PAUL BENJAMIN: Writer, Editor, Supermodel

First Impressions

I’m now at the 2 and 1/2 week mark here in my new home but it feels like it’s been at least a month. In some ways I feel like I’ve gotten used to being here, in other ways I’m a total stranger in a strange land. I’d planned for my next post to relate our embassy-sponsored tour of the ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand. Unfortunately, I’ve been held up by my lack of a camera, which I packed in the suitcase I shipped. I took a ton of photos on my Sprint cell phone, but without Sprint service, I can only upload the photos via wifi. That means lots of large files uploading and downloading. Since our current Internet is a typical Uzbek plan where you pay based on the amount of data you use, I’ve been reticent to use that bandwidth until our unlimited bandwidth plan is active. Unfortunately, getting that set up has not gone quickly. Hopefully it will be up and running in a few days.

In the meantime, I figured I’d share my first impressions of my new city. In some ways, Tashkent reminds me of cities in Israel. Some buildings are brand new while others are ancient. Much of the infrastructure seems to have been placed without any plan, sprouting up wherever it made sense without civil engineering or building codes. Lots of buildings are abandoned and crumbling, while others are well-kept and thriving. Many of the streets are in poor repair and the sidewalks are even worse, if they exist at all. Traffic is also… agressive compared to the U.S. If I get medivaced from post, it will surely be from falling in an open manhole, getting hit by a car, or after a car accident.

Here’s what I’ve observed regarding Tashkent traffic. As far as I can tell, the lanes drawn on the road are more guidelines than rules. I’ve seen four or five lanes of cars on roads lined with three lanes. Some of the cars are smaller than in the U.S., but not so small that they should be sharing lanes. Drivers here just straddle those lanes, weaving in and out as they drive. Left turns are even less structured, with three or four cars stacking up side by side to wait for traffic to clear so they can turn. Just yesterday I saw a car waiting at the light to turn left and then another car drove around them to their left in order to go straight through the intersection. All in all, I’m very glad we hired Victor to drive us. I imagine I’ll give it a shot once our Forester gets here, but for now it’s nice to have someone who understands the rules of the road (or lack thereof) behind the wheel. Also, folks like to honk here. It’s normal to give a few beeps to let pedestrians know that you’re approaching, to tell cars that you’re passing, or to let someone know they’re an idiot for driving the wrong way on the street, even if they’re going slowly with their hazards on.

While traffic rules are more fluid than in the states, grocery stores seem fairly comparable. Though selection isn’t as broad and varied as in big supermarkets or fancy food stores like Whole Foods or Austin’s Central Market, most foods are available here. Some are very expensive, like American brand ice cream, but there are usually local versions that are more reasonable. In addition to grocery stores, there are tons of open air, covered markets where one can buy all kinds of fresh food and produce. For example, last weekend, Lisa and I went to the market and bought fresh, steamed corn on the cob, peaches, beets, cucumbers, tomatoes, bulk pasta, and a whole chicken. We have to soak the fruit and veggies in a bleach solution to kill any critters or pesticides, but once that’s done they are delicious! We also got an amazing ready-made tofu dish in which the tofu had been formed into springy noodles. There are also samsa shops all over the place, where one can get pastries filled with meat, potato, or pumkin for less than $2 each!

The markets also feature a wide variety of other products, such as clothing and personal care products. These are sold in individual shops no bigger than an office cubicle or two. At some point I’ll take a picture of the hilarious knock off toys I’ve seen, such as a set of poorly painted superhero action figures that included Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and Hulk, all in one blister pack! While there have been a few Marvel/DC crossovers in the comics, it’ll be a cold day in hell before we see legit merchandise from Warner Bros. and Disney in the same packaging!

Last weekend, in addition to our visits to the grocery store and market, we also had dinner with some of our new friends from the embassy. We had three other couples join us at our house (the dogs loved having company – i.e. hands to pet them – come over) and went to a restaurant to celebrate Lisa’s birthday. This was my first restaurant experience in Tashkent and it was quite nice. Like many eating establishments, the tables were all set up in a wide courtyard, open to the lovely evening weather. There was also a playscape for the kids, prompting me to joke that it was like going to Phil’s Ice House/Amy’s Ice Cream around the corner from our Austin home. Lisa did all the ordering, as her Russian outstrips that of the rest of the group. Several of us ordered beer (Baltica) and I was surprised to find it was cold since chilled beverages are a rarity in Central Asia. We had a couple of different salads consisting of marinated peppers and something like cabbage, along with tomatoes or mushrooms. We also had a white sauce that was sort of like yogurt and quite tart and tasty. As always, there was bread. The local bread is served in a round, puffy, chewy loaf with a flat design stamped in the center. Theirs was delicious. Next came the shashlik, or shishkababob, with pork for most of us and chicken for Lisa, along with onions. It was all very tasty and didn’t make anyone sick, the mark of a fine restaurant in Tashkent! After dinner we all went back to our house for dessert. One of Lisa’s fellow diplomats baked a lemon cake for the occassion and it was absolutely fabulous: a moist, sweet, and tart yellow cake covered in a meringue-like frosting. We’ve been eating the leftovers for dessert all week!

I’ve continued making progress on the house. Right now we’re waiting for the embassy to come install AC in the big room at the front, which should be any day now. Once that’s in place, I can set up my desk and shelves and move all my books and comics out there. It will be nice to have such a large space for my office. Since I’ll have a ton of wall space, I may order a bunch of bulletin boards so that I can use index cards for plotting out big stories. I’ve always made due with computer versions but have longed for a big wall like I’ve had at some places of business. The big question is whether that space is too far for Internet since the modem and wifi have to be at a specific location in the main house. I can’t test it until we have the unlimited modem up and running. Still, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have a focused writing space without web access.

All in all, things are going very well. Our house is spacious and lovely, definitely not the norm at most Foreign Service posts. The dogs are happy and love their yard. The people in the embassy have been warm and inviting, the embassy itself is newer and an excellent facility, and we even have a driver/gardener/dog sitter plus a maid who comes a couple of days a week! I’m very glad that I decided to come earlier than planned. Most of the house is unpacked and I got to be with Lisa for her birthday. I’ve started one-on-one Russian classes at the embassy also started a new project which I’ll post about once announcements have been made. If my first impressions are any indication, we’re in for an excellent two years here on the far side of the world!

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