Monday, December 11, 2017

My Journey . . . Home?

September 5, 2017, 10pm; Aktau, Kazakhstan -- I was the last person to board the rusting Soviet-era ferry that will take me across the Caspian Sea to Baku. . . .

Those were the opening, heartbreaking words of my article in the HuffPost, the end of my life in Kazakhstan, the end of my journey with Sultana Kali.  It was the beginning of a journey, a journey I never planned to take, not in this way.  

Sultana and I were to have boarded a plane to the US on September 1.  The first half of September was to have been taken up by going with her to Oregon, getting her established in her dorm, and sticking around through orientation.  It was to have been the idealized picture of a mother or older sister taking her child or younger sister off to college, the American dream.  I was then to have headed home to Maine and onward to my final assignment for the State Department at Main State in Washington..

August 22 decreed that none of this was to be.  This is the story of a solitary journey I never intended to take, a crying in the wilderness and an incomplete attempt to come to terms.

The eighth pack-out of my State Department career took place on August 24.  Sultana, her Mom, and other close friends were with me to see me through that day, a day that is always traumatic.  It's the day when a Foreign Service Officer sees the home she has known for two or three years turn back into what it had been, a sterile government-provided apartment.  Astana had truly become home to me, and the people who surrounded me that day were the family that had become very, very dear to me.

Three days later, on Sunday, I walked out of the U.S. Embassy for the last time.  I had just performed my first act of open protest, a dissent cable that took the high road in analyzing the lack of understanding of LGBT issues in our Consular section.  Two hours later Sultana, her Mom, and I were in a taxi for the many hour ride to their home in a provincial city.  I spent the following four days with this, my adopted family, as we took long walks and went with Sultana's granddad to the family dacha that I found to be more a small farm than a garden plot.

On Friday, September 1, Sultana and I boarded a train back to Astana.  I had torn up the free State Department air ticket.  I had washed my hands of the Embassy and wanted nothing more to do with it.  We spent the night with a friend and the next day headed to Astana's new train station.    We almost missed our train to Aktau.  The taxi driver had misunderstood and had started toward the old train station on the other side of town.  By the time we realized and corrected his error, we were running out of my time.  We were the ones running for all we were worth when we got to the train station.  The doors to the high speed Talga train were closing when we got to the platform.  When the conductor saw us running, he yelled that we were too late.  For the last time in Kazakhstan, I yelled back “Diplomat!” and hurled myself into the doorway, pulling Sultana behind me.

The journey from Astana to Aktau is a day and a half of crossing Kazakhstan's limitless steppe.  We dozed.  We talked.  We drank beer and tea in the dining car.  The strains of Arlo Guthrie's The City of New Orleans played on my telephone.

Sunset Over the Steppe
Our hotel in Aktau was not even a two-star, but it was only a block from the sea.  Sultana had never seen a true sea.  We walked endlessly along the beach.  After sunset we sat on rocks, dipping our hands into the Caspian and listening to the whisper of the waves.  

I had learned there is a ferry from Aktau to Baku, but it is mysterious.  There is no schedule, and the office and telephone of the agent keep changing.  We learned there would be no ferry on Monday and spent another day together walking for hours through Aktau and back to the Caspian.

My call on Tuesday was met with the news that there would be a ferry that evening.  I was told where to go and to be there at 6pm.  The ferry is a freight ferry used almost exclusively by truck drivers, and the port is designed for freight and trucks.  We found the ferry office and were told that boarding would not start for at least another two hours.  We found the one cafe there is in the port, and there I had my last supper in Kazakhstan.  When we returned to the office, we found that several German and Swiss tourists were waiting as well.  Only after 9pm was boarding finally announced.

The memory of Sultana's final hug stayed with me as I found a place on the deck.  It was after 2am when the ferry finally pulled away from the dock.  I remained on deck until 4am, watching as the lights of Aktau, the last lights I would see from Kazakhstan, faded into the distance.  I felt myself in a 1930s movie in the days before air travel as my tears, anger, and hurt mixed with the Caspian mist.  Back there I knew Sultana was looking as I faded away into that mist. . . .

* * * * * * *

The Caspian crossing was like a time capsule.  The ferry had been built in the time of Brezhnev and was likely subject to instant aging even when new.  The cabins and food were basic.  I found myself designated as the unofficial assistant to the Azeri woman who was responsible for the cabins.  She spoke no languages other than Azeri and Russian, and none of the European tourists spoke either.  I became her interpreter, and she repaid my service by putting me in a private cabin and treating me to tea and dates.  The voyage was uneventful except for the moment when a bucket of water came like a torrent through my porthole and drowned my bed.  Luckily for me, I wasn't in the bed when it happened.  The crew had forgotten to tell the passengers that they would be cleaning the deck and that we should close our portholes.  I was not the only one whose cabin received an unexpected bucket of water.

Crossing the Caspian
I chose this way of leaving Kazakhstan to distract myself from the pain and anguish over the actions of our Consular section.  When I boarded the ferry in Aktau, I knew only that I would be going to Baku.  I had no idea where I would stay there, for how long, or where I would go next.  These were all things I would need to figure out as I went.  The mechanics of plotting this solitary journey would occupy my brain.

But I would be haunted the entire way.  Unlike Kazakhstan, few people in Baku speak Russian well.  All signs were in Azeri.  I had arrived in a different kind of nationalist post-Soviet space.  The city was hot and humid.  For two days I took sweaty walks around the old walled city and through the pedestrian areas in the center.  I sat on the embankment and looked eastward across the Caspian, taking a picture of my hand waving to friends on the other side.  I thought of the coolness of Astana and my many long walks with NN at all times of year, day and night, no matter what the weather and wind.  My first evening I had dinner at Traveler's Coffee and thought back to my dinners at Traveler's with Sultana in Almaty in July when I was certain everything would still work out.  On my last evening, I found a KFC at the train station and had a quick dinner there, smiling to think how NN had thought the chicken at KFC in the US last year “just didn't taste like the real thing.”  

An overnight train as old as the ferry took me from Baku to Tbilisi, to a Georgia I had not visited since the days of Brezhnev.  Somehow I had found a Russian-owned bed and breakfast, perhaps because the default setting of the smartphone I had purchased in Kazakhstan is Russian.  Outside of the hotel, I was better off speaking English in this, a country that has been at war with Russia.  For two days the beauty of this ancient city softened my anger in the warm hospitality of the old city.  I walked from morning to night.  I rode the funicular to the park above the city where I sat on a bench with a Russian woman from Kislovodsk who had come on a solo vacation.  We shared ice cream and talked about the challenges of our lives.

When I boarded my next train to Poti, over a week had passed since I left Astana.  Another port city, Poti made Aktau look luxurious by comparison.  There were palm trees, but look down, and all one saw was an unreconstructed Soviet city for port workers.  I had to search for the next ferry office, this one owned by a Ukrainian line.  Once again I was told there would be no ferry  that day.  I was stuck in Poti for two days.  I had already walked the city through on my first day, watching the Sun set over the Black Sea from a crumbling embankment dominated by an English lighthouse brought here in the nineteenth century.  The owner of the no-star hotel where I stayed took pity on me the second day and drove me out to another hotel he owned in a more tourist-friendly area outside the city.  For the first time since 1978, I swam in the warm, clear waters of the Black Sea.  Later in the day I made my way to a national park outside Poti and rented a kayak, all the while remembering my best day in Astana, the September Saturday when EV and I launched an inflatable kayak into the Esil River across from the Akorda presidential palace.  I ate shashlyk at every meal, wondering when I might ever find shashlyk on the menu again.

On the third day the women at the ferry office told me to come at 6pm.  Aktau repeated itself.  When I arrived at the office, I was told to take a walk and come back in two hours.  I again walked up the crumbling city embankment from one end to the other.  When I got back, there was still no hint of when boarding might begin.  Only at 10pm did we start making our way to the ferry.  By then I had made friends with a young Ukrainian couple that had been backpacking in Georgia and with a vacationing woman from Kyiv.  

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got on the ferry.  Unlike the one on the Caspian, this Black Sea ferry was new, clean, and modern.  My cabin was almost luxurious.  The cafe was cozy, and the food was decent.  In the morning I watched as dolphins swam alongside us, jumping out of the water as they swam.

But this relief and comfort was interrupted by a brutality that brought back everything that had happened in these months.  I was raped.

It started innocently enough.  A Georgian policeman and his friend sat down at the deck table where I was sitting in the evening.  My new friend from Kyiv was there also, and thus we were a foursome.  The Georgian, my Georgian, was expansive and, although overweight, handsome in his way.  The other Georgian said almost nothing.  My Georgian started hugging me and introducing me to others as his future wife.  I knew it was crazy, but lacking basic 101 training, I didn't recognize the danger signs.  He was getting drunk.  In the end his quiet friend and I had to help him back to his cabin.  My Georgian drunkenly asked me to lie on the bed next to him.  No sex.  Just lie with him.

Perhaps 20 minutes later I realized I was being fondled.  We were not alone on the bed.  The quiet Georgian was there too, naked and coming into me from the rear.  My Georgian was caressing me from the front and telling me to have sex with his quiet friend.  I was terrified for the first several minutes, frozen in place, but then I screamed, jumped, and ran.  I ran down the hall to my own cabin and locked myself in, oblivious to the pounding on my door from the two Georgians.  Shaking, I took a hot shower, scrubbing as hard as I could to somehow wash away what had just happened.  I put on headphones and listened to music and cried almost until dawn.  What the Consular section had done figuratively with their visa denials had now been done literally by these two Georgians.

Arrival in Odessa the next day was a relief.  I walked out of my hotel in the morning, relieved to be in a city that felt comfortable and familiar.  No one here cared if I spoke Russian.  I went to the store to buy a few minor toiletries, the last time I would be able to buy them with labels proclaiming them in Cyrillic.

In the afternoon I boarded a Bulgarian bus bound for Varna.  The passengers consisted of me and three other women.  The two bus drivers said they were pleased there were so few of us.  We made our way westward through the rolling Ukrainian countryside.  Around 4pm we stopped at a border town where I used my last Ukrainian grivny to buy anything I could at the one kiosk I could find.  A few minutes later we reached the border with Moldova and passed slowly through customs and passport control.  Just thirty minutes later we were at the Romanian border.  

I had passed out of post-Soviet space.  Now no one would understand me if I were to speak Russian.  How strange that the language I had come to think of as my primary language for day-to-day communication would no longer be understood!  By prior agreement, Sultana and I now switched languages in the daily messages we were sending to each other.  For a year we had communicated only in English to help prepare her for college in the US.  Now I was the one who would need practice.  If not with Sultana, then with whom?

At midnight the bus pulled into the Romanian city of Constanta on the Black Sea coast.  I stepped down on the sidewalk, the only passenger to get off here.  I looked around to see NC walking quickly toward me, having come down from Bucharest to be with me.  For the first time since that hug in Aktau, I had a person I care about before me.  We hugged.  

It was a long, tearful, but happy reunion.  Our hotel room had a view of the Black Sea.  We walked and walked and walked.  The city was little changed from the time of Ceausescu, but the sea was timeless and especially beautiful at sunset on the rocky jettys that dot the coast.  Most of all, it was good just to be with someone I love and care about.  Two weeks had now passed since Sultana and I had arrived in Aktau.

After three days we boarded a bus at 4am to go north directly to the airport in Bucharest.  The time had finally come for me to return to air travel.  Even if horribly interrupted by the incident on the Black Sea ferry for two and a half weeks I had been able to say goodbye slowly to post-Soviet space and a life I have know there one way or another since I was a graduate student.  Now I had to prepare myself for the greatest culture shock of all, a return to a country I scarcely know since the election of 2016.

Most of all, I would be returning to a country that had turned its back on me.  Is this still my home?  As I boarded my flight in Bucharest, I was no longer sure.  My heart still pulls me to the East where the family I have come to know and love stays behind.  Surely it is not over?  Surely I will return there and yet again make snow angels with NN on a January 1 morning?  Surely I will again row a kayak up the Esil with the spirit of EV beside me?  If I have resolved anything during my journey by ferry, train, and bus, it is this:  I will go back.  Too much of my life remains in Kazakhstan.  My heart is there on the cold, wind-swept steppe, and it is calling me home.

Lake Region, Maine
October 9, 2017