, and Gulchiera suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was one year old. Both Zarya and Gulchiera were in a coma, although I don’t know for how long. As doctors were nursing Zarya back to health, nobody told her about her son. Nobody told her about her son until she was well enough to hear the news. Ulugbek, who was only seven at the time, flew through the windshield and died. Zarya pointed to Zamira’s long scar. She parted Gulchiera’s hair and showed me a thick scar across the parietal bone. Since she had been so young at the time of the accident, she probably doesn’t have any long-term impairments, I thought, though in my three months with them, I would come to see Gulchiera struggle with the same emotions that I struggled with. I knew how to say kechirasiz (I’m sorry) and men ham (me too), and I touched my tracheotomy scar on my neck, but I think the only thing that Zarya understood was that she had found a friend.
The next afternoon, I was studying Uzbek in my room when I heard chanting. My room was in a separate part of the house and had a separate entrance. I came outside and saw about half a dozen people waiting in the courtyard, waiting almost in a line to enter another room that was just to the left of the tandor oven. These people were carrying baskets and jars, some had prayer beads, non, fruit and vegetables. Suddenly the chanting would stop, someone would leave the mysterious room, and another person would enter, and in a few minutes the chanting started again. The person chanting was Zarya.
When later I asked Zarya what she was doing, she told me, “O’kiganman.” She made the sign of an open book in her hands. “Quran o’kiganman.”
I had put the pieces together, but to double check I asked my language instructor the next day at lunch if my host mom was a mystical healer. Ilgiza was a very tall and slender woman who for some reason always felt the need to grab my hand when we were crossing the street.
“Yes,” Ilgiza said. “she reads passages from the Quran to heal people. She works with energy. She takes the energy from one person, and then transfers it to another.”
Diana, who was in my language group in Ulugbek, teased me, “You better be careful, Kristen!”
I wouldn’t mind, I thought. I wanted Zarya to take some of my energy because I still couldn’t sleep due to the internal restlessness of neurotic ex-patriotism and the external restlessness of an Uzbek house: barking dogs, rats, and the grumble and clank of the BMW as Ilhom sacrificed sleep night after night to work on it.
“The accident changed her. She wasn’t like this before,” Ilgiza said. My language group, consisting of Paula, Greg, Diana and myself, listened carefully. “She was a scientist.”
Indeed she was. Both studying chemistry at a university in Russia, Ilhom and Zarya met and fell in love, atypical by Uzbek standards. Usually a girl’s mother or father searches for a suitable mate, but since both Ilhom and Zarya come from educated families that were more modern and progressive, they accepted the union, after receiving permission from Zarya’s father, I imagine. I once saw a picture of Zarya from the early ’70s. It was a black and white shot of Zarya sitting on a stool at the university. She was wearing a knee-length skirt and knee-length boots, and in the shot she sat with one leg crossed over the other, exposing an erotic knee. Her blouse was fitted and clean, tucked to enhance the shape of her body. Her hair was long and straight, pulled back in a tight black braid. She looked into the camera with large eyes well complimented by her full lips — I almost lost my breath when I saw how beautiful she had been.
And I thought she was still beautiful, her body built up from childbirth, her shattered cheekbone a reminder of pain that made her face even more gorgeous when she smiled. Zarya was Khazak, not Uzbek, she once told me as we were drinking tea in the kitchen. Ilhom was Uzbek and she had come to Uzbekistan to live with him after they married. I read while I was in Uzbekistan that these separate Central Asian identities — Uzbek, Kazak, Turkmen, Tajik, Kirghiz — had basically been invented, the borders drawn by the Russians to reduce the threat of a pan-Islamic uprising. By creating a sense of national pride, being Uzbek or Kazak or Tajik became more important than being Muslim. Zarya did seem proud to be Kazak. She told me she was Kazak about 10 times when I was living with them, as if she were saying, “Things would be different in my country,” as if she were apologizing for something, as if she could control what happened in her native land.
I did well those first few months in training because it was structured very much like school, and I was good at school. Though I was good at school for most of my youth, I had to relearn how to be good at school after my accident, driven partly by necessity as I was on an academic scholarship at the University of Arizona, and partly to prove to my friends and family that I wasn’t stupid. When I was in the rehab hospital, Randy, my occupational therapist, would tell me to write the alphabet three times a day, not during our therapy sessions but later in my room as homework. So I would complete my homework, and each day during occupational therapy I would turn it in and Randy would squeeze my shoulder, a very small scholastic experience that gave me the gall to insist that I was still going to college after the accident, against the stern advice of therapists and doctors. No, I couldn’t go to college, some would say. That would mean moving away from home, to another city, and how could I live by myself? Who would take care of me? Before I was discharged from the hospital, the speech therapist assessed my cognitive function: she concluded I had the language comprehension of a fifth grader, but I had an excellent ability with math, surpassing college level. My left frontal lobe had been injured, and hence my language comprehension and facility, but my math lobe was still formidable from high school trigonometry. In the end, doctors and therapists, and most notably my parents, reasoned that I couldn’t be that much of an idiot if I could still do math, and hence the college plan unfolded. I moved to Tucson with a friend from high school and enrolled at the U of A for my first semester, in which I only took one class.
I had come a long way since then, and I had learned how to master school, so my training, both the technical training that taught me how to be a teacher and the language training that taught me how to talk, was on the surface a success, and my service began marvelously. I loved Ihom and Zarya and the girls, often choosing to cut onions or can eggplant for the winter instead of studying in the evening. They would host many different parties in which I was the honored guest and required to make eloquent toasts: “Hello.” “I wish you happiness.” “I like Uzbekistan.” “I like Uzbekistan’s tea.” Zarya and Ilhom would beam whenever I would show them my marks on language exams: “Albatta, you’re our daughter. All of our daughters get perfect marks.”
But those little exams were nothing compared to the final oral Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) we were going to have that would mark the end of our training and determine if we were able to begin our service. I remember the day of the LPI well because it was the day of our final thank-you ceremony for the training staff and I was going to have my first baking experience in Uzbekistan: I was going to make brownies.
I had been worried about the LPI, worried that I’d fail and my brain damage would be exposed, and that everybody would begin taunting me with politically incorrect language. I took the oral exam back at the sanitarium in Qibray. I remember I memorized the word “invalidlar” to use during my test, which means people with disabilities, and I backed it up immediately “keda yaxshi koramayman!” (I don’t like this word!). I said it with such passion that I must have impressed the instructor because I ended up doing pretty well, one level above the required Novice High.
After the test I had to go to a bazaar to get ingredients for the brownies our language group was going to make. I had to take a mashrutka (a mashrutka was a passenger van crowded with too many passengers that drove too fast, but it was cheap) from the sanitarium to the TTZ bazaar several miles down the road. When I boarded, I was in my usual blond-girl-with-brain- damage daze, ruminating over my exam. When I saw the bazaar 10 minutes later, I had to plead with the driver to stop. The mashrutka was actually headed direct to the Tashkent metro stop that most locals still called Maxim Gorky —its official name has been Biyul Ipak Yoli (The Great Silk Road) since 1990 — but I didn’t understand what the driver said when I boarded in Qibray, so my shouts of “Toxtating, toxtating! Iltimos, toxtating!” weren’t answered until I gave the driver another 100 so’m. He dropped me on the side of the road, and I looked back at the bazaar up the street. I had a little bit of a walk back, which was no problem because I saw a very plush, seriously front-lawn-quality spot of grass on which to walk. I didn’t even know there was grass in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan’s landscape almost looked like Southern Arizona: brown, dusty, arid. But grass, wow, real grass, what a fortuitous omen for my brownies, what metaphorical applications to my forthcoming service: I would find the little spots of plush grass in Uzbekistan and nourish them! Yes, tend them and feed them and watch them grow!
Only a couple of years earlier, Robinson Crusoe taught me the word “calenture.” I never read the book as a child, and actually never read it at all in its entirety, but I thumbed through it once in the U of A library and was struck by the strange vocabulary 18th-century English people used. In the beginning of the book, as Robinson Crusoe is working on various sea vessels to rebel against a father who insists that a seaman’s life is not suitable for a gentleman. He describes an experience with “calenture,” an ailment that afflicted sailors in the tropics with temporary lunacy, imagining the sea to be green fields, and desiring to run and frolic in those green fields. No medical doctor can validate this, but I think that day I had some Central Asian strain of calenture: I took one step onto the luscious grass and for a moment the Earth stopped spinning. I fell waist-deep in water. I hadn’t found grass, just a gutter full of water, and the water was ripe with green, green algae.
I climbed out of the gutter and huffed at my stinky green pants. I had been wearing sandals, and my feet were covered in black grime. It would have taken 30 minutes to get back to Ulugbek and change, and I needed the ingredients in an hour, so I went to the bazaar just like that, in all my stinky, verdant glory. I didn’t want to be bothered by anybody, no vendors trying to sell me a gold watch or a bracelet that would protect me from the evil eye. I didn’t know how to express my emotion (I think it was anger, and anger had been particularly difficult for me to express since my accident), so I adopted the persona of Swamp Monster.
“I am Swamp Monster,” I thought as I walked through the bazaar with an adjusted gait, deliberately stomping with every step, my arms partly immobile. I am Swamp Monster. Men and women in dopis (skull caps) and chopons (robes) parted for me like I was Andre the Giant, and soon I found myself face to face with some skeptical vendors.
“Nima buldi?” they asked. What happened?
“Iflos suv.” Dirty water, I said, like a Swamp Monster would say. The truth is, I really didn’t know what else to say. Though I was good with the Uzbek language in an academic setting, I was terrible in real life. But this was the first day I really put to use what our trainers would always stress was important in Uzbek society: nonverbal communication. Swamp Monster communicated in a series of grunts.
“Give me sugar. Flour. Need that, too. And that.” I was pointing my Swamp Monster finger, exchanging wet bills from my pocket. “Thank you. I am Swamp Monster.” I walked away like a Swamp Monster, and I imagine all the bazaar patrons stared at me in disbelief.
Miraculously I made it back to Ulugbek on the perennially crowded Avtobus 101 and back to my house. An old Tatar guy was always at our house doing various odd jobs, and he opened the door for me. His name was Stefan, and he only spoke Russian so I didn’t understand what he said to me when he let me into the courtyard. In my memory, though, he always shouts, “What the hell happened to you?!” But I was Swamp Monster, unperturbed as I grunted past him into the vanaxona and closed the door.
Inside, I started cleaning the black grime off my heals when I noticed that my right middle finger was mangled and oozing a sinister shade of pus. My mind jumped to one thing. About two weeks prior to the Swamp Monster incident, I received an e-mail from my dad.
Hi Kristen, you got a letter from the U of A student health center that reads:
“Your Hepatitis A (Harvix) vaccine received on July 6 2003 was inadequate. Please come by the Health Center for another vaccine free of charge.”
I trust you’ll take care of this? Love you, Dad.
But a week prior to this incident, I was not worried about the threat of Hepatits A; I was worried about the threat of failing the LPI. I had completely forgotten about that e-mail until that moment, when my swollen finger suddenly began taunting me with pus: “Hepatitis A!”
I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. In a panic, I reached for one of the books the Peace Corps gave us, Where There Is no Doctor, but I found I couldn’t do anything but fixate on the graphic pictures of those with communicable diseases. Somehow, I must have gotten in touch with the Peace Corps Medical Officer (that’s what PCMO meant) because I got a booster shot the next day at headquarters in Tashkent. Back in the vanaxona, I tried to clean myself as best I could, putting all my faith into the small amount of liquid Dial soap I had with me. I hand-washed my dirty clothes with BARF, an Uzbekistan brand of powdered detergent, and the next thing you know I was over at Greg’s house with my language group to make the brownies. Actually, I stayed away from them.
I didn’t want to infect them with Hep A. Instead I wrote a thank-you ditty to go with the thank-you brownies, that Diana, Paula and Greg were expertly preparing, which were delicious, even with our creative substitutions for vanilla and baking powder. Our ditty went something like:
Raxmat. Thank you.
Sizga. To you.
Clap-clap. (To the Clapper tune)
Though all the other language groups had presentations that were just as rudimentary as ours, the trainers laughed and ate the brownies and other goodies. We were back at Umid Gulshani Sanitarium in Qibray, where I spent my first sleepless night in Uzbekistan, and the next day I was to be sworn in as a volunteer. • 2 July 2009
Kristen Hoggatt received her MFA from Emerson College. She leads a double life as a poet prone to an excess of self reflection and an ESL teacher motivated to elicit correct student pronunciation of the /p/ and /ð/ phonemes. She writes the Ask a Poet column for The Smart Set.
Article photograph by Amy Sweeney; homepage photograph by Gusjer via Flickr (Creative Commons).