The eighties began with the Olympics in Moscow. In spite of the boycott by many western countries, Leonid Brezhnev, who was General Secretary at the time, was determined to prevent the whole thing from turning into a pure propaganda show. The Olympic Games were going to be turned into a giant cultural and political event. Moscow was to be cleansed of parasites of all kinds, and new electronic billboards bought from the Americans through Pakistani middlemen would be put up in the stadiums. Nothing was happening in town. There were no underground concerts, no meetings, no demonstrations. There were police all over the place in street clothes and in uniform. Artillery and cavalry. I got a summons from the Youth Division of the KGB. The official knew me and I knew him. He knew I didn’t care much for sports, he told me, so he thought it would be better for everybody if I left town for a while. As a friendly gesture, he offered to provide a police car to drive me to a station of my choice. That being agreed, I decided on Riga.
On the way to the Riga Station, the driver, a militia lieutenant, told me about a secret factory that was producing Russian Pepsi-Cola for the duration of the Olympic games on government orders. I doubted the story, but he swore it was true and said he had a whole case of the stuff at home. We made a detour and stopped by his place to take a look. The case was actually there. He gave me a bottle of the magic drink, so I could also profit a little from the Olympic games.
The Riga Station was so deserted that it felt like half of Moscow had been deported already. On the train, I drank up the Russian Pepsi-Cola. It smelled of weekends, of the sweet rapture of capitalistic decay, of America. I gave the empty bottle to the lady conductor. She was happy, I was happy, it was summer, and things were going well for everyone. In the line for the bathroom, I met two freed convicts. Each of them had a hefty wad of cash in his pants pocket, and both of them had been thrown out of Moscow because of the Olympics and all that. We had dinner together and played cards all night long. At the end, I got some money out of it. At night, I was in Riga. Here, everything was normal. No trace of the Olympic games. I visited my old friend George, who reported for Voice of America and, in general, let nothing get past him.
On the way, I made an interesting observation: in the grocery stores in Riga, everything possible was for sale. Back in Moscow, there was just bread, and tomato juice in three-liter boxes. I bought some sausage and jam, not out of hunger, but for fun. The silly inhabitants of Riga didn’t know how lucky they were. At George’s place, there wasn’t even a refrigerator. He only knew about all the groceries by hearsay. Voice of America paid only sporadically. We ate sausage and jam together while I told him the story about the Russian Pepsi-Cola, and, of course, he didn’t believe me. Too bad I’d given the bottle away.
George had a new job. He was going to travel on a cattle train from Latvia to Uzbekistan as the escort. Three weeks to get there, one day to get back, five hundred rubles cash in hand, return ticket included. Actually, two people were always assigned to the job. Did I want to come with him? Of course I wanted to come with him. Our task was to deliver forty-six head of cattle to Samarkand, live. In cans, it would have been a lot easier. What business did these cows have in Middle Asia? I asked George. It probably had to do with the improvement of the breeding stock there. He wasn’t sure though. Neither of us had a clue about animal husbandry. I had studied dramaturgy, George had studied civil engineering.
The next day, we were at the freight station. The animals had already been loaded. There was a long back-and-forth with the papers, but finally we got everything in order. The transport was made up of three cars for the livestock and a fourth for the hay for their fodder. What we were supposed to eat was not clear. The freight train was enormously long and was loaded with every possible thing. In front of us was a flatcar stacked with long wooden planks, behind us was a flatcar stacked with countless metal drums. They were likewise being escorted, by a guy in a peaked cap who carried a service revolver. His name was Aram, and luckily, he looked like a good-natured guy. In any case, we would be spending the next three weeks in his company.
George and I decided to spend the first night with our animals, as training. The situation was appealing to me less and less. Considering how quickly they shat, we would have to clean out all three wagons at least twice a day. Added to that was the chore of watering and feeding. Full of doubts, I sat alone in the dark in the freight station. Aram was asleep, and George had gone out to do some last-minute shopping. My God! What had I gotten myself into!
In the middle of the night, George came back and told me he had realized that we definitely needed more hands for this journey. In the train station in line for the bathroom, he had stayed at the entrance to let a lady go ahead. With the experienced eye of a man of the world, George could immediately tell from her appearance that she belonged to the lowest social stratum, of outcasts, alcoholics, and hoboes. The lady’s shabby clothes and washed-out face had immediately moved him to invite her for an alcoholic pick-me-up. Her name was Daima, and in spite of her unfortunate condition, she made a good impression on him. Signs of her former beauty flickered in her lively, friendly gray eyes. And, most important, she came from a village, and knew about farming. My cunning friend had convinced her to come with us. It had not been hard to do. In Riga, Daima had nothing. She had neither family nor work, nor any social obligations. Besides, she had never left Latvia in her life. “She’s packing her things and will be with us soon,” George promised.
Up until the last moment, I hadn’t believed that she would come. But shortly before six o’clock, a woman appeared on the platform. She carried a wastebasket with her things in it in one hand and flashed us a toothless smile. The train pulled out. From the first day of our trip Daima showed her best side. She rose early each morning with self-assurance, and spent the day tending the cattle. On our own chore list was providing food and water and taking care of evening entertainment.
The farther we got from Latvia, the more complicated our food situation became. The Belorussians didn’t want to sell to us, we were practically on the verge of starvation. By contrast, things seemed to be pretty excellent for our neighbor Aram. Always in high spirits, he made a nest for himself between two steel drums, and sang Armenian songs. At night he would often disappear for a while, after the train came to a stop, returning two or three hours later. Once, in his absence, we set out to discover the contents of the steel drums on his flatcar. The liquid they held was undoubtedly alcohol. Denatured alcohol, made according to the old Russian recipe. When Aram returned, we made a pact with him. Either we were all in on this, or none of us was, we told him; he had nothing against it. It was our salvation, because you can get everything for alcohol. Belorussia, Ukraine, the landscape sped past us and melted into the horizon. We sat on Aram’s platform and drank with him out of a steel cup. The more we drank, the faster the train went. At the end of the first week, we came to a mountainous district, and drove more slowly. Our travel route took us through a valley near Mount Ararat, between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The train hardly moved at all, we sat with Aram on the flatcar and drank alcohol with water. The sun was shining and goats grazed around us, tended by an Azeri goatherd. Daima carried hay to the cattle.
Suddenly, in the middle of this idyll, a nationalistic conflict broke out. The young goatherd spotted Aram and shouted, “Armenian assfucker! Armenian assfucker!”
“Azeri cocksucker!” the drunken Aram shouted back.
Then came the first stone. The second hit the metal cup I was holding in my hand, the third glanced off Aram’s head. He stood up and grabbed his revolver.
“Azeri! Prepare to die!” he shouted, and fired into the sky.
George and I grabbed his hand. We disarmed the Armenian patriot and hid the pistol in a secure place. Our cattle were going crazy.
The next day the train reached Baku. Here the cars would be transferred to a ferry.1 The groggy Aram got up and approached the stationmaster resolutely.
“Tell me, friend, are you Azeri?” Aram asked in a pathetic tone.
“Yes, I’m Azeri,” the stationmaster responded. “Your hour has come,” Aram cried out, and gave the peaceable official a punch in the face.
After that, he was roundly beaten by a bunch of station attendants.
The Steppes of Kazakhstan can make you truly crazy. Day or night, on both sides of the tracks, there’s nothing but a lifeless emptiness as far as the eye can see. Just the ground squirrels gathered along the railway tracks, their short little paws flashing as we passed. The hay was almost all used up, and we started to go hungry again, too. It seemed like everything in this area was poisoned. At one station we managed to buy a case of beer. We threw out one bottle after another unopened–they were at least two years past their sell-by date. At the next stopping point, it was a crate of melons. That turned into a diarrhea epidemic which traveled, astonishingly, from us to the cattle. Even Daima was about to report sick. Only Aram was immune; his alcohol intake protected him from every bacterium in the world. He teased us and called us “shitherds on holiday.”
My friend George kept coming up with new business schemes that would improve our chances of survival. His attempt to slaughter a cow went horribly wrong. A further attempt, to clandestinely sell the half-dead cow to the locals, also failed. The Kazakhs were really a lot different from us. They didn’t drink, they didn’t eat, and when you talked to them, they wouldn’t look you in the eye. There was no sign of ground squirrels, and water was scarce.
We stopped for a while somewhere in the middle of Kopet-Dagh, between Afghanistan and Iran. Even the sun looked different there, much too big and much too red. Oh you, my motherland–endless land! There were another five hundred kilometers to go until Samarkand, our final stop. George asked the locomotive driver when we were going to get going again, but he didn’t know. Something important was wrong with the train. Hopefully nothing to do with the horses.
In the evening, natives came and brought us bread. We made a big campfire in the desert. They wanted something from us, but not the cattle, that was for sure. It was too bad they didn’t understand our language. Slowly, I figured out that we had taken the wrong track, and landed in Afghanistan. Everything got blurred in this desert, even borders. Eureka! They wanted to buy Daima off us. An old man told us picturesque tales that were like the stories from the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights: he had three sons, and these three sons wanted our Daima. So they wanted to make a bid. . . . From George’s eyes, I could tell that he would sell anything and anyone, including himself, for the right price.
But then our train finally was able to get going, and we left Afghanistan, and the three sons had to make do without Daima. The next morning we would reach Samarkand, and in two days, we’d be back home on middle-European turf. But George couldn’t sleep. He was dreaming of transporting a shipment of Latvian women to the Asian republics, to improve the breeding stock there. Just once–there and back–then we’d be set for life, anyplace we pleased in this endless land. We drank one last time from Aram’s cup. It had been a long trip: two fifty-liter drums had been emptied on the way.
In the morning, when it came time to deliver the cattle, I suddenly was alone. George and Daima had sneaked away to go shopping in the bazaar in Samarkand. The cattle couldn’t walk right anymore, because they’d been on the road too long, so I helped two Uzbeks shove them out of the cars one after another. The Uzbekis swore and grumbled, and didn’t want to sign off on anything. But later, the woman finally came with our names on a list and our money. Everything was going according to plan again. All the cattle were alive; and it’s not like they’d been in prime condition beforehand, anyway.
The day’s heat had already receded by the time George finally came back from the bazaar. Alone. Excited and somewhat drunk he told me the following story.
In the city, it had been very hot, and they had gone to a teahouse. While drinking tea, George got to know the owner. The owner told him about a brother of his, a prosperous dental technician, who had a big house with a garden, two wives, and five children. One of the women was responsible for the house, the other for the bed, and he needed another one for the garden. The owner thought George’s companion would be ideal for his brother, and would offer George five hundred rubles if he left her there. George would have to do nothing, just disappear the next time Daima went to the bathroom.
George put two hundred rubles in my hand.
“Your share,” he said.
Naturally, I chewed him out, that was a swinish thing to do, since he knew what they would do with the woman. But I took the money. She was not my wife. The next day I arrived in Moscow late at night, with a deep tan, my pockets full of money. The Olympic games were over, and life was resuming its normal flow. George flew back to Riga a day later, with a bunch of Oriental coats and copper trinkets in his luggage. For two years, I saw and heard nothing of him.
Then, one day, George visited Moscow, and we met at Yaltarang, then the only Indian restaurant, where he told me the conclusion of the story. For a long time, he had slept badly because of Daima. Pangs of conscience can disturb a person’s sleep, now and then.
In the fall, he had gone to Samarkand again, and run into her by accident in the market. He wouldn’t have recognized her if she hadn’t called after him, “George, my dear George!”
She hugged him and kissed him on both cheeks. She laughed and beamed. Her arms were covered with gold bracelets, and she had new teeth–also gold. She invited George to dinner and told him what had happened after his disappearance. The story about the brother and the garden had been true! And what’s more, in quick time, the dental technician had fallen in love with Daima and taken her into his caliphate. He had made her his favorite wife, and covered her before and behind with gold. George was her guardian angel, she told him, everything she had she owed to him alone. George, who was, in any case, completely bankrupt again, listened speechlessly. After the meal, Daima gave him a hundred rubles as a token of their friendship, and wished him luck. George got drunk that night and missed his flight back.
1Baku is a port on the Caspian Sea. They would have been taking the ferry across to the Turkmen port of Krasnovodsk.