Saturday, October 23, 2010

Turkmenistan

An early morning flight more often than not implies a round-about mid-night wake-up alarm. And the company driver was stricter than one would find usually and deposited me at the airport at 2:30 for a 4:30 flight when in this airport a 4:00am check-in would have been well ahead of time. Most likely they fly a single digit number of flights from this airport in a whole day. As was the case I along with two other company employees found myself sitting in departure area with plenty of time to spare. I still had few chapters of David Copperfield on the other side of the bookmark and I was happy to busy myself while the two companions talked about the fishing gear they had purchased and were carrying with them on way to their respective homes.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear the driver exclaim ‘David Copperfield’ as I took the book out of my bag and started reading during one of the trips from office to the hotel. He followed that with “very good tricks, you learning?” At least that sounded like a question to me and not to be found wanting, although I was still in the early stages of the book, and not knowing that this David Copperfield will not be doing any tricks, the kind my driver was talking about, I smiled and just nodded. Another person in the office happened to know the author and commented at David Copperfield being very famous book of Charles Dickens. I was getting a little impressed with the local knowledge of Charles Dickens. Very unexpected for Ashgabat. Maybe it was just that the drivers had never seen a Sardar/Sikh before but they all wanted to make some conversation. Only problem was their limited vocabulary of English and my complete and utter ignorance of any of the languages they could speak. The book in my hands offered a one-two line conversation which kept them happy and which I did not mind. Maybe they all talked about this strange looking guy and also discussed the book as it was strange the way they all talked about it. But then I had it. This third guy made me suspicious that it was not the same David Copperfield they were talking about. “David Copperfield, very famous”. And that’s when I had to take help of the life-saving google and the mystery was solved.

It has been nearly three months since the last line on this article was written. The trip to Dubai seemed to have pushed the Turkmenistan entry really back in the pile of back-log. The article was to talk about “the crazy girl” and to some extent about the wanderlust of Punjabis. Yet, I only managed to get myself to the departure lounge and solve the mystery of David Copperfield. Any-what-how-ever, it is time.

It was a surprisingly cheap flight (USD19.00) from Ashgabat to some town close to Balkanabat. The three-months-delay side-effects. The names have slipped out of the, by nature very erratic, memory. Still. It was a two hour long flight. Decent planes. Alright service. Apparently a part of the propaganda of us being a very developed country was to allow the poor to fly. They could make a return trip (equivalent of Delhi-Bombay trip) costing equivalent of six kg of apples!!! Apparently, who need good food when the flights are subsidized? Anyways, after the flight the ride to Balkanabat was another two hours and one hardly crosses a living thing the whole way. It may be called a beautiful landscape if it was not so empty or maybe it was somewhat beautiful because it was so empty.

We reached Balkanabat and were soon close to the final destination, Schlumberger base (office, workshop, camp all in one enclosed area). I was in the state of being in and out of sleep, neither here nor there, by the time we reached close to the base. The driver made a sound which I heard as “the crazy girl”. I thought I saw a girl standing on the right side of the road. But, I was not very alert and after a few hundred yards or so we turned right and entered the company base.

It is an excellent place considering the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere location. The camp (or living) area is very well maintained and a lot of water is wasted every morning and evening to keep the place green (the general landscape lacks the green element as well). Room, canteen, office, workshop, office, more workshop, more canteen, more room, some office again and on and on. Few days went by before I realized that I have not stepped out of the base. And another few days went by before I actually went out. In any case, one evening I did step out of the base.

The base is right next to the railway lines and as one steps out the railway station is visible about a mile straight ahead. It has a very Indian rural railway station look. Only the yellow signboard with station name seemed missing. And then there were cows crossing the lines, just to add to that feeling of recognition. So after giving a fair share of attention to the railway station and the cows and the surroundings in general I walked ahead and turned left. The company base is one side of the city. Rest of the city was now straight ahead and was flanked by a hill on the other side. Zoom to the max and click. One just can’t help being a tourist.

As I walked towards that mountain I passed many heaps of discarded metal, concrete and all sorts. Place looked like a junk yard. There were dogs on the road. Dogs with a GRRRRRR in their throats and sufficiently large bodies to make you look behind left or right every now and then. A guy sitting next to a door waved acknowledgement. I nod and move on. People here in this part have not seen many sardars. Their reactions vary from normal to highly abnormal. Girls giggle, sometime even laugh, boys try to keep a straight face but find it difficult and can’t help nudging their friends to catch a look of the specimen. Children start pointing at the funny fellow. The best or rather the worst has been a little boy of seven or eight turning back, finding a very different face in front of him, shrieked and ran to his mother. I try to keep a straight face through all but mostly I can’t help smiling, though many times this annoys me as well.

As I walked I realized that on the left side of the road, some distance ahead, there stood a girl. Slim, average height, long hair and with a very long chain in her hands which she was swinging around in circles. Coming nearer one could see that she was talking and being alone it meant she must be talking to herself. ‘The crazy girl’ I suddenly remembered. I tried not to look/stare in her direction and kept walking straight ahead. At the first round about I looked in all directions, found the roads to be too long to be conquered, and turned back. As I turned back I noticed the girl again. She had few dogs around her. Remembering the GRRRR I was a little apprehensive for the girl. But she seemed not to mind the dogs. They all looked quite peaceful near her. A little puppy was limping towards her. She (for some reason) took a break from the chain swinging and saw the puppy limp towards her. She walked forward and picked the puppy and went and sat on the roadside. After a minute or so, she let the puppy go, got up walked back to her place and started talking to herself and swinging the chain. I kept moving straight ahead and passed her. As I crossed the group of dogs I realized that little one that was limping was not limping anymore.

I came out of the base in the evenings once or twice again and the girl was there. From a distance I could see that her company of dogs was always around. On the day I left for Ashgabat we left early in the morning. She was not there. The dogs were all sitting here and there sleeping, tails tucked in, drooling tongues, GRRRR in their throats.

And after few days, an early morning I found myself sitting in the departure lounge of Ashgabat airport waiting for my flight to Baku reading David Copperfield with two other Schlumberger colleagues on their ways home discussing the fishing gear they had recently bought. It must have been 30 minutes or so since I started reading that I was asked a question in a language I least expected for the place I was at. Generally, they say that Punjabis are found everywhere. I have tested this hypothesis and found that to an extent it was true but not always. For example in Baku in nearly six months the only sardar I have seen is when I look into the mirror. Same was true for Turkmenistan. No sardars here as well (apart from me of course). Hardly any Indians for that matter. Baku, though, does boast of some Indians. In any case hearing, “beta koi pani di botal hai” at Ashgabat airport was a surprise and I looked up from my book and found a sardarji standing next to me. An old man, with hardly any black in the beard, wearing a kurta pyjama and a distant look in eyes. He was asking for a water bottle, an empty one to be precise. It was early morning and it was his time for the bowel movements and in his world they need water afterwards, toilet papers don’t suffice. It was quite a request.

In ‘Tales from Ferozeshah Bagh’, Rohinton Mistry, tells a tale of an Indian who goes to Canada. This particular Indian finds it hard to “take a dump” on the western style commodes. He can only do it squatting. This leads to a lot of embarrassing situations and in the end he decides that he can’t become westernized as he can’t do it the west way and packs up everything and decides to go back to India. on the flight back (most likely before the flight takes off) he eats something which causes some stomach trouble and the toilet of the airplane didn’t allow him enough space to squat and in the end he, one way or the other, succeeds in doing it the west way. But by that time he is already on his way home.

Why I mention this here? No reason in particular. And I did not think this when the gentleman asked me for the bottle.

I did have a water bottle but it wasn’t empty and I did not want to give him the drinking water I had carried along. Had he been somewhat younger I would have just rubbished the request. But here was an old man, truly Punjabi and desi by nature. Travelling to or from some part of world where he clearly did not belong. What were his reasons? I do not know maybe even he himself don’t know. Maybe, just because it was ‘the thing’ these days. Going to Kaneda, Jurman, Amrika. The wanderlust doesn’t leave space for reasons.

I told him to wait and went to the canteen in the lounge, asked them for an empty bottle and the lady there was kind enough to fish one out of the heap of bottles in rubbish bin. This I passed onto the gentleman and he was on his way to ‘relieve the pressure’ from his life. ‘Bahar jana’. That is what we say back home. For both the things, taking a dump and travelling out of our country.

I looked around and found that the sardarji was not alone. I noticed a group of over twenty Punjabis, men, women, boys, girls, sitting in a corner. Turbans, flowing beards, Punjabi suits, duppatas. To avoid the usual situation of having to make a conversation with my own type I busied myself with the book and did not look left right up or back till my flight was announced.

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