On Wheels

Last Friday morning, I learned that within a couple of hours my vehicle would have its green diplomatic license plates and become street legal. I was already in possession of my Uzbek driver’s license and diplomatic accreditation card, so the issuance of dip plates was all that stood between me and the open road. The car had been sitting in the far corner of the embassy parking lot for nearly three weeks after clearing Customs, and I was grateful and elated that I would finally be able to take it home and stop going everywhere on foot or by taxi.

So a few hours later this came to pass and I was handed the key. Almost jumping with delight, I filled the car up with gas at the commissary gas pump using my newly-minted fob; it was the first time in the 5+ years I have owned this car that I was forced to use an octane lower than 93, to my dismay. At least I knew I could get unleaded gas at the embassy, so there was no need to remove the catalytic converter before shipping.

I further prepared for my maiden Uzbek voyage by putting all of my insurance paperwork and “car passport” that showed I imported the car duty-free as a diplomat into the glove compartment.

After work that night, I drove home. Oddly, I felt a little nervous that some crazy driver would materialize out of nowhere and hit me, or that I would inexplicably accelerate into one of the big security barriers when driving off embassy grounds. However, everything went fine other than hitting more than my fair share of potholes in the gathering dusk.

In this land of Soviet-era cars and white Chevys (every car not from the local GM factory is apparently outrageously expensive to import, resulting in a distinct lack of vehicle types, although I’m not sure why they all have to be white), my car stuck out like a sore thumb. I noticed that several people literally stopped what they were doing and blatantly stared as I rolled by.

This is how it looked parked in the driveway of my walled property: 

And, to put the size of our front yard in perspective:

Since everything for my car – from the sun shade to the floor mats, from extra motor oil to the owner’s manual – is all in my household effects (HHE) or “sea freight”, as soon as I got home I retrieved a bucket, some dishsoap, an old washrag, and an old soft towel from inside the house and gave my car a proper washing before it got dark. I smiled when I observed no new dings or scratches, frowned when I finally noticed that someone between here and Virginia had replaced my pink chrome tire valve stem caps with black plastic ones. Probably the same asshat who found it necessary to take my car for an unauthorized 107-mile joyride!

My tortoise, Arslan, stood curiously by as I scrubbed off three months of dirt, appearing to size up this black beast now infringing on his favorite hiding place near the garage door. Before I’d backed in, I’d gone looking for him to make sure I wouldn’t inadvertently smush him. He emerged from underneath the rolling garbage bin and found me first, moving across the tiles towards the garage door at a surprising speed (perhaps to make an escape attempt?).

And of course, how did I celebrate having my car at last but to wake up at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning and head 30 minutes away to Yangiobad, one of Tashkent’s most crowded and chaotic fleamarkets, with my colleague and neighbor, SB. There we met up with a handful of other embassy staff and looked around for a couple of hours to see what we could see.

To my surprise, on the way to the fleamarket I was flagged down by a police officer on foot, who motioned with his light wand that I should pull to the side of the street. I rolled down my window and calmly handed him my diplomatic accreditation card.

“Ah,” he said, “You’re an American. Great.” He scrutinized my card along with my license plates, gave me a warning about traffic safety and within less than a minute or so we were on our way again. It was a little bit surprising to me; I haven’t been pulled over for more than fifteen years! I honestly think he at least partially just wanted to get a good look at who was behind the wheel of the unusual car.

I think being a traffic cop would be a difficult job here, given the apparent lack of familiarity with basic roadway safety on the part of most drivers, the general lack of signage, and the lack of turning lanes and other features that clearly demonstrate right-of-way. As I sat there talking to him, I couldn’t help but notice a variety of passing vehicles with demonstrably suspect roadworthiness and maneuvers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos at Yangiobad but when I return next time I will, as it’s hard to put into words exactly what this place was like.

I think you could find almost anything you wanted at Yangiobad: live animals, dubious-looking medical tools, toys and games, engines and car parts, books, clothes, shoes, dishes and glass, jewelry, ceramic figurines, Soviet military memorabilia, rugs, purses and luggage, furniture, coins, appliances, ancient prams, tools, and the list goes on. Many of these items are displayed in such close proximity to each other that the brain spins while attempting to process it all.

Some of the market is outdoors, packed into narrow aisles with crumbling booths that look like they haven’t moved in years. I was dumbfounded as I moved amongst the wares, sellers crouched wherever they could find a spot, hawking their goods and calling out prices to anyone within earshot.

Later that day, I attended a pool party at the home of my one of my closest colleagues in the consular section, navigating my way through the city for a second time that day (this time alone) via the iPhone Google Maps app.

At a red light there were four lanes proceeding in my direction, and I counted no fewer than seven cars side by side ahead of me (lanes be damned) waiting for the light to reverse, flashing from red to yellow before becoming green again. The moment the light went yellow, the driver behind me blared his horn in anticipation for everyone to GO. And then they were off, at various speeds, drifting in and out of patterns on a hair trigger. I followed behind, cautiously, my eyes flitting from windshield to mirrors to instrument panel and back. After a while, I turned on the radio and floated along, daring to grin.

On Sunday I laid in the sun with Arslan reading the Foreign Service Journal. Later I went to a local shopping mall to get my nails done and treat my sad feet to a pedicure, after blisters I’d had for five weeks walking to and from work had finally healed without infection.

All in all, it was an awesome weekend in which I felt nervous at times to navigate the very fluid traffic patterns, but in which I also reclaimed some of my autonomy and independence.

And here is Arslan discovering that he not only likes lettuce, but that he also digs watermelon and tomatoes!

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Sarah W Gaer

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