Sunday, September 19, 2010

Eric's Wedding

Eric's Wedding

I woke up around 9:30, my spirits refreshed and my body only partially so. I stumbled over to the barely functioning communal bathroom. Then I returned to my room, collected my gear, paid the lady her $10, and was ready to face the day.

It had been quite the accomplishment. Wednesday morning in Khiva, Friday night here. Well over 1200 miles. And them weren't no Interstates. I looked around me at what there was of Khorog. About 6900 feet in altitude, a town of less than 30,000straggling along the sides of a cheerily bubbling mountain river. The mountains hemming us in were reddish and pert, but nothing spectacular.

The LP had recommended the Pamir Lodge, which was supposed to be nothing more than a glorified homestay. (A homestay is where they stack one or two small Pamiri mattresses on the floor, they serve you meals, and you get to use the squat outhouse.) But a homestay had to be better than this, so I went looking for it. I hopped onto the only marshrutka route in town, the #3, and I got off a couple of kms later where I guessed the Lodge to be. It was the right spot, but people motioned that it was up and around a hill. I started lugging luggage upwards.

About halfway to the top I put the pack to the side of the road and continued on alone. Who knew if it were up here anyhow? When I got to a school grounds (an LP landmark) I saw a sign saying 'Homestay'. I went up to see if it were the Pamir Lodge.

It wasn't. But the guy at the door was a Canadian from Montreal named Eric. 'I'm leaving here in a couple of hours to the Wakhan Corridor to get married. Do you want to come along?'

It turned out that Eric wasn't exactly a Quebecois. His parents were East Indians who had been born in Madagascar. He himself had been born in France and had lived there off and on growing up. He was 36, had studied IT at Harvard, and had just gotten an MBA from Cornell. But off and on in between he had been living in Bishkek and Dushanbe teaching French.

It also turned out that Eric was a member of the Ismaili sect of Shiites, a group dating back to the 12th Century that is kind of like a Muslin version of Quakers. They don't believe in mosques or mullahs, and the women don't even cover their heads. They are best known for their leader, the Aga Khan, and for the huge charity that he operates around the world. Needless to say, they are not too popular with fundamentalist regimes, such as those in Iran or Saudi.

But the Pamiris are all Ismailis. And Eric had just met this innocent Pamiri 22 year old college student a month ago. And last week he had impulsively decided to marry her before his Tajik visa expired on the 22nd. Problem was, he didn't want his mother, a retired judge and headstrong feminist, to show up at a small Pamiri village and freak everyone out. So his mother in retaliation made sure that no one else from his family would come. Which left me as a last minute replacement for the representation of Western Civilization.

To top off the offer, Eric said that he would be continuing on to Murgab, the next major stop on the Pamir Highway. So, hmm. Take part in a genuine ethnic wedding, see the famed remote Wakhan Corridor, then have the continuation to Murgab taken care of... I went and retrieved my pack, which was still patiently sitting there.

I had hastily packed in ABQ, and when I got to KZ I noted that I had brought along a pair of pants which were way too nice for where I was going. Why in the world would I have done that? Now I knew why. With my loose, flowing cotton shirt from Indonesia I actually looked quarter decent.

At 1 the Land Cruiser that Eric had contracted for arrived, along with several other guests, and we packed it and took off, heading down a narrow canyon south from Khorog. The mountains were reddish brown and dead dry, but along the riverbank on each side were green trees and occasional small fields. The sun shining on them and on the gurgling river was quite something.

Even more special was the fact that the land on the other side, which only had a donkey track to parallel our gravel road, was Afghanistan. That's right, Afghanistan. The most remote northeast corner of. Even more amazing to think about was that twenty short years ago this was about the most heavily guarded border of the Soviet Union. Definite shoot to kill territory. And now here I was bouncing along to a wedding.

We stopped for lunch and around 5 made it to Ishkashim, the site of the only bridge over to AFG. A small, poor town hardly worthy of its location Then we turned left and were in the Wakhan Corridor. Arguably the most end of the world location there is. For those of you who follow trends in over the top cool destinations to get to, you'll already know that all those Discovery Channel adventure hosts would pee their pants for the chance to get here. But here little old me was.

The valley had broadened out quite a bit, flat and maybe 5 miles wide. Huge slabs of mountain rose on each side, and I would get tiny glimpses of the snow capped 22,000 and higher Hindu Kush peaks behind them. There were many breaks between the slabs where giant deltas of rockfall spread towards the river. When we got out to stretch, especially with the nip in the air, it reminded me strongly of Alaska in September. Except much bigger. And Alaska is pretty big to begin with.

We arrived at the village of a couple hundred souls just as it was getting dark. Eric and I were immediately taken to his fiancee Zarina's family's main room, where there was already a party going on. Like at a high school dance, the women were all on one side, the men on another. The men were wearing shabby western clothes, the women their best Pamiri gown/dresses and scarves. Two or three men and/or women would get up at a time and sort of move their arms and sway to the music. The music was atonal caterwauling from centuries ago, except that the guys doing it were wearing t-shirts and baseball caps and were holding the microphones like hip hop artists.

The Pamiri room, like all Pamiri rooms, was a giant squarish rectangle held up by many wooden upright beams. There was a small square area in the center which was at ground level, then on each side a raised platform about two feet higher. People sat cross-legged on those sides. The walls were made of stuccoed earth, and I would become flummoxed as to how a room could get so warm with just my body heat. Especially since each room has a poorly constructed skylight, which any Bob Villa fan can tell you is horrible for conserving warmth.

Eric, as a good Ismaili, had been afraid that there would be a lot of drinking going on. But from what I could see it was all pretty tame; indeed, this was one habit that most Central Asians hadn't picked up from their Russian brothers. At around 10 I took off for the little homestay that had been arranged for me. Eric the bridegroom had to hang out until 11.

Sunday morning I awoke early and picked my way along the rocky scree about a third of a mile down to the river. Whoa. Afghanistan everywhere I looked. The river itself had been pretty narrow at Ishkashim, but somehow had broadened out greatly upstream. In the morning light the Alaska analogy held. Except that instead of herds of caribou there were goats and cows and fields and villagers. And by now I was about 8800 feet up.

I worked my way back up to the village, being stopped by everyone for a courteous 'salaam al alekaam'. 20 year old girls in their go to wedding clothes would shyly try out their English on me. With the little lanes fronted by stone/plaster buildings, it looked and felt like a fairy tale world. When I got back to the main house they told me that breakfast was waiting, and I was ushered in to where Eric and Zarina were enjoying chai and farina. I joined in.

The driver and the friends from Khorog were taking the Land Cruiser up to some scenic hot springs and were waiting for me. But when I got back from re-dressing for the occasion, they had given up and taken off. Just as well, since a few minutes later a procession of ladies in their finest were escorting Zarina down the road a bit to where they gathered at another house's main room. Some other men were there, so no one minded that I was a witness to the ceremonial washing of the hair. (At the same time Eric was enduring the ceremonial shaving of the face.)

Then there was some more music (canned this time) and swaying/dancing. Then a hubbub as Eric was brought in. Crap! The ceremony was about to start and I was still in my going to the hot springs clothes. I rushed back to the homestay to change.

They were just starting when I returned, and I snuck around to the side. Zarina was demure and fetching all dolled up in her Pamiri wedding ensemble of makeup and jewelry and wedding tunic/pants and more jewelry. Eric was wearing a $40 Tajik suit that he had just bought. Lucky for him that he was a pretty small guy, so that they had a size to fit. Zarina was even smaller. As were the other villagers. I felt like Hulk Hogan at Brigadoon..

One of the reasons Eric had wanted me to come along was to take pictures for him. No need to worry on that score. Someone had been taking video of every minute transpired so far. Cameras were clicking constantly. The ceremony and the peoples' lives might have been from hundreds of years ago. They might not have running water or indoor plumbing. But everyone knew how to download onto flash drives and zip locks and thirdrunks. And of course everyone had cell phones. In fact, Eric had earlier let me call Maureen on his iPhone. We live 12 miles east of ABQ and we don't have cell phone reception. They have it here.

But back to the ceremony. It was beautiful but brief. Towards the end a confused villager gave me Eric's camera, since he couldn't get the video to work. I managed to get the last part of them leaving the room.

Now everyone headed back up to Zarina's family's place, where the wedding meal would take place. Here's how meals in Central Asia seem to work: First there is a spread of candies, raisins, etc., that nobody ever seems to eat. Sometimes salad and fresh fruit. Then after a while soup is brought around. Then a while after that the main dish, usually pilau with meat attached, gets served. As a vegetarian, I usually get potatoes and bread, although sometimes they can get creative.

In between all this there was more music and dancing. At some point there was a small ceremony where a local official civilly wed them and they signed the proper documents. Then a few statements. When the microphone was handed to me I offered up a verse of 'I Give To You And You Give To Me (True Love)'. After that people started to drift away.

Except for Zarina. By local tradition she had to sit there in the room until nighttime. I think Eric was supposed to, too, but they gave him a pass. At least Zarina's mother and a couple of other ladies waited it out with her.

But Eric was free. And he and I and his former student Gilu, who was Zarina's next door neighbor and who had introduced the couple, decided to climb the hill behind us for a wedding afternoon stroll. It was pretty steep, and out of consideration for me they stopped about 600 feet above the village. A fine panorama, but not the full Hindu Kush treatment. On the other hand, it looked like clouds might be obscuring them anyway.

The next morning I awoke at the crack of dawn and went outside. What? There was a strange dust in the air and the sky was overcast and drizzling. This wasn't supposed to happen. Paradise was always supposed to be bright and sunny. Ah well. Up to breakfast with Zarina/farina.

Afterward Eric and I got to talking about what to do next. I had already decided that, more than a Canadian, more than an East Indian, more than an Ismaili, Eric was first and foremost a crazy Frenchman. And he had this fixation that he needed to get to Murgab and then get to the pass that was 4600 meters high, then climb up to 5000 meters (16,500 feet) and take a picture.

Which was all the more surprising given the bureaucratic hassles he was now facing. His Tajik visa expired next Wednesday, which meant that he had to get out of the country then. Unless he got a husband visa. But that meant getting paperwork approved. And even if it was, he would probably have to leave and re-enter.

Then there was the paperwork involved in getting Zarina a Canadian and/or French visa. But before that could be done the wedding had to be officially registered with the government. And to do that he had to have a form from Canada saying that he wasn't already married. His parents were working on that, but perhaps the only government in the world more incompetent than Tajikistan's was Quebec's.

Okay. He already had a ticket to Paris. Why not go there, wait a few weeks until the bureaucratic dust settled, then come back and get her? Well, then I would have to stay with my aunt, and she is such a blab that everyone in the family would know that I was married. So what's wrong with that? Well, then my girlfriend living in my apartment back in Montreal would find out. And she would kill me.

What??? It seems that Eric already had a Filipino girlfriend, a Christian, but that her family had told her that there was no way that she could marry a Muslim. Besides which, she always argued with him. But Eric was convinced that if he found a sweet, young innocent thing like Zarina then she would always be loving and adorable and never argumentative.

Talk about crazy Frenchmen!

Anyway, Eric said that he would deal with the crazy Filipina when he got to Montreal. In the meantime, the afghani—the dusty cloud that had settled on the area—would ground the flights to Dushanbe for a few days. And his parents still hadn't gotten that form. And he really wanted to go to Murgab...

So Murgab it would be. And he made the proper arrangements with the locals to procure an overpriced 4 wheel drive for the adventure. Good. I did have to get out of here. The overcast weather was actually getting annoyingly cold.


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