Written on November 4, 2007
In the spring of 2004, I was sitting in a police station in central Stockholm, waiting to pick up a new passport. My old was about to expire a few months later and as I was going to the U.S. to visit Anthony, I did not want to risk getting stuck in customs.
While sitting there, I was flipping through my old passport. I had gotten it prior to my college year in 1994-1995 and my student visa was in there along with stamps from a variety of countries from Estonia and Greece to Guatemala and Honduras. I remember thinking that considering how many countries that I had seen, how many places that I had visited and how many interesting people I had met during these past 10 years that my old passport had been with me, how much did I not have to look forward to? Especially given that during most of that time, I had been a student with temporary jobs, and that now, I had a well-paid job, six weeks paid vacation and tons of opportunities to travel. But not even in my wildest imaginations while sitting there at the police station, waiting for my turn, did I ever think that I would end up in Rome for such a long time, move to a country like Moldova and go on weekend trips to Odessa, nor that I would get jobs that would take me to places like Kyiv, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and now Uzbekistan!
To be here feels almost surreal (though this is obviously more due to the fact that I am here than the country itself). After a very intensive week with meetings with range of people from government officials to farmers, producers and international organizations, I went on a field trip yesterday with the national farmers’ association. We went to the region outside of Tashkent and visited farms, the association’s regional office and even a 600 year old mosque. The trip was not organized for me specially, but for the managers of the association’s local offices (all of them farmers), whom had attended training at their HQ for a few days, and they invited me to come along on this learning tour. For me, this was a perfect opportunity to talk to farmers and get their views on the issues that I am here to look at.
After the trip, my translator Andrei took me to the local food market (which was fantastically well-organized compared to the one in Chisinau) and guided me around Tashkent a bit.
The country is both what I expected and not. Situated along the old Silk Road, I think I expected it to be more oriental, but from what I understand, cities like Samarkand and Bukhara are more so. It is however as vast as I expected and with that harsh feeling that the desert landscape gives. Traces of the Soviet Union and the Russian domination are of course still present in both architecture and some ways of life. I always find it a bit fascinating, and especially in a country like this where the original culture and art is so fundamentally different. It is like the Soviet Union meeting Arabian Nights… (But perhaps that is the same as the traces western-style capitalism that is spreading in countries like China and Malaysia and its contrasts to their traditional societies?)
People also drink as much tea as one could expect with a lot of traditions surrounding the tea ritual. The food seems to be an important part of life, and although the majority of the majority of the population is Muslim, so does vodka.
The wild nature seems beautiful and Andrei, who is a mountain bike rider on his spare time, told me that there are great mountain trails just about an hour from Tashkent.
The less nice part is of course the Aral Sea. If you ever doubt the severity of human impact on the environment, look at satellite pictures over it from 30 years ago and now – maps are being redrawn to show its real size!
For those who do not know anything about Uzbekistan, and perhaps even have difficulties with placing it on the map, it can be worth mentioning that it is the second largest cotton exporter in the world and the fifth largest producer. So next time you wear some clothing on which it says “Made in China” or “Made in Turkey”, it is likely that the cotton was grown here in Uzbekistan. The country is also producing some of the best fruit in the region and possibly in the world, so with the right standards and certification systems in place, we might eat some of their fruit in a few years.
As always when I travel outside the Western world, I have met extremely friendly and generous people and I have been invited to so many farmers all over the country for my next trip that I really hope I have the opportunity to come back soon!