My first weekend in Nukus all the expats that work for MSF were invited to the TB hospital’s Chief doctor’s birthday party. We arrived at midday, and sat down around a huge dining room table laden with fish, salads, cold meat, fruit and nuts. We each had a small porcelain bowl which was filled up with vodka. The birthday boy made the first toast, welcoming us to his house and thanking us for joining him, he walked around the table clinking bowls with each guest and ensuring that we downed the vodka.
The custom here is that your vodka glass should always be full, so each time you drink it is topped up. Our host spoke in Russian or Karakalpak, and after every couple of sentences this was translated into English for those who didn’t understand. After a few toasts (all 20 of us were to make one during the day) I realised that I would be drunk soon if I kept drinking the whole cup of vodka. Clearly I was the newbie in town- I was soon spotted taking small sips instead of at least 100mls as the host required. I began to notice other people’s tactics for not drinking all the vodka, the person across the table from me would pour a vodka into his coke, and refill his cup with water just before a toast, or pour almost all of it out into someone else’s cup and then down only a small amount.
I must have been a little tipsy by the end, because our hosts tried to get us singing, and from the depths of my brain I remembered I’d learnt a song in Russian in school and began to sing - luckily several people joined in! We all went home clad in our gifts, girls in local scarves the women traditionally wear once married, and the men in embroidered dressing gown type coats with hats. What an experience- it was the perfect welcome to Karakalpakstan!