A few years ago I was in Uzbekistan working with an Italian and some French people. The thing about Uzbekistan, like most former SSRs, is that they delight in giving shit to Americans. Every checkpoint (and SSRs have a lot of checkpoints) went like this: my French and Italian colleagues get passed through without a second thought. When I come up, my passport is studied closely, then a superior is called over who studies it closely, the he checks every page, then I’m finally waved through. As a colleague put it “they feel like they need to show Americans who’s in charge.”
I was flying out around 5 AM, and since I was the only one flying to New York, I went to the airport in Tashkent alone.
To give you an idea of how this works, there are two security checkpoints before you enter the airport. One outside before you get in the vicinity and one just as you enter the airport before check-in. These are genuine checkpoints and they don’t fuck around. At both, as soon as they saw my passport they waved me through and didn’t even bother looking at the x-ray screen on the luggage belt. Uzbeks, especially men, all got patted down and had their luggage opened and taken apart (the Uzbek government is extraordinarily paranoid).
I got to the airport about three hours early, like a good international traveler.
When the check-in desk opened, I went up to check in. I had two pieces of luggage, a normal carry on and a small red bag that I was checking. These are my standard luggage whenever I travel, because I can usually get away with calling the small bag a personal item. Flying there and flying out, however, the bag was mostly filled with crap, because I had a multitool with a huge blade that I had to check.
The nice woman at the desk told me in broken English I could carry both on and that it wasn’t a problem. I insisted “no, I want to check this bag.” She insisted that it wasn’t a problem, but I insisted that I wanted to check the bag.
So she goes to grab the bag to check it, but she grabs my carry on and goes to take it away. I grab the bag and go “no. I want to check this” and hand her the small red bag.
She replies “this bag is okay to carry on.” And I go “no. I need to check this bag” and she kind of bewilderedly takes it.
This was a BIG. MISTAKE.
I go to passport control and the guy checks my passport, visa, and customs declarations (you need three, you fill out two when you land, keep one, then return the original and a new one to show that you haven’t brought any subversive materials into the country). He hands me a paper and waves me through.
I get to checkpoint number three and hand the guy everything. He goes to the computer, enters some information, and his eyes go wide. I don’t mean “he looked puzzled,” I mean his EYES WENT WIDE. He didn’t speak any English. He gestures someone over and points at the screen. They start talking while I stand there like a deer in the headlights.
Finally he points at me and then points at a corner. I go to reach for my passport and he yells “NYETO NYETO” and points to the corner. So I go and stand in the corner.
About ten minutes passes when another guy comes up to me and gestures down the hallway away from departures. He also doesn’t speak English. He gestures for me to leave my bag, but fuck that noise. So I take it with me.
I follow him and we get to a door. He swipes a card at the door and walks through. The door leads outside to a staircase. I follow him down the staircase dragging my suitcase to the tarmac.
At this point, I start genuinely worrying. I am now outside of the airport, on the tarmac, without my passport at 2:00 in the morning with a guy who does not speak English. I’m already mentally making plans to walk to the US Embassy in Tashkent, because I’m pretty sure I’m getting ejected from the airport without my passport.
I follow him to a building and we go in. It’s a baggage sorting facility, but the conveyor belts are all stopped. He gestures with a wide hand wave at the conveyor belts and does kind of a “??????” motion. I return a puzzled look and then he does it again.
Finally I cottoned on that he wanted me to find my bag on the conveyor belt, so I walk over and grab it.
He puts it on a table and motions for me to unlock it. I do it and he starts removing everything from the bag. He takes out my first aid kit and asks a question and does a quizzical gesture. I open it and show the contents. He starts pulling things from it and asking questions. I pull the bottle of iodine and mime pouring it on my arm and going “ow.” Then I take a bandaid and mimick putting it on my arm and go “plastic. Plast. Plast.” This is repeated for everything in the first aid kit.
Then he pulls out my big ass knife.
He asks something that ends with “muhandis.”
Now, I don’t speak Uzbek, Russian, or Turkish, but I DO speak Arabic, and in Arabic, مهندس, muhandis, means engineer. I’m so excited to actually understand something that I go “YES! YES! DA! MUHANDIS!” And point to myself.
Now, this guy has a copy of my visa. He knows that I am not an engineer. He has proof that I am not an engineer. He knows I just lied to him He sort of stares at me and goes “muhandis?”
And I’m like “um, well, uh, er, nyet. Um. Americanski? Da?”
He sort is stares at me and makes a kind of exhausted gesture to pack my bag, which I do. He puts it back on the conveyor and takes me back to the departures lounge. The guy at checkpoint number three returns my passport and I go on to checkpoint number four. They send my bag through, make me open it, but lose interest halfway through and gesture for me to go. I didn’t really understand, so I start miming the meaning of a shirt when an old man comes up to me and says “he says you’re okay. Go.”
At this point, I need a cigarette more than I have ever needed one.
Now, when you land in Tashkent, there are no smoking areas. So everyone goes into the men’s room outside of the luggage carousel to smoke. Every time someone enters or leaves, a cloud of smoke leaves the bathroom.
So I assume the same and go into the men’s room into a stall and start smoking.
Over the PA, someone says something in Russian, then in Uzbek. Then they do it again, but at the end, they say in English “Do not smoke in bathroom smoking is only to be in smoking areas.”
So I leave the bathroom, have a glass of vodka at the bar, and go to find the smoking area.
The old man from earlier comes to me. “I saw what happened. Are you okay?” “Yeah.” “you were in trouble.” “Um. Huh?” “We saw things like that. We didn’t think you were coming back. That used to happen a lot. People would get taken off. Lucky you’re American!”
We spoke for a bit. He was a sweet man. He was an ethnic Uzbek (I was relieved, because I thought he was a Russian and my belief of never ever getting along with a Russian was being tested) who traveled to Tashkent to see his mother. He was a surgeon and moved to Moscow in the 70s for work and currently lived there.
His flight was announced and he stubbed out his cigarette and ended with a warning about the dangers of smoking.
ETA: I don’t know why I associate this with this song, but I do.