Seeing a disheveled American with two huge suitcases standing by the side of the road, the taxi driver cuts the wheel, bombs horizontally across four (blessedly empty) lanes of traffic, and screeches to a stop in front of me. I open the passenger door and stuck my head inside. “To the Tsementzavod bus station, how much?” I rap out. He names a price. I counter. After three rounds of this ritual bargaining, we settle on a number, and I hop in.
His name is Bakhtiyor, and we chat up a storm in Russian as we traverse the long road to the bus station. One of the happy surprises of life in Tajikistan has been that everyone, at least in urban areas, still knows Russian from the Soviet days and will cheerfully speak it with you – unlike in other ex-Soviet republics such as Estonia and Latvia, where the language is resented. “Sorry my car doesn’t work,” he tells me casually as the taxi proceeds to sputter to a halt at every single stoplight, ferocious knocking sounds emanating from under the hood.
Next to his parking brake, Bakhtiyor keeps an immaculately laminated card with the number 3 printed on one side and 8 on the other. I ask him what it means. “Oh! Yes! I’ll show you!” he says brightly. He grabs the card and sticks it into a slot on his dashboard with the “3” facing out. Within seconds, a woman spots it and flags my taxi down. “Three somoni? Where are you going?” she asks. “Tsementzavod.” “Good. Me too.” She slips the driver a three-somoni banknote and jumps into the back seat. Several more rounds of this, and my private taxi ride has suddenly turned into a party.
Twenty minutes later, we pull into a dusty parking lot across the street from a cement factory. Before I can even react, a mob of about 30 Tajik men surround the car, all shouting over each other. “Khujand? Khujand? Are you going to Khujand?” “Yes, to Khujand!” I shout back in Russian. “How much?” “The price is one-fifty!” “One hundred.” “One-forty.” “One-twenty.” “One-thirty, if you want me to take those two big bags too.” “Good, let’s go.”
The driver who successfully nabbed me disappears with my bags and reappears next to a steel-gray 4×4, tossing them up to a madly grinning man who stands on the roof. As he lashes my suitcases to the roof rack with thick ropes, another driver grabs my arm, points to the man on the roof, and with a very serious expression on his face, twirls his finger around his ear. He’s crazy. I am unsure what to make of this.
Another man puts a hand on my shoulder. “English?” he asks.
“Yes, I speak English! Do you?”
He just stares. It’s plain that, with that effort, he has already exhausted his one-word English vocabulary. But that’s enough for him. He stands there beaming.
Everything is a welter of directions now. Прийдите сюда! Давайте! Эта сумка идёт в багажник! Не туда, сюда! Садитесь! Without quite knowing what has happened to me, I find myself plopped into a window seat with the door closed, behind two Tajik women in headscarves, next to a graying man in a blue checked shirt, with another comfortably asleep across the entire back seat behind me.
And we wait. And wait. This 4×4 doesn’t run on a schedule; as usual in the developing world, it’s not going to budge until every single seat is filled. It doesn’t make economic sense to make the eight-hour drive to Khujand otherwise. So we are stuck for the time being.
Outside the window, a woman in a sequined hijab and a beautiful ankle-length green dress, a soiled white oven mitt on one hand, bends over to pick up the garbage and sticky plastic bottles cast aside by passersby.
“What are you writing?” asks the man beside me suddenly. He has been eyeing me strangely this whole time, and with good reason: four-eyed white people carrying eight months of luggage with them are a rare sight in this part of the world.
“I’m writing an article for the Internet,” I tell him. “I’m going to post it online.”
“An article?” He perks up. “How interesting! What are you writing about? Are you a journalist of some kind?”
“Not exactly,” I say with a smile. And as our 4×4 finally pulls into traffic, blithely cutting off a hulking Kamaz truck with only a meter to spare, I begin to tell him about Kiva, the Kiva Fellows program, and what I came to Tajikistan to do.