MURUNTAU MUSINGS (PART TWO)

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Oh, I forgot one story about my first trip to Uzbekistan. My roomie and I had an ongoing contest. It was to find the weirdest thing in a store. One day, I was walking along and found a store I had never seen before. In the display window was a horse’s hoof. Nothing else. Just the hoof of a horse. I thought that this was a pretty good sign, so I entered the store. As soon as I got inside, the shopkeeper ushered me right back outside. He was chattering away to me and gesturing. At that time, I spoke almost no Russian. Okay, maybe 10 words. Anyway, he ushered me up the street, over here, and down there. Finally we reached our destination. It was his house. He took me into his living room, and sat me on a pillow, in the corner of the room. He left. After some time, he re-entered the room, with a large metal bowl of plov. Plov is a one-pot rice, onion, carrot and meat meal, usually using lamb. Spices are added, and it is really tasty. So, the gentleman brought one spoon. For me. He indicated that I should eat. I indicated that he should eat. He kept gesturing. It was the worst game of charades ever. After a while, several of his friends arrived. Also, not eating. I was getting impatient. Eventually, it became clear that these people are Muslim, and it was Ramadan. They could not eat until dark. They just wanted to hang out with me. That is the type of kind, considerate people I always think of when I think of Islamic people.

My second trip to the Muruntau project began on an otherwise pleasant day on the golf course. I was playing with a colleague and a client. At some point, the client asked me if I would consider returning to Uzbekistan to watch after the first 100 days of construction. I told him no. I had a lot of memories from the first trip, but the food and accommodations were not so great. He told me that there would be a man-camp and a French catering company was going to prepare all of the food. Hmmmm. Okay, I’m in.

So it’s funny, I had just returned from a site investigation job in Alaska, and I was there for Thanksgiving. Also in a man-camp. That man-camp was on mine property, and so alcohol was not allowed. It was really funny to watch a group of men sitting around after dinner, watching TV, and drinking milk. Ah, but I digress. The Thanksgiving dinner that the chef prepared was amazing. The food was fantastic, and there was even a large butter sculpture and an ice sculpture. It was by far the best Thanksgiving meal I have ever had. Anyway, when I got back home, I told somebody that the only holiday I’ve never been away from home for was Christmas. Guess where I spent the next Christmas? Right, Uzbekistan. As it turned out, there was absolutely no reason for me to be there over the holidays. The construction had yet not started, and we were awaiting the delivery of dozens and dozens of sea containers that contained the equipment that we needed for the construction. Oh, and one more thing. We could make a phone call. Five minutes. Once a week. And the phone (a satellite phone) was in the construction managers hotel room. Huge improvement!

The flight from the States to Uzbekistan was funny. There was a connecting flight out of London. The flight that day was cancelled. I was told to come back tomorrow. I went back the next day, waiting. A man opened the kiosk window and said “Come back tomorrow”, and slammed the window shut. That went on for two more days. Finally, the plane flew.

On the day that I arrived in Zarafshan (by plane this time), I was told about the apartment that I would be staying in (where is that promised man-camp?) On the first day, I was dropped off at the apartment. On the second day, I was dropped off at a more central location, along with some other workers. On my way home, I walked through an open-air market. I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of people, mostly children. The entire crowd moved when I moved. This is probably how Brad Pitt feels every day. I was later told that these people never dreamed that they would ever see an American. They had been repressed for a long time. With my Oakley sunglasses and Levi jeans, I was told I could be picked out as being an American from a block away. Many of these kids followed me home, and it was pretty difficult to separate myself from them. On my third day, I got a new roommate, and we were dropped off at the apartment. There were hundreds of kids waiting there for me. My new roommate was amazed. That level of excitement didn’t last forever, thank god.

I’d arrived there a few days before Christmas, and on Christmas eve, we had a real treat. Town representatives had gotten together to create an amazing dinner for us. At this time, we are a pretty small skeleton crew. Maybe a couple dozen people. The meal was amazing. I don’t know what all was served, but there was wine, beef, lobsters, and who knows what else. Following dinner, a town official made an announcement, via a translator. He said that he didn’t want us to be cold and lonely. He then had people deliver to each of us, a locally made sweater and a teddy bear. It was pretty sweet and pretty funny. I think I may still own the sweater. The next day (Christmas) was back to a normal work day. I was helping to finish a concrete foundation.

Sometime later, a translator told me that I had been invited to a holiday party that a local hospital was putting on. I have no idea how I got invited, but I was glad that the translator could go with me. My Russian language abilities were improving, but they were nowhere near conversational levels. Most of my Russian was taught to me by the local construction crew. The local construction crew was actually a group of day-release prisoners. They were referred to as “settlers” for reasons that I am unsure of. There were people in there who committed petty crimes, and there were people who were charged with multiple murders. There were people who were in there on trumped-up charges. Two wall-plastering people, for example, were in a bar, when suddenly a bar fight broke out. They were arrested. The project needed plasterers. Anyway, between the work crew and the translators, I learned several words and phrases, as well as a filthy rhyme. So, back to the holiday party. My translator was in a conversation with some woman, when she suddenly turned to me, and asked me a question. Whatever the question was, I responded in very good Russian that in life, nothing is impossible. The conversation went that way for a while. Me just chiming in with whatever, nearly random response. The woman then asked me, through the translator, how long I’d spent in a Russian prison. Turns out that I was being taught “colorful prisoner trash language”. Sorry lady. It was funny, because she thought that I was a Russian pretending to be an American, and that my translator was an American pretending to be a Russian.

END PART TWO

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