I’m playing catch-up.
This is my last post about Dushanbe. I wrote it the night before I got on one of the deadliest flights in the world to Khorog (Pamiri Mountains). I’ll get to that exhilarating terrifying experience in my next post (hopefully with video attached!).
(July 16, 2009)
I had my first encounter with the mafia the night before leaving Dushanbe.
Tajikistan is a transit route for drugs coming out of Afghanistan and headed to Europe, North America – you name it. The budget that the police and drug enforcement agencies have to fight this problem is paltry at best.
Before moving to a country that you’ve barely heard of - located in a region that you’ve barely thought of – you tend to do your homework. So it wasn’t a shock to learn that there are Mafia walking the streets of Dushanbe. Yet, you still don’t expect to actually bump into them at your favourite cafe, while enjoying a glass of Moldavian red and desperately trying to upload pictures to facebook.
I’d had a long day. It was hot. I was grumpy and looking forward to a last meal and some internet. I met up with Persia (she picked that pseudonym herself!) late in the evening at the cafe across from our flat. Aside from us, there was a middle-aged couple enjoying each other’s company, some business men having a beer and a group of men enjoying a meal and some vodka.
There were a ton of waiters working the floor but it still took about 15 minutes for me to order a glass of wine. The large group of gentlemen in the back were keeping them busy.
I didn’t think much of it. I was too busy obsessing over the slow internet connection. It was 10:00pm, the cafe closed at 11 pm and I had a ton of photos to upload.
At 11:05 pm, I had uploaded 40% of the 200 photos I had selected as my “best work”….
I looked around. Most of the tables had been vacated with the exception of the couple – clearly in love and clueless, the group of gentlemen behind me, and Persia and I. I was packing up, cursing the internet, Facebook, myself and Tajikistan in general, when a group of five very large men walked past my table and plopped themselves down like they owned the place.
It was a strange scene. I sensed a heightened tension in the air. The cafe was obviously about to close …
There was a momentary lull in activity before the waiters soared back into action. The chairs – that had moments ago been cleared – were pulled down. The lights were turned back on and the place was bustling once again.
Drinks, food and snacks were delivered to the new arrivals. The couple – still focused on each other – continued to enjoy their evening. The group of men behind me made no effort to move. The new arrivals greeted these men and then made themselves comfortable at a table of their own.
I called over the waiter that spoke English – a South Asian guy from Kashmir (more on this to come). Before I could open my mouth he said, “stay as long as you want, we will have to stay open now.”
Persia and I sat in fascination. Slightly paranoid about drawing too much attention to our table, I secretly IM’d her.
Me: Holy Crap!
Persia: Should we go?…
Me: No way! I’m at 46%!
A couple of the guys looked over at us – we avoided eye contact. Then decided to move.
Samir, the waiter from Kashmir, supported that decision.
We moved to the steps near the exit – close enough for me to still have access to the wireless connection but far away enough to feel as if we could bail at any time.
Persia and I wasted no time asking him about the new arrivals. He was kind enough to fill us in.
Yes, they were Mafia. No, not Russian as I first assumed, but Tajik.
He went on to complain about the fact that they’d shown up so late. Now they had to stay open until they left. The staff was tired. They worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week.
While the internet crawled along, we asked him to tell us about himself. How did a young man from Kashmir end up in Tajikistan?
He was 27 and had grown up in Kashmir. He’d left home a while back to find work.
That search had taken him on a great adventure across the globe. He spent a couple of years in Kazakhstan before the cost of living got too high. He then moved to Kabul for 2 1/2 years before heading to Turkey and then finally ending up in Dushanbe.
Since his departure from Kashmir he’d picked up a quite a few languages: Turkish, Tajik, Russian and Pashtun. This in addition to the three he already spoke: Hindi, Kashmiri and English!
I was impressed.
I’d been struggling to wrap my head around Tajik – a language that insists on putting the verb at the END of the sentence!
But more impressive than his obvious gift for languages was his love of travel. He was crazy about visiting new places.
He’d only settled down in Dushanbe to pursue his studies in medicine. He had a year to go before becoming a doctor. He was working at the local cafe because it was good money – a lot of tourists ate there (in search of internet!) and left decent tips (not a regular custom in Tajikistan).
By the time Samir had finished recounting his adventures it was pretty late. I had a flight to catch the next morning and Persia was getting impatient. My pics were at 75% but my computer battery was at 11%. Some quick math revealed that this was a hopeless battle.
We were packing up to leave when ‘the boyzs’ stood up, paid, and walked down the stairs to their car: a silver SUV, double parked on the wrong side of the street. They loaded in, started up the engine and sped off – making the stereotypical screech as they quickly accelerated into a U-turn down the street.
I have to admit that I felt some relief when they’d driven away. We headed home -still a bit uneasy about our close encounter -but excited to share the news with our roommates who had opted for a quite night at home….
Next stop: Khorog.
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