PAUL BENJAMIN: Writer, Editor, Supermodel

Home Sweet Home (Uzbekistan Edition) – Part One

I’ve finally made it to Uzbekistan! It seems like forever since I told my friends and family that Lisa and I were leaving Austin for the Foreign Service. Now, nearly eleven months later, we’re reunited and have moved into the place we’ll call home for the next two years. We even have most of our stuff. As I write this entry, I’m sitting in the bed that until last night I hadn’t slept in for eleven months. The bed frame came with the house but the mattress is our much cherished Sleep Number bed. Because it’s all foam and inflatable air chambers and cushioning, it is small and light enough to ship with air freight so that it arrives sooner than a conventional mattress. Definitely a good choice for the Foreign Service.

But enough about our bed. Folks have been emailing and asking about my trip. I’ll post now about the trip and then post tomorrow (Tashkent time) regarding my first impression and our new house, complete with pictures.

I arrived at the Lufthansa counter on Friday and discovered that my luggage would be checked straight through to Tashkent. No need to pick it up in Frankfurt and recheck it. It would’ve been great if Lufthansa could have told me that over the phone instead of giving me a different answer every time I called. With no definitive answer I shipped one of my suitcases to avoid Uzbek Air’s exorbitant additional baggage fee (Lisa was caught unawares and had to pay around $650). That said, I was grateful to know that I wouldn’t have to deal with the headache of transferring my own bags in Frankfurt. For any future travelers to Tashkent, this was a United flight operated by Lufthansa connecting to Uzbek Air. Any variation (such as an actual United flight) may not have a baggage agreement.

I sat on the aisle beside a couple that was moving to Germany from the U.S. for the husband’s new job. He’s retired Army consulting for the U.S. Army in Germany. This is their fifth time posted in Germany and they’ll be there a while. Their dog was being loaded on the plane as cargo. (Our dogs are still in DC thanks to that pesky Hurricane Irene cancelling their flight.) They were perfect airplane neighbors: interesting to talk to but happy to do their own thing when you want to read or sleep.

Of course, no international flight is complete without a little adventure. Early on, the flight attendant poured wine for my neighbor and just kept on pouring, dousing my neighbor’s hand and half my butt and seat cushion. They swapped my seat cushion but I still had half an ass soaked in a robust and fruity merlot. The flight attendant apologized and offered me a voucher for dry cleaning, but somehow I don’t think that would do me much good in Uzbekistan. Hopefully my jeans are dark enough to survive.

As my tush was enjoyed Lufthansa’s best vintage of red, the guy in front of me put his seat back in my lap at meal time (despite an announcement to raise our seat backs for the meal). He was so far back, I could’ve done dental work on him. Fortunately, the top of his seat made an excellent book rest for my Kindle and he happily lifted it for me upon request once my actual food arrived and I needed my tray. He then kept his light on to read while I was trying to sleep. That annoyed me until I saw that he was reading “Game of Thrones.” I hadn’t been able to put that one down the first time I read it either (I’m currently rereading the series before reading book 5 for the first time. I’m on book 4 right now). I’ll admit that when I was still having a hard time sleeping in the wee hours, some dark corner of my soul imagined leaning forward and asking, “Have you gotten to the part where so-and-so dies yet?” However, I hate spoilers and could never do that to another person, especially when he was just trying to make the best of his own long flight.

We had been delayed taking off from Dulles, so we arrived in Frankfurt an hour late. I had a devil of a time figuring out my departing gate. The folks from Lufthansa tried to help me when I deplaned and told me which gate correspended to my flight number. However, they seemed confused enough by my mention of Uzbek Air, I decided to double check. I looked on the big digital board of flights and found the one they had mentioned. It was a Lufthansa flight bound for someplace else. I had to watch the board for a good fifteen mintues because it wasn’t big enough for all the flights and was constantly updating. Finally I caught a glimpse of my flight. It was listed as boarding at gate D 1-9. No, not 19. 1 — 9. Hmmm…

Ever the intrepid explorer, I set off for the D gates. I saw gates D 1-4 were through an additional layer of security so I skipped those. Turns out D 5-9 were through an additional layer of security as well. The line was short, so I waited and when I got to the front, I asked if I was in the right place. Nope, I needed gates 1-4. I quickly doubled back and confirmed with the security folks there that I was in the right place. Yes, in fact, my flight was leaving in two hours from gate D2. Feeling some level of success, I bought some yogurt and a croissant and waited for someone to staff the empty gate while I pushed away anxiety that my bags might actually be sitting in baggage claim in Frankfurt or that I wouldn’t be able to get a boarding pass here and would need to exit and return through two layers of security.

My anxiety was not mitigated by the fact that it was forty-five minutes before my flight and there still wasn’t anyone manning the gate. There were plenty of folks at the gate who looked like Uzbeks or Russians and I understood enough Russian to understand people talking about Tashkent to feel certain I was in the right place. I then met an English-speaker from Venezuela who was moving to Tashkent for a big engineering project. He confirmed that I was in the right place (he’d gotten a highly detailed itinerary from his company) but added to my anxiety when he mentioned that my carry on suitcase was too big and they’d made him check one of a similar size. I knew that was likely to be the case from my research, but had been expecting that I’d be able to check it at the gate. Suddenly I wasn’t so sure and without any staff there from the airline I had no way of finding out. I certainly didn’t have time to exit the terminal and check the bag and then go back through security before our flight’s scheduled departure time.

Fortunately, I was saved from neurotic Jew mode when another traveler arrived at the gate and overheard us. He was an English-speaker educated in the U.S. who has worked in Tashkent for years with a German aid company. He assured me that I could get a boarding pass and check my carry on without a problem. He was surprised that no one was at the gate yet but not distressed. Finally, someone showed up about twenty minutes before our flight. I was the first person in line. Sure enough, all went according to plan. In fact, I think it worked to my advantage because I already had one bag checked through from Dulles. As a result, I didn’t have to pay for my second bag when I checked it at the gate. Thanks to my advance planning, my backpack weighed exactly their (extremely small) limit of five kilos. That’s between eleven and twelve pounds. In other words, an iPad, a few comics, my schedule calendar, some important travel documents, headphones, and the weight of the backpack itself. Everything else, including my laptop, went in the checked bag. My water bottle stayed in my hand while she weighed the bag.

About a half an hour after our scheduled departure time, we still hadn’t seen any sign of our plane. My new friend from the German company said that was unusual. However, he said, the Uzbeks are a very patient people. They’ll just sit and wait without complaint until the plane arrives. About an hour after our departure time, the staff at the gate made an offiicial announcement of the delay and assured us that the plane would be arriving shortly. Actually, the delay wasn’t really too bothersome, because my Venezuelan friend and I were getting all sorts of tidbits on day to day life in Tashkent from our friend from the German company. Utimately, our flight left two hours late. I didn’t see a single person go and complain to the person staffing the gate. They just waited patiently.

When it came time to board, our friend suggested that we keep sitting and wait for the others to hand over their tickets and head downstairs. That way, we could avoid standing in line and then be the last people on the bus that would drive us over the tarmac to the plane. As the last people on the bus, we’d be the first people out the door and onto the plane. Sure enough, that’s exactly how it worked. I had a seat next to an older Russian woman. It was a sizeable plane with two seats on one side then three seats in the middle and two more seats on the opposite side. After everyone boarded, the three seats next to me were still open. I moved over and gave the woman both seats and took the seat beside mine for my stuff. Someone put their orchids they were transporting in the third seat, so I even had a bit of decoration. I wanted to stay awake for this flight in order to combat jet lag, so I switched between reading “A Feast For Crows,” to “All Star Superman,” to watching several episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” and an episode of “Greek” (Lisa’s new favorite show), all on my iPad. It was a lovely flight and despite the long wait, my Uzbekistan Airways experience was far superior to my Lufthansa flight.

Upon arrival in Tashkent, I waited while everyone else rushed to the busses. As the last one on the bus, I was the first one off and moved quickly into the customs line. There were only a few people ahead of me from some previous flight. Up to now, traveling on a diplomatic passport had provided me with no discernable benefit. There were no special lines for diplomats nor accelerated security sceenings. While waiting in line, however, I glimpsed Lisa on the other side of passport control. We’d only been apart a week but I was overjoyed to see her smiling face.

Lisa was with Pavel from the embassy and he called over to me that I was in the wrong line. I needed to go to the visa window since our visas had been issued in an unusual way after being held up for a few weeks. There was no one at the window, but Pavel quickly got someone over to help me out. After I had my visa, Pavel told me to just cut to the front of the line. My passport was quickly stamped and the next thing I knew I was hugging and kissing my wife in our new city. Once I had my luggage. Pavel walked us straight out past customs with a wave to the customs officers and we were on our way to our temporary home at 11:30 PM after nearly twenty-four hours of travel.

Next up: our new home in Tashkent, complete with photos!

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