...THE YEAR IS 1999...



Oct 11, 2010



Farewells.  I’ve always found it hard to say goodbye; actually I become quite emotional even when watching complete strangers take their leave.  Airports can do that to you. Take that classic goodbye scene on the airport tarmac in Casablanca between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman; the whole theatre was awash with tears and screwed up hankies.  No disposable tissues back then.

It happened to me once in Amman Airports departure lounge.  A huge Palestinian family had gathered to farewell a son and his wife returning to their new adopted homeland in Australia. This short visit home to Jordan had been a cure for his wife’s home sickness, but now the cure was taking its toll on the entire extended family, his mother and aunts in particular.

Arab women voice their emotion, they wail, they cry, they invoke the Gods; their misery is infectious.  It didn’t take long before I was caught up in the tears with them. 

Just how much of my grief was actually due to the Palestinian family’s leave taking was perhaps doubtful; I had fallen in love with Jordan and in that moment probably wished I could live there forever.  Well, at least until my next adventure beckoned.

Over the years I’ve said goodbye to a whole host of new friends, and I’ve shed enough private tears to fill the Aswan Dam, but on this one occasion my tears were spontaneous, heartfelt and on view to just a small audience of six.


The streets of Tashkent were dark and deserted, the short  taxi ride from hotel to airport took no time at all. At the airport the waiting room was locked and Cari went off to find the duty officer.  A number of Afghans were squatting on the pathway outside surrounded by mounds of luggage.  Cari re-appeared with a man in uniform who unlocked for door for us to enter.   The Afghans remained outside.

Inside was dark and cold, we sat huddled together on a bench in the corner.  Cari told me about his parents and sisters and a favourite uncle who looked after his property in India.  I wondered how Cari had learned to speak such fluent Russian and he explained a woman friend had taught him.

‘She was very patient; I could phone her at any time to check on a word or phrase.  In fact she is the lady who has been faxing to Moscow.’

Then an airport policeman knocked on the glass door for Cari to open up.  He had with him two young Indian students, one, a young girl was crying softly.  The policeman wanted Cari to interpret.  The pair had been waiting for a plane to Frunze when their belongings had been stolen. There wasn't much could be done, but Cari sorted it out and sent the young couple on their way.

I found this particular interlude interesting.  How had the airport policeman known there was a Russian speaking Indian in the overseas terminal?  After all the students would have been waiting in the Intourist terminal, a separate building to this one.  Was the airport grapevine so short of gossip everyone’s comings and goings became common knowledge, or was security so vigilant they knew exactly who was where and when? 

Or was Cari not the businessman he professed to be?  All very curious, I thought. Had for instance his presence on that first flight to Frunze been a coincidence or otherwise.

Cari then asked if I had my currency forms in order, I had put it roughly together back in the hotel. ‘You had better let me check,’ he said. ‘These customs cowboys can be very arrogant sometimes.’

He counted the money, checking the various denominations.  I still had roubles from my original and only $50 exchange and balanced this out against receipts.  Hotel payments had been made in American dollars.

‘Now, is that the total currency of any kind you have on you?’ he asked.

I looked him in the eye, obviously Cari had gotten to know me rather well.

‘There is the $300 I didn't declare when I arrived.’

His expression indicated how stupid I was.  ‘Do you realise the trouble that would cause?  I've seen these characters search people, you could lose all your cash as a result; or even worse.   He left that consequence to my imagination. ‘Where is this extra money?’

‘In my shoe.’  He took a deep breath and shook his head. I was of course suitably chastened.

‘Give it to me, and your receipts again, I'll see if I can work around it and adjust the balance.’

After a little while he gave it all back to me.  ‘Now when they ask is this all the money you have, you can answer truthfully.’

Despite his many flashes of humour Cari really was a most serious person.

Outside in the pitch black the Afghans still waited, their flight had been delayed.  Then the lights in an adjoining office came on and a man beckoned.


‘They are ready for you,’ Cari said, gathering up my gear.
He stood by while two stern faced young men went through my currency form; they counted the dollars and then tossed them back at me in a scrambled untidy mess.  I almost said something in anger but felt Cari's hand tighten on my arm in warning.  Then they motioned for my bags, made a half hearted search and indicated I was to pass through into the next room.  I turned to Cari expecting him to follow and realised this was as far as he could come.

It was so sudden, the hours we had spent together I hadn't given a thought to saying goodbye, and now, under stark lights with two loutish young men looking on, this wasn't the right place.  I felt tears welling and tried to blink them away.

‘Cari, you've been so kind to me,’ I was searching desperately for the right words ‘...just saying goodbye isn't enough.’

He stood there, so tall, that devastating smile, and in his eyes the same anguish I was feeling.  I reached out for his hand and held it tightly, willing him to feel how I felt, to hear all the words we had left unsaid and now couldn't say at all.

Two others had entered the room, a man and a woman in uniform.  I was to go with them.  Cari remained in the doorway, we still clutched hands.

‘Thank you, so very much,’ I stepped away trying hard to hold back a flood of tears, Cari stood there in the open doorway.

I was halfway across the room and called out ‘Cari, goodbye, da svidanya,’ the Russian for goodbye a mournful bridge between us....’da svidanya.’

The Soviets let out a concerted sigh, they could relate to this one act melodrama.  I followed the woman into the next room and Cari was gone forever.

I stood sniffling under the harsh lights while the passport control police examined my visa and papers all the while watching me in the overhead mirrors.  I felt wretched and totally isolated in the long drab waiting hall...alone in a deathly silence.

The time was about 3am when another young woman motioned I was to proceed upstairs into another dimly lit waiting room where chairs were set out in rows.  A grandmother in a floral babushka scarf padded in on soft slippers wheeling a trolley load of bottled mineral water.  She left the trolley at the back of the chairs and softly padded out again.


I sat to the side of the arranged rows and wallowed in my misery.  Then in a strange silence, like spirits rising from the underworld, people began to drift up the stairs. 

They came in twos and threes, some alone; Indians in flowing saris under heavy winter coats, turbaned Sikhs, Russians in fur hats, young girls in miniskirts, hundreds of people in a hushed procession.  Two women even had spaniels on leads.

No one spoke, no one smiled, they just moved silently past, filling up the rows of chairs, a few taking bottles of mineral water as they passed the trolley.

Some lights came on at the end of the room revealing five young men with musical instruments.  They began to play, popular music similar to that at the hotel earlier in the night, they could even have been from the same band.
Two couples began to dance, no one else reacted to the music, everyone just sat listening in a bored silence.  It was like a surreal scene from a Fellini movie, and strangest of all, it fitted my mood exactly.

The entertainment continued for nearly an hour, then the band stopped and the people rose and just as quietly as they had entered, began to leave down the staircase they had first emerged from.

I waited and then joined in at the tail end, nobody directed me; I guessed this must be my flight.  The plane was parked close to the terminal and we walked the short distance to stairs leading into the lower section.  I could see my travel bag on a shelf with other luggage so I knew I was on the right aircraft.

A hostess approached and asked was I the Singapore?  I presented my ticket and stood there at the back of the plane while the crew scurried about trying to find me a seat.  There were numerous headcounts, every so often a crew member came up and apologized with a ‘very sorry, won't be long now.’

Maybe I would be taking breakfast with Cari after all.  The panic ensued for nearly half an hour when finally a hostess led me through the aircraft to a seat in the middle row beside a very cross lady whose spaniel now rested on the floor between us.

With that problem resolved the crew returned to their stations, the engines roared into life and the plane lifted into the night sky.  I was leaving Tashkent the way I had arrived, in the midst of an absurd dream.

And that effectively summed up my entire trip through the Central Asian Stan’s.  

I left with memories of kind and thoughtful people, the multi racial men and women of these three countries, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,  Russians and indigenous both.  For years under the yolk of Soviet rule and now the possible return to the strict  laws of Islam. 

And I remembered the women I met, Mina and Mustoora, Lara and Miriam, their taste of independence and freedom now threatened by a return to the veil and chador.

But they are a sturdy race, these people of Central Asia;  I'm sure they will yet again endure and triumph, after all their countries have already survived the rough excesses of Alexander, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan and Stalin,  and lived to tell the tale. 

And besides, what else can fate throw against them.


©Robyn Mortimer 2010

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