The political tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan means that we can not go directly from Tashkent to Dushanbe. Arriving by train at Bosum, my project coordinator and I are picked up by an Uzbek driver, who is bent on defying the laws of the physics, and drives at a pace that forces me to recite my daily Gayatri mantra one more time. The gods are good today and the car stays on the road. I lay down to sleep in the car seat, unbeknown to me how much strength I will require as I enter the border crossing.
The project coordinator and I arrive, shake off the dust and are promptly picked up by the bicycle man who carries our luggage. For $2, he is now our guide to the hill that leads us to the arduous process that is Uzbek / Tajik customs. The customs men are proud in their uniforms, emitting an aura of authority, they do not allow people to question, only to wait patiently. There are dozens of Uzbeks, clutching at their passports. They unashamedly stare at us; one a dark and skinny man, the other a blonde lady. Fortunately, my project coordinator speaks Russian and is accustomed to central asian ways. We are placed in different queues, one for men and the other for women and children, and this momentary separation, causes the customs man and I some confusion, as neither speaks the other’s language. He points to my bags which I dutifully open. I have an African radio with coca cola bottle tops as the skeleton of the case, which delights the officer who spends 5 minutes showing it to his friends.
This transient show of humanity is followed by another 20 minutes of searching through my bags and looking at my USB stick; thoughts fly through my head - are they any naked photos, are there any photos the government might not accept? The Gayatri mantra is recited once more just in case, but the gods are good again and nothing incriminating is found. (My advice, by the way, is to always carry a stethoscope - a tool that helps gain some respect in an otherwise factory of people.)
These men derive pleasure in the administration of bureaucracy. One more step to go and another customs man takes my temperature by pointing a thermometer in the shape of a gun at my forehead (I jokingly wonder if this is the way TB is screened in Uzbekistan).
Leaving customs behind, we head to the Tajik border, the bicycle man, skinny but strong, kindly carrying our bags. One final check point later and the whole process has taken just under two hours.
The next two days are tough. The project has suffered casualties in its first few months and I am on my own. I have seen the hospital and its only doctor, Bobojon (‘grandfather John literally translated) and the sick children, who remind me why I am here (and give me strength).
The MSF guards, drivers and logisitcian are kind but I am exhausted by the minimal language I can speak and the endless uncomfortable stares. I never realised the beauty of my own language until I was forced to speak another. This frustration engulfs my spirit, particularly as I am on my own, until I meet Azimar the local shopkeeper who speaks English. In one moment of sharing his English, my mood has stirred and he invites me to join him for tea. His cousin speaks English and Azimar enjoys English film, especially 007 James Bond. I nod in acceptance, and though I know very little about any of the protagonists, the mention of Sean Connery seems to please him.