Fear and Loathing in Uzbekistan
Something like 85% of the cars on the road in Uzbekistan are Chevrolets. The remaining 15% are mostly Soviet-era Ladas. If you pass a wedding party, you might see a Mercedes or BMW. But, mostly, thousands of Chevrolets—the Malibu is the top line model—bumpers to bumpers to bumpers of Chevrolets. Little golden horizontal crosses, one after the other. Until the border. I don’t know why.
We are in a Chevy, crossing the countryside of Uzbekistan, from Bukhara to Tashkent. Dusty, scorched—a place that doesn’t appear conducive to life, but seems to support a great deal of it. My friend Sanjar is in the front seat and he’s been guzzling orange Fantas, like 5 a day for the last few days, even though I told him it was shit. Smoking cigs and guzzling orange Fantas. I told him I hadn’t seen shit like that since the 90s. He flicks a spent cigarette into the desert. The sky is blue, endless, heavy with impending nightfall, no clouds to be had. The driver and Sanjar are listening to what seems to be an Uzbek comedy show but what sounds, to my American ears, like an Ayatollah delivering an anti-imperialist rant. And that makes me unnecessarily tense, even though they are laughing like children in the front seat. Sanjar coughing and laughing on cheap smoke. Burping and coughing smoke and fizz. They crack up, slapping each other on the shoulder. I look out the window and see dust, sheep, and children.
The driver abruptly stops the Chevy, kicks it in reverse, and stops off the shoulder, in a cloud of gravel and dirt.
He turns off the radio, opens his palms, and begins to pray.
Some people exist only in movies or on TV, perhaps in books. Entire countries, ethnicities, speakers of languages, exists for the people of other countries, ethnicities, speakers of languages only in the abstract—views derived not from experience but from myth. These myths are powerful, even when we know they are invented fabrications. Like a physicist who swears he’s seen a ghost.
So, it’s because of these myths—because of what comes out of loud, colorful boxes or inky pages or out of the mouths of others who believe in them—that a prayer in the middle of the desert feels like imminent violence. That a few words spoken in Arabic trigger the myth. Even for someone who utterly disbelieves it.
The driver waves his hands over his face and puts the car in drive. “Spaciba,” he says to me. “Thank you” and he sidles his Chevy—not a Malibu—back onto the highway. Sanjar lights another cigarette and turns the radio back on. Now a man is cooing in falsetto, seemingly imitating a little girl. The driver repeats something the man says and slaps the wheel with glee. It beeps. By 2 AM we will be in Tashkent
Travel is the most fundamental path to making sense of humanity—really the only one. Because travel, at its best, requires participation. It forces you to confront the myths. There is a book for every point of view. A television channel too. There are think-tanks and entire schools of thought that oppose each other on each and every issue. There is a home for every worldview—right, wrong, absurd. In the abstract, you can safely perpetuate a myth as long as you please. You never have to confront it.
But, there is no substitution for participation. When you sit in a Chevy, driving through the Uzbek desert, as Sanjar destroys his teeth and inches closer toward diabetes at each gas station, and a man who looks—and sounds—like a fat version of Steve Carell’s character from Despicable Me, stops the car, presses his forehead lightly against the steering wheel and prays for your safety, and thanks youfor giving him the opportunity, there is no substitute for that. You are fucking in it.
And if you still believe what you thought you knew after that, you can only do so knowing that you are lying to yourself.
I met an American guy in Baku who’d been traveling for three years. A full-time traveler. 94 countries as of yesterday. We talked for hours—94 countries ensures a lifetime of conversation. We talked about perspective—the search for which, I suppose, is probably at the heart of his journey. And I said, albeit as someone who has been to a mere 50 countries, that if you’ve traveled to 94 countries you simplycannotbelieve in myths. You must be woke, but not in like the reading theory in a graduate seminar woke, or like reading provocative websites woke, but like literally, like you have been alive and awake and participated in the world.
We fear most that which we comprehend least. The people in the United States most afraid of terrorism live in New Hampshire. The people in the United States who most fear guns and advocate for their control tend to be the ones who understand them least. And if you ask these people—the bunker builders outside Concord or the anti-gun people in suburban Connecticut—why they feel this way, they will almost assuredly tell you the same thing: I read the news.
But there is no substitute for experiencing something with all five senses.
I ask the driver, through Sanjar, why every car on the road in Uzbekistan is a Chevy. First, he tells me there are also many Lada and some other Soviet-era cars. Then I tell him, but still, it’s not normal. He seems somewhat amused and says it’s normal for him. And I guess it would be incredibly normal for him. And the other guy, sitting to my left, here-to-for unmentioned breaks in and says that it’s not normal because in Tajikistan, where he is from, there are tons of different brands of car. Hmmthe driver says. And Sanjar tells me, laughing, that there is a large factory in Uzbekistan that makes Chevys and it’s the only auto factory in the country and all imports are taxed at a comical rate. So that’s the deal, something like that, he says. And he tells the driver. And the driver says, of course, obviously—every Uzbek knows this.