Monday, February 27, 2017

From ‘Diplomatic Baggage. The Adventures of a Trailing spouse’ by Brigid Keenan

…….plant historian…..who had traced the origins of our ordinary English apple to Kazakhstan. He told me about the remnants of fruit forests in the Tien Shan mountains, and how the Silk Route should really be called the Apple Route and how the Mongol hordes carried dried apple, full of vitamins, in their pockets as they galloped down from Central Asia… apple cultivation slowly moved west, and that grafting was mentioned on clay tablets written in 2500 BC discovered in Syria and, later, illustrated on a Roman mosaic.

Its been a constant mystery to me, travelling the world, why barking dogs don’t seem to bother their owners as much as they do everyone else in the neighbourhood.

Kazakhstan is a huge country – two-thirds the size of India (but with only 14 million people)

The Tajiks are much friendlier than the Kazakhs who don’t smile much at all – one of the thinnest books in the world could be Kazakh Charm – though Kazakh Road Sense would run it pretty close …….there is a whole section in the market where, to my amazement, they sell ready-prepared Korean food. This is because Koreans were one of the ethnic groups living in the Soviet Union that Stalin banished to the empty lands of Central Asia – along with the whole Russian-German community, the Chechens (every single Chechen was expelled from Chechnya), Kurds, Greeks and Armenians, and many others. Apparently more than a hundred different minorities are living here, and their presence is witness to the fact that fifty years ago the name Kazakhstan stood not for oil and gas as it does today, but for gulags, exile and suffering. (Dostoyevsky, Trotsky and Solzhenitsyn were each sent here at one time or another.) All these displaced minorities , together with Uighurs (from Xinjiang, Western China), Mongolians, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz who have migrated here from bordering countries, added to the native Kazakhs and the millions of Russians who stayed on after Kazakhstan became independent…….almost everyone here has at least one gold or silver tooth; some have a whole mouthful like Jaws in James Bond.

….I set off with Yuri…..He insists that I sit in the back of the Land Rover and though it seems daft, I don’t resist because I remember the driver in India begging me not to sit beside him, explaining that this colleagues had teased him, saying that he couldn’t be working for anyone important because the Memsahib didn’t sit in the back of the car.

…..I had a good look at Almaty. It has some really pretty architecture: there are hundreds of charming wooden cottages and shutters all painted in different colours – these, I am told, were built by the Russian pioneers who, in the last century, came east to this empty land in search of a new life.

It used to be said that ex-pats talked about their servants the whole time – I can see why this might be true because most of the time their lives are much more exciting than ours…. Our first butler in Syria, a really gentle man who was captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Damascus, came with glowing references about his honesty, trustworthiness etc.etc. but we discovered after he left that he’d been in prison in Syria (GBH), Italy (drug dealing) and Turkey (illegal immigrant). Even his departure was odd; he told us he had to take emergency leave and fly back to Sri Lanka as his father was ill, but the gardener, who saw him off, said he took a bus to Moscow. We never saw him again.

The women here are extremely pretty and all of them have amazing figures with legs six feet long ……Every man I’ve ever heard of who has been posted to any part of what used to be the Soviet Union has found a new wife there.

When the Russians introduced collective farming at the end of the 1920s and early ‘30s it was an utter disaster for Kazakhstan- the nomads slaughtered their herds rather than accept this new and totally alien way of life, and then came a famine in which about two million people – half the population – died. Others were executed for not obeying orders, and many fled to Mongolia (where thousands of Kazakhs still live in yurts). In Kazakhstan the remaining people were gathered in kolkhoz, or collectives, and their ancient nomadic way of life with its customs and traditions was extinguished. All Kazakhs, though, are still very much aware of which tribe and which Horde – the Great, Middle or Lesser Horde – each family belongs to……..Since the country became independent in 1992, the kolkhoz have become more like ordinary villages, and in some, people have revived the habit of taking their herds up to the high pastures to graze in summer……….it is clear that the relationship between the Kazakhs and the Russians still living here is strained. The newly oil-rich Kazakhs are top dogs now, whizzing round town in expensive cards……..and the Russians, who once ruled the place, have to find what jobs they can……The Russians believe they developed this country and that without them it would be nothing, and they tend to look down on the Kazakhs…..

Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to become Christian

The shopkeepers were so unhelpful and rude after London. In fact, they were positively obstructive – before you’d even asked a question, they’d be getting their lips pursed ready to form the word ‘Non’. ……Dog mess was the other thing that drove us mad in Brussels. It was everywhere……..All this said, going back to Brussels two decades later I found the shopkeepers had had a blanket personality change: they were all charming, even helpful – in fact they made London shops seem boorish – and I went round in a state of pleasant shock. But the dog poo problem was as bad as it had ever been, maybe worse…

……Trinidadians being the most hospitable, upbeat, party people on earth…..Trinidad was an extraordinary place where every creed and race did seem to have an equal place, and whats more, they had come together to form one distinct national identity. A Trinidadian could be any colour or mix of colours, but he/she shared a common humour and language. That was impressive. But it was also an anarchic place – there was a feeling it oculd all fall apart in undisciplined chaos when the potholes in the roads became too big to drive over; when the servies stopped altogether, when the violence got out of control.

When Trinidadians had called Barbados ‘Little England’ they did not mean it as a compliment – to them, it was shorthand for boring and dull. It was true that the island lacked the fizz and sparkle and fun of Trinidad. The food was pretty English too……….and completely lacking the tasty input of the big Indian and Chinese communities that lived in Trinidad….

Nothing in India ever quite worked out how it was intended……….This, the human error factor, was what drove you bananas in Delhi, but it was also precisely the most endearing thing about the place, because it meant that you never knew what was going to happen next. In India, truth was always stranger than fiction…..I always felt slightly guilty reading the Indian newspapers at breakfast – the stories were better than any book. MAN BITES SNAKE TO DEATH; STRAY DOG STEALS NEW BORN BABY FROM HOSPITAL; YOUNG GIRL KIDNAPPED FROM HER HOME TWELVE YEARS BEFORE TURNS UP ON DOORSTEP AS A BLIND BEGGAR AND IS RECOGNIZED BY AN OLD SERVANT AND SAVED.

With its huge population, events in India were always over the top – we once read a newspaper stody about a car accident, which read ‘…..of the 33 people travelling in the jeep, 16 died immediately’, etc.etc. …….When you saw the word ‘mishap’ in an Indian newspaper, you had to brace yourself for something terrible. A mishap in Britain might mean knocking over a cup of tea at the vicar’s party, but in India it meant disaster, as in FERRY MISHAP KILLS 250. There was also the tendency to describe organizations as ‘bodies’, which lead to some gruesome headlines: NEW HEAD FOR BODY, FARMERS TO OPEN BODY……

There were so many things to cry about in India – the desperate poverty, the deliberately mutilated child beggars, the perishing cold in winter for those living on the streets …….But there were many things to smile about too……..

The Indian stare is a truly amazing thing – an unabashed, open-mouthed, un-blinking gawp, done as close to the victim as the starer can get.

My sister Moira used to say that in her memory our childhood in India was in Technicolour and that when we came back to England it all became black and white.
When next day I went to the local supermarket to stock up on food, I suffered severe reverse culture shock. It was so extraordinary to be buying meat and chicken without a hanky over my nose and feeling sick. No one was throttling squawking chickens or spitting; there was no blood on the floor, no buckets of yellow claws, and no legless beggar dragging around in the dirt. But nor were there any traders flicking flies off their stalls with balloons on sticks like mad morris dancers. There were no mounds of spices, no tender young vegetables picked that morning, no bargaining, no laughter. And was it right, I kept wondering, for people to be so shielded from real life – should we be allowed to forget that a family pack of eight skinless, boneless, chicken breasts once belonged to four hens?

…….in the Gambia, successful men there often had several wives. If you were particularly fond of one wife and wanted her to come with him to your dinner, you had to find out which nights she spent with her husband, and then make sure your dinner invitation was for one of those – otherwise, we learned from experience, a wife you’d never clapped eyes on before would turn up on his arm.

….in Syria….It was obvious (to me anyway) that the Arabs and the Irish share so many characteristics: bad ones like being hot-tempered, vengeful and jealous, and good ones like charm, emotion, warmth, a liking for good company, and a love of words – a famous poet died while we were in Damascus and AW and I were astonished at the numbers of ordinary people who turned out for the funeral…….. I’ve never been anywhere where the people were so anxious to make you welcome or where the food was so delicious. In Syria, the longer the hostess spends preparing a meal – chopping, stuffing, shaping, mincing, grinding, rolling (Syrian food is very labour-intensive) – the more she shows love and honour to the guests ………There is an Arab saying, ‘If you love me, eat’,…………

Syria is so teeming with ancient remains that treasure-hunting is quite a profitable hobby…….Once AW, walking in the desert, kicked up a stone – except it wasn’t a stone, it was part of a child’s toy chariot, we were told by the museum, dating back three thousand years. …….in Syria…..there are so many different versions of Christianity: Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Anglican, Syriac, Nestorian, Armenian, Armenian Catholic and so on…..

……..cupid’s bow mouth (a charming feature of Kazakh faces)

The other day Lucy and her friends took us to eat at the place that must be the best value in Almaty – the Govinda restaurant run by the Hari Krishnas (who seem to have a big following here). For 450 tenge (under £2) you get a tray of various delicious vegetarian curries with puris (Indian fried bread) and wonderfully creamy rice pudding.

Kyrgyz people seem to be much softer and pleasanter than Kazakhs.

Most of the traders had come from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both famous for their embroideries and textiles…..

Tajikistan felt much more like ‘home’ than Kazakhstan. The people are of Iranian descent: good-looking and charming…….

Travellers are fond of saying that Samarkand is a disappointment because it is over-restored, and that you can see the difference between the magical luminous blue of the old tiles and the dull new ones used in the restoration.

……the extraordinary carpets made by the Uighurs……

I suddenly had the idea that, when the time comes, instead of going into an old folks’ home in England (where, I’ve just read in the Guardian Weekly, 80 per cent of inmates are dosed with tranquilizers no matter what illness they have) it might be better to join the Hari Krishnas. They are kind to old people, the food is delicious, the houses warm as toast, the music is nice and it would be easier to dress with arthritic hands, since there are no zips or buttons on the robes to cope with…

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