One week after arriving in Nukus, all MSF staff are invited to Samarkand for a planning meeting for the next year. Huddled in a block of 18 white, brown and different complexities of the two, we the MSF staff set off on our journey, a twenty hour ride in third class. As the train takes its first arduous step into the desert, I recite the Gayatri Mantra, a habit that I have retained from early childhood, to help guide the journey.
The train is solid, a brick on wheels, lightly sprayed blue and displaying pipes that run throughout - a childhood dream. I sit with my colleagues in the four bedded open cabin, at the end of which are three Karakalpak people looking bemused by our presence. We acknowledge each other by the usual ‘Salam Alei-kum’ and bow our heads.
The passing of time is slow but effortless. I read William Darylimple’s book ‘In Xanadu’ and we relate to each other the narrative that eventually brought us all to this small republic. When the time arrives for food, my epidemiologist friend from Kazakistan, who thankfully speaks fluent Russian, suggests we go to the restaurant, 7 carriages away. This is a walk that requires the nose and the palate to be in dissonance; the smell of hot bodies, feet, bread, curry, spaghetti, melons seep their way to the nostril and directly into the smallest air bubbles of the lungs.
When we arrive at the restaurant, we celebrate with a complementary chai in a pot and some ‘plov’ (I remove the meat)! I feel like a king and sleep is not far away.
I am woken up by the unidirectional voice of a young woman presumably in love and presumably giggling to her boyfriend on her mobile phone, a modern world phenomenon/disease that has infected every nation that I have been to in the last 10 years. I feel old and grumpy because does this conversation have to take place in this train, in this or any other language? But, it’s difficult to get angry when the same person offers you her bread and I immediately feel like a small child! This sharing of food is beautiful and a conversation develops, a basic one which includes photos of family, sketches of maps to illustrate the Gujarati migrant history. ‘Indii, indii?’ asks an old man with a white religious cap. I agree and he sings ‘Dil to Pagal hai’ (Love is mad) to which I continue much to his delight. He lists Bollywood actors and when we get to Amitab Bachan, his smile rises to his cheeks. His favourite film is ´dishum dishum´. The guard and his family join the frivolities and the journey continues with more green tea.
Our last leg of the journey takes us through the greener pastures of this land, and away from the hostile windy desert. Life begins to spring with daily farming activities, bicycles being ridden to school and green maize and trees to protect the land from erosion. We have arrived in Samarkand!