The Trip to Lissy’s Wedding
I left my house at 9am on Sunday May the 4th, 2003. While checking in at the US Airways counter I was told that both of my flights, the first to Charlotte, NC, and the second to Frankfurt, Germany, are oversold but that I would “”probably” get a seat on both. After much breath-holding I was bumped to first class for the short flight to Charlotte and did get a seat on the flight to Frankfurt. That leg was about 8 1/2 hours and arrived in Germany in the early morning. On that flight I did lots of work on the new book (The Art of Bird Photography II) and lots of shoulder stretching and exercises. I actually found an outlet in the wall of the plane near the rear of the plane and stood typing with my computer on a trash cart! Near the end of that leg I slept for about an hour until a flight attendant picked up my foot, which had wound up in the aisle.
I had to claim my bags in Frankfurt (no rush with a five hour layover) and re-check them with Uzbekistan Airways for my 7-hour flight to Tashkent. After I got the bags on a cart and started asking about Uzbek Air most folks just sort of shrugged and pointed to one general area, adding that the counter did not open until two hours before the flight. At this point I doubted that either Uzbek Air or Uzbekistan existed, as I could find no traces at all of the airline… I had some cashews for breakfast, found a metal bench to sleep on, and did so for two glorious hours with one hand on my bags (which were still on a cart), this to (hopefully) prevent theft… When I awoke my bags were all there as was the Uzbek Air counter replete with staff. It was at this point that I felt my first rush of excitement; Uzbekistan and Uzbek Air did indeed exist!
As this leg, with the big west to east time change, represented my second travel day (Monday) I did a second round of shoulder stretching and exercises (using full bottles of soda as my weights) and some more typing. I slept sporadically throughout the day. I almost forgot to mention that 5 minutes after the flight left Frankfurt some guy in first class had a heart attack and died, inconveniencing all the rest of the passengers! The guy had some nerve. After half an hour, we turned back to Frankfurt and after less than two-hour total delay, took off again and headed for Uzbekistan. When the flight arrived in Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital city is in the eastern part of Uzbekistan) I was waiting to claim my bags when I spotted Alissa waiting just beyond customs. Lissy had warned me that Passport Control and Customs could take up to two hours, but with our late arrival the whole deal took less than 30 minutes as the other flights had landed long ago.
As Lissy and Azik’s apartment was being renovated she had rented an apartment for us to use for the two nights in Tashkent. It was spacious and clean and furnished. The rental was only $20 US per night! I was impressed as Lissy bargained fluently in Russian with the local cab drivers. She wound up paying about $2.50 US for the fifteen-minute ride. I finally hit the sack a little after 1am Tashkent time and slept pretty well for about six hours. It was great to see Alissa.
It took me a while to get my act together on Tuesday and we finally headed for the bazaar at Chor Su just before noon. It was a huge one and I took many photos. The experience was an eye-opening one. No Publix, no Waldbaums, no Vons, just a great big bazaar. We spotted some good-looking chicken on a grill and sat down for lunch. The cost for the two of us was about $1 US. It did cost me 50 cym (say “soom”) to use the public restroom which was not quite up to McDonald’s standards to put it mildly. 50 cym is about 5 cents US. I mentioned to Lissy that I had seen the great musical Urinetown on a trip to NY and she said, “Yes, I know, I saw it with you.” (Senility is a terrible thing.)
Next we visited Lissy’s new office (they were in the process of moving). Jet lag set in briefly. I ached all over and slept on the wooden floor for about 20 minutes. Then we visited another bazaar and had dinner with some relatives who could not attend the wedding. The round trip airfare to Nukus, the home of Azik’s family, costs about 3½ months salary for the average Uzbek. We got to sleep at about 11pm. I think that I woke up at 4am and started packing from one bag down to two. The lady who rented Lissy the apartment said that we could leave our stuff so we rented the apartment for the final night of my trip, Sunday May 11.
We caught the slow, loud plane to Nukus at about 9am. We were way overweight at check in but Lissy solved our problems with a $10 US bribe, informing me that bribes were simply a way of life in Uzbekistan (and elsewhere in the region as well). It was an old Soviet prop plane and the seats had a large metal bar that ran across the base of your spine… The flight took about 2 ½ hours. We were greeted by one of the relative’s drivers. I was staying with Polat, one of Azik’s brothers, the oldest I think. Except for the pit toilet, it was a great place to stay as I had my own large room with a big table for all of my “stuff.”
We headed to Azik’s parents place to meet Lissy’s in-laws to be. They seemed nice but appeared very old. As it turned out, this is pretty much normal for Uzbekistan where life is indeed very tough. Most adults looked ten to twenty years older than they were (by Western standards). I was later introduced to one guy who was also 56; he looked about 75. Lissy pointed out many women who looked 10-15 years older than they were, including some in her age range! (That Wednesday was Lissy’s birthday.)
I spent the next two mornings photographing birds at Salt Lake, which was a few minutes from Azik’s parent’s house. Azik drove me around for a bit, as did his friend Oscar and another brother, Marat. It took me a while to figure things out, but by using the car-as-blind I was able to get some great stuff on Red-Necked Stint. I had identified New York State’s first one in 1985 at the East Pond at Jamaica Bay so it was great to see them migrating through Uzbekistan. Forgot to mention that I saw fairly large groups of Ruffs in a flooded field just two blocks from Azik’s parents’ house but they were very skittish. Also at Salt Lake I photographed their stilts, two plover species including Little Ringed Plover with its killer yellow eye ring, and possibly some Little Stints—I had seen that one at JBWR in 1983!
Afternoons were spent greeting honored guests. And making and listening to toasts. Endless toasts. Because of the language barriers these sit-downs were sometimes awkward for me. In addition, women—including my own daughter—were excluded from them. Well, I guess it’s time to cover the cultural aspects of Lissy’s relationship with Ajiniyaz (here-to-fore “Azik.”). Lissy met Azik in Nukus while teaching English during her 27-month Peace Corps stint about 6 years ago. They dated quite a bit and were fairly serious. During Lissy’s last 5 months in Uzbekistan, Azik actually left Nukus to study for his Masters in Indiana US of A. When Lissy got home she and Azik saw each other frequently (and it was then that I first met and liked him). As I understand it Azik —before he headed home—and Alissa talked about marriage but Lissy felt that it was not the right time for her. In 2002, when it did feel like the right time, Lissy moved to Tashkent, not knowing whether or not they would get married…
Lissy’s first post-Peace Corps job was with a publishing company and she was not really happy at it. Soon afterwards she landed the first of two jobs that found her traveling to the former Soviet Union not infrequently. I was glad to learn that on most of her visits she made side-trips to Uzbekistan to visit Azik. I for one was sure at this point that they would wind up together, and I for one was rooting for just that to happen, as I really liked Azik who was a real sweetie. (Plus, I am a big-time romantic.)
Lissy told me (I think in August 2002) that she was moving to Uzbekistan to pursue her relationship with Azik. At some point she told me that when Azik’s parents learned of their relationship they stated that they would disown him. Marriages in his culture are usually pre-arranged, and furthermore, the bride of the youngest son (Azik) is to supposed to be the live in housekeeper for the groom’s parents for as long as they are alive, and the youngest son is supposed to be responsible for staying at home and providing for their well being. Fortunately, Alissa and Azik will be living in Tashkent for the next year or two and will be visiting Nukus only a few times each year. When she does visit Nukus, though, she will be expected to cook, clean, and wait on the parents like the family’s other daughters in law.
Many folks have trouble understanding these arrangements, but my feeling is that the cultural sacrifices that both Azik and Lissy committed to is simply a symbol of the great love that they have for each other and that these commitments should be admired. Now it is not easy to watch your princess of a daughter bowing to relatives and washing a huge load of dishes in a tiny, crowded kitchen, but again, I am a great romantic so it was not as difficult as it might seem on the surface.
On Thursday and Friday evenings respectively I was the dinner guest at the homes of two prominent families. One was the rector of the local college whom had “warned” Azik’s parents years ago that he had seen Azik flirting with an American woman (Alissa) on a flight… He re-told that story this week with a smile. At each dinner I was presented with a Karakalpak ceremonial robe, and received a third one from Ajiniyaz’ parents. (I should have mentioned that Karakalpakistan is an autonomous region in western Uzbekistan and that Azik and his family are Karakalpak. Azik’s brother Polat’s two oldest children, Gulmira, a young college student who is living with Lissy and Azik in Tashkent, and Momanbek (about 12) are two of the sweetest kids you would ever choose to meet. They both took every opportunity to help me whenever and however they could.
On Friday I photographed the wedding preparations including the slaughter of a cow and the frying of one zillion little pastries (baursaks) by the neighborhood women. More than 1,000 guests were expected at the wedding; about 40 of the neighbors would host groups of about 25 guests for lunch with Azik’s family providing the food and the vodka. I slept really well most of the week and took some mighty long naps during the days. The wedding day dawned with clearing skies, but the clouds rolled in early and a light drizzle prevailed for most of the morning. I photographed the local chefs preparing huge, and I mean huge vats of plov, the national dish of Uzbekistan—rice, onions, carrots, and the poor cow! But damn, it was good—greasy but good.
As Lissy was dressing in her gown and having her hair and make-up done there was a DJ, a famous Uzbek singer, and a famous Uzbek dancer (performing) in front of the house as the crowd gathered, dropping off gifts in a special tent that had been erected in front of the garage. Now here’s the strange part: all of the gifts are given to the groom’s parents (not to the bride and groom)! I was supposed to receive one camel from Azik’s folks but I guess that they forgot. (It would have been hard to fit it into my carry-ons…) I am pretty proud of my photo-journalistic efforts on the entire trip, and was especially proud of my work that Saturday morning.
I cried a bit (from happiness) when Lissy and Azik made their first public appearance at about 11am or so. They got into the rented Volvo limo and led a procession of vehicles to various historic monuments around Nukus. The caravan actually resembled a demolition derby with all the cars jockeying for a position near the wedding limo. The rain pretty much let up but Lissy was upset that her gown got muddy and wet on the bottom, but all those in the entourage had a great time and I was snapping away all the while. After a champagne toast, we all headed back to the house.
Next was the bowing ceremony. Lissy changed into Karakalpak garb with a big pink-flowered shawl over her head. All assembled in front of the house. Azik’s parents were seated with a few other dignitaries. A sort of emcee read a list of names of important folks and relatives. Each time a name was read, Lissy and her two helpers bowed low. The problem was that the guy screamed each name into the sound system. He sounded a lot like the over-zealous soccer announcer who screams, “Goal” at the top of his lungs for about a minute after each score. They had told Lissy that she would be bowing for two hours and that there would be a thousand or more bows, but after no more than 40 minutes it was all over. Lissy was happy and relieved.
After the bowing ceremony, Lissy had some time in a small room with her friends, eventually getting ready for the “young folks” reception at a local club/restaurant. She was upset a bit that lots of uninvited women joined them. She became somewhat distraught later in the day as her bridesmaid and the hairdresser (who were both apparently on “Uzbek time”, that is, two hours late) showed up at 6:05 pm (after promising to be there to help at 4pm sharp…) In addition, Lissy’s make-up bag disappeared for about 90 minutes until it was located locked in her mother-in-law’s cabinet where it had been placed by a relative for safe-keeping.
With make-up in hand and the services of a substitute hairdresser secured, Alissa got herself all decked out in the wedding dress (that had been washed and dried that afternoon to remove the mud stains) and ready for the reception that would be attended by all of Lissy’s and Azik’s friends from Nukus as well as more than a few who had flown in from Tashkent and from as far away as Moscow.
While waiting for the bride and groom to arrive at the reception (I was nervous because they were a few minutes late in arriving) a smiling chubby woman came up and introduced herself as the mother of Alissa’s host family during her Peace Corps stint. I was overcome with emotion and started sobbing with joy and appreciation. Here was the woman who had taken care of my little girl for more than 2 years and saw her through many difficult times. Later I would meet the rest of this woman’s wonderful family.
Lissy and Azik did of course arrive safely. I cried a bit more with happiness when they entered the reception hall formally (I think to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride”). There was a ring exchange ceremony followed by a signing of some official papers. (They had actually been married formally by a Muslim cleric months before so that they could begin living together in Tashkent.) Several rounds of formal toasts followed, (and oh how the Karakalpaks love to make toasts!).
Dinner was served, and then there was lots of great music and dancing. I was not even drunk yet I danced and danced. I did not even have a single sip of Vodka despite the fact that I was constantly being urged to do so by many of those in attendance. One guy just would not take no for an answer. I told him, “If I don’t drink then there is more vodka for you.” I finally took a glass of vodka in my hand, then put that glass into his other hand so that he was then holding a glass of vodka in each hand. Still he did not give up, following me as headed down the stairs to leave the reception, pressing his case all the while.
I slept long and well on Saturday night at Polat’s house and spent the morning packing up. Azik picked me up just before noon and we all spent that afternoon editing the digital photos from the wedding. After we finished editing I began the long process of creating web-sized images of all the selects. At about 6pm Uzbek time (note: 9am Eastern time…) we left for the airport for the 2+-hour flight to Tashkent—this time we had the faster Soviet jet. We spent the night in the rented apartment. I got to sleep at 11:30 and awoke at 4 am to repack everything into my two beloved Delsey bags. At about 5:15 the cab took all of us to the airport. I said goodbye to the newly-weds, checked in and began the long trip home at 6:45 am Uzbek time on Monday (note: 9:45 pm Sunday Eastern Time).
The return flight started with a bang. I got a lousy seat and decided to change to a better one on the other side of the plane. While relocating my carry-ons I had to cross to the other side in front of the folks sitting in the middle bulkhead seats. I made it safely from one side to the other on my first trip, but on the return trip they had lowered the TV monitor. I cracked my head into the sharp plastic edge, the impact sounding like a rifle shot. It hurt and I had a large bump but at least I was not bleeding. I wanted to beg for ice but was too embarrassed. Everyone in coach had seen my unfortunate accident. It was so much fun that about 30 minutes later I did the same thing again (but much less violently). After that, I decided to make my crossings via the flight attendant station at the back of first class…
17 hours and forty five minutes later, at 3:30 pm Eastern time (still Monday!) I arrived in Charlotte, NC, quickly cleared customs, and easily made my flight to Orlando. After grabbing my bags and driving 1½ hours, I made it home at exactly 10 pm. The total travel time from Nukus to Indian Lake Estates had been 37 hours. I must be getting good at this international travel because the drive home was fairly easy and the 7 and 10 hour flights had been a piece of cake as well. I attribute this to several things.
I have rehabbed a bad left hip so that I can actually sit for long periods without the pain that used to begin after 20 minutes of sitting anywhere! I make sure to vary my activities during the flight, getting out of my seat every half hour or so at the most and to spending as much time as possible standing. On the return Frankfurt/Charlotte leg, I was once again able to plug my laptop into a wall outlet. I worked a bit more on “The Art Of Bird Photography II” but spent most of the time writing the first draft of this account. In addition, my Bose Noise Reduction Headphones with great Sony CD players made all the waking hours pleasant with constant Billy Joel.
While I had approached this trip with some trepidation (wondering at times, “What have I gotten myself in for?”), I was—in retrospect—thrilled that I had gone. The opportunity to share this special time with my daughter and son-in-law was an incredible one, and I was glad to be there for Alissa for she is a wonderful young woman. I left with renewed and heightened respect for her and the work she did in the Peace Corps. Did I mention that Lissy is fluent in Russian, does pretty well in Uzbek, and holds her own in Karakalpak when in Nukus. It was an amazing trip both emotionally and culturally, and, I got some great bird pics to boot. I am glad that I went!
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