by Kung Fu Zu 2/8/15
The cold wind slashed John’s face as he and Steve stepped out of the hotel. A thermometer on the building’s wall indicated minus 28 degrees Centigrade.
Both men threw their bags into the taxi’s open trunk, closed it and scurried into the passenger compartment. Inside, the car was like an oven. “At least these old Volgas have heaters that work,” he thought to himself.
The driver revved the engine and threw the car into gear. With a jerk, they started down the road. Because it was 4:00 am, the sky was still dark and there was no other traffic on the streets. It was too early in the morning to talk, so both men sat silently, busy with their own thoughts.
During this time of year, Almaty wore a perpetual mantle of white. It had snowed again overnight, so the cloak was pristine. The streetlights illuminating the snow cast an ethereal aura over the surroundings. Looking out the car window, John noticed a lighted apartment window here and there. “Poor buggers,” he mumbled, thinking what a burden it would be to rise at this hour every morning. He then closed his eyes and listened to the muffled sound of snow being crunched beneath the car’s tires.
They arrived at the airport just before 4:30 am. Grabbing their bags they paid the driver and walked to the international terminal. This stood to the left and somewhat in front of the domestic terminal, which was about twenty times larger. John found this amusing as there were only about four cities in the whole country which had airports. Furthermore, air traffic was sporadic, at best. This was due to the fact that the National Airline was in constant arrears to the National Petroleum Company. Every few weeks the Petroleum Company would refuse to deliver fuel until the airline coughed up some cash. Payment could take days.
If one was a frequent traveler, it was best to have an unofficial contact inside the National Petroleum Company so as to be forewarned of such occurrences. One could then purchase a train ticket to whichever destination desired before everyone else heard about the “temporary” cessation of air traffic. At least that was the theory. In practice, it was somewhat different. Since the problem was endemic, everyone who had to travel knew of the problem and had contacts in the National Petroleum Company. This resulted in democracy of a sort. Luckily, the international airlines paid up front in hard currency.
John and Steve entered the terminal which was, to their relief, almost empty. A sleepy woman stood behind the check-in counter, but she managed to give them seat assignments and have their baggage checked within five minutes. This astounded them somewhat. Both men had traveled the world extensively and were used to a less hurried pace in most third world countries. Feeling lucky, they made their way to the customs and immigration screening area.
After completing the required forms, they approached the only customs booth. There they encountered a blank-faced official standing behind a cheap white laminate counter about chest high. An oily looking character in civilian clothes stood to one side of the counter chatting with the customs officer. Apparently, the subject of their discussions was more interesting than work as neither took notice of Steve and John waiting.
A couple of minutes went by before the official turned to them. In what sounded like a mixture of English, German, and Russian, he asked them the type of questions one hears from custom officers the world over. While this was taking place, the oily character continued to stand beside the counter staring at Steve and John with a smile. The man had filthy encrusted nicotine stained teeth, common to chain smokers who do not hold with oral hygiene.
As he finalized his enquiries, the customs officer addressed John saying, “I have only one further question. Do you have any Kazakhstani currency?”
From the way he asked, John should have detected trouble. Additionally, John had traveled enough to know many of these somewhat less developed countries had currency controls. Whether it was because of the early hour, John’s basic honesty, or just downright stupidity, he answered, “Yes, I have some Tenges,” which was what the local currency was called.
The eyes of both the customs officer and the fellow standing next to him lit up. John knew he had made a mistake. Steve, seeing the situation develop, preempted the customs officer and said, “I spent all the Tenges I changed.” The light in both the customs officer’s and his co-conspirator’s eyes dimmed by a candela or two.
Returning his attention to John, the customs officer straightened up, adopted an officious air, and asked “How much do you have?” John pulled the currency from his wallet and counted it out. It was the equivalent of about US$100. The customs officer then proclaimed, “It is prohibited to take Tenges out of Kazakhstan. You must exchange them for foreign currency.” The man with the bad teeth smiled serenely.
Since banks didn’t open until 9:00 am, and John’s flight left at 6:00 am, they all knew this was impossible. John pointed this out and asked the customs officer if he had any suggestions. He simply re-iterated his original point.
John almost missed the officer’s twitch, but the oily fellow who had been observing the situation didn’t. With a beatific smile he said in perfect English, “Perhaps I can help you.”
John looked at him for a few seconds before asking, “How?” Still grinning, the man replied, “I happen to have some US dollars with me and I could exchange those for your Tenges.” Skeptically, John asked, “How many dollars do you have?” The man thrust his hand into his pocket and withdrew a twenty-dollar bill. “Unfortunately, I only have twenty,” he said, “but twenty dollars is better than losing all your Tenges, is it not?” The fellow glanced at the customs official who stood there smirking.
Clearly, this was a well rehearsed scam which these two practiced on a daily basis. So John had to admit it was pretty clever and he had been dumb to fall for it. With a little luck, these two could take in several hundred a day in a country where the average monthly salary was less than US$100. He was being given practical instruction in why government patronage is such a powerful tool for any regime.
John knew that most people in this situation would make the trade and eat the $80 loss. Time was short and it was too much of a bother to worry about. In any case, something really was better than nothing. Unfortunately for the customs officer, John had that overly developed sense of right and wrong one often encounters in Americans. He also didn’t like anyone trying to make a fool of him and gaining from it to boot.
The look on his face started to harden and his eyes narrowed. Steve, noting the signs of an impending explosion, grabbed John’s arm and urged, “Stay calm, don’t do anything crazy, it’s only a few dollars.” This defused John’s anger somewhat. In a calm voice, he told Steve, “I’ll be back in a little while, you go ahead to the gate and I’ll meet you there.” With a quick turn, he was off. Steve yelled after him, “Don’t do anything rash. I know you. You’ll probably go back into the arrival hall, find some people, and throw the money into the air. Don’t do that. It’ll cause too much trouble.” In fact, that had been John’s first impulse, but by this time he had come up with another plan.
John recalled seeing a small kiosk just outside the terminal door. Such kiosks, virtually on every street corner, sold all sorts of odds and ends; but their main business was booze. He went through the terminal door back into the sub-zero weather and headed for the kiosk, only ten steps away. There he stopped and surveyed the scene. Inside the brightly lit and warm booth there was a tall woman in a pullover. She was stereotypical in her appearance, with the translucent skin, pale blond hair, gray-green eyes, and high cheekbones of the Slav. Her figure wasn’t bad either.
Standing outside the kiosk were two Kazakhs in heavy leather coats and fur hats. Both were sloe-eyed with black hair and copper skin, but one was quite small and wiry while the other was about 6 feet tall with a bull neck and must have weighed 220 lbs. It didn’t look like a soft 220 either. They held plastic cups and John could smell alcohol on their breaths. All three were laughing and obviously in a good mood.
As he approached the kiosk window, the two men started to move away giving him room to order. Before they could get too far, John waved his hands in front of himself and said, “Wait,” so as to keep them from moving off.
Communication between peoples who do not speak the same language can be difficult, but if one takes the right attitude it can also be quite fun. Having traveled the world, often alone, John was pretty good at it and enjoyed it as well.
Taking the Tenges out of his pocket, John pointed at the two men with his right hand and thrust the money at them in his left. He asked, “Would you like to have this?” They stepped back shaking their hands in front of themselves saying, “No, no, no money, cannot.” No doubt, both men thought he was deranged or some type of government agent trying to catch them in an illegal act, which they could not fathom. John saw, and understood, the suspicion in their eyes. He tried to explain that they should not worry and that he was neither crazy nor employed by internal security.
Speaking slowly, John attempting to explain how some crooked bureaucrat inside was trying to steal the money from him. He pointed to the terminal and placed two fingers on his shoulder to indicate the epaulettes which government officials in uniforms wore. After that, he pulled two fingers across his throat as if slitting it. He then pointed to the money in his hand, back to the terminal, shook his head, made as if to tear up the money and throw it into the air. Somehow the two Kazakhs and Russian girl understood what he was trying to say. The large Kazakh laughed, slapped John on the shoulder, and said, “Understand, understand, but cannot take money, not right.” Although John was glad he had been understood, his dilemma had not changed.
Then he had an idea.
He pointed first at himself, then at the two Kazakhs and made a motion as if he were drinking out of a bottle. Both men, immediately, understood and agreed to his suggestion with alacrity. John asked what they would like to drink and, in unison, they answered, “Vodka.” He pointed to a bottle of Stolichnaya and looked at the Kazakhs to inquire if that was acceptable. The large man shook his head vigorously, indicating it wasn’t. John then swept his finger across the various bottles in the kiosk and asked, “Which one?” Without hesitation, the large man pointed to a bottle of Finlandia, an imported product. No ex-Soviet product for that Kazakh. The Russian girl fetched the bottle and John held out the Tenges for payment. She took what was about eight dollars worth.
John wanted to make a gift of the bottle to the large Kazakh, but the man would not have it. He made clear that John had to share the bottle with them. While John had nothing against a drink now and then, straight vodka at 5:00 am on an empty stomach was a bit much for him. Trying to figure out a way to soften the blow, he looked back into the kiosk and saw cans of orange juice. He asked the young woman for several of these and again held out the currency for her to take payment.
The girl placed four plastic cups on the counter outside the kiosk window along with the orange juice and vodka. Ceremoniously, John opened the bottle and poured a good inch into each cup. The Kazakhs were about to pick up their cups when John held up his hand to stop them. He then opened the first can of orange juice and added two inches into each drink, giving a cup each to the Kazakhs and the girl.
Before John could make a toast the large man asked, “You, Deutsch?” John laughed and said, “No, American,” to which the large man smiled while he raised his cup and said, “Clinton.” Not being a fan of Bill Clinton, John stopped the man from drinking and said, “No, no, no.” Seeing that toasting Clinton would not do, and it being the election year 1996, the Kazakh then said, “Bob Dole.” John laughed, raised his cup and took a drink. He was, once again, reminded how well foreigners know the USA and how little Americans know about the rest of the world. He wondered how many Americans would know where Kazakhstan was, much less the name of its president.
They finished their drinks and John poured another round toasting, “Kazakhstan.” Once again, the drinks disappeared, but after this he figured he had better slow things down. He dispensed the Finlandia for the third time and opened the fourth can of orange juice. After another toast, he took only a sip as he knew he couldn’t keep pace with his drinking partners.
Although he had bought the alcohol and juice, he had yet to make a dent in his pile of Tenges. And that was why he had come out in the first place. He looked for something else to buy.
On the side of the kiosk where alcohol was not displayed, there were various items for sale. A green velvet skullcap of a type worn by the locals, caught his attention. The top was very slightly peaked and the side was a two-inch band. There was elaborate gold stitching all over both the top and sides. The thing was indigenous to Kazakhstan, but similar to other caps one saw throughout central Asian countries. This one was obviously expensive and would normally be worn for special occasions. He asked for the price and the girl indicated about US$10. Taking it from her, he put it on his head and, given the frigid temperature, he was glad to have it.
This amused the large Kazakh who said, “Tovarish,” and gave John a bear hug. Again, toasts were made all round. John saw another cap like the one he bought, but in dark blue. He bought it as well. For convenience, and because he was getting tipsy, he simply put the blue cap on top of the green one he was wearing.
Still needing to spend money, he studied the remaining merchandise. Most of the items were small and obviously cheap, but there was one thing he thought looked promising; a female doll in traditional Kazakh dress. He inquired as to its price and was told US$22. He motioned to the girl he would take it. About fifteen years earlier his parents had visited him on a trip to Bangkok and his mother had bought dolls in native Thai dress. John thought this one would go well with her collection.
By this time, everyone was very jolly and there was much backslapping between the new friends. They’d finished over half the bottle of Finlandia and there was no sign his new comrades wanted to stop. Unfortunately, John had to catch a plane and time was running short. He still had about US$50 worth of Tenges in his pocket, but there wasn’t anything else he wanted to buy.
While John had been standing in front of the kiosk getting blotto, a small crowd had gathered to observe the strange foreigner. Two little girls and their mother were among the people milling about. Taking half of his remaining Tenges, John motioned for the girls to take them. Both the girls and he looked at their mother for approval. She smiled and nodded in assent. Turning back to the kiosk, he explained he had to leave, and put the remaining Tenges in the hand of the Russian girl. He explained that she and the two Kazakhs should use this to buy whatever they wanted from her kiosk. They all understood and once again the men gave him bear hugs praising him and the USA as he walked away.
When he re-entered the terminal, John found it to be very crowded. Each airline counter was packed. Hundreds of people were sitting on the floor accompanied by suitcases, duffel bags, jute bags, bound bed sheets and virtually anything one could use to carry one’s belongings.
Dozens were waiting patiently in a line which snaked from the customs area back to the terminal’s entrance door. They looked up at John as he entered the hall and from the bemused looks on their faces he could see they thought, “Here’s another lunatic foreigner.”
Already late, he stood at the back of this line knowing there was a real possibility of him missing his flight.
Suddenly, a lane opened before him, and a man took hold of John’s carry-on bag. It was passed from one person to the other until it reached the front of the line. He was coaxed forward with gentle hands and smiling, wrinkled faces. In all his years of traveling nothing quite like it had ever happened to him.
These strangers acted without prompting and asked for nothing. They were only trying to help. He wondered why the show of kindness. Was it because he was a foreigner or because he was somewhat inebriated, thus considered temporarily insane and under protection of the gods? Maybe it was the picture he presented to the crowd, clad in a dark blue mohair overcoat, a doll in one hand, brief case and carry-on bag in the other and two hats on his head. Whatever the reason, he was deeply touched.
He reached the front of the line and waited a minute or so. John saw the person ahead of him was being questioned by the customs official he had previously encountered. As the man in front of him moved off, the official motioned for John to come forward.
Eying John dubiously, the official again asked him if he had any Tenges. John shook his head emphatically and with as much flair as possible pointed at the two hats atop his head, then at the doll cradled in his arm and finally made a motion as if he were chugging whiskey out of a bottle.
From the sour look on his face, it was clear the official was not amused by being done out of money he had considered rightfully his. Minutes earlier, he had been certain he had found a sucker. Now, he had been outsmarted. Glaring at John, he muttered something and asked, “How much American money do you have?” This question pleased John no end as he knew he had registered the exact amount of US currency he had brought into the country and there was no regulation against taking out the same amount, or less.
John reached for his wallet, removed the money inside and slowly started to count, “One, two, three, four, five, ten, fifteen, thirty-five, forty-five. . .” The official, showing clear signs of disgust, knew he was beaten. Not willing to speak further, he simply jerked his thumb in the direction John should disappear. John gave him his most angelic smile which, when translated, meant the customs official should go perform a physical impossibility on himself.
Elated by his experience, and the buzz from the booze, John strolled down the corridor until he reached the departure gate from which he would be bused to the plane.
Steve was standing near the door looking very nervous. When he saw John, a look of relief passed over his face. He came up and asked, “What happened?” John took off the blue hat and put it on Steve’s head, saying, “This is for you.” He then recounted the events of the last 45 minutes while Steve, laughed and shook his head, saying repeatedly, ”You’re a nut!” As John’s tale ended, a disembodied voice announced that their flight was ready to board and all passengers should proceed to the bus, waiting to take them to their plane.
Steve and John boarded the airliner and found their seats toward the back. The flight back to Beijing was fairly empty and the seat between them was not occupied. John put his briefcase and coat in it. Once they took off, he leaned back and covered his face with his new hat. Holding on to the Kazakh doll, he fell into a tranquil, alcohol induced sleep. • (2721 views)