On the Road

On the Road: 2002

28 June 2002

Friday afternoon, having been left behind while the rest of the team returned to The Hague and a new rotation was yet to arrive, I returned to the markets. This time I did my own bit of shopping and it was fun to check out the music store and interact with the store's staff.

My excursion yielded the following "treasures":
Gorillaz: The G Sides (CD)
The Beatles: A Russian "Best of" CD that unfortunately does not include "Back in the USSR" and "Revolution"
Worms: All four Worms games for PC (I rarely play video games, but the Worms games are a hoot)
Macromedia: What appears to be an entire suite of Macromedia's Web software. We'll see...
Toothpaste: Colgate Whitening
Shampoo: Pantene Pro-V Shampoo plus Conditioner
Cotton Swabs

All the above set me back $16 US. Oddly enough, I think I was overcharged for the knock-off Q-Tips. Funny how that works.

My return to the markets wasn't as sad as my first visit. Milling about the people, I actually got some good vibes and got a slightly better feel for how their lives are lived.

Perhaps the biggest curiosity amidst all this is that almost everybody has a cell phone.

In the evening, after a couple pints and a huge dinner of pasta, cherries, bread, and some other stuff, it was time for a nice walk along the river, which led to an impromptu visit to Europa (that is, a walk across the bridge). One thing led to another and I found myself exploring "deeper" into the area than originally anticipated. I found an Islamic temple off the main drag, then down the road there was the temple I had seen from afar previously. I walked down there as well. It has crosses adorning the tips of the Arabic-looking steeples; from a distance I assumed it was Muslim. Maybe it's a Christian place. Not sure.

By then, though, it was getting dark and I started to waltz back to the Chagala. I didn't have a room there, but I chose to sleep in the training room, a converted hotel room that still has a full bathroom with a nice, clean shower. It was either that or a return to the Riverside. All the hotels are booked because the Prime Minister is in town. Whatever.

I chose to give up a cruddy bed for no bed at all in favor of a very convenient location and a decent shower. In the morning, all I ask for is a hot shower and a hot cup o' joe. I know. So damned demanding.

Anyway, I came across an interesting turf war during my walk back. Two families were at odds. The plumbing pipes had been dug up, so there were mounds of dirt to the side of the walkway. Lots of arguing erupted... then I saw an old lady wrestle a shovel from another woman. She flung it into the air and across the sidewalk. But the other woman retrieved it and returned to covering up the pipes. More arguing ensued... No clue about what was going on. I chose not to intervene. (Unusual for an American, I know.)

But that incident was off the main streets and in a very impoverished, Communist housing section of town. I even passed a couple old ladies sitting on the steps of their houses, with bits of goods for sale: Snacks, vegetables, and the like. At such a late hour (OK, it was 10 p.m., but this is Atyrau, not NYC), I couldn't imagine the point of sitting out there like that.

The European side of Kazakhstan has a lot of construction activity going on with bright new buildings popping up and older buildings covered in scaffolding for some makeover work. It'll be interesting to see how the transition unfolds, because those sites are right next door to some really trampled terrain - and people.

Back on the main drag, there was more life to absorb. The city does a lot with lighting effects, including "starburst doohickies" that flash different colored lights in patterns similar to, well, a starburst. The belly of the bridge is also lit up, creating nice light reflections on the water. There are also flowers and other patterns of lights attached to the streetlight posts. And the kiosks, small bars off the walkways, offer their own streams of Christmas lights and spice the place up with a mix of Russian disco music and *N Sync.

With perfect summer evening weather, the place actually felt festive and far more comfortable than it did upon my arrival a week earlier. It took some time to warm up to Kazakhstan, but warm up I have.

I can see why there are a lot of couples walking around the area at night. It could make for a romantic evening, walking about the river, holding hands, smooching, yadda yadda yadda.

As for me, I had to pee.

Like in Urinetown, though, you can't pee for free. A nice Englishman, Neil, working at X, told me his own personal tale. One night he had at least one too many and had to wiz just shy of making it back to the Chagala. There's a port-a-loo down the way, off the river, but the trick is you need to find the little old lady who has the key to the loo and pay her to unlock it so you can use it. The lady was nowhere to be found; he wizzed in the bushes and was immediately caught by the police, who fined him $500 US. He got off with a 200 tenge penalty. It's a racket.

In Mattopia, that would qualify as a whole new level of Hell.

Neil's story reminds me of the time I was "held hostage" in a leather tanning factory in Marrakech. They wanted $500 US each from me and a friend to get out, much to our tour guide's chagrin. We got off with a $5 US "student rate." Bastards. It was merely one reason why I eventually found myself sitting on the rooftop of the Hotel Ali, overlooking the Marrakech market, decked out in my Ray-bans and newly acquired djellaba, thinking to myself, "This town needs an enema." You can read all about it in Mattimus of Morocco, available soon from Mattimus Press.

It was a personal endurance test making it back to the Chagala. But I survived. Just thought I'd share.

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