(entry from July 14, 2009)
The Russians left more behind than a proud but crippled nation, rusted tanks and decrepit buildings. Despite having a predominantly Muslim population, Tajiks (my Pamiri friend has just corrected me on this) Pamiris drink vodka. Under the Soviets, vodka became somewhat socially acceptable and regularly makes an appearance at Pamiri meals (if there are guests present) and gatherings (weddings/parties/celebrations).
From what I’ve observed, Pamiris drink vodka like the Russians: a bottle, shot glasses and a steely resolve to get the job done. Guests are considered a special honour and are often celebrated with shots of vodka. In Tajikistan, the unspoken rule is that everyone drinks until the guest refuses. Guests (especially foreigners trying not to offend) tend to be hard-wired to accept rather than refuse offerings, which can lead to some very drunken gatherings.
On a serious note, men tend to drink a lot more than women and in some communities alcoholism has become a societal problem (so has heroine use but more on this later).
I’m not a connoisseur of vodka – I much prefer a glass of red to hard liquor-but I am one to throw myself into a new cultural experience.
And this time, I nearly drowned.
After a long day of picture-taking, Rachel (roommate) and I were aching for a break from the sun. We found a nice terrace, filled with people sitting under parasols and enjoying the spray of the water fountains. Tall pints of cold DRAFT beer and bottles of vodka dotted the tables.
Off to the side was a huge barbecue serving up delicious looking shashleek (beef kebabs on a skewer).
I was sold.
En route to a free table by the fountain, we eyed a group of expats with twice the number of pints as people at their table. A quick exchange of eye contact and we were invited to join them. Turns out they were from England.
Now, I hate to judge but I have yet to have an encounter with an expat from the UK that did not descend into a drunken mess. This has not, however, stopped me from looking forward to these random encounters. They are a hilarious people the Brits – and they know how to have a good time! They also have no limits and an extremely high tolerance for all types of alcohol.
A generalization I have yet to have proven wrong.
These three young chaps in their mid-20s managed a mining company about six hours outside of Dushanbe. Yup, miners – interesting company for two development workers, I know.
They’d spend two weeks in the mountains and then four days in Dushanbe. One of them – a handsome brown-eyed, blonde with a great tan matched by an equally great smile – had been in Tajikistan for over a year and planned to stick around for another year or so.
I’m not sure how it came up but at one point – somewhere between round 2 and 3 of the local brew- we mentioned that we hadn’t tried the local vodka. This was met with looks of incredulity, another round of pints, a bottle of vodka (quickly downed and replaced), and a tray full of shashleek (beef kebabs). According to the Brit to my right – they were beginning to blur into one being- it was customary to take a shot of vodka, followed by a piece of shashleek. I’m not quite sure where the beer fit into that equation…
This went on… And on… And on…And at some point, with the sun going down, four full pints of beer on the table in front of me, the remnants of cold shashleek to my right and my dear friend Rachel- head in hands – moaning to my left, I realized that it was time to make a discreet exit.
By then, two out of the three Brits had mysteriously disappeared (they’d had a head start on the festivities). And I was having some difficulty deciding on the best course of action. Tajikistan. Public place. Early evening. Rachel = a mess. Me = holding it together, barely. Home? Good question …where was that again?!…
I decided to prolong serious decision-making for the time being and started feeding Rachel glasses of water. I left the remaining Brit in charge of this duty to make a third trip to the bathroom – I also made some calls – I needed back-up.
I don’t know how long I was gone. I got distracted by the fried chicken served at the fast food joint across the street. But when I got back, our roommates had shown up (somehow I`d communicated our location), the final miner had disappeared and Rachel….well… apparently, we’d given her too much water…