Thursday, February 28, 2008

How I spend my spare time

I was going to sit down and write a post about the recent opening of the American Cultural Center in Almaty (located between the Chinese and Iranian Centers--someone has a sense of humor!), or write something about speaking at one of the local schools. But neither of those would give an accurate portrayal of how I spend time when not working on my research (Believe it or not, there is actually quite a bit of research that goes on. It just doesn't make for many (any?) interesting stories).

This weekend was the official taste test of Domino' D0nuts. Six different flavors of doughnuts, along with some pseudo-American instant coffee. Yum!!! The doughnuts were pretty disgusting, though, as was the coffee. But at least they are "made fresh twice daily"! Yes, when we're not eating chicken and drinking vodka in the mountains, this is how my friends and I spend our free time. How can we learn about the country and region if we don't try these things, after all??

I DID learn something in graduate school, after all!

During my first year of graduate school, I took a course on the geography of the former Soviet Union. The course was taught by my Master’s advisor, Leslie Dienes, who could tell you the precise percentage of ash in coal mined in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan (I know this because I asked him one day and he knew the answer immediately. Afterwards, I googled the answer only to find out that he was right—of course! Leslie has also printed the Internet twice, but that is another story. It is all part of his charm.) My friend Elizabeth and I soon found out that it was nearly impossible for a class to conclude without Les making two of his favorite statements. “The Uzbeks, they are the bullies of Central Asia!”, followed by “there is all sorts of chicanery there”.

Well, I am finding out that Leslie was right on both of these points. Not a big surprise, but I’m gaining firsthand knowledge. As US citizens, we need visas to enter Uzbekistan. For many countries, obtaining the visa is relatively simple. For Kyrgyzstan, you just go to the embassy with a passport photo and your passport, fill out a brief form, hand over around $40, and get a visa. For Uzbekistan, it is not so simple. We first had to contact a travel agency to get a letter of invitation (LOI). This letter cost nearly $40, but without it we could not get a visa. We sent scans of our passports, letters from the US embassy, and more details about our personal lives than is usual. Two weeks later, the LOI—officially registered with the Uzbek government—arrived via email. We printed out the document, and headed off to the Uzbek consulate in Almaty to get our visas.

We had to wait outside the consulate before being allowed into the building. Two (very nice) guards were controlling how many people were admitted at once. The process seemed to be pretty slow, but we were there early and had no problem getting into the building. Once inside, it was a different story. The man working at the counter was barking out orders—and promptly told us that we had to go make copies of our passports before we could get visas. “Why?” we asked. The answer—“Because”. So off we went to find a place to make copies. It took nearly 20 minutes, and there was quite a line when we got back. Fortunately, the very nice guards let us go right to the front of the line.

When we stepped back into the office, the man working at the counter turned to his co-worker and said (in Russian) that we were back after he had made us go make copies. Wasn’t that funny that the three Americans had to do that? At least this time our document were in the order that he wanted—and we were allowed to go sit and wait. A few minutes later, we were called back to the counter to pay. Amazingly, the price had gone from $100 per visa to $131 per visa. That seems to be the regular price here in Almaty, although according to the official regulations of the Uzbek government it is only $100. Hmmmmm….. Fortunately, I had brought extra dollars, just in case. While waiting for our change, I happened to glance over toward the back room of the office. Imagine my surprise when I saw the brand new, state of the art, Xerox machine! It must have been paid for with the extra fees added onto the visas, or something.

Yes, Leslie, the Uzbeks are bullies. And there is all sorts of chicanery. You taught me well!