I was almost killed in Uzbekistan. It had nothing to do with bombings outside of embassies, or that air was vacuumed from my window with a high-pitched whistle on the flight to Tashkent. Uzbeks are so kind towards guests that one may be killed by their hospitality.
There was a mob at the airport as police ripped apart passenger bags. Women clutching babies argued with police, who tossed their belongings about on tables, putting items aside like CDs, radios, and anything else valuable. Men stood silently, while round grandmothers with huge hands slew curses at the police.
As I approached, a policeman gestured to me and led me through the crowd. He let me pass without even looking at my bag. My passport was stamped, and I walked out into an Uzbek dawn.
A group of men waited outside. They stared at me, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, then something registered on their faces, and they swarmed me. Taxi! Where you go! Englishman! Then my old college roommate Shavkat appeared. I pulled him to me in a hug, like a child clinging to an adult for protection. With him was his cousin, Kamol, and Ravshan, the family driver.
Shavkat said we'd be driving to Samarkand, five hours away. But you're tired, so we'll arrive in four. I went to buckle my seatbelt and realized it had been slashed. Strands of fiber were all that remained. I glanced at the speedometer and realized our speed was approaching 100 mph. This was the first time I thought I'd be killed.
The road was two lanes and pockmarked with craters, which we swerved between. On the sides were shepherds leading sheep, as well as occasional cows. Sometimes an animal would dart into the road and to avoid it, Ravshan would careen into oncoming traffic. Trucks, overloaded with cargo, barreled at us, belching smoke, horns blaring, missing us by feet. Every so often, we seemed to go airborne. Heaps of metal that were once cars rusted on the roadside, reminding me that things don't always end well. But I was tired, and the hospitable thing to do was to get me into bed quickly.
My hosts began arguing and we screeched to a halt. Kamol got out and hung towels over the windows. Shavkat explained, He's caring for you. He doesn't want the Sun on you. So we raced on, towels blinding me from the inevitable crash.
Our survival surprised me. We arrived in Samarkand, where Shavkat's uncle, Olim, awaited us with a breakfast of eggs, sausage, bread, and the usual morning beverages of coffee and vodka. After several coffees and an equal amount of vodka shots, I was allowed to lie down in Olim's spare bedroom. I drifted into unconsciousness more akin to a coma than sleep.
The second time I thought I'd be killed was when I woke for lunch and realized that vodka wasn't an anomaly, but a staple of all Uzbek meals. Before food was served, four toasts were made to my health and each time a mouthful of vodka was hospitably forced on me. By the time lunch was finished, I could not stand or speak. For two weeks it never ended, with every meal, every introduction - vodka - a dozen shots daily. There was no escaping.
With each toast to my health, cirrhosis approached and my health worsened.
I made the mistake of revealing my birthday one day, and vodka flowed hatefully. I woke desperate for water. I didn't want to wake my hosts, so I drank water from the tap, which led me to the third time I was almost killed in Uzbekistan - by amoebic dysentery. I spent the next week in the latrine, grateful for the temporary reprieve from low quality vodka.
The Registan is an ancient mosque in Samarkand, its minarets 275 feet high. Due to its crumbling structure, visitors aren't permitted inside. I was disappointed, and this was intolerable to Olim. Bribes were paid, and up we went past numerous danger signs.
I hadn't eaten for a week -- and I was back on a vodka regimen -- so my mind was untrustworthy. A spiral staircase brought us to the top where we looked at the horizon. A feeble wooden structure stood between us and the edge. I leaned against this structure to pose for a picture. Just after the picture was taken, the wood collapsed and I fell backwards onto the minaret's edge. Another few inches and I would have fallen to certain death. That was the fourth and final time I was almost killed in Uzbekistan. We laughed on the way down, and later, with great hospitality, a toast was made to my good luck in surviving.
The Uzbeks are the kindest people I've ever encountered ... but they will try to kill you.
John Salemme is a middle school science teacher in Billerica, Mass., where he lives with his wife Cindy and cat Bella. He has enjoyed both domestic and international travel to many U.S. states and over 50 countries. Contact John at email@example.com or visit his Web site at www.passportpossibilities.com.