Thursday, July 10, 2008

3 hours in Hell

My fellow Americans let me tell you something. Your taxpayer’s money has gone to building a fabulous bridge spanning the Amur Darya (the Mississippi of Central Asia) providing a major transportational link from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. Of course it is so beautiful, as is the border crossing stations on either side that your taxpayer’s money also built, that no one can use it. I jest a little. Trucks can cross the bridge but us little people need to cross by boat. Apparently the stations aren’t open yet because they haven’t received the state of the art computer system yet (nor been trained on it). So in the meantime, we cross by boat.

Being Central Asia nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to, nor on time. Wadood and I arrived at the Afghan border station—a small old building that has seen better days at lunch time. Of course after luch, there’s mid-day prayers and we had to wait for that to finish too. A crowd of men gathered in the hot waiting room, women were invited into a separate room by a well-covered attendant. A turbaned, bearded old man kept coming up to me, staring me in the face with intense eyes and big bushy eyebrows. “Bakshish, bakshish” he would inquire, looking for a handout but I was too hot, tired, and dirty to be charitable at the moment. His frequency of pestering arose my irritation level so I took to ignoring his stares. An hour later, after lunch, prayer and all the passengers from Tajikistan had been processed, it was our turn. Passports were taken and one by one we were called into a room as two men busily wrote our info down by hand in a ledger. Spitting distance from this old building and archaic hand written tradition gleamed the new shiny American-built buildings waiting to be inhabited by these officers.
Once processed and stamped, we piled in to a minivan which took us down to the river bank. Our driver charged us $1 for the 5 minute ride down the hill (not bad for a local salary). Once at the river bank, a large tent provided shade from the intense heat. Inside the tent, a kind old man took $10 from each of us for the river crossing. Of course no one tells you all this so a) you watch and figure out by example and b) thank God I had the money. After that, we went over to a big, villainous looking military man in camoflague and dark sunglasses sitting in a chair under a tree. This was his fiefdom and he exuded petty authority. He examined every visa and passport with a fine tooth comb looking for any reason to detain someone, thus extracting a bribe to forget about the minor discrepancy. As a rule I scoff at the whole bribe paying business and never give in. If he was going to start with me I was ready for my ammo—I’d point to the bridge and tell him that I helped pay for that. Luckily it didn’t come down to that crass behavior and he let me go but set his corrupt eyes on the two Pakistanis and a few Afghans.
Being 100+ degrees I felt like I was in hell, about to cross the Styx. The old man writing out receipts for $10, the burly soldier, and all of us, the lost souls cast down from heaven for an eternity of tortuous suffering. But instead this was the Amur Darya and across it was Tajikistan, not eternal damnation. Awaiting us was a rusty old P-boat from Soviet times. It looked more like a reject from McHale’s Navy than a mode of transportation. But the one great thing about Soviet built stuff, they last forever. Another old man was there to throw our luggage onto the tiny front deck of the boat while we gingerly made our way to the back seating area along the narrow sides. There was one woman with a baby who of course could not sit with us men so a plastic chair was tossed up from shore and wedged in next to the captain at the helm. The rickety old boat sputtered to life and with a belch of black smoke and a lot of clanging, we were off for the 5 minute ride to the other side. Feeling a sense of adventure, crossing this famed river I’ve read so much about, I snapped away with my camera, an Indian man alongside me doing the same with his cell phone. This is technically not allowed what being a border and all but with no one there to say NO, I happily took pictures of the river, the bridge and surroundings.

Upon arrival on the Tajik side, we lugged our suitcases to a shaded sitting area in front of a decrepit container which served as the medical office. Inside a “doctor” asked to see medical certificates and ask about our health. The Tajiks are a bit paranoid about getting all sorts of diseases from the Afghan side so they check things out in detail. Not having a certificate, he hemmed and hawed with me probably trying to see how he could eek some cash out of me. But with my fluent Russian and calm tone, he let me go. After everyone was checked out, we piled on to a rustier, ricketier bus that bounced us up to the passport control station.

My colleagues in Dushanbe told me to take a cab from the border and when it seem to be very quiet at the passport station I worried that I would be stuck in Nizhny Panj (that’s the name of the town) forever—a Tajik version of eternal damnation. Luckily that wasn’t to be for as I was filling out my entry form, a young man came up to me offering a ride to Dushanbe. I was a little leery of him and semi-seriously grilled him with questions before agreeing on a price. He was one of the passport guards who had a day off and decided to make some extra cash. His name was Umid and once we agreed on a price, he said he’d meet me on the other side. All during the passport and customs process, I inquired about him and everyone corroborated his story. After a thorough search of my suitcase by the female customs officer, which seemed more curiosity than suspicion, Umid and I were on our way to the capital.

As we began our 2 hr journey, I was relieved to be out of all that 3 hour hell called the border crossing and cruising down the road to Dushanbe. Eventhough I’ve only been to Tajikstan once before, for one day, I felt in my element. I was in a country where I know how things work, I can speak the language and get around myself. Umid and I yakked away about our lives, practiced speaking English (Passport guard English: Where are you coming from? How long will you stay in Tajikistan?), stopped for some water and Choco-Pies in a small town, and I filled him in on life in Afghanistan. My paranoia was dissipated when he showed me his work ID but rose a little when I had to turn on my lap top to find a phone number. He eyed the lap top enviously and made a phone call, speaking in Tajik. Was he setting up a highway robbery? On his side of the door he lifted an open bottle of something. Was this some sort of liquid to knock me out while he and his friend stole my computer? I retrieved the number and closed my lap top quickly, clenching it in my lap. I inquired about the bottle and he said it was “Nos” a Central Asian chewing tobacco. I was still a bit leery and after about 30mins or so, when we were quiet and speeding along through little farming villages with no robbery on the horizon, I began to relax my grip on the computer bag.

Two hours later we were in Dushanbe, Tajikstan’s capital. Driving down the tree-lined boulevards, I was happy to breath in the freedom of the city. Ironically, Tajikistan is another Central Asian republic run by an authoritarian president with a budding personality cult ala Turkmenistan’s late Turkmenbashi but it felt good to be in a less conservative and restrictive place. While life may not be a bed of roses here for many, it sure feels nice to be able to walk around alone, see women in their multi-coloured dresses stroll down the street un-burkhaed, men and women socializing, clean, well kept streets, restaurants and cafes that aren’t compounded and surrounded by guards, fountains and flowers everywhere. After getting into my apartment, I changed some money and had my first meal as a “free man”in the Istanbul café. 14 hours after leaving Kabul, I was downing a cheeseburger and fries in the Istanbul café and strolling down Rudaki. Man, was it delicious!

1 comment:

Mark Towhey said...

Welcome to Dushanbe!

Definitely drop by the Irish Pub and say hello to the (entire) expat community. The Pub is Kitty-Corner to the Iranian Embassy, on the same block as the Vefa Centre but on the southern edge of the block. Near Real Pizza.