Lost in Translation -- interpidtraveler in Uzbekistan

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Thu, 3 Dec 1998 19:05:18 -0800

Lost In Translation
Kelly Monaghan
In Uzbekistan, sometimes the mot juste is not in the phrase book.
It was as if a character from Uzbekistan's Golden Age of Silent Comedy (if
there ever was such a thing) had sprung to life before my eyes in the
Ferghana airport. He was tiny with sad brown eyes, a pointy nose, and not a
tooth in his head although he seemed well under fifty. On his floppy
sparrow's frame hung a gray suit a good four sizes too big. He was also
very, very drunk. How he made it through airport security was a mystery.

As our flight to Tashkent was announced, Ildar (as I had christened him in
my mind) arose and bobbed over to an attractive, stylishly-dressed woman to
whom he gallantly offered his arm. She reacted with a leap and a yelp. Still
single, he joined the rest of us and swayed his sinuous way to the aging
Ilyushin turboprop waiting far out on the runway.

The plane had seats like lawn chairs and an aisle that sloped sharply
upwards toward the cockpit. Ildar climbed all the way to the top and plopped
out of sight in the front row; I was seated two rows behind him.

During the flight, Ildar amused himself by trying to prop his toothpick legs
on the bulkhead, only to see them slide down at each attempt. When not
lounging he was trying to chat up the two women across the aisle or
requesting one thing or another from the stewardess, who deftly swatted his
hand off her thigh.

compartment and the cockpit. I fervently hoped he wouldn't decide to pop
outside for a breath of fresh air and throw open the large cargo door I knew
was in there. A fellow sitting across from me may have shared my concern
because each time Ildar disappeared, this fellow retrieved him and plopped
him back in his seat. Ildar's face would appear over the top of the seat
with an impish grin as he surveyed the passenger compartment to locate the
Good Samaritan whom he then saluted with an upraised middle finger. All of
this occasioned a fair amount of tittering from the passengers.

Finally we landed in Tashkent and came to a stop on some far corner of the
tarmac. Ildar thought this was the perfect time for a smoke but found
himself without matches. His search for a light eventually brought him to
the empty seat across the aisle from me. He turned to me and slurred
something in Russian, the lingua franca of Central Asia.

It was, I realized, a golden opportunity. Like being stopped on the streets
of New York by a tourist and asked, "Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie
Hall?" (Answer: "Practice, baby. Practice.")

I reached into my shoulder bag and produced a Russian phrase book. I held it
up conspicuously and thumbed through it with great concentration. Then, in a
loud clear voice, I uttered a cherished line from a Monty Python routine
about a foreigner and a fraudulent phrase book: "You haff byootiful thighs."

To my surprise this got a big laugh from the people behind me. Good lord, do
they understand English? I could hardly continue with the Python routine
now. The only other line I remembered from the skit was "May I squeeze your
buttocks, bouncy, bouncy?" I switched to actual Russian phrases. "May we set
up a tent here?" "I am checking out now." At each phrase, Ildar babbled
something I couldn't understand and the crowd laughed anew.

I was rescued when the door opened and people started to deplane. Later my
traveling companions assured me the whole thing was hysterical but I
couldn't help feeling a bit guilty. Somewhere in Tashkent, I imagined, was a
weary businessman complaining of the rigors of his trip to Ferghana. "And on
top of all that," he was saying to his wife, "some foreign lout was mocking
this pathetic little drunk." I hope he thought I was British.