Monday, February 26, 2007

Leaving Astana, Take 1

Well the snow keeps blowing here in Astana. It’s been blowing blizzardly all day and now all night. I don’t think I will ever be leaving. It’s like “Brigadoon” or better yet, “Groundhog Day”. Maybe tomorrow I’ll just repeat what I did today and everyday for the rest of my life will be the same. I get up at 6:30, Gena Goose takes me to the airport, the flight is delayed for hours, the wind and snow erase all objects from view, I go home to my little apartment and wait. I have a feeling right now that tomorrow will be the same. If Sunday is the same then I’m really letting the wild animal out of the cage.
Spent all evening talking with Andrei, a handsome young man who happened into my office a few weeks ago to talk. I felt a homo vibe when he first came to our office, so I accepted his invitation to the local aquarium one Sunday afternoon. We never got to the aquarium (they double the price for foreigners so I wouldn’t have gone anyway—who wants to look at fish for twice the price?) but he came in last Monday and we wound up having lunch together. So here it is a blizzard, I get stuck here for one more day and spend the evening at the bowling alley with this nice young guy. It must be fate. Do you think anything happened? NO! Another one of those “I don’t want to sleep with you I just want to practice my English” dates. Ah men, it’s always something. What does it take to get a shag in this town I ask you??? After all the tea drinking, chocolate eating and yakking all I got out of it was a caffeine and sugar high. Actually I think he was a Christian boy because every time we would say goodbye, he’d say “God Bless You”. Oh just get me back to a normal homo world ASAP.
Tomorrow, so far, all flights are flying but not one has been able to land from Almaty ergo no plane to fly to Almaty in. I’ll have to call in the morning but already it seems that I won’t be going anywhere outside of Astana in the next few days. When I said goodbye to Irina, she said “See you Monday” to which I replied “I hope not”. She better not be right. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. If you read in the papers about an American that has gone crazy in Kazakhstan, it’s just little old me. Til tomorrow dear readers.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Farewell to Astana Blog (or is it?)

This will be my final blog entry from Astana, just to let you know. Maybe not my final forever final entry but for the five month adventure, this is it. I woke up this morning at 5:30 to the sound of wind and a wall of white outside. NO! I thought, Even Mother Nature wants to keep me here!! Not another f-ing blizzard. Blizzard=no flying today, but as the morning light appeared over the city, the winds died down and the snow stopped.
Whew! I guess I’ll be leaving after all. Gena met me at 7:30 and I dragged all my bags down to his car for our last ride together to the airport. We gabbed along the way about this and that, in between gaps of silence. At the airport he helped me drag my two big bags inside and at last it was time to say goodbye. His eyes were a bit teary as we hugged again and again goodbye. I thanked him for everything and told him tomorrow morning I’ll miss him. We hugged again and then I went through security. He was waiting to make sure I got through OK. I turned and waved a final goodbye and proceeded up the escalator. Through the massive glass front of the airport I could see Gena walking to his eggplant coloured Mercedes, slowly.
How funny that of all the people I met here the one I feel the closest too is a 47 yr old taxi driver. He was part of my everyday life, now I must live without him. Goodbyes are never easy but they aren’t forever. I’m more of a “Til we meet again” kind of guy.

Last night I took my colleagues Irina and Kulyash out for dinner at Eden, a fancy European styled restaurant. It wasn’t hideously expensive and the food was great. We ordered a bottle of Chilean wine which was an oasis in this desert of crude wines. Our waiter was really funny, very over the top in his presentation, trying hard to be as Western European as possible. It was a little too much to the point of funny. How he described the wine as he poured it was like reciting poetry. And how he talked me into having the side dish of cauliflower, the description, the intensity of his voice when telling me about the curry sauce and the crunchiness of each little piece, the cauliflower industry should make him their spokesperson. During dinner we thought up plans for the future, ways to get me back here and stay forever (oh dear). Maybe something will come of it, who knows. On the quiet, midnight streets of Astana, I said goodbye to my two colleagues. Kulyash marched purposely home one way, Irina scurried off down Prospekt Pobedy in her long, to-the-floor coat, like a toy on wheels that can’t be seen.

It’s done. I can leave. I’ve said goodbye to everyone, received oodles of souvenirs, some nice, some not so nice, left a clean apartment. Now I wait in the airport, a two hour delay for my flight, surrounded by big bags and other people waiting for their flight to Almaty. From Almaty, I get on a marshrutka (shuttle bus) and head to Bishkek for 5 days of fun with friends and a visit to Kashka Suu, my summer home 45 mins from Bishkek up in the mountains. The wind is still blowing but not as hard, the snow has stopped and hopefully we can be on our way soon. Miraculously there’s wireless internet here and so the two hours should pass rather quickly, that is if my battery lasts. Farewell Astana and to all your crazy ways. Til we meet again!

LATER THAT DAY: Well it looks like the fates have me in their clutches here in Astana for one more day (or maybe the whole weekend God forbid!). After 5 hours in the airport with wind and snow delaying flights hour after hour, I looked outside at near zero visibility, changed my ticket until tomorrow morning, called Gena and went back to my apartment. I guess if I don’t fly out tomorrow, then it’s fate, I must stay here. God help me no! Maybe there is meaning in all of this snowstorm. Who knows. We’ll see what happens tonight and tomorrow. After all the goodbyes and pleading to stay maybe I have to stay for one more day, or two or three. Who knows. So my farewell address to you dear readers was a bit premature. Let’s see what fate and Mother Nature has in store for Toomey. Read on…

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Saturday night cab ride

I stand by the side of Prospekt Pobedy with my hand out, flagging down a car. A Kazakh man stops, agrees to take me to “Bukhara” where my Saturday night gang awaits. The restaurant is not very far but he decides to take a roundabout way there. In the back seat are his two children; a girl about 7 or 8 yrs old and a baby boy who is two years old. They poke their heads between the two front seats to look at me. I turn around to talk with them, the girl smiles shyly, dad tells her to talk, not to be afraid. He asks where I am from, Yugoslavia? No, a bit further than that, New York. Ooh New York, wow the first time I have an American in my car. He looks at his daughter in the rear view mirror and tells her that I’m from New York. She looks at me with big eyes and smiles. She is holding her little brother on her lap; a pudgy thing all bundled up in a light blue snow suit and hat. The daughter’s name is Diana, she’s in the third grade at school #10. I make small talk with her about school. She shyly replies with a big smile on her face as we make our way over the bridge to the Left Bank.
It’s rather peculiar for a man to be driving around town picking up people to make a few extra bucks with his children in the back seat. He tells me that his wife is at work until 9 pm and he thought he’d go out and make a few extra tenge before she got home. He couldn’t leave the children at home alone, I agree with him on that point. His young son begins to cry for his mom, dad passes a bottle of milk to the back seat, daughter feeds her younger brother who quiets down.
I ask my driver why we are taking this long, out of the way route. He reassures me that it’s better than going through the center, less cars, now it’s rush hour and the center is full of cars. Rush hour? I think, on a Saturday night? I question him. I begin to get a little annoyed, looking at the clock on the dashboard, seeing I’m going to be late. Also I sense this long way is another way to milk the foreigner of extra money. I hate being taken advantage of like this. I let out a sigh of exasperation and look out the window. We ride in silence.
The driver’s cell phone rings. He answers it with a loud Hello, then drops his voice to a quiet, hushed tone. Seems like the conversation is private, considering the almost whispering he is doing. Still I hear everything, being in close proximity of him. He tells the caller that he has sadness in his house, a daughter had an operation and didn’t survive, she is dead. Mom is at home, grief struck, crying. She’s unplugged the phones and lays alone at home in her grief. Given the hushed tone in which he is talking, I sense the two children in the back seat do not know what happened to their sister yet. Is this a diversion for them? Putting off telling the sad news about their sibling? The young boy begins to cry a little bit, asking for mama. I turn around to distract him, smile at him while dad talks on the phone. His face looks stoic and blank but his eyes have grief in them as he looks at the road ahead of him.
He hangs up the phone and we ride in silence again. Should I say something? No it is not my place really, not in front of his children. So tell me about New York he asks, breaking the silence with a smile. I begin to tell him about my life back in Brooklyn. He talks to his daughter through the rear view mirror. Did you hear that Diana? Three cats! A house with a garden! We drive on through the monolithic new apartment buildings of the Left Bank. I’m getting the sense this man doesn’t really know where “Bukhara” is, as we drive round and round. Part of me is a little annoyed at this convoluted but I think of the sad news I heard earlier and don’t say anything.
Passed glitzy restaurants: “Sheherazad” “Ararat” “Tugan” and the Eurasian shopping center. I have heard of some of these places and finally I am seeing them for the first time. I think this is it he says but no it is not. Maybe it’s that one down the road. We drive on and on. I tell him where it is, repeating the directions I was given. My friends call me to ask if I am coming. Yes, yes, I’ll be there in a few minutes I reassure them. I sense the driver has no idea exactly where it is but puts on a confident face that we are going in the right direction. He may not know where “Bukhara” is, but worrying about finding it for this American in the passenger seat is a distraction from the tragedy at home. He must tell his children sometime, but let him put it off for just a little while longer. The search continues as we wind through the streets going from one restaurant to the other. He asks me again the name of the restaurant. “Bukhara”I reply slowly, almost spelling it out. Suddenly he remembers exactly where it is and off we go. His young son begins to cry. I distract him with the smiley face on my cell phone. This quiets him down for a few seconds and then he cries again. Up comes the dancing smiley face with a little song this time. He quiets down and smiles at the little screen that illuminates his chubby face in the dark of the car.
We drive into a courtyard amid 12 story apartment buildings, the icy road rutted and bumpy. There in the middle of these towers is an elaborate one story building with the word “Bukhara” shining on top. Oh there it is, he says as we drive over to it. The boy begins to cry again, this time with a cry that even a cell phone cannot calm. The façade is cracking I think. The tragedy of this man’s life is circling, getting closer. Reality must interrupt this distraction as we drive up to the restaurant. The children need to be told, the wife needs comforting, the family must gather to bury this poor child, there are the rituals and traditions that must be followed. I think of all this as I pull out my money to pay him. 500 tenge is sufficient fare but I think of all that awaits him as soon as I get out of his car. I put 1,000 tenge in his hand and whisper my condolences to him. He thanks me solemnly, eyes lowered for to look at me at this moment may cause him to break down in tears. Not now, not here in front of a restaurant with the children in the car. There is an awkward silence between us. I look in the back seat and with a big smile on my face I say goodbye to the children. They smile back and say goodbye, the façade coming to its close as I step out of the car onto the icy street.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Further Tales of Gena Goose

I wake up like a sleeping bear roused from his winter nap. Groggy, I go to the kitchen to make some tea and dabble on the computer. The usual morning drill. I write to wake myself up and get the brain going. Then I head off to the gym, Gena Goose loyally waiting outside on the street. The temperature must have dropped again for I always feel this way when it gets colder. The alarm clock says WAKE UP, the body says STAY IN BED–who do you listen to? Well, considering I want to get the fullest out of my Kaspii membership, I’m up and gear myself up for laps in the pool. The ambassador has return from his month away so I no longer swim alone in the morning. Yesterday the pool was closed for cleaning so I did the exercise machines and pumped a little iron–ooh did that feel good!
Gena Goose met me at the airport the other night when I returned from Almaty. Such a nice man–I love him. He told me another story on the way home about two guys from Moscow coming for an inspection back in the Soviet days when he was a driver for some big wig in the government. Back then it was a big deal if someone came out from Moscow so they had to be met with much fanfare and wining and dining. As protocol demanded (and still does here) after all the work there was a big table set with food and drink prior to their flight. Well, as Gena described in vivid, excited, dramatic detail, these lightweights got so drunk they were in no condition to fly. But they didn’t have a hotel, it was late and they couldn’t get one so the only thing left to do was drag them to the airport. On the way, one of them needs to take a leak so they stop and out he goes but is so drunk, he falls off the side of the road into the snow. No sooner had he done this that the other one did the same thing. So here is Gena and his boss holding up these two guys while they pee, both of them with snow all over their coats. Off they go to the airport, Gena getting more nervous and pissed off at these two buffoons. Nervous because his parents work at the airport and everyone there knows him. So here he comes with this spectacle and all his parents colleagues get to see this. A crowd has gathered for the flight and in come these two wobbling hobbling messes, covered in snow. One of them forgets his briefcase, Gena goes to get it when suddenly there’s a loud scream from the crowd. He turns around to see that his charge has fallen flat on his face into the crowd which has flown to all sides of the hall. Of course at this stage, none of these bozos are going to Moscow, so Gena and his boss think of where to take them. Neither of them will take them home, all hotels are closed for the night so they decide to take them back to the banquet hall where they started this adventure. Gena clears off the table and plops one down there, the other they put on the floor and there they stay to sleep it off. The next morning they go back early to check in on them to find the one on the table fell off during the night and both of them are snoring away on the floor. Lord knows how they ever got home. Gena told this story with such emotion he had me laughing hysterically the whole way home from the airport. I love when he tells me stories because he brings them to life in such a way the story blazes in front of me in bright colours.
Peppered with blyads, khuis and other swear words, his voice booms and then gets soft, a crescendo of emotion and a roar of laughter. By the climax of the story I have tears running down my cheeks.
As we speed toward home, the moon is bright buttery yellow circle in the deep blue night sky. Gena and I debate whether it is full or not, one of those just about full moons or maybe it’s full; depends how long you look at it. Here in this cold, harsh climate it’s nice to find a warm soul. Gena has become part of my every day life, not just a driver but a friend. So comforting to get off a plane and have someone waiting for you, excited to see you, asking about the trip. He is of the old guard from the Soviet era; a simple guy with a heart of gold, without pretenses or a drive to outdo anyone. He’s straightforward and treats everyone equal no matter where you’re from. I’m happy that he doesn’t see me as an American who he can squeeze every last dime from, but rather a client like everyone else. He charges me fair and for that I am a faithful client. Gena wasn’t to happy to hear that I was leaving at the end of the month but I assured him I’ll give him lots of work before I go, as much as I can. Until that day, we’ll drive the roads of Astana and beyond, enjoying each other’s company.