John Patten
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Photos from Afghanistan
 



    12/9

    Just got back last night from Uzbekistan. I went by road to Termez and then flew to Tashkent and have lots
    of stories to tell. It was the Eid holiday and I was glad to get out for four days, although two of those were
    spent all day in travel. The country proves the adage, “You can take the country out of the Soviet Union,
    but you can’t take the Soviet Union out of the country.” Let’s break this down on a blow by blow basis:

    The airport at Termez was like a cold holding cell for an hour an a half until they finally let us go stand out
    in the sub-zero cold on the tarmac for a while longer before getting on the plane. It leaves the same time
    every day and was the only plane, so I didn’t get the logic of having us wait while they fuel up. I was
    standing around for an hour. If they needed help I would have gone out to get gas. Nothing seems to work
    here. It was an ordeal to use the payphones there to call Tashkent for a hotel reservation, which turned
    out to be a very good idea. They were waiting for me on the tarmac with a Mr. John sign, which saved me
    frostbite and a taxi ride to Tajikistan because of the language barrier. The old Soviet phones needed to be
    hit in just the right place, in which we needed a local for; we were hitting it on the wrong side. Again with
    the toilets in the country, but I’d like to see one of those spoiled vegan California enlightened people to try
    to come out here. I bet they wouldn’t be writing a book after going home called “The Zen of Really Bad
    Toilets.”

    I finally got settled in the hotel about 8pm in Tashkent and was pretty tired, but did go down the street to
    the Green House café, which looked very much out of the WWII era and was warm and friendly, with good
    food and beer. It was somebody’s house really, and even the small hotels were just scattered throughout
    the neighborhood. There were delicacies on the menu like peasant beef, tongue in the beer, and
    Caucasian soup. I knew the mafia had influence here, but that was really beyond the pale. You can get
    those food stains out with new lemon-scented “Barf.” Tough crowd. After awhile I was the only customer,
    and the four staff were gathered around the karaoke machine singing Pushkin poetry to me. They kept
    gesturing my way and I wasn’t sure if they were saying, “It’s good we can share our humanity together,” or
    “Who’s this putz?” Some of the songs were great and the guy sounded like an Uzbek Mark Knoffler from
    Dire Straits, with clear and resonant guitar. It was a good two-hour respite of happiness, which is good
    enough sometimes here. Happiness comes in small doses sometimes. The restaurant was all I needed that
    night.

    The hotel was nice enough, it’s just so cold here I can understand how both Napoleon and Hitler got their
    butts kicked out of the region. I was the only customer most of the time and had the run of the place. They
    would bring me the cell phone to my room for calls, I could go shower in the next room because I had no
    water, etc. They weren’t expecting things to be so cold so early, it was warm two weeks ago, so the gas
    lines are not ready or the supply is not in the city yet. At least I had a small heater. I did watch some
    satellite TV to see what life is like in the West, and I must say that fashion channels are another sign of the
    apocalypse. Hour after hour of brain-dead automatons walking an invisible tightrope that only they can
    see. Something seems to have happened to their arms and mouths too, because they seem unable to
    move them around very much. It also proved adage number two: “Never let models speak.” The interview
    was so painful I thought I might go screaming into the snow and found during the April thaw.

    Tashkent is ok and a nice break. I expected to have more bad experiences as so many foreigners do
    because officials are really suspicious of people and there does seem to be an underlying tension around.
    Even the burger joint had a sign that said no cameras. Like I might catch a photo of how they prepare the
    special sauce. But I take the local subways, party with the locals, and walk anywhere in the cities I go to,
    and nobody seems to bother me much. Two female colleagues of mine that were there at the same time
    got apprehended at the metro station and questioned at the station for being terrorists. I guess many
    terrorists are recruiting redheaded ladies from London these days as the perfect guise. They just wanted
    money and didn’t get it. For me, there’s the glorious isolation of being in a city where few speak English,
    but then choosing to be social when I want and ending up in taxis going from place to place with my new
    friends. A few young girls flirted with me (no they were not prostitutes!) and that was kind of an ego boost,
    because that certainly can’t last very much longer. The difference between he’s kind of cute and are you
    somebody’s dad can be measured in months now. Although Paul Newman seems to still rake in the babes.

    It’s definitely not a cosmopolitan city though, like some who have been in Mazar too long had told me. The
    men are really gruff, teststeroney, vodka and cigarette swilling guys. The guys did not overtly challenge
    me though because they thought I was military in Afghanistan. Esfandyar gym must be helping. “Toughest
    gym in Mazar with the Candypants name.” Everyone kept making the universal cartoon pantomime sign for
    Kalashnikov. They would test the water, but I’m not really one to back down even in situations when I
    should, so I think that confused them. The women are great though. So many tall, long dark hair, full-
    bodied, sophisticated and intelligent looking people that look like real women. Many look mixed-Asian too,
    as there are a large number of Koreans, Chinese, and Indians who had migrated to the city. I’m not sure
    exactly what conditions led to that, but all directions point south for me now with this cold.

    I got off the train at this place that sounded exactly like “must take a leak,” which is very easy to remember.
    Even the locals who speak English joke about. I went to one fine arts museum or another, I think it was the
    wrong one, because some of the paintings dated back almost three years. He had some sort of Picasso,
    Dali, Van Gogh, pseudo-cubist thing going on, and the masters would have been appalled. I kept from
    saying that a five-year old could have done that, because I don’t think the kid could have been bothered.
    The old Soviet matrons followed me around suspiciously, more so when I kept smiling at them and playing
    cat and mouse around the statues to see if they could still try to maintain discretion and keep an eye on
    me at the same time. Maybe they thought I would try to correct the flaws in the paintings. Badgers have a
    better sense of humor. I really wonder how people here view life. Even the brochure at the hotel said that
    Tashkent was, “for the time being,” an important business center in central Asia.

    My gut was off the whole time, mostly due to that crummy guesthouse in Kabul that they stick us, but even
    here it didn’t help. Tashkent was along the old Silk Road, and I have my own theories on why these things
    die out. Whether it’s empire, culture, or trade routes, I think it’s mostly due to improper food sanitation.
    Things can’t march on forever if half the week is taken up by amoebic dysentery. I think the US became so
    strong because we keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Is that such a difficult concept?

    That second night I started out back at the same restaurant and it was much busier and smokier. I made
    five new testosterone buddies because I couldn’t get out of sitting at their table. They still can’t understand
    that I hate vodka. Mr. Mahmood spoke some English and told me all about his wine making business. All of
    a sudden a beautiful young belly dancer came storming into the room with the music going. Mahmood kept
    explaining the fine points of wine making and was partially blocking my view. He did not seem to
    understand my body language of, “I don’t think you’re getting the friggin point here pal. I’ve been in Mazar
    for a year,” which was incidentally my answer to 23 different questions while in Uzbekistan.

    Things were pretty much closed for the four-day Eid holiday, so there were no places to go to with loud
    thumping music. In the main area of Broadway people were still all about and I did find a good, modern and
    small dark café called the Bistro coffee house, off Broadway (do not picture NY, picture a one block area in
    Siberia where some rich guy had some extra bucks to blow to launder the money). They actually had real
    Miller Genuine Draft and I knew where I was spending the rest of my evening. Put the kids to bed early
    Marge, I’m comin home loaded. Home is always home, and after enough Baltikas to last a lifetime, the
    Miller tasted unbelievably good, clean and smooth. I stayed until 1:30 am because I met some cool people.
    They said something in Spanish, which was my cue to jump in, but apparently they had only taken a class.
    They were very interested in my story, because they couldn’t understand why anyone would go to
    Afghanistan not against their will. They didn’t even know what language was spoken by their neighbor to
    the south. Actually, they were Uzbek, but don’t know the Uzbek language. Most people in Tashkent speak
    Russian.

    The next night we ended up right back there at midnight, because five of us were out and couldn’t find an
    open nightclub. The whole table ended up drinking the Miller Genuine Draft. My 60 year-old Russian friend
    Victor was still there after nine hours since I saw him earlier in the day as I was passing through. He was a
    musician and his half-Spanish, half-Uzbek young guitarist friend was there too. He ended up playing Latin
    music, gypsy songs, and Russian and Uzbek traditionals. It was all very fun despite my being tired. Victor
    thought I looked a bit like Stevie Wonder after nine hours of vodka. I told him that’s why they lost the cold
    war. I could tell my young friend Rumiya, who was a sexy and smoldering redhead, had all the guys in
    Tashkent tied up in knots, and I know she enjoyed the role. One of those who had thirty guy “friends,” all
    of whom wanted to get with her. It was quite the bunch. I found a taxi home at 2 am, not looking forward to
    two hours of sleep for the flight back. The one problem with the hotel is that the sound really carried and
    the staff always woke me up at 5 am.

    They have a nice international terminal in Tashkent, but I was taking a local flight back to Termez, so I
    immediately knew I was in the wrong place. I showed my ticket and they pointed to another building. I don’t
    know what they said, but I’m sure it was something just like, “You want that cold place over there next to all
    the chickens.” We crossed the border after two hours of routine hassles over the bridge, where we had to
    smuggle money, give the guy the standard bottle of vodka bribe, and prove the hairbrush was not
    explosive in any way. The landcruisers were on the other side waiting for us as the sun was waning, and
    the shock of the difference in between the two countries was depressingly apparent. Which is saying a lot,
    because Uzbekistan isn’t even up to standards in Hoboken. Heraton on the Afghan side is mostly about
    gas deliveries, trucking and equipment, so it was one of the ugliest places around. Back to the land where
    a Kalashnikov is this season’s fashion accessory. Good trip though. I slept the next twelve straight hours.



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